Fifty-year-old Randy Spronk of Edgerton, MN, would be happy just working in one of the farm's 2,400-head finishing barns. But, as managing partner of Spronk Brothers and manager of a related, family-owned company known as Ranger Farms, he knows that his integral roles in the family's businesses require him to oversee the production and financial aspects of both the hog and grain operations.
That means most of his days are spent in the office manning the computer and juggling grain purchases and hog marketings by phone, planning crop production and manure application, and overseeing the farm's feedmill.
The pace can be hectic as he monitors volatile grain and meat markets, while also serving as an advocate for the pork industry in two national pork industry organizations.
The hog operation, known as Spronk Brothers III, was formed by the family in 1991. It began with 300 sows at the site of the office and mill, located in Pipestone County in extreme southwestern Minnesota along the Buffalo Ridge.
Spronk Brothers is a swine-only business, with ownership in two, 3,600-sow sites called Rosewood and Buttercup, part of a multi-state network of sow production units managed by the Pipestone System. The Pipestone System is operated by the Pipestone (MN) Veterinary Clinic, where brother Gordon is a partner.
Spronk Brothers procures weaned pigs from the two sow units. They feed out all of their pigs, projected at 120,000 in 2010, compared to about 6,000 when the partnership was formed. They also own 50% of the wean-to-finish and finishing facilities.
Ranger Farms consists of about 2,000 acres of adjacent cropland, which Randy Spronk manages with a long-time friend and employee.
The close-knit agricultural enterprises symbolize the Spronks' approach to pork production. “You've got to look at the different philosophies of swine production. I've always had the view that if you want to be in pork production, you need to own the sows. Even though those sows may be managed by a veterinary clinic, it doesn't matter; the business owns the sows, so we can decide on production.”
The other key factor in pork production is control of your feed source, he adds. Spronk Brothers also has ownership in an on-farm feedmill that produces about 50,000 tons of feed a year, and mills over 1 million bu. of corn to meet their feed needs.
While the pork industry was integrating forward — owning the pigs, slaughter and retail — the Spronks took the opposite approach. “We kind of integrated backwards, focusing on the network of crops, hogs and the manure. We strongly believe that livestock production needs to be where the grains are produced because of the ability to use the byproducts of animal agriculture,” explains Randy Spronk.
Owning the mill hasn't totally insulated the hog operation from the run-up in feed costs, but it has helped, Spronk says. However, it has enabled the hog operation to buy distiller's dried grains with solubles (DDGS) fresh and in bulk. Twice a day, a semi-tractor-trailer makes the 75-mile trek from Edgerton, MN, to Aurora, SD, to pick up a load of the ethanol byproduct.
The Spronk Brothers follow a step-up, step-down feeding program, starting out at 15% DDGS in nursery rations, peaking at 30% DDGS in finishing, before ramping it back down to 5-10% DDGS prior to marketing.
Varying the level of DDGS is among a number of ration changes that Spronk Brothers continually review and adjust to keep feed costs in line. Spronk uses a computerized master list of nursery and finishing diets that tell him when to adjust DDGS, fat, phytase, vitamins, minerals and other key ingredients.
The flexible ration formulations were developed by the swine nutrition team at Kansas State University (KSU). Spronk also uses the KSU DDGS calculator (www.asi.ksu.edu/DesktopDefault.aspx?abid=1220) to help factor in the byproduct's use relative to the cost of other ingredients.
There are times when grain costs suggest DDGS can substitute up to 40% of the ration. But don't forget to factor in the impact on iodine levels in fat and the danger of producing soft, fat carcasses that could be spurned by packers, he cautions.
“We are learning as we go. Economically, you want to feed as much DDGS as you can, but you also have to take into consideration flowability of the diet,” he reminds, as a trucker unloading DDGS at the nearby mill bangs on the trailer to dislodge the last of the load.
Ethanol prices have nosedived, and Spronk hopes that DDGS will follow corn prices lower.
All this reminds him of how things have changed over the years. “When my father was doing this, he just called the feed guy and ordered a 14% protein finishing diet. Now we are basically feeding a high-synthetic ration and more DDGS than soybean meal to maximize the nutritional profile of what the pig needs and to reduce excretion rates.
“Today, you have to constantly monitor those prices to see where you are at. Most producers are spending far more time on feed ingredient prices because the nutrition side of the business is bigger,” Spronk says.
A professional crop consultant is employed by Ranger Farms to help with nutrient management.
PURCO is a “virtual” purchasing cooperative (no physical office or overhead) formed by Spronk Brothers and several other producers with on-farm feedmills to purchase semi-loads of feed ingredients, to take advantage of volume-buying efficiencies.
A risk management program involves securing margins on grain, DDGS and market hogs using the futures market. Profitable margins are locked in for hogs out six quarters to early 2011.
“If there is an area you are not proficient in, or there is somebody better than you, you better access them and utilize their expertise to either better educate yourself or just turn it over to them and let them do it,” Spronk emphasizes.
Better feed formulation has translated into improved environmental farmland conditions from manure application. “We have 13 years' worth of manure analysis here. We see the trends; as we've changed our rations, we are lower at application on the nitrogen and phosphorus and about the same on potassium levels. That tells me we are not excreting excess protein in our hog manure. Our crop consultant confirms that our phosphorus levels in the soil are dropping,” he says.
Declining phosphorus levels reflect increased utilization of the phosphorus in the swine rations. Hog manure has been the sole source of fertilizer for corn, but those days may be ending.
“This coming planting year we won't buy any commercial fertilizer for corn ground, but in the future I may have to buy commercial fertilizer to supplement the phosphorus. That is not what society would have you believe, claiming that we are just disposing of the manure and not using it properly,” Spronk points out.
Again his thoughts return to when his father ran an 80-sow, farrow-to-finish operation. “He didn't look at manure as a resource. We cleaned the hog lots on Saturday and just went wherever we could haul it and didn't give credit to that new crop.
“Now our crop consultant takes soil core samples and that nutrient information is placed in the database every year,” Spronk comments. “We have a flow meter and auto-track steering in the tractor, so we can program in the recommended application rate. We can record what we are doing by latitude and longitude and make sure that application is accurate.”
In doing so, Spronk prides himself in not being dependent on foreign energy. “Our fertilizer is not coming from a mine in Canada or Europe. I am not using imported foreign fertilizer.”
And based on soil and manure samples, rather than needing more acres to put manure on, he anticipates that fewer acres will be needed, due to higher application rates and lower nutrient density, a result of improved hog diets.
Spronk's roles as chair of the National Pork Producers Council's (NPPC) environment committee and sitting on the National Pork Board's environment committee have given him a forum to display his environmental advocacy for the pork industry. He is also serving his second term on the NPPC board of directors.
“I just really believe animal agriculture — swine production, in particular — is beneficial to society. In my positions, I want to correct the inaccuracies that others are saying. It's no different than me talking about our local Rock River impaired watershed. (The activists would say), ‘Well, you know, it's all those pigs that are doing that.’ But really, based on the evidence of the manure or soil analysis, I will make the statement to the Natural Resources Conservation Service or the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that the manure on my hog farm doesn't go anywhere unless I put it there,” he asserts.
“In other words, the manure is contained. I have roofs on my barns that shed precipitation. Manure stays there for 12 months and doesn't go anywhere. And, if I do the manure application right, then it is not detrimental to the environment. In fact, it is actually beneficial because we are feeding the soil and producing food,” he continues.
It's important for producers to do it right. “We have got to be able to do those practices that keep manure in the soil profile and not allow it to leave the crop ground and migrate its way into a lake or stream,” Spronk says.
Because pork producers have been doing it right, Spronk says the industry can be in compliance with the Clean Water Act. Pork producers don't need permits because they are not discharging manure, but it's a reality facing municipal lagoons.
Pork producers have also proactively addressed concerns of the Clean Air Act by participating in the national air emissions study, partially funded by the National Pork Board. The Pork Board has funded numerous manure and air quality projects, giving producers a factual basis from which to operate and answer the challenges of environmental activists.
The pork industry has also successfully addressed the carbon credit issue. The Pork Board's recent analysis of the carbon footprint of pork production has shown up to 50% energy savings vs. organic agricultural production in Europe, he notes. Volume food production and transportation across the country are also more energy efficient than the popular notion of the consumer going to the local farmers' market.
Correspondingly, the issue of greenhouse gas emissions has fizzled in the nation's capitol as more data comes out showing the small role of animal agriculture, Spronk says.
Overall, handouts on the pork's carbon footprint study are winning over critics on the state and national levels.
Spronk feels hog manure gets a bad rap. Sure, it's brown before it can be converted into green, but that's true whether you are in milk production, egg production or beef production, he explains. Animal effluent must be dealt with — and that job is harder now because of society's environmental concerns.
“My father's generation didn't store swine manure for a year. It was hauled out every week so you didn't have manure decomposition and odor; in addition, there was no credit given to the nutrient's value contained in the manure.
“Whereas now, manure is stored for 12 months so it can be utilized as fertilizer. But ammonia and hydrogen sulfide are produced from the storage and decomposition of the manure. That is why we are doing the air emissions study to know factually what is emitted from the barns,” Spronk explains.
Basically, it all comes down to ethics, morals and trust. “I think we need to have consumers who have trust in our ethics and morals, even though they can't see what we are doing every day, whether it deals with the environment or producing a bushel of corn.
“Society has trained me and other producers to take the resources we have been entrusted with and produce nutrition for them. I think that trust has been eroded by the advocacy groups,” Spronk says.
The fact that those groups have called agricultural practices into question motivates this Minnesota pork producer to tell the true story of farming, while grilling at the Lakefield (MN) Pork Chop Open, testifying at the state capitol in St. Paul or by making the annual spring legislative trek to Washington, DC.
Despite this year's apparent successes on the environmental front, Spronk says plenty of challenges remain. Possible restrictions on the Chesapeake Bay could affect watersheds around the country, limiting manure application, he suggests.
Spronk acknowledges that the rules are not always equitable. “For instance, I cannot apply manure onto frozen, snow-covered ground in Minnesota, and I think this rule may come to the federal level as well. But there are other livestock species where this rule does not apply.”
Besides the issue of equitability, Spronk wonders why the government focuses so narrowly on an issue such as manure injection. When done properly, it supplies nutrients to the soil. He thinks regulators should consider methods that promise more. For instance, strip tilling only disturbs 10 in. of a typical 30-in. wide row. Strip tillage saves passes in the spring and fall, cutting energy use, but it also reduces the exposure of volatilization of nitrous oxide or odor, which is also beneficial in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
Spronk's parents were staunch believers in higher education, and all five Spronk children earned college degrees. Randy, the youngest of five children, completed a degree in animal science from South Dakota State University (SDSU).
He proudly points to the success of his children as well. Son Seth is a sophomore at SDSU studying mechanical engineering. Daughter Caitlan is pursuing her master's degree at Purdue University in English rhetoric and composition.
Beyond the importance of education, following core beliefs and sticking to ethics and morals are key elements of his proud Dutch heritage that sustain him.
“If I can go to bed at night and close my eyes and feel comfortable that I haven't compromised or done anything unethical, then the decisions that I have made will let me rest easy,” he concludes.