Young and old, city folks and farmers, agricultural advocates and activists –– all showed up on a sunny morning at Fair Oaks (IN) Farms in early August for the grand opening of Pig Adventure.
The guest list of dignitaries was impressive: Gary Corbett, Fair Oaks Farms CEO; Malcolm DeKryger, president of Belstra Milling Co. at DeMotte, IN; Mike McClosky, owner/co-founder of Fair Oaks Farms; Brian Martin, Warren, IN, pork producer and member of the Indiana Pork board of directors; U.S. congressman Todd Rokita (R-IN), representing northwest Indiana; and Sue Ellspermann, Indiana lieutenant governor. See their comments in the sidebar.
Two women activist members of Farm Sanctuary also showed up in an attempt to convince Pig Adventure officials that they had it all wrong – raising sows and pigs in confinement is cruel and inhumane.
But the glass-enclosed, overhead panoramic view of the sows and pigs at Legacy Farms told a different story of animals being cared for in clean, comfortable conditions.
Sure the lighting is brighter, and extra effort is being made to keep things looking spic and span for the visitors who come from near and far to see Fair Oaks Dairy and since July 1 the new Pig Adventure.
But sows are only raised in stalls during farrowing. While in gestation, they enjoy the spacious conditions of pens featuring electronic sow feeding, and readily interact with employees hired by Belstra Milling, which owns the breed-to-wean production facilities near Fair Oaks.
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“This place is not that different from my farm,” says Charles Wildman, one of a handful of customers who purchases 21-day-old weaned pigs outright from Legacy Farms, to feed out on his farm at South Charleston, OH. The pigs move into two nurseries for eight weeks and then onto a finisher for 16 weeks before being marketed to an area packer in Indiana or Kentucky.
“The quality of the pigs is excellent. I am buying the best pigs in the world; they are awfully nice, healthy pigs,” Wildman says.
Those comments make Jon Hoek, vice president of pig production for Belstra Milling, beam. The first pigs at the 2,800-sow, breed-to-wean farm at Pig Adventure were born on June 4.
“Our production here has been phenomenal. We are on a learning curve with the electronic sow feeding, but we have been running about a 90% farrowing rate and a 13-pig born alive average. We are weaning 12-12.5 pigs/litter, so our preweaning mortality has been running about 5%. Normally, the industry runs 12-15% preweaning mortality,” he says.
What’s the secret to the great productivity? Good people have been doing an outstanding job of day 1 pig care, colostrum intake and cross-fostering. Herd health is excellent, but there is always a honeymoon phase with a start-up operation, Hoek points out.
The veteran pork producer says consumers are very curious about what goes on in the pig rooms below.
“We are having a blast telling our story because it is a great story and people love it. People love to know where their food comes from. The misinformation of some of the activists is being dispelled and people come away feeling good about agriculture and farming,” Hoek declares.
Tim Belstra, owner of Belstra Milling, a feedmill operation that serves area dairy and hog operations and has stakes in five hog operations, observes this is his company’s first foray into the public side of food production.
“The seed was planted 2-1/2 years ago when Fair Oaks Farms first approached us on this concept. And here we stand today with a whole multitude of things that have happened,” he explains.
“But the neatest thing is the pigs are the champions. People witness a lot of technology. But when they leave they are talking about the pigs. They see how they are raised and they are impressed,” Belstra relates.
He comments once those people leave they kind of become an ambassador for the pork industry. “So when they hear somebody else say, ‘well, you know how those pigs are raised,’ they can respond ‘that’s not how they are raised on the farm that I visited.’ And when those folks ask where they saw them, they can say at Legacy Farms, and those folks will say, ‘I’ve got to see that,’” he says.
“We are seeing a very positive reaction from consumers because now they can see what really goes on inside a modern 21st century pig farm. There is full transparency, and 99% of the people who come through it are enthralled with it. They have never been on a pig farm, most of them, and they are just amazed at the animal and amazed at the technology that farmers are using today to raise pigs,” Hoek says.
The new pig venue helps people understand that bacon is produced on a pig farm, a connection that a lot of people don’t put together, says Brock Peterson, vice president of finance for Belstra Milling.
He says it’s a great learning experience for kids from nearby Chicago. “They are just blown away by agriculture and the wide open spaces devoted to farming. At Legacy Farms, they see a history of hog farming, from what they used to do to what we are doing today. It is a great learning experience for people to show that the pigs had to be out in the mud in the elements and today the environment is all indoors,” he says.
Peterson explains that Belstra Milling has invested $3 million in the production facility at Legacy Farms, plus committed to two years of management of the farm.
All of the pigs are sold to five customers at three farms in Ohio and one farm each in Indiana and Illinois.
Pig Adventure has 14 employees, six in the tourism area top side and eight in the pig production rooms below.
Pig Adventure is drawing large crowds, Hoek says. There were 29,000 visitors in July and approximately 1,000-1,200/day in August, making the impact on consumers huge.
The launch of Pig Adventure on Aug. 5 is phase one of Belstra Milling’s plans at Fair Oaks Farms, Hoek says in an interview. In 2014, second phase plans are to break ground on a 12,000- to 15,000-sq.-ft. Pig and Pork Education Center on the Fair Oaks dairy campus. It will include a lot of interactive displays much like those featured in Pig Adventure, which focuses on technology and production issues.
The new center will focus on food and non-food uses for pigs, notably medical reconstruction.
The third phase will be the distance learning initiative. “We hope to do live broadcasts from the production floor of the Pig Adventure to schools all over the United States and all over the world,” Hoek observes. “The broadcasting equipment would allow us to schedule 15-to-30-minute virtual field trips for kids at school with assistant manager Kasey Sheldon and manager Troy Goodman. Kids could ask questions of these farmers while on the production floor and maybe see a baby pig being born.”
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