At 69 years old, Illinois pork producer Phil Bradshaw is as active as he has ever been. Ten years ago, the third-generation farmer turned over the day-to-day activities of his corn, soybean and hog operation at Griggsville, IL, to his son, Todd.
But that doesn't mean that the gregarious producer has slowed down. In fact, he's still active in administrative duties for the operation, and is mainly responsible for hog chores on weekends and holidays. His appointment book is filled to the brim with meetings. He's one busy farmer — and he wouldn't have it any other way.
Bradshaw is not your typical farmer. “I am not one of those guys who just wanted to farm. Some guys farm because they just love it. I'm not that way. I've farmed because I thought it was the best opportunity,” he emphasizes.
That opportunity came in 1963, when his uncle asked if he wanted to return to help run his farm. The following year, his uncle rented him the farm and they remained partners until 1972, when Bradshaw purchased the farm. It includes several hundred acres of corn and soybeans and what turned into a 200-sow, farrow-to-finish operation.
Bradshaw grins widely and chuckles when asked how many pigs he raises or has responsibility for. The operation inventories about 5,000 segregated-early-weaned pigs, which he finishes for Cargill.
In 1993, although still working in the hog operation regularly, he decided since he was in his 50s and the future looked uncertain — to turn ownership of the hogs over to his nephew, Brian. The nephew became an integrated producer and contract marketed pigs to local packers. “When the market crashed in 1998, Brian had about 80% of his production contracted, so he never took that beating,” Bradshaw recounts.
Brian sold the LLC that runs the finishing business to Cargill last fall, when the bleeding from high input costs got too bad, Bradshaw explains. Now, Cargill owns the pigs and supplies the feed, removing the risk of feeding pigs. Pigs are sent to Cargill's Excel plant in Beardstown, IL.
Bradshaw quit farrowing in the 1990s, but family members — his son, daughters, brothers, nieces and nephews — have majority ownership in the farrowing units and continue to operate them. He still maintains interests or part-ownership in a farrowing and finishing LLC in Illinois.
Surviving Tough Times
Bradshaw insists family hog farming has undergone major changes that have forced many farmers into contracting arrangements and participating in other hog business ventures to secure their futures. He says there are very few family farms similar to his old 200-sow, farrow-to-finish setup left in the industry. Twenty five years ago, that unit produced 2,000-3,000 market hogs a year.
In those days, there were struggles in dealing with the fluctuations in grain and livestock commodity markets, too. But for Bradshaw, it was all about making sacrifices and keeping costs low in order to succeed. For years, he didn't have fancy hog buildings or drive a shiny new pickup truck, he recalls.
He remembers the '60s, when he farrowed sows in A-huts and raised 1,400 pigs in the timber. To navigate his 10-year-old, two-wheel-drive truck through the woods after fall farrowings required tire chains. The latch on the driver's side door was broken, so he installed a bar to hold the door closed when driving.
Most of the confinement hog buildings and barns that are on his farm were built in the '70s and have been retrofitted as needed.
His home was small and modest. Only recently did he have the 50-year-old family home revamped to provide more living space.
Altogether, the sacrifices he and his family made helped maintain Bradshaw's status as a low-cost producer. He was always told that if he could be the least-cost producer in the area, it would increase his odds of staying in business — and that advice proved to be true.
Bradshaw also found a way recently to cut costs to meet environmental obligations. Long gone are the days in Illinois where you can burn or bury pigs, he says. Feeding out 10,000-plus hogs annually, and family members farrowing 3,000 or more sows at the one-site operation, would place a burden on those disposal methods anyway. Using grant funds from the USDA's Environmental Quality Improvement Program (EQIP), he recently completed construction of a $30,000, nine-bay composting site.
Serving His Fellow Man
Bradshaw boasts a long history of involvement in pork producer boards, agricultural activities and local community endeavors that span the United States and abroad.
His passion for involvement is all about trying to make people's lives better. “In my life, I like to think I do things where everybody wins,” he offers.
That sentiment was on display in his early days. In 1968, when he was just 30 years old, he was elected president of the Pike County Pork Producers. In 1970, he became a member of the Illinois Pork Producers Association. The following year, when the vice president of the group chose not to run for the presidency, Bradshaw was asked to assume the post. At the urging of mentor and pork producer George Brauer, he agreed to do it.
As it turned out, Bradshaw was asked to do more. He is the only producer in the organization's history to serve three years as state pork producer president.
During the late 1980s and through the 1990s, Bradshaw's voice could be heard calling for stricter efforts for control of pseudorabies (PRV). Also in attendance at those animal health meetings was Paul Doby, Illinois state veterinarian, who spoke without wavering of the need for stiffer PRV control measures, earning Bradshaw's lifelong respect.
For Bradshaw, PRV turned out to be a personal issue as well. His was one of the first operations in 1974 to contract the disease. And he suggests that lax biosecurity standards probably played a role in a second infection. He figures his operation endured the disease from 1974 to 1987. It was officially eradicated in 2002-2003.
Pushing for FMD-Free Americas
In 1989, while president of the U.S. Animal Health Association, Bradshaw became integrally involved in a campaign that continues today — the eradication of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) from the western hemisphere. He currently chairs the InterAmerican Group targeting that eradication effort.
He proclaims that an outbreak of FMD in the United States would be more damaging to the pork industry than to the beef industry, because the pork sector exports 17% of its production annually, and relies heavily on that economic infusion.
Further, Bradshaw believes it is only a matter of time, given the world's continuing problems with FMD, before the United States breaks with the disease again. The United States has been free of FMD since 1929.
“It is just a matter of time because you cannot police all of our borders to keep that virus out. Eradicating FMD from South America will lower the risk of North America getting FMD. It is the most contagious disease ever known to mankind, so it will spread and it will spread quickly,” he stresses.
The goal of the InterAmerican Group is to eradicate FMD from the region by 2010. Progress has been steady. There were only 57 reported cases of FMD in South America last year — all in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay.
Bradshaw also serves on the USDA secretary of agriculture's advisory committee on foreign animal disease. And, through his work with the United Soybean Board, he has gained recognition for publicizing the value of soybeans as a protein source, worldwide, and also for the vital role livestock plays. A total of 98% of soybean meal produced is fed to livestock, including poultry.
The National Pork Board works with the United Soybean Board to co-sponsor Operation Main Street. Bradshaw is an approved speaker for the program.
Through his work with the United Soybean Board, Bradshaw also supports a joint project that reviews all of the literature pertaining to the health effects of living next to a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO). He says county health officials in Missouri have used a suspect University of Iowa study, which is suggestive of health dangers from CAFOs, to stop hog construction in many counties. Bradshaw says the review is aimed at determining if there is any validity to that study.
He chairs the World Soy Foundation, which provides soy protein assistance to the malnutritioned in 23 countries.
Bradshaw also travels worldwide in support of the FMD campaign, promotion of soybeans and pork production. In early May, he was set to take a two-week trip to Russia to talk about U.S. pork production.
Bradshaw and his wife, Linda, of 47 years, raised three children, have four grandchildren and one great grandson.
— Joe Vansickle, Senior Editor