Keith Schoettmer just enjoys working with hogs, but it wasn’t always that way. While in high school in Indiana, he got a job working on a farm with a Black Angus herd, and that spurred him to attend Purdue University to study bovine production, “because I was just sure I wanted a career in cattle.”
Then halfway through his freshman year at Purdue, “just like a lot of college freshmen, I ran out of money and had to find a job,” Schoettmer says. His need for money outweighed his love of working with cattle, and the job he landed would set the course for his future. That job — on a hog farm owned by Delmar Guard near Purdue — opened his eyes to the world of hogs.
“I found myself drifting to liking pigs,” he says. “I just really appreciate the responsiveness of pigs to management. You could change one thing in management, and they would adapt quickly. I liked the high pace and the fast turnover.”
Upon graduation from Purdue in 1980, Schoettmer took a job with a purebred Duroc breeder, Ivan Miller at Nokomis, Ill., and stayed there until 1987, when the lure of returning to Indiana became too strong. “We were starting a family, and Indiana was calling us back. A retired producer we became aware of was looking for someone to take over his farm,” Schoettmer says. “It was a great opportunity for us.”
Schoettmer and his wife, Darla, now have a “traditional” farrow-to-finish operation near Tipton, Ind., that markets 23,000 hogs each year.
“Notice I said ‘traditional’ and not ‘old-fashioned,’ because we are a traditional hog farm on three levels,” he says. “First, we are farrow-to-finish, and we are mainly a single-site operation, and we are family-owned.” Schoettmer says his operation does have three off-site finishers.
“Certainly the hog industry has gone in a different direction, but we haven’t had a good reason to step away from our model,” he says. “We have considered making some changes, but this model works for us. It may not work for the next producer, but it works for us.”
Schoettmer Prime Pork, as the operation is called, practices the We Care principles laid out by the National Pork Board. According to the NPB website, the We Care ethical principles are:
- produce safe food
- protect and promote animal well-being
- ensure practices to protect public health
- provide a work environment that is safe
- safeguard natural resources
- contribute to a better quality of life in our communities
Schoettmer’s focus on these We Care principles recently earned the Indiana hog farmer the title of America’s Pig Farmer of the Year in the inaugural year for the program, which is sponsored by the NPB and builds on many elements that made the 20-year run of the now-retired Environmental Stewards Award program so successful.
In a press release announcing his honor, Schoettmer said, “I couldn’t do what I do every day without the help of family and employees, so this award signifies a collective recognition of what we do every day on the farm to care for our pigs, our people and the planet.”
That collective recognition goes out to Schoettmer Prime Pork’s eight employees — six of whom are involved in actual hog production, plus one in the feed mill and one in maintenance.
Though none of the Schoettmers’ four children came back to the farm, Schoettmer sees his employees as a close-knit group, starting each day with a 6:30 a.m. meeting. “We start each day with a devotion and prayer, and then we all talk about what’s going on that day, and what’s going on in each area,” Schoettmer says. This half-hour meeting goes beyond what’s going on inside the barns. “We also talk about what’s going on in our lives. … When they hit the door after these meetings, they are ready to start their day.”
Schoettmer preaches biosecurity and high herd health, which the operation has been able to maintain. “We are a closed herd, and herd health is paramount,” he says. The farm is currently porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome-positive. “We re-popped in 2006, and about four years ago PRRS came back. We were blessed that we did not get PED [porcine epidemic diarrhea]
last winter,” he says. Schoettmer says the fact replacement gilts are raised on-site, in a specific gilt development barn, attributes to the high health standards set on the farm.
Even though high herd health is stressed to all employees, Schoettmer reinforces that every so often at those morning meetings. “Every couple of weeks I remind everybody of the importance of biosecurity,” he says. “I tell them we, and I mean ‘we’ because I also need to be reminded, we are one wrong move from having this whole thing blow up. … Maybe then we would rethink our farrow-to-finish operation. We cannot get lackadaisical about our biosecurity.”
Telling the ag story
Even with biosecurity stressed on the farm, Schoettmer welcomes tour groups to his farm to help tell agriculture’s and the hog industry’s story. “I imagine there is a degree of risk in allowing groups to come to our farm,” he says, “but rarely are these people involved in farming. Most are so far removed from farming that it is not an issue of them recently having been on a farm.” He has worked with the agriculture classes at Tipton High School.
Schoettmer feels opening the doors of his barns to the outside world, and to the general public, can show the job that producers are doing. “Animal care is our world,” he says. “It’s insane to think that we would do anything to harm these animals while they are in our care. They are our lifeblood.” He stresses that pig care has to be the No. 1 priority, and admits that starts “with the people we hire … we look for people who care about animals.”
The pressure to hire the “right people” has taken a back seat, since Schoettmer Prime Pork has longtime, loyal employees. “Most have been with me for years, a couple for 18 years, one for 20 years. They are loyal to me, and we try to be loyal back.”
Schoettmer Prime Pork has grown over the years, “but my aspiration was never volume. We wanted to get to a level where cost and efficiency were an advantage for us,” he says. “We want to get better, not bigger. … I told my first banker when I came back here that I never wanted more than I could put my arms around.”
Getting his arms around his operation may be easier than getting his head around being named the inaugural America’s Pig Farmer of the Year. The honor was bestowed upon on him on Oct. 7, and he was whisked away to New York City for a three-day media tour. In addition to NPB personnel, Schoettmer traveled with Chris Soules, an Iowa hog producer who also happened to be “The Bachelor” from last spring on ABC. “I didn’t appreciate all that went into preparing for a media tour like this,” Schoettmer says. He bested three other finalists for the award, and he humbly says any of the others would have done a great job for the U.S. hog industry.
“Intensive” media training in Des Moines prepared Soules and Schoettmer for whatever the varied media outlets would throw their way. “They [National Pork Board] tried to prepare us for anything that reporters would ask us, and they did a great job,” Schoettmer says. As it played out, he says the toughest interviews were those he and Soules were put through in the Des Moines practice sessions.
Though most of the interviewers were equally interested in Soules and his time on “The Bachelor” and “Dancing with the Stars,” Schoettmer says that Soules is a good advocate for the U.S. hog industry. “He got us into some doors that I don’t think we would have got into otherwise,” he says.
The interviews themselves may not have been intense, but the schedule was. “We were in front of cameras, and we did 27 interviews in around four hours,” Schoettmer says. “Every 10 minutes there was a different TV, online or radio interview that we were doing. We didn’t have a lot of time to think about it. They told us who we were talking to and where they were from.”
In addition to Soules’ previous exposure helping open some otherwise tight doors, Schoettmer feels the “celebrity’s” appearance may have softened the questioning. “All the interviews were cordial, and most stayed positive,” Schoettmer says. “We were ready for some animal rights questions, or about the environment, and there were a few who bordered on the negative, but we brought them back around.”