Piggy Tales

Submitted by Jennifer Epp, RVT & SAVT Past President

Pictured is Jennifer Epp, RVT and her children.

As a child, growing up on a dairy farm, my dream was not unlike many other little girls, I was going to be a Veterinarian!  I remember following my dad and the herd health Veterinarian around, watching, learning, and helping with whatever I could, and if I was lucky enough to go with, to watch one of our cows get an LDA (Left Displaced Abomasum) Surgery.  Upon graduation from High School, that was the plan!  I did not enter University, and chose to take a year, which turned into two, before returning to school.

During my second year, post high school, my Mom told me about the Animal Health Technology Program.  This was in the late fall of 1991, and I truthfully had NO IDEA what she was talking about!  I had never heard of this program before, nor did I know of anyone who had ever gone through it!  As I’m sure many of you will agree, as a young adult, we NEVER think our Mother’s could be right about something!!  So to appease her, I contacted SIAST, and sure enough the course existed!

Next step – application!  Back then, you mailed everything and had to wait, and wait, and wait for a response!  I was so excited about my potential career, and when the long awaited letter arrived, I was placed on a Waiting List!  Talk about disappointment!  I still continued on, earning my volunteer hours at the vet clinic, and dreaming, and waiting anxiously for a spot to open up!  In July, I started calling weekly, to see if by chance I had gotten in, finally (maybe they got tired of me calling), in the middle of August I received word I was accepted!

The fall of 1992, I started the course – and really was unprepared for all of the work ahead!  I studied hard – and in 1994, I was chosen to be the Distinguished Graduate of the Animal Health Technology Program, and I received the SAHTA Bursary.  This led to my first term on the SAHTA Board of Directors, where I served for 5 years!

After graduation, like most of us do, I started work in a Veterinary Clinic with grand illusions that I would be utilized as the newly graduated Animal Health Technologist that I was.  That I would do blood work, assist in surgery’s, etc, etc, etc.  You have to remember, that back in 1994, the Veterinary profession was very male dominated – and sadly I was often seen as more of an assistant, rather than an AHT.  It was not uncommon for two of the Veterinarians to be doing regular surgeries together, and I was left doing laundry, cleaning kennels, etc.  So after only 4 months of working as an AHT, I decided I was going to go back to University, become a Veterinarian, and then I would graduate, have my own clinic, and treat my future AHT employees with the respect they so deserved!

Well fate so to say, had different plans!  Shortly after I made my decision to return to school, I met a young cattle farmer at the vet clinic, who I started to date.  I did return to University, however after only a month I left!  Sometimes I think that if I had not met him, I might have stuck it out longer, however, every person I turned to for advice  – advisors in the Department of Agriculture, and at the Vet College – all kept saying the same thing “You won’t get in, you will never make it.”  And my emotional and mental health all believed them, so I dropped out of university, and less than a year later I married that cattle farmer.

Through our early years – I did work at a vet clinic – and then was fired “for speaking my opinion on a course of treatment.”  After this I worked various jobs – not related to my field of education, before ending up at Western Canadian Beef, where I started out as a Meat Inspector, and then moved on to work in the lab doing Quality Control.  Both of these utilized many of the skills I had learned – and the lab work especially was very fulfilling, and then one day I found out I was pregnant, and after my maternity leave, I did not return to work for several years.

Together with my husband, we welcomed 3 beautiful children – and I was blessed to be able to stay at home, helping with the purebred Charolais cattle we raised.  It may not have been glorious, but being able to work outside – teaching my children how animals should be raised, treated and cared for, is nothing I regret!  Many of you will remember the fateful events of 2003 when BSE hit!  Suddenly our livelihood was worth nothing!  And in the spring of 2004, it became evident I would need to return to work to help subsidize the farm, but more importantly to feed and clothe our children.

I sent off my resume to Big Sky Farms, which was a hog barn 50 km away from our farm.  Within a week, I had an interview, and was hired part time, to work in the farrowing department in a 6,000 sow barn. This was a commercial herd – so all animals were basically destined to be bacon!  After about 4 months, I transferred to the nursery barns – which was 4 barns on one site, housing roughly 24,000 weanlings.  Again I was only part time, as my baby was only 1 1/2 years old, and I wanted to spend as much time as I could with my children.  After about a year – I started working full time at the nursery barn, and within a few months was promoted to the Nursery Manager.  Never in my wildest dreams growing up, did I imagine that I would be working with pigs, let alone managing a barn!  After 2 years of managing the Nursery Unit, an opportunity came up to manage the Sow herd – so I jumped at it!  I now had a responsibility of managing a herd of 6,000 sows, and leading a staff of 22 people!  I will never forget the words of my first production manager, he said “If all you had to do was look after the pigs, your job would be easy, it is the people that give you the problems.”  And right he was!  The pigs, most of their issues can be fixed with proper ventilation, feed, water and the occasional veterinary care, things are pretty simple!  The staff on the other hand, that is a whole other story!

Here is a little known fact for you, when I was in 4-H, I was on the provincial judging team that went to Agribition, and it was for judging pigs!  I used to be teased about this amongst the dairy kids, but I used to say that underneath all of the extra skin of that pig, is the same frame that we want in our dairy cows!  To this day, I still look at my sows and think of them like my dairy cows – if they don’t have a good set of feet and legs, properly positioned underneath, how can I expect her to perform!

I digress, I managed the farrowing barn down south until July of 2012,  At the time, my husband had left over 1 1/2 years earlier, and I was still living on the farm with my in-laws up until this point.  It was a very tricky situation – and mid July of 2012, my employment with Big Sky ended.  Shortly after we had the auction where we sold all of the farm equipment, and the cattle had all been sold the previous year.  This now allowed me to look for employment elsewhere, and start a new life for my children and I.

I sent in an application to Fast Genetics.  I knew they were a purebred pig company, but was not really sure where they were!  The day after my interview, I was offered the job – but before making this life changing decision, the kids and I drove up to Spiritwood, to check out the town, and see if it was some place we might like to live!  That first trip, we even managed to squeeze in looking at a few houses – and all felt that yes, this was a beautiful place that we might like to try out.  Long story short, within a time frame of 6 weeks from leaving my previous job, we packed up what had been my life for 17 years, a house was bought, and we moved 500 km away!

For the past 8 years, I have managed a “daughter” nucleus unit.  We breed, farrow, and sell purebred gilts to customers across North America.  The barn I manage now, is only 1,200 sows – however, the degree of detail that is needed daily is sometimes unbelievable!  At birth, every piglet is weighed, teats are counted (yes even the males), they are tagged with a distinct numerical ID, that is entered into a database where everything can be tracked.  Prior to this, every sow is selected to be bred to a specific boar, so that her offspring can reach the best genetic potential possible.  In July of 2015, the majority of the shares were purchased by a company out of Texas called Sexing Technologies.  They are well known in the cattle world for producing sex sorted semen – so that you can choose the offspring you prefer.  This however, has never been done in the pig world at all!  We are on the cutting edge of technology, and it is truly exciting to see how the company has grown, and achieved mini milestones along the way.

I guess what I am trying to say is don’t overlook any potential career opportunities.  As that little girl growing up, I thought I knew what I would do!  Never, did I imagine, that I would work with pigs, let alone manage a barn!  I will leave you all with a quote – it is a wall hanging that I purchased the day after the farm auction, I was at a very low point!  Every day after, I would look at it and “Believe!”

Believe.  Life is too short to wake up with regrets, so love the people who treat you right and forget the ones that don’t.  If you get a chance, TAKE IT!  If it changes your life, let it!  Believe Everything Happens for a Reason!

This hangs in Jennifer’s home!

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