From the Farmer's Tractor
June 27, 2010
How did you get into livestock farming?
My husband and I are both 5th generation farmers. His parents started their farm in 1971 and Kevin and I have been raising hogs since we got married in 1995. We added cattle to our farm a little over two years ago.
How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?
When Kevin and I started farming, we had some of our hogs outdoors but we lost many of our outdoor hogs to weather elements, predator attacks or diseases tracked in by wildlife. The hogs that were housed inside barns didn’t have these problems. We decided that if we were going to stay in farming, we needed to find a way to raise our hogs that would protect them better and keep them safe and comfortable. We took out an additional loan and added a barn to our farm so we could house all of our hogs indoors.
Also, now we use a nutritionist to design the diets for our livestock. For our hogs, we change their diets multiple times as they grow to meet their nutritional needs. We are continually improving our diets to ensure our livestock are healthy. In addition, we work closely with our veterinarian to ensure our livestock are comfortable and content. We do well-herd check ups on our farm multiple times a month to prevent problems from beginning. We also keep detailed records on our hogs and cattle, and keep this information in a computer database system. Each sow (female hog who has given birth before) has her own record in our computer, which allows us to give her personalized care when she gives birth and while pregnant. We track every group of pigs in our computer and keep detailed records for every group. This gives us traceability and helps us prevent problems before they happen. For our cattle, we also keep detailed records on each cow and calf for the same reasons.
Today, we have a nutrient management plan on our farm that guides us on applying the manure from our hogs as natural fertilizer for our crops. We record daily rainfall, test the soil and manure so we know the nutrient content of each, and keep detailed records on the application of the natural fertilizer. We want to make sure we are not wasting our natural fertilizer by over applying or under applying. We are constantly seeking ways to improve the quality of care we give our animals and our land. Thanks to technology and science, we are better able to care for our environment and our animals today. We also have an environmental management system in place on the farm as an added measure to protect our land for the next generation, our two children.
We have strict bio-security guidelines on our farm today, which is a measure of how clean we keep our farm and our hog barns. Ten years ago we didn’t worry about our neighbor driving by our hog barns who also raised hogs. Today, because of science, we know that isn’t a safe procedure and that it can put the health of our hogs at great risk. We also use the Internet a lot more today than we did 10 years ago. We track the markets multiple times a day on our farm. We use the internet when we are searching for equipment manuals, information on new products, and so on.
How will livestock farming evolve in the next five years?
Due to the downturn our economy has been going through, I think livestock farmers in general will have to minimize market risks by locking in their feed costs and the market price received for their livestock to secure profits or at least minimize losses in down markets. The last three years have not been good for hog farmers; we lost on average $20 for each hog we sold for approximately 30 months.
With most people being at least three generations removed from the farm, I think we are going to have to reach out to the public more and talk about the care we give our livestock so people understand our practices and the necessity of these practices. If we don’t, groups like HSUS (The Human Society of The United States), who don’t engage in farming and don’t fully understand agriculture, will continue to impose regulations that will make it impossible to produce food for our growing population. We care about our livestock and we eat the same food that is in the grocery stores, so we wouldn’t do anything to harm the animals because healthy animals produce healthy food for us all. If we continue to have regulations imposed on us like Prop 2 in California (which deals with standards for confining animals), many of the family farmers I know who raise hogs will be out of business.
What is your greatest challenge as a livestock farmer?
Our greatest challenge as a livestock farmer is battling the misconceptions about how we care for our livestock. Every industry has bad actors and I do not condone the behavior of bad actors. However, 99% of farmers treat their livestock very well and follow best management practices.
How does a farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?
This is where we rely on our professional organizations like our commodity groups. They use check-off dollars to do consumer research and education. This helps us know what consumers like and don’t like. Twenty-five years ago, pork was a fatter piece of meat. However, consumer demand has changed and now consumers want a lean piece of meat with little fat on it. Retailers couldn’t sell a product that consumers didn’t want. As a result, we have to raise hogs with less body fat. Leaner hogs cannot endure cold winters well which is another reason so many farmers today use modern barns to house their hogs.
What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?
As I mentioned earlier, we have a Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan on our farm, as well as an Environmental Management System in place. This ensures continual quality improvements to our farm and the environment. We also do rotational grazing with our cattle to ensure we protect our land for our children. We use best management practices on our farm and we use the manure from our livestock as natural fertilizer to reduce our need for commercial fertilizers.
Do you sell any of your products locally, and if so, what is the process?
We do sell a few hogs to friends and family and we use the local locker to process the hogs. We normally try to get a group of 5 to 10 hogs to send to the locker at a time. We sell the hogs at the current market price, and we pay for the transportation and labor of getting the hogs delivered to the locker. This normally is not a profitable situation for our farm but we enjoy sharing our products with friends and family. We take great pride in raising our hogs and cattle and we love the fact our friends and family want food for their tables from our farm.
What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person?
Normally consumers want to buy pork directly from our farm after they learn how detailed the care is that we give our livestock. At first some aren’t sure what to think of our farm because they don’t understand it. After they learn more, they all want to purchase meat from our farm. The thing I hear most from consumers is that they trust me, and they would trust the food from our farm – but we aren’t the norm. Most consumers I meet think we are the only farmers who really care for their animals this way. The sad reality is the majority of farmers care for their animals just like we do. We need to get the word out on this issue.