Have you heard the one about the farmer who loaded his prize herd boar in the pickup each morning and took him to neighboring pig farms to service their few sows? After a week of this ritual, the farmer crawled out of bed a little late one morning and to his amazement saw the impatient boar sitting in the driver’s seat honking the horn!
Turns out, the old joke isn’t as far-fetched a one might think — except for the horn-honking part, explains Steve Pollmann, now president of Murphy Brown-West, a division of Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork production company.
As Pollmann tells the story, he and his four brothers developed a custom boar breeding service as part of their FFA swine project. A Duroc boar they named Boris provided the services.
“Boris was a quick study,” he relates. “We’d pull the pickup into his lot, put the tailgate down and give it a slap and Boris would jump flat-footed into the pickup. When his job was done, he’d jump back in the pickup just like a hunting dog and off we’d go.”
The Pollmann brothers got the pick of the litter or $10 per sow bred as the fee for Boris’ services.
“After we had all of our sows bred, we were leveraging the resources of our boar power. It was such a good venture that we bought a couple more boars to add to our breeding services enterprise,” he explains.
The patriarch of the Pollmann family was a steel worker who had purchased a farm in central Utah. When people asked him why he chose Utah to farm, he would respond: “I don’t farm — I raise boys.”
The Pollmann boys were given much of the responsibility of running the farm and tending the livestock. “I often tell people that I got into the hog business because my brother was a fast runner,” Steve Pollmann chuckles. “He caught a greased pig at a rodeo and that gilt became our first sow.”
But central Utah was short on quality feed ingredients, so the Pollmann brothers frequented area fruit stands, grocery stores and school cafeterias for scraps and outdated product, which they cooked and fed to the pigs. An old chicken coop was converted to farrowing pens. The FFA project grew to 40 sows.
Some 6- to 8-week-old pigs were sold, while others were finished and delivered to a nearby locker plant, with the carcasses sold to friends and neighbors. Carcasses were delivered to their clients’ favorite butcher for processing. “I quickly learned that I made a lot more money on a carcass than I did by selling weanling pigs,” he relates.
A few good boars and gilts were pulled out to show at area fairs. “We used to buy a bag of Purina pellets — we couldn’t afford many — but man it really put a shine on my show pigs,” he remembers. “I wondered — what was the magic in those pellets?”
Pollmann’s early fascination with nutrition served as his impetus to attend Utah State University and, later, pursue advanced degrees in swine nutrition. While taking a swine science course at Utah State, Murray Danielson, professor at the University of Nebraska, came in as a guest lecturer. It was then that Pollmann decided he wanted to be an Extension agent. “It was my destiny. I wanted to help people,” he explains.
The road to the Extension service requires a master’s degree, so Pollmann followed his newfound mentor to the University of Nebraska and studied the impact of high-fiber diets on gestating sows. “Part of that work was spent evaluating the nutrient utilization of the various components in the fibrous ingredients and what that meant to the energy component and how it affected sow performance,” he explains.
Having obtained the credentials needed for Extension work, Pollmann was ready. But Ernie Peo, also at the University of Nebraska, advised: “You know, the purpose of a master’s degree is to prepare you for a Ph.D. You’re halfway there, so hang in there.” Pollmann says it was some of the best advice he’s ever gotten.
In the mid-70s there was talk of losing antibiotics for swine diets, so the need for alternatives was on the radar. Pollmann focused his studies on the use of lactic cultures (probiotics).
“We looked at where the bacteria implanted in the digestive tract and how they created competitive exclusion with other bacteria,” he explains. “There has been a lot of interest in trying to find efficacious microbial cultures, but it’s been a tough endeavor. It’s usually longer on theory and less on efficacy.”
Pollmann received his Ph.D. in 1979 and launched his swine specialist career at Kansas State University with a split appointment in research and Extension. “The fun part of the job was adult education, working with people who wanted to learn. Part of the learning was helping them do field tests efficaciously,” he says. From a career development standpoint, he says, “It was a great way to learn the industry and to network, and it served as a springboard to other opportunities.”
With the limited resources available at the university, Pollmann became restless and focused on field trials. “There were seven of us in line to get animals to do research and we had only 200 sows,” he explains.
Anxious to do more, he took the big step away from academia, something he thought he’d never do, and signed on with Central Soya. His new duties focused on their branded feed line, Master Mix, and a growing premix business.
“It was an interesting time in the pig industry. I was told, ‘you have got to spend time in North Carolina because that’s where the industry is going.’ It was good counsel,” he says.
“One of my first jobs was to call on a guy in North Carolina who wanted to buy bulk base mix for pigs he was feeding out in dirt lots. They sent me down to see if I could help him with his pig production and check to see if he was capable of paying his bills. His name was Wendell Murphy,” Pollmann reflects. “Wendell was a classy southern gentleman, astute, kind, honest and forthright. He was an incredibly charismatic leader. He was so nice, I wondered if he could do the tough things needed to be successful in the business.”
The new trend in North Carolina was earlier weaning — 10 to 17 days of age — which challenged swine nutritionists to develop complex starter diets. The pigs’ response was akin to Pollmann’s experience with feeding pelleted complete feeds to his show pigs. “Even the pigs weaned at 5-8 lb. caught up to their littermates that were fed traditional feed,” he remembers.
“One of our marketing programs included what we called ‘runt hunts,’ where we would gather up all of the runt pigs and put them in a flat deck nursery pen at the feed store. We’d feed them the good stuff, then take them back to the farm and compare them to their littermates. The runt pigs were always bigger. We had separation, better feed, better environment — but the feed got all the credit,” he explains.
Pollmann’s 14 years with Central Soya, which later became Consolidated Nutrition, saw great changes and consolidation in the feed industry. One year he received three W-2 forms without changing jobs.
“There was a demand for lower inclusion products, but some feed companies were trying to use pigs to leverage feed sales. As I watched that, I decided feed companies were not very good at that. So one day when I looked at myself in the mirror, I decided, ‘I want to see the swine industry get better,’” he says.
This timely decision corresponded with someone’s “crazy idea” of building an all-new pig operation in his home state of Utah. “I had been in the Midwest long enough to think that you have got to have corn, packing plants and customers to be successful in the hog business,” he remembers. “This new four-way venture called Circle 4 Farms was a major paradigm shift in that thinking.”
Having devoted 20 years to a technical career, Pollmann was ready to do something different. “I was ready for integrated pork production, so I made a list of companies I was interested in. The Utah deal fit that need. It looked like the right company, although the four-way venture was a little scary, and it looked like a great opportunity,” he summarizes.
After an initial trip to Utah in 1997 to “experience the project and get to know the people,” he signed on as director of operations. “The first year of business was really tough, but in a business like that it is easy to make little changes that have a major impact. Something as simple as putting wheat midds into the diet can be a million-dollar savings,” he points out.
Finding good employees in the desolate region was another major challenge. At one point, Circle 4 employed 20% of the people in the two counties where the facility is located.
“For me, one of the greatest thrills in life is to see people do better than they believe they can. It’s the team-building aspect of having people run faster and jump higher than they ever believed they possibly could,” he says.
When he signed on for the job, the facility had about 25,000 sows. It grew to be a 75,000-sow operation with 450 employees.
By 2001, having been promoted to general manager of Circle 4, Pollmann was again getting restless for a new challenge. Murphy Family Farms was providing management supervision to Circle 4, and Randy Stoecker was overseeing the operation. Soon, Smithfield Foods purchased Murphy Family Farms, and Murphy-Brown, LLC, was formed to provide management services for the company’s holdings.
Pollmann was hired as director of operations in 2001, which put him in charge of production, feed and research for Murphy-Brown production west of the Mississippi River. Randy Stoecker was named president of the division, being responsible for finance, human resources and environmental programs. Six years later, when Stoecker retired, Pollmann was named president of Murphy-Brown West, headquartered in Ames, IA.
“It will surprise most people to know that we can make more money and have comparable costs in Utah compared to North Carolina,” he notes.
The biggest single advantage is in having better productivity. The other advantage is that the company-owned facilities continue to depreciate. “The fixed-cost advantage provides better cost control and the strong market prices in California provide a better revenue stream,” he explains.
“I often tell people that their careers should be measured in 3-5-year intervals,” Pollmann relates. “If your career hasn’t enlarged or changed within 3-5 years, you really should ask yourself how well you are doing. If you are doing routine, mundane stuff, life is just too short for that. You need to be doing the stuff that turns you on. You need to be living your dream,” he says.
When he reflects on his own career, Pollmann breaks it down by stages in his life.
“In the Kansas State stage, I saw a sleepy program that has become one of the leading Extension programs in the country.
“The feed industry stage was a learning experience with the satisfaction of taking science and putting it into a product, seeing that product gain market share and meet the needs of producers. A part of the feed industry experience was the thrill of developing successful people and teams. Some of the people we worked with are now in very important, influential positions today.
“The Utah stage was taking a non-productive business and converting it to one of the best in a country that I am very sensitive about.
“The Ames stage has been a lesson in how to take the uncertainty of the corporate world, blend it and still be not only big, but good. At some point, I’d like to say we are the world’s best pork producer, not just the biggest. We’re not there yet,” he proclaims.
“I think we compete pretty well with ‘the bigs,’ but there are some regionally based companies in the 20,000- to 40,000-sow category that do a lot of things right. They are our best competition today,” he adds.
Lessons in Biology
“The biological threshold of the pig is far from where we are producing today,” Pollmann challenges. “We are capturing just a part of the biological potential, so when we really start to eliminate some of those constraints, we will move closer to that biological threshold.”
As examples, he says, “We should be weaning 12 pigs/litter vs. 10. A finishing pig ought to be able to gain 2.5 lb./day; we’re at 1.8 to 1.9. We ought to have 2-3% wean-to-finish mortality; we are at 7-8%. The pig has a phenomenal ability to accomplish effective lean conversion when we don’t mess it up,” he emphasizes.
The single, biggest disappointment is the lack of science and precision in pig health. “Even without porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS), the health issue is still big. It is the 600-lb. gorilla, no doubt. But the biology is such that the next bug will jump in. That’s what we’ve seen happen when we get PRRS-negative pods — swine influenza virus (SIV) and Actinobacillus pleuropneumonia (APP) pounce,” he says.
Pollmann believes a more scientific approach and some “new brains” working on the problems are needed. “We need to recruit more scientists in the animal health companies, academia and other research-based programs, ours included. For example, I really don’t care whether a virologist is a veterinarian. I want them to just be good at virology. Those are the kinds of folks that must continue to try to crack that nut. The methods we are using have not been very effective,” he challenges.
Likewise, the gestation stall solution has not gained consensus in the industry. While Smithfield Foods’ decision to eliminate gestation stalls may not be popular with some, it’s a decision Pollmann supports. The solution, he says, is free-access stalls where feeding stalls help control the sows’ daily feed allotment, yet the sows have the opportunity to move in and out of the stalls at their leisure. “They will still spend 50% of their time sleeping in those stalls,” he notes.
The free-access stalls provide 27 sq. ft. of space per female compared to most small pens, which provide 17-18 sq. ft./sow. The added space may require some producers to reduce the size of their sow herd or build or retrofit to add the needed space. Murphy-Brown had culled their sow herd from about 1.1 million sows to about 890,000 sows in recent years, so overall production should hold steady or improve, he says.
From a corporate standpoint, the conversion to free-access stalls makes good business sense and provides ear-marked monies to retrofit a site. “A lot of those farms are 15-25 years old and need a facelift anyway,” he says. “When we retrofit a site, pen gestation represents 50% of the costs; the other 50% are the business improvements that you earn against,” he explains.
The important point is this: “If we give up our advantages — the cheap U.S. dollar and cheap ingredients — and then lose productivity, we’re going to look a lot like France and England,” he predicts.
Good Advice, Strong Support
Pollmann says some of the best advice he has received has come from colleagues and friends. In graduate school, Bob Fritschen advised: “Everything has a life cycle, so you’ve got to know when to get on and when to get off.”
Another is, “Be sure you continue to grow your understanding and your knowledge because you never know what opportunities may come your way.” He attributes that thought to Randy Stoecker. “There aren’t many guys I would leave my mountain home and grandkids in Utah to come live in the middle of a cornfield for, but Randy is one of them,” Pollmann says.
His advice to young people is, “Identify a star and hook yourself to them and learn as much as you can. I also tell them to be sure to show up. You are here to create success, not to have a fraternal experience. I remind them that the results they create are the measures of their success.”
Pollmann is proud of the employee development programs nurtured at all levels of employment at Murphy-Brown. “In the truest sense, it is our MBA for employees. We need bright, hardworking, intelligent people who will continue to develop. We don’t buy replacements, we create them,” he explains.
“What I would really like to end with is about opportunities in the swine industry. We need to understand that we’ve got to continue to develop people. It is one of the biggest needs in our industry. When we look at our vision statements and our strategic objectives, people have got to be at the top of our lists.
“We’re in the people business; we just happen to raise pigs,” he says. “We have got to spend as much time developing our people as we do raising our pigs.”
Pollmann’s deepest gratitude is held for his wife, Shauna, who has accompanied him on his journeys to both coasts and back to the Midwest. “She’s had the hardest job in the world — she has been a mom,” he says. “Her ongoing support has been so important to me.
“One of her loves in life is to travel, so all of my frequent-flier miles are sent home to her. And, one of the greatest lessons in life we have learned is to take an annual honeymoon trip. We have been married 39 years and have five children and 13 grandchildren,” he continues.
Pollmann knew he had to offer Shauna a sweet deal when the offer came to move back to the Midwest. “We lived in southern Utah and the kids were all in central Utah, so it was a four-hour drive to see them. I said to her, ‘It’s about four hours flight time from Des Moines to Utah, so let’s make a deal — we’ll get you there on a quarterly basis.’ She countered, ‘Make it five times a year and you’ve got a deal!’”