If there was ever an unlikely individual who would end up being a renowned Iowa pork producer and swine veterinarian, Howard Hill, DVM, might be a top choice.
But for Hill, born in a rural community just north of San Diego, CA, a love for all facets of agriculture and a solid group of mentors fueled an enriching, four-decade-long and counting, multi-dimensional career centered on his acquired home in America’s heartland — Iowa.
Hill’s parents grew up in southwest Missouri, where his father graduated from engineering school in 1929. With no jobs available, the Hills moved to California, where Howard was born in Santa Monica in 1944. He showed cattle and one pig during his youth, which helped his agricultural interests take root.
The fascination with science, and veterinary medicine in particular, grew from an experience when Hill was just 11 years old. One morning, he noticed one of his show steers was bloated, so he called the local veterinarian, who used an instrument to “tube” or release the gas, reducing the bloating. Dr. Bogart charged young Hill $7 for the service, a small fortune for a young man who got by with odd jobs like mowing lawns.
A week later, when the bloating recurred, Hill thought there was no way he could pay Dr. Bogart another $7 to help relieve the steer again. Instead, he went to the family’s garage and cut off a piece of hose, whittled it down so it was smooth on the end and used it on the calf to relieve the pressure. The problem returned repeatedly, and Hill tried diet changes and everything he could think of. After multiple bloating incidents, the steer was finally shown at the San Diego county fair.
Dr. Bogart was a good, patient teacher, and Hill worked with him honing veterinary skills all through high school and during vacations and summers while in college.
Hill’s father worked 30 years at the local post office and used his engineering skills to operate a construction business, while instilling in his son the values of hard work, honesty and faith.
Howard Hill earned a bachelor of science and a doctor of veterinary medicine degree, both from the University of California–Davis. He practiced veterinary medicine for about a year and a half at a mixed animal practice in southern California, which was rapidly becoming a small animal practice.
One day he was flipping through the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association and saw a notice from the National Institutes of Health offering fellowships encouraging veterinarians to get advanced degrees in the health sciences. The two universities offering the fellowships were Texas A&M University and Iowa State University. He called Allan Packer, DVM, head of the Department of Veterinary Microbiology at Iowa State University. Packer was planning to attend the American Veterinary Medical Association convention in Las Vegas that summer, and he encouraged Hill to meet him there. After meeting with Packer, Hill decided to visit Iowa State University.
When he got to Ames, he immediately liked the area, the faculty and fellow graduate students, so he began to look for housing. With an extended family of two German Shorthair dogs and two cats, he ended up buying a small house in west Ames. His wife was quite surprised when he called to tell her that he had just bought a house.
Hill got his master’s and PhD degrees at Iowa State, both in veterinary microbiology. However, even as he was finishing up his PhD, Hill was still planning on returning to California where most of his family remained.
But again fate intervened. Vaughn Seaton, DVM, the director of the Iowa State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, called and offered Hill a job, so he decided that maybe he would stick around Iowa for a year or two.
“We have been here since 1970, 41 years, and I don’t regret the decision to stay in Iowa one bit. I enjoyed growing up in California, where I got a lot of experiences that I wouldn’t have gotten growing up in Iowa. But I am glad I live in Iowa today. It is a great place to raise a family,” Hill observes. He and his wife, Nancy, raised three children on a farm southeast of Ames. Their family has grown to include eight grandchildren.
For 20 years, from 1974 to 1994, Hill worked as head of the Veterinary Microbiology Section of the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at Iowa State University. During that time, he gained tenure and advanced to full professor in the Department of Veterinary Microbiology in the College of Veterinary Medicine.
It was a great experience working in a diagnostic lab headed up by Vaughn Seaton, who was a very good mentor. He taught Hill how to assess people quickly and identify their strengths and weaknesses.
Those were very busy times for the diagnostic lab, embroiled in the pork industry’s long fight to eradicate pseudorabies (PRV). “There were thousands of samples (to test) and lots of long days,” he remembers. “We had a good staff and we used a lot of graduate students and veterinary students who did a nice job helping out.”
The rules were clear-cut in dealing with PRV, particularly restricted animal movement, and it helped significantly that there were excellent vaccines to get the job done. Being able to differentiate vaccinated pigs from naturally exposed pigs was extremely valuable in the eradication of PRV, Hill says. He worked closely with the IDEXX and Syntrovet corporations in the development of the gene-deleted PRV vaccine and companion differential diagnostic serological tests.
Hill was a strong proponent of PRV eradication. As a pork producer himself, he understood the cost and hardship the disease was causing for pork producers, particularly the seedstock industry.
“I think it really helped to have that practical experience during those days with PRV,” Hill says. It was a costly endeavor for many, including Hill, who depopulated his herd to get rid of the disease.
Turn to Production
Hill wasn’t planning to leave the diagnostic lab, but others once again changed his plans. He had consulted with Randy Stoecker and his staff at Murphy Family Farms, based in Rose Hill, NC, and he soon learned about Stoecker’s drive, determination and vision. Hill and Stoecker remain close friends today.
Hill was making some jaunts to North Carolina to consult with Murphy Family Farms on PRV and production issues. One day in 1994, as he was heading back to the Raleigh airport to return to Iowa, he was offered a job with Murphy Family Farms. Hill thought the job would entail mostly consulting, but as it turned out, Wendell Murphy wanted Hill to work full-time in North Carolina. Hill took the job, but made it clear that he wasn’t moving to North Carolina permanently. He ended up commuting there every other week, establishing a veterinary service department and helping develop boar studs and multiplication units.
At Murphy Family Farms, Hill also got his first real taste of working for an integrated hog operation. The company was an innovator in large-scale pork production, including contract production.
“Randy Stoecker was really pushing three-site production, and Murphy’s was one of the first integrators to implement this type of production system,” he says. The company had a lot of large sow sites, and many were positive to PRV — as were many of their nurseries and finishers. Intense vaccination and a lot of diagnostic work resulted in the successful eradication of PRV from all of the Murphy farms in North Carolina, Hill says.
That job in North Carolina was supposed to last three years, and then Hill was to work primarily in the Midwest, but he continued to work in both the Midwest and North Carolina for five years. In December 1999, Hill got a call from Jeff Hansen, owner of Iowa Select Farms based in Iowa Falls, IA, who offered him a job.
“It made a lot of sense for family reasons to go to work for Jeff, plus it was a good opportunity to join a growing company,” Hill relates. Hansen started the company in 1993 with the goal of building the farrow-to-finish operation into a 100,000-sow enterprise. Today, Iowa Select Farms has 160,000 sows with sites in 43 Iowa counties.
Hill became director of production at Iowa Select in 2000, and faced some of the same problems he had dealt with in North Carolina, including PRV.
“When Jeff Kaisand, DVM, and I came to Iowa Select, the company had a significant PRV problem. We instituted an aggressive testing program coupled with an equally aggressive vaccination program for sows and grow/finish pigs. With hard work and cooperation between the veterinarians and the production staff, we were able to clean up PRV in less than two years,” he says proudly.
“I think what really turned around the PRV eradication program was when people started having success cleaning it up and keeping farms clean,” Hill points out. “The challenge we had late in the program was that we still had finishing barns breaking that would recontaminate sow farms. Once the industry got into an aggressive pig immunization program, sometimes vaccinating grow/finish pigs twice, we were able to eliminate the virus clouds from finishing sites and keep the sow farms from becoming reinfected.”
Although the PRV eradication campaign was a state/federal government program, producers such as Willard Korsmeyer of Illinois, Don Gingerich of Iowa, and industry leaders like Neal Black, past editor of National Hog Farmer and past president of the Livestock Conservation Institute, led the way, Hill says.
Hill smiles when he thinks back to detractors who said Iowa would be the last state to clean up PRV. In fact, when Iowa officially cleaned up PRV, there were still a few pockets of the virus left in other states. The eradication effort was completed in 2004.
Hill, Black and a host of other industry leaders compiled USDA Technical Bulletin No. 1923, published in 2008, a 230-page history of the PRV eradication effort.
From 2001 to 2009, Hill served as chief operating officer of Iowa Select Farms, and faced another disease foe — porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) — which was identified in 1987, but has increased in severity over time.
“PRRS is a big challenge today, especially in pig-dense areas like north central Iowa. Until we come up with better biological controls, if you are in a pig-dense area like north central Iowa, you have to look at filtering your sow farms,” Hill strongly suggests.
PRRS control requires more than solid biosecurity, he continues. “When you’ve got a virus that can be transmitted 2-4 miles through the air, you can have pretty good biosecurity and still break,” Hill explains. In 2004, Iowa Select Farms was the first U.S. producer to filter their boar studs.
Hill notes that Minnesota pork producers, under the guidance of veterinarians like Darwin Reicks (Swine Vet Center), have filtered a lot more sow farms than Iowa producers, which has encouraged Iowa producers to filter more sow farms the past couple of years. Hill predicts that filtering of sow farms will become more common in high-risk areas.
Unlike PRV, for which vaccination blunts the clinical signs and minimizes economic losses, PRRS is more problematic because it mutates rapidly, Hill states. Iowa Select Farms has worked to stabilize the health of the sow herd, but has also ramped up biosecurity by:
- Dedicating livestock trucks for every sow farm to eliminate cross-contamination with the virus.
- Incinerating all of the mortalities on a sow farm instead of using a rendering service.
- Washing, disinfecting and drying all trucks and trailers for farms.
Iowa Select Farms has cleaned up several sow farms in southern Iowa where pig density is much lower, Hill explains.
Hill’s job status took another turn in April 2010, when the then 65-year-old moved to half-time employment at Iowa Select Farms in the role of director of external affairs. “What I am doing now is public policy type work. I work a lot with the Iowa Pork Producers Association, where I am on the board of directors, and I am on the board of directors of the National Pork Producers Council, and just spent a week in April in Washington, DC, for their biannual Legislative Action Conference.”
At first, Hill was unsure how this new, somewhat different industry role would suit him. Soon, however, he found he really enjoyed the challenge, and he is convinced that pork producers can make a difference in the nation’s capitol. “It is good to have producers go in and deliver their message to legislators,” he asserts. “Pork producers are well represented by National Pork Producers Council staff in Washington, DC, but when a legislator hears concerns from their constituents, they listen.”
That’s not to say Hill has moved away from the production side of the business completely. His own hog operation has grown to 625 sows producing Danbred parent gilts. It is managed by former Iowa Pork Producers Association President Dave Moody, who lives on the home farm near Nevada, IA. The farm includes 2,500 acres of row crops, and Hill plans to take his turn helping his son, Eric, plant crops this spring.
Hill still spends a couple of days a week in the Iowa Select Farms office at Iowa Falls, focusing on genetics and working with their packer. Iowa Select Farms markets all of their pigs to JBS Swift, sending 65-70% to the plant at Marshalltown, IA, and the remainder to the plant at Worthington, MN.
Hill marvels at the level of genetic improvement in the pork industry today. “When I first came to Iowa Select Farms, we averaged 10.4 to 10.5 pigs born alive, and today we have farms that are doing over 13 born alive. The big challenge now is to keep the preweaning mortality to a minimum and get more of those pigs to market,” he notes.
Despite all his professional achievements, the latest being named to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s Advisory Committee on Animal Health to look at animal identification, traceability and foreign animal diseases, Hill is most proud of the success of his family. His wife, Nancy, a school teacher, “has put up with me for 42 years,” he says. Their three children have successful professional careers. Daughter Allison is a senior business analyst for the Principal Company in Des Moines. Son Eric oversees the farming enterprise. And youngest son Jared is a Des Moines attorney who is going to be Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley’s agricultural liaison.
Hill’s farming operation includes a 150-cow purebred Angus herd. “Truth be told, my passion is breeding Angus cattle, but I always say, in order to be able to afford to raise cattle, you’ve got to raise hogs.” He also hopes to expand both his cropping and his livestock enterprises, anticipating a bright future for the hog industry despite more consolidation and continued pressure on feed and energy costs.
As a veterinarian, the future will be bright but challenging, Hill believes. His advice to young swine practitioners is to develop their technical skills as well as their business skills, and be willing to take advantage of opportunities as they are presented. Do not be afraid to take some risk as you grow in your profession, he says.
Hill encourages swine practitioners to get involved with their association, the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, which provides educational opportunities as well as serves as an advocate for swine veterinarians and their producers.
Hill emphasizes the importance of balancing the many endeavors in agriculture that give him satisfaction, while finding time to enjoy what’s most important to him: his family.