Data-Driven Decision Making

By following the proper steps in the benchmarking process, you can find ways to make marked improvements in your pork operation.

By Gene Noem

We have no shortage in the amount of data available today. On the farm, we can access data from such information systems as PigCHAMP, historical data in barn controllers, cost data in accounting software, purchase history data from feed vendors, and software data in your mill. An individual does not have to go far to look for data to evaluate something about his/her pig business.

Data is ALWAYS available.

The key challenges all leadership and staff face are:

  1. How to convert data into useable information.
  2. How to convert that data into meaningful action that makes a difference to my business in the future.

What is a benchmark?

Webster’s Dictionary defines a benchmark as “something that serves as a standard by which others may be measured or judged.”

Over 13 years of producing this publication, PigCHAMP has provided producers with a wider view of how their performance stacks up over time, whether they are comparing it to specific targets and goals, or to other, similar farms.

How to use a benchmark

You can use benchmarking data in many ways. You can use it to boast with neighbors and friends. You can use it to show a supervisor or owner how good your results are. You can even use it as a personal incentive to feel good about your hard work.

Any benchmarking exercise should be a method for influencing the future, I suggest. Benchmarking should help us answer the question, “OK, so, what should I do about it?”

An effective process includes the following steps:

  • Review the data.
  • Summarize your observations.
  • Create a list of conclusions.
  • Use the analysis to decide how to influence the operation’s future.

Let’s go a bit further into each step.

Review the data

Any good review process is built upon an understanding of your data sources. Are the data sets comparable? Or are definitions close enough that I risk misleading myself?

PigCHAMP systems do much of this work for you. Their work helps you answer such questions as: When is a gilt included in the herd? When is a gilt a sow? Weaned per sow farrowed or litter weaned?

The parameters and values in this publication’s tables have underwent painstaking review. Using this publication and a system like PigCHAMP enables you and your staff to dive right into the numbers.

In this step, ask yourself how you stack up against other producers and/or your past data. Review your numbers honestly.

Stop yourself and others from discussing the “why” at this stage, as it could lead to the clouding of observations. Just look at the numbers.

In this step, you should only ask basic questions about how you stack up. Consider creating a list of key numbers you review routinely.

Don’t just look at the tables. Write the key data points down. Simply looking the information over might allow you to gloss over important observations. This data review should begin to bring you OUT of your comfort zone.

Example questions to ask:

  • What is my farrowing rate?
  • What is the average farrowing rate in this data set?
  • What are the best (the upper 10th percentile) doing?

This step only tells you the “what.” Nothing else.

Summarize your observations

As you move onto this stage, you should get another piece of paper or a new page in the Word document. Now is the time to admit where your system is strong and where the opportunities for improvement are. Try your best to not explain anything away, whether it be a PRRS break or a key employee leaving.

This step is the time to simply admit reality. Tell yourself how you stack up. Don’t beat yourself up, just be honest.


  • My farrowing rate is 3 percent below the mean and 5 percent below the median of the PigCHAMP dataset. (If you do not understand the difference between mean and median, now is the time to learn.)
  • My farrowing rate is 10 percent lower than the upper 10th percentile of this dataset.
  • My farrowing rate is within 1 standard deviation (sd in the table = 7.1) of the mean.

Create a list of your conclusions

This is the step where you should begin to identify where your opportunities are. Remember, you are still NOT explaining why yet. No defensiveness is allowed nor is explaining away. At this stage, you are still defining reality and just beginning to lay the basis of plan for improvement.


  • My farrowing rate is below the mean and median.
  • My sow herd and staff have been challenged, but that is not an excuse.
  • I believe improving farrowing rate standing relative to my farm history and other producers using PigCHAMP services is a key opportunity.
  • Improving farrowing rate by 5 percent will get me to the median of this group and will increase wean pig output by ______ pigs per year.
  • These advancements mean ______ to me. (Are you on an incentive program? Do you own the farm? Fill in the blank with what this improvement means to you.)

Influence your future

This is the stage where the rubber meets the road. You have admitted current reality in the first two steps. The third step helped you begin imagining a future with a new level of performance. Now is the time to identify and implement actions to close the gaps between reality and your vision.

Consider the factors that have been root causes of your operation’s current performance. Ask other producers what they do. Read. Call PigCHAMP staff and discuss these factors with them. Call experts from your land grant university extension service. Talk to vendors.

The most important element in this step? Do not lose your objectivity. You have come to this point without blaming anyone and without being defensive. Don’t lose your focus now. Begin to commit to changes that will make a difference in the weaknesses you have identified. Some examples are outlined below.

  • We have reviewed the factors that detract from good farrowing rate performance on our farm. Create a list of the list of factors and some
    • Semen handling on the farm.
    • Using remote monitors to measure temperature averages and variation in the semen cooler.
    • Documenting who turned semen in the cooler at what times to ensure a good process.
  • Engage a specialist to review critical control points that we might be missing.

    • Reviewing the quality of the insemination process on breed row.
    • Evaluating farrowing rate by technician, by day of week and by time of day.
    • Asking a specialist to visit our farms two times and to give feedback about our processes.


The process detailed above enables you to recognize where your operation currently is. Work your way through this process. If you have to do this work privately, do so. If you need help, bring in people you trust and who will not be judgmental.

Looking at benchmarking data is not new. We do it all the time.

But, when I engage people about a process like this, there are often two parts that are new.

First, completing the work without judging, defending or explaining away weaknesses is not easy. Give your operation an honest look. You and your business deserve that.

The second part is the go-forward plan. Well-analyzed information does not just tell you what happened. You can also use it to decide what to change.

Have you ever been in one of those business reviews where people simply read off what happened? What a monumental waste of time. It is up to you to do something different.

I encourage you to use this PigCHAMP benchmarking publication to challenge yourself. Create a go-forward plan. Narrow down your actions to be time-bound and meaningful, something that changes your operation and your results! Most of all, be honest and do not just explain weaknesses away. Spend some quality time creating a plan which you can use to reshape your future.

Gene Noem
Gene Noem resides in Ames, Iowa and has worked in the swine industry his entire life. During his career, he has held a variety of leadership roles that involve operations management, business planning, translating data into information, and reporting. He is actively invested in the swine industry as co-owner of KD Feeders, a 10,000-head finishing complex in Wright County, Iowa. Noem sits on the board of directors for the National Pork Board, as well as for the Iowa Pork Producers Association (IPPA). He has also served on a variety of committees for pork producers at both the state and national levels.