Terry O’Neel hit the ground running when he took over as National Pork Board president during the 2017 World Pork Expo, and he’s been running ever since.
Actually, O’Neel hasn’t slowed down since he got into the swine industry back in the 1980s.
When he left the home farm for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he wasn’t sure where he would end up. He was raised on a farm that milked dairy cows, had some beef cattle and raised row crops. While at Lincoln, he majored in animal science.
“I knew I excelled in the animal science classes,” O’Neel says.
He returned to the farm after college and continued to milk cows. “I said, ‘Do I really want to do this for the rest of my life?’ A friend had hogs, and I went in there and thought, these pigs are clean. They were on raised decks. This is pretty cool, and I thought we should do this.”
In 1985, Terry and his wife, Diane, bought 80 feeder pigs. “We thought, ‘Do we hold back gilts and get into the pig business and farrow?’” he recalls.
They converted an old 12-crate farrowing barn that had been built in the 1950s and saved back 11 gilts, “because we couldn’t find 12 good ones.” They bought a boar from a local breeder, and they were on their way.
A way in
Diane offers a more practical reason for the couple getting into the swine industry, saying, “We got into pigs because it was hard to get into crop farming” at the time.
“There was no entry for us,” Terry adds. “My dad couldn’t really afford to let us rent any ground. My folks were strapped; I was working for them, but I said I needed something else. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.”
Terry admits that Diane’s brother had to come over and help him process the pigs.
Diane remembers when the first batch of gilts farrowed in January 1986. “We spent that first night in the farrowing barn,” she recalls.
“We weaned 9.6 [pigs per litter] on that first go-around — not too bad back in the day,” Terry says. He says the farm now averages just over 12.
For many years, the O’Neels raised hogs the way many of today’s consumers believe hogs should be raised: outside on dirt lots, fighting the Nebraska elements every step of the way.
“This wasn’t good for us, and it wasn’t good for the pigs,” Terry says. “A friend asked, ‘When are you going to put up a confinement barn?’ I never said because we couldn’t afford it. … We had sows in the mud, outside huts.
“We started on a shoestring,” Terry says. “Then we built our first one [environmentally controlled barn] and thought, ooh, this is nice.” That was in 1990, and they haven’t looked back.
“It’s come a long way,” he says. From those original 11 gilts, the O’Neel farm now has 550 sows, “but looking at the industry, we are small.”
Growth to the current 550 sows has been gradual. “We went to 60 to 80 sows for a few years; then in ’98 had 250 to 300,” he recalls. “Then we went to gestation stalls and doubled to 550.”
The family is now contemplating expanding again once Terry’s NPB presidency ends and “if things are looking good. … We’re in really good shape because we haven’t overextended ourselves, and we have a good crop base. We don’t take unrealistic risks,” Terry says.
It wasn’t that long ago that where Terry and Diane call home was crop ground. They had bought a house in the area, but the farmer wanted it moved. “So we bought this house and had nowhere to put it,” Terry says. His dad sold them 7.6 acres to relocate the old farmhouse, which has since been added on to. That was in 1990.
When Terry’s dad passed away, the couple got the rest of the 80 acres the house was sitting on. On that site, they have since built a nursery, two finishers, and gestation and farrowing facilities.
When they do expand again, Terry says they plan to go to group housing; they’ll breed the gilts and sows in stalls, and then move them to group housing. He says they are using post-cervical artificial insemination to work better into the batch breeding.
Since 1990, the O’Neels have had turnaround farrowing stalls, which are better from an animal welfare standpoint for the sows, “but I don’t like them,” Terry says. “Yes, they’re good for the sows, but the problem is getting the sows out — there’s a danger there.”
All O’Neel hogs are sold to the Smithfield plant in Crete, Neb., a 25-mile haul.
“Our goal is to never feed antibiotics with open penning,” he says. “As an industry, I think we have to move that way to use less antibiotics; not saying it’s the answer. We won’t stop using antibiotics; we’ll mark the ones we give shots to. It’s our ethical obligation for us to treat those pigs if they’re not feeling well. … As an industry, traditionally we treat pigs in groups, but we’ll have to get away from that and only treat the ones that need it.”
O’Neel concedes producers planning to go the antibiotic-free direction will need to change their management practices — “weaning later, at 24 to 28 days; go wean-to-finish rather than nurseries,” he says. “If you think you can do it, you probably eventually can. It will just take time.”
The family has been row-cropping for 20 years, but on their own since 2000, working toward that after farming with the help of Diane’s father, Laverne Hayek.
The size of the O’Neel operation allows them to get by with five employees, including their son, Ethan, and his wife, Kayla. The size of their operation also allows them to be a closed system.
“We transport our own hogs, we raise our own crops, haul our own manure, and we have our own feed mill,” which Ethan operates, Terry says. That closed loops has allowed the O’Neels to practice good biosecurity in the name of herd health.
“We have never had PED [porcine epidemic diarrhea virus]. We have had PRRS [porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome], but we are walking it off the farm,” Terry says.
The O’Neels have gone to batch farrowing. “It has worked out well for us,” he says. “It does get hectic at weaning and farrowing, but then there’s a lull. Processing time is a little stressful.” They are able to wean 1,100 pigs at a time. Batch farrowing has worked well, especially in the past year when Terry was fulfilling his duties as NPB president.
To that, he gives credit to his employees, who keep the farm running while he travels for NPB responsibilities. “We put people where their strengths are,” Terry says.
Diane has worked for the Farm Service Agency for 35 years, but she does all the farm financials. Jessica and Dustin Payne and Clay Dickinson also work for the O’Neels. The O’Neels’ daughter, Danielle, works in human resources at Smithfield in Crete, and their son-in-law, Sam Pendleton, works in agricultural sales.
How times change
“When we started with hogs in 1985, you couldn’t give bacon away,” Terry recalls, “and we were importing more pork than we were exporting, and value of our exports was $2 per head. Now that’s flip-flopped; bacon’s our highest-valued cut and exports are 26% to 27% [of U.S. production], and going higher. Hams and loins are not selling well now. Back then, they were the big sellers.”
As all producers and industry leaders have seen, the makeup of the industry has also changed. Just as the O’Neels have grown their family business, so has the rest of the industry. Sometimes, growth means others are left behind.
“When we started, there were so many hog producers [in the area] that there were two local producer groups — Saline County Pork Producers Association and Blue Valley — and we had about 200 people at our banquets,” Terry says. “I go to China and talk to 150 producers [from the entire country]. We had more people at our county banquets back in the ’80s, but as you know, things change. Back then everyone had hogs and cattle. Everyone’s more specialized now.”
Those 200 hog producers in the O’Neels’ area have dwindled to about a half dozen today.
Looking back on the year
As his NPB presidency comes to a close, Terry reflects on the growth, changes and accomplishments he has presided over.
1. Changing domestic marketing from a commodity marketing strategy to a more efficient business-to-business model. “NPB is working directly with various businesses to market our product by providing added market intelligence and be the source of all things regarding pork production for these companies,” he says. “We are performing much more consumer research than we have in the past. There is a renewed focus on marketing strategies toward multicultural [particularly Hispanics], millennials and mobile digital strategies.”
2. Taking steps to improve pork quality, particularly the loin. “Fresh pork purchases per household are down from an average of 6.7 times per year to 6.2 times per year, a trend we cannot ignore. As producers, we are seeing the loin primal continue to be a drag on the cutout value, while bacon and shoulder sales our exceptional,” he says. “Why? Because bacon and pork shoulder have more flavor and juiciness than loin cuts. Therefore, NPB is revisiting consumer advertising regarding endpoint cooking temperature to 145 to 150 degrees F and loin cut names.”
A task force has been formed comprised of producers representing the NPB and the National Pork Producers Council, along with representatives from the North American Meat Institute and pork packers.
“We hope to collaboratively address the issues and factors that influence our consumers’ eating experience of fresh pork,” Terry says.
3. Improving NPB’s international marketing efforts. “We understand with all the new packing plants and increased U.S. pork production, we must export more pork to maintain profitability for our industry. The entire protein complex is growing with pork, which will create excess supplies of pork, beef and chicken to be marketed in the near term,” he says.
“Over 95% of our customers live outside the United States, and as global economies improve, people will desire more meat protein in their diets. We are working closer than ever with the U.S. Meat Export Federation to expand and open new export markets for U.S. pork. We have restructured our International Marketing Committee to be a more nimble, engaged team that will participate in a greater number of trade missions.”
O’Neel says these are just a small sample of the major successes NPB has had in the past year. “I feel we have a great group of directors with diverse backgrounds and points of view. I have been very impressed at the tremendous response from the NPB staff throughout the last year to make these and other improvements a success.
“Finally, I want to give an incredible amount of credit to CEO Bill Even and his leadership team for their vision, leadership and execution of goals this past year,” Terry says. “I’m just as excited today as I was last June when we started this journey, and I’m looking forward to seeing the results of our efforts in the future.”
The O’Neels were honored by National Hog Farmer and the NPB as one of the 2008 Environmental Steward Award winners.
O’Neel will hand the president’s gavel off to the next elected NPB president in June, but he will not quit the swine industry, nor will he quit promoting the product. “Life is short; enjoy the bacon,” he says.