Australia's pig sector today consists of about 320 000 sows on 2000 farms. The managers responsible for at least 70% of those sows have signed up already for a novel electronic initiative that began in February 2007. The initiative is part farmers' meeting, part modern version of skills training and part recruitment of the next generation of pig-industry people.

For an expenditure of only A$100 per year – equivalent to approximately US$85 – participants in the programme qualify to receive 6 seminars during the 12 months. Each seminar centres on a 40-minute videotaped talk by a prominent speaker about a subject of practical pig management. The speech is either sent to the producer on a CD-Rom or downloaded from the Internet.

This process enables the farm staff to view the video before talking to the speaker in person by telephone at a pre-determined time. The telephone call, lasting approximately 30 minutes, provides a question-and-answer session hosted by the programme's co-ordinator. Afterwards, more questions are recorded for the speaker to answer in writing by e-mail over the next 7 days. These replies are circulated to everyone in the programme, not only those on the individual farm raising the question, so the follow-up is disseminated to the wider community.

The first 3 seminars have already taken place and provided information on breeding herd management, nutrition and welfare issues, reports Professor Paul Hughes, of the Pig & Poultry Production Institute in South Australia. The next 3 will be on selecting genetics, veterinary matters and environmental concerns.

"After that, the people who have signed up to the programme will be asked for their own ideas on future topics," he continues. "Our initial participants are typically the owners or operators of production units, but we are also considering starting a related series in alternate months that would address specific practical points for the sake of the workers on the farm."

Professor Hughes is the director of the National Centre for Pork Industry Training and Education that provided the starter funds for the initiative. The centre in turn obtains half its funding from industry organisation Australian Pork Ltd and half from Australia's recently formed co-operative research centre called Pork CRC.

"Schemes resembling some aspects of the programme can be found in other countries," says Prof. Hughes. "For example, Dr Mike Brumm and colleagues in the USA have an electronic package for attendant training that is aimed at shed workers. Other CD products to help with employee training do exist elsewhere, but we believe ours is more comprehensive and offers more personal interaction.

"It has started to attract interest from people overseas because, in principle, it can be applied anywhere in the world. Among the first to enrol with us were 3 or 4 New Zealand producers. You can see that it is replacing the traditional pig discussion group with a more modern, multi-media alternative. The old-fashioned producer meetings were dying out; we have filled the niche they left. Doing the same thing electronically makes far more sense in the 21st Century.

"Compared with the old pattern of bringing people together for an evening meeting, the electronic version has the real merit of taking place during working hours. Also, it is cheaper for participants because it involves no costs for travel or accommodation, it avoids the biosecurity issues presented when producers are brought together and it can arrange to have better speakers. We have had top lecturers from Canada and the USA as well as from Australia."

Group knowledge transfer is only one element in the electronics scheme, however. Alongside the PigLink skills programme there is also PigEd, a teaching package on CD-Rom discs that has been sent to all 580 secondary schools in Australia with an agricultural element in their curriculum. This aid is designed for pupils in the age range 13-18 years. Teachers can choose from a series of modules covering different pig production activities. The screens on the Windows-style presentations include reference sheets for the teachers to print out and distribute to the students.

What is more, the package also contains sections to help in recruiting the industry's future producers. It underlines the point by having a careers brochure for school students to study, with information on places to contact for anyone wanting to take their interest further.  PIGI