Iowa Select Farms
What’s the secret to producing one billion pounds of pork in a year? Very busy, very happy employees.
That’s according to the largest pork producer in Iowa and the eighth largest producer in the nation, Iowa Select Farms. The family-owned company operates nearly 700 farms in Iowa and is on track to produce its goal of one billion pounds of pork by the end of 2016.
The key to reaching this level of production, according to Communications Director Jen Sorenson, has been innovation, determination, and a lot of hard work from many people in the company.
"Our employees are the ones who day-in and day-out are driving performance results,” Sorenson says. She explains that employees have a huge impact on things like the number of piglets weaned per sow, feed efficiency and ultimately how many pigs go to market. Leadership development programs, technical training, recognition efforts and a lot of two-way communication has kept the company on pace for hitting their goal.
The farms employ 1,000 workers from Iowa communities, and each one must attend formal classes in addition to a week-long, hands-on program before officially starting. Trainers walk newcomers through common tasks, like choosing the proper sorting equipment for moving animals and how to provide care to newborn pigs. The family-run farms have a base of 165,000 sows.
Once new workers finish initial training, they are assigned to a farm and meet with a manager at that farm who will continue the training. During each stage of the onboarding process, new workers must demonstrate what they learned before moving to the next phase or working on their own.
Investing in employees from day one
This process for new workers, which has resulted in much higher retention and employee satisfaction, according to Sorenson, is part of an initiative at Iowa Select Farms called People Care. Sorenson says the company has a long history of promoting employees from within and as a result needs workers who are passionate about the business.
“We’re always trying to get that entry level technician engaged and moving upward through our system,” Sorenson says. To do this, the company provides its own, in-house leadership program to help employees earn managerial positions. “Most of our farm managers today started out as technicians,” Sorenson says.
In line with that effort, Iowa Select Farms has started a social media campaign called the #BillionPounds Challenge. The company regularly posts profiles of employees who are excelling so they are recognized not just internally, but by friends and families.
Sorenson says the company does “all kinds of cool stuff to say thanks to our employees because the work they do isn’t easy. It’s still farming and it’s still caring for animals all day.” For instance, the company also pays for employees to go to the nearby Adventureland amusement park or the Iowa State Fair in the summer. Throughout the year, the company gets employees tickets to races, concerts and sporting events.
A clean farm is a healthy farm
Another reason the company invests in its employees is because it needs to trust them with highly sensitive tasks like animal disease prevention. To avoid the spread of swine diseases, for instance, the farms are kept impeccably clean. Employees must be trained to enter and exit the farm without tracking viruses or diseases on their clothing.
“Part of our biosecurity is that employees must shower-in and shower-out of farms,” Sorenson says. She also says that employees must become familiar with “a tremendous amount protocols and processes for keeping diseases out of the farm,” all of which becomes second nature to employees after a few short weeks.
Recently, the company invested 60 million-dollars outfitting many of its sow farms with a state of the art filtration system to improve air purity. Known as positive pressure filtration, the system pulls air into farms through massive dormers connected to HEPA filter banks. Sorenson says the company has made a huge investment in having the cleanest work environment possible and that the new system will take Iowa Select Farms “to another level of cleanliness and disease prevention.”
As powerful as the new system will be, Sorenson says it’s only a supplement to good employees. “You can have all the technology in the world, but it’s the employees who have to follow the security protocols,” she says.
As of September 2016, the company had already produced 648,000 million pounds of pork. Because the third- and fourth-quarter of the year typically represents the period of fastest pig growth, it is on track for hitting its goal by late December.
Sorenson says the employees are having a lot of fun with the billion pound goal and are putting in a lot of extra effort and a tremendous amount of teamwork to reach it. “At the end of the day,” she says, “we take very seriously our commitment to producing high quality pork for our customers and the food companies they serve. More importantly, we have an intense passion for what we do and pride in our business, and the best workforce anyone could ask for.”