How staff training is benefiting performance on pig unit

A varied, extensive training programme has helped maintain and improve employee knowledge at one of the largest family-run pig genetics businesses, Rattlerow Farms. The programme has also improved staff motivation and pig performance

The training is a mixture of formal and informal activities, on and off the farm, providing staff with certification and qualification to further their careers.

Ongoing appraisals in their first few years are important to help progress and equip stockmen with the skills to maintain high performance.

See also: 5 tips for improving staff retention on your pig unit

General manager Nick Lawson says staff are given farm-specific health and safety training as part of their induction on their first day.

“We insist that staff are trained and certified on a loader or telehandler.

“Staff also attend a ‘safe use of veterinary medicine’ course, run by an independent veterinary practice.

The training is split over two parts; a classroom-based session to understand best practice for medicines, followed by a practical, on-farm assessment during their farm’s quarterly vet visit.

Business facts

  • Pig breeding and production including nucleus herds, gilt multiplication and commercial units (indoor and outdoor)
  • 600 boars
  • Total 10,000 sows
  • Overall business includes arable enterprise, feed mill, AD plant, transport, properties and fabrication workshop
  • 180 staff across all enterprises

“We plan to move some of these training sessions online due to coronavirus.

Additional courses are run for euthanasia, which provide an important certification to ensure the highest animal welfare is achieved, in line with Red Tractor requirements.”


Staff are encouraged to attend AHDB’s Stockperson Development course, followed by the more advanced Stockperson Plus, in their first two to three years of employment.

These courses cover all the key areas of production from serving and farrowing to finishing.

After that, Rattlerow offers the opportunity to go on the Stockperson Pro course but doesn’t push anyone who feels it’s not for them.

Training is more worthwhile when it meets the aspirations of both employer and employee.

The Institute of Leadership and Management/Effective Manager Training is the next step for people looking to move into supervising or management roles.

In-house training

“We also run an extensive in-house training programme, which we aim to keep practical and innovative,” says Mr Lawson.

“For example, we have organised workshops on serving, led by specialist speakers.

“We sourced sow reproductive anatomy from local abattoirs, which allowed our speakers to give an excellent demonstration on the practicality of catheter application and also the physical distance semen must travel to fertilise the ovum.”

It is sessions like this that help the staff to understand, on a biological level, what they are trying to achieve when on farm, he adds.

“Everything is about getting the best animal performance across the herds.

“To do this, our teams need to understand the processes and give consistent attention to detail.

“Nothing quite beats learning from the more experienced staff on farm.”

Staff appraisals

At six and 12 months into employment, staff typically attend an appraisal meeting with senior management to discuss progress and future aspirations.

From then on, the unit manager takes on responsibility for employees’ development, continually looking out for areas where individuals would benefit from training or support.

“We’ve just started using PigPro, AHDB’s online recording system to help track and record training across all our units.

“The platform keeps all training information in one place and flags when certificates expire.

“Importantly, this prompts retraining, which is helpful to ensure farms are successful when audited.”

Employee focus

Michael Oldridge, assistant manager on one of Rattlerow’s commercial units in Suffolk, says: “Training has been key to my career progression.

“The more you train, the better you get at your job. Then you move up another level with your training and it becomes a positive cycle. You can learn so much from colleagues, too.”

Over the seven years since he joined the 450-sow farrow-to-finish unit as a stockperson, he’s enjoyed completing every type of training the company offers and was about to start the Institute of Leadership and Management course before coronavirus postponed it.

“Learning makes you a more rounded individual and more observant,” says Mr Oldridge.

“I’ve built a greater awareness of potential health issues in the stock and am more able to spot things and do something about them before they get too serious.

“A deeper knowledge of disease symptoms makes a difference to making the right diagnosis and choosing the right treatment at the right time, for a maximum chance of recovery.”

Trying different things

“We encourage everyone to use their knowledge to try different things if they think they can see a way to make improvements.

“For example, when pigs move into our finishing pens, I now leave them for a couple of weeks before grading them into big, medium and small groups instead of doing it straight away.”

This was prompted by a discussion on one of his courses about possible causes of aggression.

“It’s one less stress factor when they first move and grading a bit later means size differences have become more apparent, so we get more uniform groups and see less competition.

“In the last three or four weeks of finishing, pigs can achieve 1,100g per day.”

On farm, there are shared targets for the team to improve pig performance.

“We discuss performance figures together during meal breaks and pool our knowledge. The process is a real motivator for us.”

Pig industry courses

AHDB training courses include:

  • Stockperson Development Scheme
  • Stockperson Plus
  • Stockperson Pro
  • Effective Manager Programme (ILM)
  • Professional Manager Development Scheme (ILM)

(Employees can attend individual stockperson sessions ad hoc or the whole course).

Visit AHDB Pork – Skills & training and AHDB Pig Pro online training record

A number of pig veterinary practices also run training courses for clients.