Niche marketing evokes thoughts of a value-added product — ways to manufacture, process or market a product to achieve the most value.
Compart Family Farms of Nicollet, Minn., has achieved a valued product, both in genetic lines and finished pork, but the journey to get there wasn’t easy. Brothers Jim, Dean and Chris, along with their late father, Richard, had built their Duroc breeding stock to the point where the Duroc breed had become synonymous with the Compart name.
Comparts were one of the first in Minnesota to performance test their boars, and seven times a year they held production sales on a neighboring farm. Jim says they would sell 90 to 100 boars and 80 to 220 gilts at each of these sales, in addition to selling breeding stock in private sales “six days a week.” The most the Comparts sold in one year was 1,893 boars.
In the late-1980s, early 1990s, the U.S. swine industry went through quite a change, as packers implemented a carcass merit buying system, compensating producers for leaner carcasses. The Compart family had a core of customers they had been selling genetics to who wanted their pigs to be lean immediately, “but it takes a while to provide this,” Dean says.
“We started doing more selection around producing swine genetics that were leaner, but also maintained the extreme fast growth rate that the Compart family has always been known for,” Jim says. “With pigs having a short generation interval, genetic change can result if traits can be accurately measured, and the selection for superior trait in these lines is implemented.”
Comparts knew that the Duroc breed was known for making pigs grow faster on less feed, but was not as lean as some other breeds that had only leanness to offer. Dean says Duroc pigs grow fast, they have good appetites, and they are easy pigs to raise.
Hog producers in Denmark already had about 10 years of experience producing leaner hogs, so in 1990 Jim Compart traveled to see about bringing Danish Duroc boars and Swedish York females to help the Comparts get a jump on meeting the lean hog demand.
The Comparts worked with Swine Genetics International in Cambridge, Iowa, to obtain Danish Durocs and some Swedish Yorks. “To incorporate these lean pigs with our own existing population changed our pigs radically in the early ’90s,” Dean says.
The introduction of the Danish Duroc boars “moved us off center and into a better position,” Jim says. Danish Duroc boars were good at producing lean hogs, but Jim says they didn’t grow very fast. “That was the downside to the teeter-totter.”
Using the combination of genetic selection and ultrasound technology, the Comparts were able to see the difference in the amount of backfat between the U.S. Duroc and the Danish Duroc. “Danish-bred boars were showing about half of the backfat compared to a domestic boar,” Jim says.
Sticking with what you know
In 1990, the Comparts started using ultrasound to identify the leaner and heavier-muscled hog to address the movement of the packer industry to leaner hogs.
“As the entire industry moved toward leaner hogs, we stayed with Duroc because we believed in Duroc as a fast-growing terminal hog with good muscle to it, but we still didn’t know anything about this meat quality stuff,” Dean says.
As the lean hog became the new model of U.S. pork, the National Pork Producers Association started getting feedback from foreign buyers wondering what had happened to U.S. pork. To answer this question, the NPPA commissioned the National Genetic Evaluation to help explain how the movement to a leaner final product impacted the quality of the product.
Findings from this genetic evaluation solidified the Comparts’ belief in their Duroc pigs. Dean says the study showed that Duroc pork was one of the highly marbled and higher pH of the breeds that were evaluated.
“This was favorable to Duroc, so that was the impetus for what we did,” he says.
New real-time ultrasound, or B-mode, technology became available and the Comparts adopted that about 10 years ago to measure intramuscular fat (marbling), again to help select for the desirable market hogs. Chris Compart is a certified real-time ultrasound technician, and the technology allows the user “to clearly see the backfat thickness,” he says. “It has really improved the accuracy that you can make in genetic selection.” Real-time ultrasound also allows a producer to get a good look at the loin eye, as well as the intramuscular fat, or marbling, on the live animal.
The ‘Black Angus’ of Pork
Just as they adapted their genetic production to the changing swine industry, they also saw what was happening in the consumer market and wondered if there would be a market for a darker, highly marbled, consistent supply of product from the same consistent genetic base. The “Other White Meat” movement was catching on, and the Comparts knew that the lighter-colored pork would have a tendency to be drier and more prone to pale, soft, exudative meat, as proven by previous meat science work that had been documented by the industry.
Through their work in providing a better quality hog to their genetic customers, the Comparts came to realize Duroc pork offers darker meat, good marbling and higher pH that could provide consumers with an enjoyable dining experience. So 13 years ago, the Comparts began learning all they could about the meat industry. The family had been raising Duroc hogs for 70 years, “but our background was not in the meat industry,” Dean says. “We knew hog production. … Duroc was scientifically identified to have better meat quality and better eating qualities.”
Rapid process in selection
With the refinement of the real-time ultrasound technology, the Comparts began a strict selection and breeding process. “With this technology, we could look at the marbling of both the purebred sire and dam lines that would enable Compart to make rapid progress for selection of marbling. Every sire utilized in the Compart Duroc program has multiple generations of selection for marbling and meat quality. Compart only uses the top 2% of sires tested to sire their ‘Compart Duroc’ branded product,” Chris says.
Success of the Certified Angus Beef program was enticing to the Comparts, who wondered if that same concept could be duplicated in the pork industry. “We saw the CAB, a breed program, what they were doing through selection, and there really wasn’t anything happening on the pork side,” Jim says. “There was some Berkshire work, but we felt there was something that could be modeled after what the Certified Angus Beef was doing, and no one was capitalizing on that.” They feel that they have done just that, with enough confidence that they have trademarked The “Black Angus” of Pork for their label of Premium Compart Duroc.
Brandishing a grand slogan does not make a grand product. They felt they could parlay their knowledge of breeding and genetics into creating a better Duroc pork product, one that would merit the claim of being called a “premium” product.
Again tapping into consumer demand for an enjoyable, consistent eating experience, the Comparts make their model consistent across their production facilities.
“Regardless where the pigs are being raised,” Jim says, “they are being raised in the same type of facilities, with the same genetics and the same feeding program.”
Comparts have worked with a Ph.D. nutritionist at Hubbard Feeds to perfect the diet that all Compart hogs are feeding on throughout the system, located in Minnesota and Iowa.
In 1997, Comparts built a nursery and finisher research facility to enable the Comparts and Hubbard to cohesively work toward the nutritional requirements that would produce a pork product with good quality meat and quality fat and marbling.
“We have looked at various feed ingredients including feeding distillers grains, vitamin levels, trace mineral levels, and the effect they have on shelf life, meat quality, fat quality,” Jim says. “Pork from hogs that have eaten a lot of distillers grains, you get unsaturated fats, and it’s got a lower melting point and off flavor … so not only do we have the genetics, we also have a premium feeding program to maximize those genetics.”
A typical week will see 900 to 1,100 head of Compart Duroc-sired hogs being processed at Natural Food Holdings in Sioux City, Iowa. Hogs are delivered to the Sioux City plant on Tuesdays, harvested on Wednesdays and cut on Thursdays. Orders are picked and palletized by customers’ order from cold storage and loaded onto semis on Fridays for the finished product trip to markets across the United States and beyond.
A slow process
Developing a quality product is only one step of getting that product in front of the consumer. “We have done a lot of travel, a lot of phone calls, a lot of cold calls to get it done [got Compart Duroc pork in to markets],” Jim says.
It was a slow process, taking about five years to get a foothold into the food-service market. Consumers, chefs and retailers appreciate the fact that they can receive a product that is natural and not injected. The added marbling in Compart Duroc pork gives the consumer a juicy, flavorful pork product on a consistent basis.
The Comparts started attending restaurant trade shows to get their product in front of the end user, the chef. “We’d get people commenting they like our product, but there was no distributor,” Jim says, “so we told them to go to their local distributor to ask that they start to carry our product.”
Word has spread across the nation to chefs, grocery stores and consumers, that the Comparts are offering a consistent, quality product, to enhance the consumer’s dining experience.
In addition to being available through food-service and retail distributors, Compart Premium Duroc Pork is also available through the family’s online store at compartdurocpork.com.