The Masters of the Pork Industry are a very special, hand-picked group of pork industry visionaries.
Their accomplishments, dedication and visions provide insight and some words of caution for those involved in the business of producing quality pork.
Herein, you will find the personal experiences and business philosophies of industry veterans at the top of their professions; and young, ambitious entrepreneurs destined to leave their mark on the dynamic pork industry.
They've shared some of the bumps and bruises, the victories and defeats, and, in some cases, the sources of inspiration that carried them forward in their pursuit of excellence.
Wendell & Dell Murphy
Dedication sustains Murphy Family Ventures.
Sit down for a visit with Wendell Murphy and his son, Dell, and some words will flow easily into the conversation — dedication, hard work, community, family.
Another word has crept into their daily vocabulary in recent years — diversification.
The story of Murphy Family Farms' phenomenal growth from feeding feeder pigs in dirt lots behind the mill at Register's Crossroads, N.C., to the world's largest pork production system is widely known. When the family business sold to Smithfield Foods in 2000, many thought the Murphy family's chapter on pork production had closed.
Not so. The Murphy's retained some of the family-owned farms with the understanding that they would raise hogs under contract for Smithfield Foods.
As 42-year-old Dell explains it: “Anything that goes in or on the pigs is the integrator's (Smithfield's) cost. The parts and pieces that don't go in or on the pig are generally the contract growers (Murphy's) responsibility.”
The current Murphy-owned farms provide Smithfield with 3-week-old or 10-week-old pigs, depending on the facility they come from, then raise them in finishing barns to about 270 lb.
“Each time they move, Murphy-Brown (the production arm of Smithfield Foods) pays a fee for our facilities and services, the same as occurred under the original Murphy Family Farms contract,” explains Wendell.
But the sale left the Murphy's without an infrastructure to support their farms. They formed Murphy Family Ventures to help fill that void.
Dell sees the services of the MFV swine production group as comparable to the Midwestern model of veterinary clinics and consultants assisting with management of pork production systems. “That's only done on a very small scale in North Carolina,” he explains. “We'd be interested in helping others add value to their systems and to utilize our production management services more efficiently.”
The MFV swine production group, which has grown to 625 employees, now manages nearly 150,000 sows, roughly 3.2 million feeder pigs and nearly 375,000 market hogs annually in North Carolina and Missouri.
“North America has all the sows it needs,” says Wendell. “So, we will update our existing production facilities as needed, and focus on diversifying our investments.”
Murphy Family Ventures provides support services to all businesses owned by the Murphy Family and others. MFV is currently comprised of eight divisions and about 800 employees. In addition to swine production services, MFV Support Services division provides management support to grain sales, hospitality services, golf and recreation, turkey production, land development (River Landing), portable storage (Pack-M) and investment management services.
While Wendell Murphy expanded the hog enterprise, his brother, Pete, concentrated on developing a private, gated community nestled on the banks of the Northeast Cape Fear River near Wallace, NC. Opened in 1996, River Landing boasts over 1,400 acres and features homesite options with prominent custom home builders offering multiple designs.
The meticulously planned community features walking and biking trails, a 36-hole Clyde Johnston-designed championship golf course, a tennis complex, junior Olympic-style swimming pool, regulation basketball and volleyball courts and an elaborate fitness center. Just outside the gate sits The Mad Boar Restaurant, an award-winning Holiday Inn Express & Suites and an upscale convenience market.
Dell assumed management of the land development division in late 2003. “We come from the commodity side of the hog business, where low cost is everything,” he explains. “To be flat honest, the amount of money we've spent on amenities — at one point, I thought we were out of our minds. But, without question, the quality and the marketing of what Uncle Pete originally set up has really made it successful. We have doubled sales each of the last three years.”
River Landing is located in Duplin County, the largest hog-producing county in the nation. Planned expansion will envelop an early Murphy Family Farms' pork production site, long since closed. “Never in the world would I have ever thought that property in rural Duplin County would sell like this,” admits Wendell.
Veering off in a totally different direction is MFV's Pack-M, a franchise under the parent company known as 1-800-PackRat. Pack-M deals in 12- or 16-ft. portable units that are delivered for on-site storage or removed to an environmentally controlled warehouse.
“When we started thinking about a new venture, that is not something I would have ever thought about,” admits Wendell. “But, around here, mini-warehouses are everywhere — and they're all full.”
MFV owns the franchise rights to 40 locations in the Southeast. Six locations are scheduled to open in 2006.
Reflections of ’98
The 4-5 years prior to the Smithfield sale were rough years.
“It was awful,” remembers Wendell. “We had always been so conservative. From the time we opened our feedmill in 1962 until 1998, we had never had a losing year.
“When you see yourself losing that much money, like in '98, I guess I became paranoid,” he continues. “It suddenly appeared to me that the packer-processors were trying to use that as an opportunity to drive the producers out of the business so they could integrate. Clearly, I was wrong about that.”
In truth, Murphy expected the hog industry to go the route of the poultry industry, so he had been negotiating with Smithfield Foods' Joe Luter, off-and-on, for a decade. “Every time we would get close to a deal, the complexities would make me uncomfortable and it would fall apart,” he says.
Murphy investigated building or buying a packing-processing facility, but by the late-'90s, getting a permit was impossible, and attempts to purchase a plant were exhausted.
“I felt like we needed to own a processing plant if we were going to own all of these hogs,” Wendell explains. “We wanted to hedge our bet on the downside of the market. It would have helped offset some of the losses on our live hogs in '98 and '99. If we'd been successful in doing that, we probably would not have sold Murphy Family Farms,” he says.
“I do want to dispel one notion, however, because there were a lot of people that probably thought we were in a distressed situation. That absolutely was not true,” he assures. “Yes, we had lost millions. But, we had made and saved millions, too. We were a strong company when we merged with Smithfield.”
“From the day we opened our milling business on Labor Day in 1962, with zero dollars in the bank, until February 1995, when the (Raleigh) News & Observer ran their so-called ‘Boss Hog’ series, nobody ever enjoyed their career like I did,” emphasizes Wendell. “My daddy, brother and brother-in-law were the labor force, the management, the financial officers. It was so much fun; you just can't imagine how much pleasure I got out of getting up and going to work every day.”
The Boss Hog articles focused on the supposed negative environmental impact of the substantial growth of hog production in North Carolina.
“When ‘Boss Hog’ came along, the pleasure went south,” he continues. “From 1995 until 2000, when the merger occurred, I spent almost zero time working and managing the business. I spent all of my time trying to deal with the political fallout that was coming as a result of that newspaper.
“When the News & Observer wrote the series, at first it was really painful. It was directed at the hog industry in general, but more specifically, it was directed at me. According to the series, I was the one who had served in the legislature and had gotten all of the laws passed that made it easier for farmers to raise hogs. And, I was responsible for all of the lagoons. Every hog that ever pooped in North Carolina was my responsibility!” he states.
For five years, Murphy withstood what seemed to be a daily barrage in the state's most influential newspaper. “In 1999, my craw was full, so I decided to go ahead with the merger. It was a conservative thing to do, but I had been beaten so hard by the News & Observer, and politically, that I just couldn't take it any longer. When we did the merger, it all went away,” Murphy says.
“I'm often asked, in hindsight, if it was the right thing to do,” he continues. “Financially, probably not. We probably would have made more money if we had kept the hogs, with the way the hog market's been the past several quarters. We probably would have made a lot more money than we got for the business. But, I'm pretty sure that I'm going to live longer. The fun was gone. So, yes, it was the right thing to do.”
Sustained by family values
Murphy family members profess to be conservative by nature, an attribute they inherited from family elder Holmes Murphy, a Depression-era survivor.
As Dell tells it, his grandfather's conservative values were impressed upon his father, and passed on to him. “I think that has been a major key to our family's success. It doesn't sound like a blessing, but in a way it has been. It makes you humble and appreciative.”
Another family attribute is a dedicated work ethic that has sustained the Murphys from the developmental years to the present. “The most important thing that my Dad taught me was to work, and to enjoy working. I think that was the greatest thing of all,” Wendell declares.
Also important was the emphasis Wendell's parents placed on education. “They made it clear, 12 grades were not it — you were going to college,” he notes. Holmes Murphy set aside an acre of tobacco for that purpose, and Wendell tended that acre. He treasures the education he gained at North Carolina State University as a result. Today, he serves as chair of the school's Board of Trustees.
Dell, too, credits his father for his work ethic. Outside the family, he recognizes Randy Stoecker, currently president of production operations for Murphy-Brown-West, and Jim Stocker, retired president of Murphy Family Farms.
“As the company grew and Dad was in the legislature, I was trying to get in the groove,” Dell explains. “They were my mentors — Jim from the conservative point of view, and Randy as a visionary. As the company grew, the support of such talented people as Jerry Godwin, and the scientific efforts of Terry Coffey, Jim Ludes and Jeff Turner, were invaluable.”
“We are proud that Smithfield Foods chose the Murphy Family Farms management team to manage their hog production assets nationwide,” adds Wendell.
“I try not to reinvent philosophy,” says Dell. “Everything that I learned from my Dad and Granddad is working: Treat people with respect; treat them like part of the family; and do things that are inconvenient at times, if that's what you need to do.”
Wendell reinforces the thought: “That's one thing I learned early on — if you're just going to do what's convenient, you're going to leave a lot of important things undone.”
— by Dale Miller, Editor
Building barns and people
The Maschhoffs emphasize the importance of respecting the people who work with them. Their focus on honesty and hard work has guided their success from a 2,400-sow system 10 years ago to their 100,000-sow business today, which has transformed the image of family pork production.
Even Ken Maschhoff, chief executive officer of The Maschhoffs, appears amazed at the exponential growth that the family-owned hog enterprise has experienced over the course of the last decade.
In 1996, Ken and his wife, Julie, along with partner and brother, Dave, were a competitively sized hog operation of 2,400 sows with a handful of employees and no contract pork production business. “We weren't working with anyone, and didn't start with our first production partner until December 1996,” recalls Ken.
Zoom forward 10 years, and all that has dramatically changed. There are 425 employees and 250 “production partners,” the preferred term for the company's contract hog growers.
The Maschhoffs own 100,000 sows and operate farrow-to-finish or wean-to-finish enterprises in seven states. This last January, they fully integrated the production team involved with the purchase of the 60,000-sow hog production division of Land O' Lakes (LOL), predominantly based in Iowa.
“It's been virtually a doubling of the operation every 18 months to two years,” observes Ken. The Maschhoffs built a 20,000-sq.-ft. office complex headquarters to house administrative staff at Carlyle, IL, two years ago. Workers recently began construction of a second, adjacent, 20,000-sq. ft. office building to provide additional space for existing staff and for future expansion in all departments.
For Ken, the hog business and designing and constructing buildings has been in his blood from an early age.
Ken's parents, Wayne and Marlene, pushed young Ken and his brother Dave to focus on their farm chores after school. “I was running a tractor in the field 1-2 miles away from home when I was 7 years old,” says Ken. “Dad put seatbelts on the tractor and bolted a block of wood on the clutch so I could push the clutch in.”
By the time they were 8-10 years old, Ken and Dave used their Radio Flyer wagons to haul away the concrete forms they'd removed from under the slats on new hog buildings their father built.
As kids, they were both taught how to give baby pigs iron shots and dock tails as part of their farm chores, says Ken.
By the time they reached high school, Ken and several friends, including current company production coordinator Steve Quick, became fascinated with building hog barns and machine shops and constructed several for area farmers.
“I didn't really choose pig production as my first love. I really loved designing and building and creating buildings,” admits Ken. “I also liked designing levees, irrigation systems and pipelines, working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”
As a freshman in college, Ken designed an 857-ft.-long hog building that he and his friends actually constructed. The building continues to function as the hub of production at their home farm. Ken remained fascinated with designing hog barns, because the changing designs for feeding systems and waste removal, for instance, made the work challenging.
“I think hogs were almost the by-product of wanting to build — you had to put the hogs in there to make it pay for itself,” Ken says with a wry grin. Dave and Steve took care of the pigs while Ken kept busy with designing more buildings.
Crossroads points to hogs
In the late '70s and early '80s, the Maschhoff family came to a crossroads. “Land prices started to climb, and we had a choice to make — whether to expand the hog operation or to continue to grow the grain operation,” explains Ken. “We saw the returns in hogs, and it was really the only way Dave and I were going to be involved in the farm. As a result, our focus quickly became to be the best pork producers we could be.”
One key factor that set the Maschhoff hog operation apart from other independent systems, and truly gave it a chance to grow, was the fact that their parents turned over daily control of the operation early on to Ken and Dave, while they were still in their 20s.
At 150 sows, Ken and Dave became 50-50 partners in the hog operation with their parents. By 1991, when the operation reached 700 sows, Wayne and Marlene sold their half of the hog business to Ken and Dave.
Ken's parents and grandfather proved to be true mentors, “letting you make mistakes on your own, but also providing you the opportunity to have accomplishments that you could be proud of,” reflects Ken.
“They were humble in their approach, but you always knew where you stood,” he states.
They also instilled in Ken and Dave the importance of always doing the right thing. “Treat people fairly, whether they are growers, corn suppliers, packers, bankers or even lawyers who may want to sue you,” says Ken.
That caring attitude has been an integral part of building the Maschhoff team of employees and production partners.
Grow the business
Back in the mid-'90s, contract hog production was concentrated in the Southeast. Midwestern producers didn't favor the idea, because it was viewed as a sign of failure that you couldn't make it on your own, says Ken.
But setting up production partner contracts proved to be some of the best advice Ken and Dave ever got in the hog business.
“Production contracts provided a higher return on investment, by allowing us to grow our business faster. It allowed us to leverage our capital, our production knowledge and our human resources,” explains Ken.
It also showed that there were a large number of motivated producers who were willing to invest their capital and labor in growing the hog business along with The Maschhoffs.
Ken says he has found that same sincerity and passion for pigs to be true with all of the growers for the LOL production system.
That sincerity and motivation has been rewarding, and a pleasant surprise. “I think what amazes me the most is how easy it has been to motivate people, whether they have been employees or production partners, when everyone has the same values that you do. When people feel they are part of a team and have a responsibility to the team, it is easier to just bring out the best in what they do every day,” states Ken.
“When you set the bar high, everyone rises to the standards that you've established. I think because we are producers first and foremost, we have been able to establish credibility to show people how we can improve practices on farms,” adds Julie.
Put the pigs first
The Maschhoff way of production is based simply on putting the pigs first, declares Ken. Don't raise pigs to support a feed business, a veterinary service, a packing plant, a transportation firm or a construction company. Focus on the biology of the pig and let those support services complement the pig enterprise, he emphasizes.
To succeed, Ken's advice is to maintain a clear vision of why you are in the pig business.
Production concerns ahead
Ken and Julie envision two key issues in the near future that could greatly influence the profitability of hog production:
Market hogs are getting bigger, and packers are responding by strongly discounting producers who sell them heavy hogs because consumers shun large cuts of meat.
Ken says this presents a huge barrier for producers looking for ways to cut cost of production. Genetic programs can build lean, 320-lb. market hogs, which would significantly lower those costs, he says.
Corn diverted to ethanol, and soybeans to biodiesel production, are popular with politicians and grain farmers.
But for hog farmers, it could spell the end of cheap feed and competitive production advantages over foreign producers. This, in turn, could eventually reduce U.S. meat exports and open the gates for foreign meat imports, warns Ken.
The Maschhoffs are adding a 5,600-sow contract operation for a multiplication farm. But Ken says further growth of the hog production company will occur mainly by acquisition.
Growth internationally is another possibility, he says.
The Maschhoffs have also started to diversify their business outside hogs.
“As we look to grow our family business, we remain committed to our philosophy of being progressive in a family business culture. We are looking for opportunities to help rural families and rural communities prosper,” comments Julie.
Whatever The Maschhoffs choose to pursue, they will apply the same values that have worked for them in the past: work hard, respect others and produce a product you are passionate about.
— by Joe Vansickle, Senior Editor
Pork producer; independent thinker
A self-professed non-traditional thinker, Bob Christensen has guided Sleepy Eye, Minn.-based Christensen Farms through three bold acquisitions and a partnership in the newest pork processing facility in North America.
Raised on a diversified cattle, hog and crop farm, Christensen's formal education ended with high school. Dubious about cattle and crops, he chose to focus on hogs. His “informal” education was kicked into high gear during a tour of North Carolina and Georgia pork operations in the mid-'80s, which he describes as “pivotal” in his early, hands-on education.
In a span of just over 20 years, the meager, yet optimistic company that began with two bred sows owned with his brother, Glen, has grown to rank Christensen Farms amongst the top five in the nation.
Through intensive study, observation and application of the principles that worked for others, Christensen recognized and grasped opportunities as they presented themselves.
“In the Midwest, you'd build a building this year and then another one next year, but the people's work processes and the pig flow never fit together very efficiently. When I saw what it was like to build a 1,200-sow farm all at once, to have things fit and flow, it was very striking to me how much you could change the way things would work.”
Christensen tends to mark time with pivotal moments in his life. “Substantial changes in the scope of the business have corresponded with times where the agriculture sectors — typically, in the swine sector, as well — were in periods of some chaos,” he says.
The farm crisis hit in 1985. Virtually no new capital assets were constructed for several years, and many of the confinement facilities in the Midwest sat empty. “Bankers weren't even willing to lend money on a group of feeder pigs,” he remembers.
As his non-traditional thinking kicked in, Christensen saw the vacant buildings as an opportunity, and began paying area farmers to finish pigs. “That worked so well, we quickly outstripped the availability of pigs, so we began purchasing pigs and placing them. That's what lead us into contract production,” he explains. “And, we learned how to move pigs a long distance without suffering any substantial production challenges.”
Soon, feeder pigs were more difficult to find, and more expensive. “We kept increasing our sow base, and by the late '80s, I could see the handwriting on the wall — if we didn't learn to create our own supply of pigs, this business was going to be too volatile,” he says.
Drawing on his knowledge of large buildings, tunnel ventilation and other Southeast standards, Christensen Farms built their first 1,200-sow farm in 1990. “We set ourselves up to create large groups of single-source, high-health pigs,” he says.
In the early '80s, the Christensens also took a non-traditional course for a southern Minnesota pork production system by constructing their own mill to handle their largest input cost — feed.
Growth by acquisition
A pivotal point for many producers came in the dismal months closing 1998 and early in 1999. “The whole industry was reeling with the shock of hogs under 25-30¢, then down to 10 cents,” he remembers.
Particularly hard hit was National Farms in Nebraska, struggling with inefficiencies, inadequate genetics and herd health issues. Christensen's evaluation of the assets was relatively simple: What is it today? What can we change? How fast can we change it? What will those changes mean?
“National Farms was a good, solid asset. It had some age to it, but it also had a well-trained, stable staff with a tremendous amount of pigmanship,” he explains. The herd health was not so good, however. “It was simpler to list the diseases they didn't have.”
Top on the list was the dreaded porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS). “We didn't want 15,000-20,000 sows in one location that were PRRS-naïve, so we populated it with PRRS-positive females,” he says. “We'd look at it differently today, but at that point, it was the right thing to do.”
Built as farrow-to-finish sites, any significant finishing activity was discontinued and many of the production processes were streamlined.
Purchased in late 1999, the firm also faced considerable litigation with neighbors, largely dealing with manure handling issues. “In most cases, if you go out and meet these people and understand what's happening, the requests of the vast majority were very legitimate — odor and how the effluent was being handled,” he says.
Manure management and handling practices were revamped, bringing more “simple awareness” to the process, he explains.
About two years later, always up for a challenge, Christensen took a look at another hog operation under duress — the much-maligned, 15,000-sow ValAdCo operation near Renville, Minn.
“It had a long history of difficulty with neighbors, to the point where the attorney general had been involved prior to our agreement to buy it,” he says.
Substantial changes were made with the waste handling — managing the lagoons better and differently.
“Today, a good share of the manure is going on the land operated by the people that were pretty upset with ValAdCo,” Christensen adds. “Most problems can be solved by standing back and determining, ‘what is the right thing to do?’ The solution is rarely the easiest or most economical, but it's an approach that has generally served us well.”
The most recent and sizeable acquisition occurred in 2004, with the purchase of Heartland Foods' pork production, which expanded Christensen Farms' sow count by about 40%.
“Unlike our prior two acquisitions, where there had been a tremendous amount of difficulties with neighbors and regulatory agencies, Heartland had a clean environmental record. It was a well-positioned asset base, but the industry had been through almost six years with very little profits,” he says.
Looking beyond that meager stretch, Christensen reminds: “Always remember, the cure for low prices is low prices. Eventually, it creates demand.
“I was optimistic about the market, but clearly not to the extent that we've experienced the last 10 quarters,” he adds. “I knew it was a system that could raise a high-quality product at a very right cost. Having gone through the previous acquisitions, I was comfortable that we could make some changes, very rapidly, to enhance the results of the asset base and the people there.”
From Christensen's high school graduation in 1980 to today, Christensen Farms has increased their sow herd over a thousand-fold, now holding at about 160,000 sows.
Then came Triumph
Christensen says candidly that joining the more integrated systems by investing in the packing side was not a high ambition.
“Honestly, given a blank sheet of paper and 100% freedom of choice, I really would not have gravitated that way. I really enjoy the live pig side,” he says.
“At the same time, when you look at the asset base here, we're 75-78% of the way towards completing the food chain. When you combine that with the volatility we experienced in '98 and '99, and the age of the processing assets out there, we needed to consider it.
“And, with the operating efficiencies and the advantages that come with a bare piece of land and building a plant correctly — in terms of product throughput, labor, quality of workplace, and most importantly, for food safety and lowest bacteria count — it's an opportunity that's awfully difficult to beat,” he adds.
The new Triumph Foods' plant, with a single-shift capacity of 1,000 hogs/hour, is capable of slaughtering about four million hogs annually.
“Our strategy with marketing has always been to stay fairly diversified,” explains Christensen. “Developing the Triumph Foods' plant in St. Joe is another marketing option to us, and many others. It changed our situation in terms of live supply-to-shackle space, which is extremely important to anyone in live production.
“I believe if you've got the pig ownership to match up to a new plant, it will be an extremely successful investment,” he continues. “But, to build a new plant and procure 4.5 million hogs on the open market — that is extremely risky.”
Success in business
Christensen credits many people from all facets of business for his ongoing education in the pork production and processing business. “I tapped into a lot of different places, then balanced what one expert said against another,” he says.
“As we transitioned to a hired workforce, we had to make sure the system was set up in a way that was executable by the people in the field. We sometimes find ourselves with the grandest plan, but we forget about the people and what they have to do, day-to-day, to make happen what we've decided should happen,” he cautions.
Christensen closes with this sage advice: “You clearly have to be on the leading edge; but first and foremost, you need to understand the difference between the leading edge and the bleeding edge. Sometimes that's a real fine line. Take the time to understand the cause and effect all the way through. Good times never last and bad times never last. Be proficient enough at what you do so that you're there towards the end.”
— by Dale Miller, Editor
Food science and human nutrition focus
Ask Ken Prusa, professor in charge of the meat sensory evaluation unit in Iowa State University's Center for Designing Foods, what has pleased him most about the pork industry in the two decades he's studied pork quality and he'll say: “Attention to change.”
Then, he elaborates, “I'm pleased with:
“How fast producers have gone to leaner genetics;
“How the industry nearly eliminated PSE (pale, soft, exudative) pork in just 10 years;
“How packers have changed technology as far as chilling and slaughtering, and how quality-driven they've been; and
“How packers have adapted to what retailers want.”
“Pork has changed dramatically for the better,” he summarizes.
Why, then, has per-capita pork consumption remained relatively flat for over 40 years? Despite industry promotions and an ongoing array of new products, including pumped pork, consumption continues to languish around the 50-lb./person/year mark.
This opens the door for Prusa's argument that it's time for the industry to shift its focus from worrying about the quantity consumed to boosting the value of the pork sold.
Through his food science and human nutrition discipline, Prusa has spent 20 years working with producers, packers and grocers to deliver pork products that better meet consumer demand.
“Instead of looking at consumption trends, we might want to look at value trends,” he suggests.
Look to the east and west coast supermarkets, and to our best pork customer, Japan, for guidance. They often provide early trend indicators, he says.
On the coasts, the growth markets in meats are the “natural” and “organic” product segments.
“Some of the bigger retailers tell us they want a three-tiered program for pork — much like they have with beef and chicken,” he says.
“The first tier is commodity pork, which may include pumped product.
“The second tier is an all-natural product, which would not be pumped or contain any added ingredients. This is probably a minimum definition of ‘all-natural.’
“Their third level would probably be ‘organic.’
“Retailers want to attract all three consumer segments. They tell us our pork category needs help.”
Whether all-natural includes antibiotic-free is debatable. “That's another issue,” admits Prusa. “Whether it's sustainable at the farm level, I can't say, but at the store level, I think it's the real thing. There's a segment of the population that's willing to pay for it, and I think we just haven't tapped that segment.”
In recent years, packer/processors have attempted to improve the quality of the pork preparation and eating experience via pumping. Prusa estimates at least 50% of pork normally sold as fresh is enhanced this way.
“I wonder if we have reached that plateau,” he says. “We're starting to see some turnaround with some of the bigger retailers looking for a more natural product.”
Through his consumer and sensory panel work, the pumped product is commonly compared to higher pH (more tender) pork. “Although we do see tenderness and juiciness improvement with enhancement, some consumers are looking for natural alternatives. We can achieve this type of quality with higher-pH products.
“In some of the pumped (product) tests we've done, our sensory panelists tell us it doesn't taste like natural pork because it's salty. Depending on the product, some say it has a kind of phosphate-type aftertaste, and the texture is a little off,” Prusa explains.
“From the human nutrition side, the sodium level bothers us a little, too. People are reading more labels. Some don't want the added water or sodium. If you just have a commodity product and it's all injected, those people will go somewhere else.”
Prusa's quick to point out, however, there is great potential for increasing value through pH-selected and color-selected products.
“Measuring pH provides a darn good indicator of quality,” he assures. “If you look at two carcasses coming down the rail, one with a loin pH of 6.0 and the other with a pH of 5.5, the higher pH is higher quality, and should be worth more whether it goes to Japan or to your local retailer. It's just like the difference between No. 1 and No. 2 corn — we should be able to take advantage of that.”
Currently, a few packers are testing pH probes and gathering information on different genetic lines, feeding programs and housing methods. And, much has been learned about pre-slaughter animal handling and carcass chilling, which impacts pork quality.
Prusa admits there are a lot of things they don't understand about pH fluctuations, such as the influence of weather, handling, stunning and chilling methods. Still, he thinks packers will be able to measure pH consistently, at normal line speeds, within the next couple of years.
“Then it will be up to the packer to decide when they will include it in the buying grid,” he says.
His advice: “Ask your packer to take some pH samples on your hogs. Much as we did with leanness, we have to have a history on each producer. Select the best genetics to give you the highest quality pork.”
The tricky part is getting retailers to specially label and separate these “quality-selected products” from commodity pork, placing them next to the Certified Angus Beef, perhaps, or in the full-service meat case of high-end supermarkets.
Thankful for mentors
Prusa came to Iowa State University with little recognition in the pork industry. He submitted a grant proposal to the National Pork Producers Council to study the relationship of backfat to eating quality. Dubious about the study, NPPC said if he could find someone to sign off on the project, they'd fund it. When the late Lauren Christian did, it began a working relationship that buoyed Prusa's meat quality career. “Lauren got me started, and boy, what a great mentor to have,” he notes.
On the industry side, Prusa credits Len Huskey, a 40-year veteran with Swift & Co. who is currently in charge of quality assurance and heavily involved with research and development. “He's been invaluable in teaching us the industry ropes. He reins us in and reminds us, ‘we have to be able to process these things and get them through the plant,’” Prusa adds.
— by Dale Miller, Editor
Tyson Foods entrepreneur retires
For recently retired Gene Leman, his 41-year career in the meat packing industry has been all about building and working with the best teams and individuals to achieve the best results.
His achievements speak for themselves. At 63, Leman, of Dakota Dunes, SD, retired at the end of 2005 as senior group vice president of Tyson Fresh Meats Inc., a division of Tyson Foods.
In that role, he was responsible for overseeing the company's pork and beef business, which included livestock procurement, fresh meat production and fresh meat sales and marketing.
During his 25-year career with Tyson, and before that IBP (which was purchased by Tyson in 2001), Leman spearheaded a number of industry changes and company successes.
Joining IBP inc. in 1981, Leman started the Pork Group and successfully led the acquisition and remodeling effort of an idle packing plant in Storm Lake, Iowa, into one of the nation's most progressive, state-of-the art facilities.
Under Leman's leadership, IBP grew into the number one pork (and later beef) processor in the United States. That plant was one of seven modern IBP pork-processing construction projects that Leman supervised.
He also led the development of prepackaged or case-ready pork and beef branded products in 2000, which revolutionized the preparation and delivery of meat to retail outlets.
“For Tyson/IBP, case-ready sales have grown from zero in 2000 to well over a billion-dollar business with a tremendous number of fresh steaks, pork chops and pork tenderloins moving to Wal-Mart and other big stores,” reports Leman. Tyson ships 12-13 million lb. of case-ready meats each week to about 5-6 customers, of which Wal-Mart is the largest.
There are three main reasons for the huge success of case-ready products, according to Leman.
First, vacuum packaging provides leak-proof, sanitary product direct to store shelves.
Second, case-ready products provide uniformity of cuts at less labor cost.
Third, retailers have the latitude of stocking the quantity and cut of meat they want, adding convenience and the ability to keep shelves fully stocked throughout the week.
Potential growth of case-ready product sales is enormous, Leman predicts.
Leman also pioneered standardization of meat cutting at IBP, which greatly lowered costs and was soon adopted by other packing companies.
Leman began his career working in various capacities for Wilson & Co. He began as a meat plant trainee in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1964, transferring to the sausage and canning department, then to a year in livestock relations. There he met Rolland “Pig” Paul and other producer mentors who were the founding fathers of the Iowa Pork Producers Association and the National Pork Producers Council.
Leman worked for Wilson's for 17 years, rising to the position of vice president of ham, bacon and the Pork Group at just 34 years of age.
As the meat industry advanced, so did the production side of the business. He says much credit for improved pork quality must go to the hog industry, which rapidly changed from outdoor operations to total confinement and improved genetics.
“We used to talk about an inch and a half of backfat; now we talk about half an inch. We used to talk about 50% lean hogs. Now we talk about 55-57% lean hogs.
“These differences, along with the consistency of the animals coming to our plants that is so much better now, has improved overall pork quality tremendously in the last 25 years,” asserts Leman.
Roots in agriculture
Leman has roots in pork production, growing up on the family's cattle and hog operation in Eureka, Ill., 15 miles east of Peoria.
He fondly recalls helping his family load truck after truck of cattle to be shipped to a Chicago packing plant. When the cattle waited days at the plant before finally being sold, his family decided to get rid of the cattle and focus on raising hogs. Brother Keith Leman remains on the family farm and raises about 20,000 hogs/year.
Like most farm parents, the Lemans expected their children to work their way through college. Gene attended the University of Illinois, where he majored in animal science.
To help support himself in his sophomore year, he went to work in the meat research laboratory at the university, where he was mentored by Burdette Breidenstein, head of the meats department; his assistant, Bob Kauffman, who led the University of Wisconsin in conducting pork quality research projects; and Bob Rust, a leader in meat research at Iowa State University.
“I really did work my way through school, cutting meat for three years and learning the trade. So when it came time to graduate, there was absolutely no question in my mind but to try to go into the meat business and make it a career.”
Leman remains a solid promoter of that career choice today. “There is so much opportunity for those who want to achieve, advance and make something of their lives. The meat industry provides a fabulous career.”
Leman may have retired from the meat business, but is actively pursuing other opportunities. He is serving as a consultant to Tyson Foods for a year, managing farmland he owns back home and is looking into small-business ownership. And he just joined the board of Swine Graphics, a pork production company in Webster City, Iowa, where his late brother, Al, worked, and where Al's widow, Loretta, is still employed.
— by Joe Vansickle, Senior Editor
Robert “Bo” Manly
Career dedicated to livestock production and packing
Growing up in a Chicago suburb in the 1950s-60s, Premium Standard Farms' President Robert Manly's sole exposure to agriculture was limited to what few experiences he gleaned from car trips or read in books.
Expected to become a lawyer like his tax attorney father, Manly went to all the right schools. He attended prestigious Stanford University, where he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics and communication in 1975, followed by a masters of business administration degree from Harvard Business School in 1977.
While at Harvard, Manly met Professor Ray Goldberg, who some say coined the phrase “agribusiness,” and suddenly his interest in food production took seed.
That interest further blossomed when Manly took a summer job in Saudia Arabia between his first and second year of business school with Cook Industries, grain traders who were investigating the potential of worldwide food distribution into mainly third-world countries.
Energized by those endeavors, the Wilmette, Ill., native ventured out on a variety of agriculture-related job interviews after graduation from Harvard.
He landed a position with Kane-Miller of Terrytown, N.Y., the fastest-growing agribusiness conglomerate on the New York Stock Exchange at one time in the 1970s, explains Manly. They owned everything from poultry, pork and beef slaughter and processing plants to wine, cheese and vegetable enterprises.
After just one day on the job, the company shipped 24-year-old Manly to Council Bluffs, Iowa, to fix problems at a beef slaughter and fabricating plant.
That led to a position conducting hedging and commodity buying programs for a cattle feedyard in Arizona and California.
Later, Manly moved to IBP inc. in Dakota City, Neb., to become assistant to IBP President Robert Peterson.
Manly says that five years working with the likes of the late Peterson, Maurice McGill and Gene Leman (head of the Pork Group at IBP) was “an absolutely tremendous experience” in learning the ropes of the pork business.
A business associate at Manly's first job at Council Bluffs, who had returned to work at Smithfield Foods, helped recruit Manly to Smithfield Foods as executive vice president in 1986 to work under Joe Luter.
In that position, he was afforded a “tremendous amount of creative business license” to learn how diverse parts of the food business could be put together. In his 10-year career at the East Coast-based company, he recalls being assigned to everything that didn't fit in a precise slot. That ran the gamut from the startup hog operations throughout the U.S., to the design of a new packing plant, to their acquisition of a swine genetic company.
Back to the Midwest
Another business opportunity would lead Manly back to the Midwest.
An employment recruiter contacted him about a challenging job offer: to become the top official at Premium Standard Farms. Manly knew PSF was in financial difficulty in ‘96, and the Kansas City-based firm was entrenched in bankruptcy.
But once he visited with company officials about the restructuring process, and knew as president he would have the opportunity to oversee all decisions, Manly concluded the invitation offered an “intriguing opportunity that would take advantage of my expertise on both the packing plant side and the hog-growing side.”
One of the overriding principles misdirected at PSF, reveals Manly, was that there was “an assumption that if you build the world's best pig, the world will beat a path to your door and pay you a premium for it.”
He observes: “That's just not true. I have never been on a customer call in my 10 years at PSF, and had a customer ask me about the biggest boar stud in the world that we operate, or our proprietary genetics. They just don't care.”
What they do care about, and what PSF emphasizes, is that their pork products are safe and they can prove it.
In the last decade, PSF has embarked on a process-verified production program through the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service that certifies and verifies to its customers, through an independent auditing process, that its products are safe and welfare friendly.
In the process, PSF has simplified its message to its customers — from explaining 10 detailed production steps to just five major elements that encompass safety and traceability.
Building pork product integrity meant harkening back to a basic business model that Manly learned from industry leaders Luter and Peterson.
Deliver consistent products of value to the consumer, says Peterson. But don't sit still. Seize opportunities to be different as long as you've got the right focus and end game, adds Luter.
In his 10-year tenure, Manly has guided a remarkable turnaround in PSF's fortunes.
“We are headed in the right direction. We've gone from a bankrupt company with a great concept in 1996, to a publicly traded company today with a very strong balance sheet and a unique business platform,” he stresses.
But to prosper in the years ahead, and follow Luter's mantra that a successful business never sits still, Manly looks to right PSF's ship, which he says is still imbalanced.
There is too much dependence on the live animal side. About 67% of its revenue is generated by hog production, centered in northern Missouri and in the hog belt of eastern North Carolina; and 33% comes from the packing side.
“I think 1998 and also 2002 taught us you can lose more on the livestock side than you can ever get back on the meat side. That imbalance as a publicly traded company creates volatility in our earnings that does not provide the greatest value to our shareholders.”
In Manly's estimation, “PSF needs to generate its revenue evenly from three areas: hog production, pork processing and value-added products.”
Whether it is in producing or packing interests, it's crucial to remember that the consumer controls PSF's destiny by what they want and what value they are willing to put on a product, he says.
Consumers in the United States have the luxury of choosing their purchases from a host of very cheap sources of protein, Manly points out. That competitive pressure turns value-added pork products into commodity items after only two to three years of shelf life, he notes.
Even case-ready pork products, which are continuing to grow in popularity, quickly turn into commodity products.
At the same time, those consumers, who don't understand agriculture, are increasingly moving to rural locations. That means producers must increasingly monitor the environment in which they raise their hogs, stresses Manly.
PSF spends an industry-high $2-3/cwt. of its cost of production in its northern Missouri operations alone in its waste treatment efforts to ensure the environment is protected.
Raising hogs on a large scale demands a large investment in technology, and Manly is committed to making improvements at PSF in air and water quality to preserve the environment.
— by Joe Vansickle, Senior Editor
Steve Henry, DVM
Practitioner revels in growth of profession
It would be hard to find a stronger booster for the American Association of Swine Veterinarians than Steve Henry, DVM, its president in 1981, and the first swine veterinarian never to have served on the AASV board prior to being elected president.
Henry has attended 36 consecutive AASV annual meetings, the top conference for swine practitioners. They come from around the world to learn about the latest technology, trade philosophies and find solutions to pork production problems.
Virtually no other organization so easily shares its problems and solutions on a myriad of production issues, he says.
As Henry notes, seldom does the group talk about the little things that go wrong in pork production — such as mummified pigs and bouts of pig diarrhea that were the focus of years past.
Now the talk has turned to fine-tuning production schemes, employee management, veterinary economics and ethics, and broader themes on tougher subjects like this year's thrust to eradicate porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome.
“We are technologists who actually provide technology in a huge array of topics no one could have perceived,” observes 58-year-old Henry, who specializes in swine and population medicine at the Abilene (Kansas) Animal Hospital.
Swine veterinarians have retained their role as primary caregivers. But that role has gone far beyond dealing with microbes, encompassing the welfare and well-being of the animals, and specializing in areas such as reproduction and nutrition. Swine veterinarians now work for large integrators and in CEO-level positions.
Instead of shrinking to a dozen or so members by the mid-'90s, as was predicted by some early organizers, the AASV has flourished and grown, and now includes many international members, says Henry.
Some mentors to Henry during those early years were AASV leaders Ralph Vinson, DVM, of Illinois and the late Al Leman, DVM, of Iowa. Their guidance provided inspiration to Henry, but he stresses that his main mentors have been, and continue to be, the pork producers who continue to challenge him daily.
He is quick to praise those producers who have performed phenomenal feats: greatly reducing feed conversion ratios down to 2.5:1, efficiently recycling great quantities of manure into the soil and “peeling almost 40% of the fat off these pigs.”
Talk of misuse of chemicals, toxins and insecticides in pork production has simply disappeared, he adds.
Joining the ranks
Early on, there was some question whether Henry would join the ranks of the swine veterinary profession at all.
He was raised on a dairy farm in Kansas that was converted to hogs when he was 12 years old. His brother, Roy, remained at home on the family farm to raise the hogs. One sister left to work in nursing and the other became an audiologist.
Henry attended Kansas State University and received bachelors of science and veterinary medical degrees.
“I went to school with some interest in pigs, but actually was much more interested in neuromuscular physiology, and I was on a fellowship studying diseases of the muscles.
“I was going to return to school to get a doctorate degree, but got hungry and ended up taking a veterinary job in Macomb, Ill., where I practiced for four years,” recalls Henry.
He then returned to Kansas to be near his family, and joined the Abilene Animal Hospital, where he practiced a lot of small animal internal medicine and mixed animal work.
The partners in the Abilene veterinary clinic told him he should get used to that routine because there weren't any pigs in Kansas.
But the pig business started to grow, and he did something few others were willing to do: He sometimes drove 300-400 miles to get producers' business.
“We built our own swine practice focusing on troubleshooting and health. This led to more herd disease investigation and production medicine work, which evolved and grew with the industry,” Henry points out.
From that beginning, partner Lisa Tokach, DVM, joined the swine team at the clinic in the last decade, and the swine focus expanded to producers in Nebraska, Missouri, Oklahoma and internationally.
Henry beams as he refers to his work with producers in Chile. There is only one PRRS-infected herd left in the country of about 200,000 sows, and he expects that one will be cleaned up soon.
Henry has also spent about 20 years consulting for the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration in advisory roles on pharmaceutical issues, and served on drug and vaccine task force committees of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
In those positions, he has spoken eloquently and forcefully against the misuse and overuse of antibiotics and drugs in swine production.
For producers/veterinarians to survive in the future, they will need to be technology adapters, astute money managers, and driven by the well-being of their animals and the demands of their customers, believes Henry.
“Successful people have been highly invested in animals, technology and knowledge of the industry to make it work,” he says.
— by Joe Vansickle, Senior Editor
Practical pig research is his niche
Mike Brumm, a veteran University of Nebraska swine Extension specialist who recently retired to form a consulting business in Minnesota, really had just one goal in life: to be a farmer.
Brumm has virtually lived out that dream as a researcher and swine Extension specialist at the University of Nebraska-Concord Haskell Agricultural Laboratory.
“I've always wanted to be a farmer. We lived on a livestock-grain farm and moved to town (Osage, Iowa), where Dad bought a hog-buying station, when I was in the 8th grade.”
His dream began to take shape when he switched from his first job after graduate school, as an area livestock Extension agent with Oklahoma State University, to the current post at Nebraska.
“Since I have worked in Nebraska, I have been close to being a farmer without being one,” he says. “My life has been agriculture. That is the only thing I know and the only thing that I care to know.”
The Haskell research facility is in an isolated part of northeast Nebraska, just outside the city of Concord (population 160), and in an area that is home to over 50% of the state's pork production.
Haskell is an applied research station, meaning research is hands-on. With only one research technician on staff overseeing the wean-to-finish research barns a mile from the Haskell lab, Brumm not only maintains a research focus on management and housing of the postweaning pigs, he does his share of farm chores on weekends, holidays and the like.
“It has allowed me to think through some of the challenges that are involved in running a production unit. I doubt my science answers are any better. But it allows for that extra interpretation, because I can talk about broken waterlines, what to do when the pits plug or putting cable clamps on a curtain when the windchill is below zero, because I have been the one doing it,” states Brumm.
Brumm credits his service in the U.S. Army and carpentry work during summers between college studies with helping him complete his education and succeed in his job studying pig housing.
During college, he worked summers as an apprenticed carpenter for his uncle, who built everything from hog houses and pole barns to fancy homes.
In 1971, after graduation from Iowa State University with a degree in agricultural education, he was drafted in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam war. He was lucky enough to draw a stateside assignment at the William Beaumont Army Medical Center in El Paso, Texas, where he worked as a medical research laboratory technician.
“The only reason I went back to college was because of my Army experience,” Brumm explains. “I would never have gone into research had it not been for that experience.”
Following that two-year stint in the Army, he went to graduate school and received a masters degree in animal management in 1976 from Purdue University. “I was actually trained in waste management, looking at the impact of nutrition on manure composition because that was what Al Sutton did, and I was his first graduate student.”
After receiving his doctoral degree in swine nutrition from Purdue in 1978, Brumm latched onto the job in Oklahoma. The area was not much to his liking, partly because back then that part of Oklahoma was mainly comprised of hobby farms and was not a big pig state.
But there was a silver lining to that first job. “The good news was I got to work with Bill Luce (long-time Oklahoma State University swine specialist), who was a good mentor, a tremendous individual to work with. He was very, very good to me and remains a personal friend.”
At Nebraska, Brumm has also encountered some solid mentors, but university swine nutritionist Ernie Peo Jr. stood above the rest. “As a young faculty member, he guided me in so many ways. It didn't take me too long to understand that if I did a research project Ernie's way, it worked.”
Peo also provided a young Brumm with the best advice he ever got: “You've got to learn to bite your tongue once in a while, Mike,” Brumm recalls with a hint of a sheepish grin.
Brumm kept his nose to the grindstone, cranking out over 100 research experiments (some with multiple replications), during a 27-year career at Nebraska that draws to a close with his retirement this summer.
His research projects ranged from early work focusing on handling, feeding and managing commingled feeder pigs when he began in 1979, to work in the mid-'80s that focused on turning down the temperature in nurseries at night.
In fact, in a bit of déj224; vu, Brumm is part of a group that has received a grant from the National Pork Board to take a renewed look at that nursery pig work, because diets and weaning ages have changed drastically during the last 20 years.
That earlier work aimed to improve pig comfort. The latest work will focus on the pig, but also cast an eye toward energy savings.
Since the late '80s, Brumm has studied pig drinkers.
His first pig crowding studies began 15-20 years ago, and remains an issue today. He wonders if once researchers determine the proper economics of space, whether animal welfarists will demand more requirements beyond the science.
Brumm has completed a variety of wean-to-finish projects and quite a bit of work with Concord's agronomists determining the nutrient value of manure distributed onto cropland from swine lagoons.
The Nebraska swine researcher speaks most fervently these days about PorkBridge, an Extension outreach tool he developed along with Don Levis of the University of Nebraska and Dale Ricker of Ohio State University.
PorkBridge's target audience is the people who are responsible for the daily care and feeding of pigs in nursery and grow-finish facilities.
PorkBridge allows these stockmen to gain production knowledge without leaving the farm. PorkBridge consists of a CD with speaker presentation and support material, and a toll-free telephone bridge.
For 2006-07, the program will reach producers, advisors and allied industry in 12 states, says Brumm.
As proud as Brumm is of his educational accomplishments, he is most proud of his family: wife, Janet; three children in college; and Liz, their 16-year-old daughter.
Liz has cerebral palsy and requires special treatment and care beyond what the Brumm's can provide themselves.
That's why Brumm is retiring from the university at age 57, and his wife from a career as a librarian at Wayne State College at Wayne, Neb. They will move to North Mankato, Minn., where lifetime care for Liz is more comprehensive.
In hopes of retaining Brumm's position at the Concord research facility, the University of Nebraska has established the Haskell Ag Lab Swine Professorship Fund with a goal of $250,000. The Nebraska Pork Producers have chipped in $25,000 for this endowed professorship. For more details, contact Ann Bruntz at the university's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at 402-472-0372 or email abruntz@foundation.Nebraska.edu.
Brumm's new venture, the Brumm Consultancy, will soon be up and running in Minnesota. Brumm hopes to continue much of the research and producer advisory endeavors he has focused on during his career.
— by Joe Vansickle, Senior Editor
Animal scientist passionate about animal welfare
Professor Stanley Curtis may not make it to his office every day, but he still maintains a busy research agenda from his home, working with scientists spanning the globe to put farm animal welfare in a proper perspective.
Some animal scientists, behavioral researchers and animal-protection proponents find Curtis controversial because he doesn't see animal welfare their way.
Curtis is from the old school. He sees discontent leading to progress. His notions are grounded in science, not emotion. And he won't bow to any pressure to back off his performance axiom, because he thinks the objective approach to evaluate animal welfare is best for the swine industry.
In essence, the performance axiom says pig performance highly correlates with pig state of being. Performance also highly correlates with profit, making this a win-win situation for pigs and producers.
Curtis' focus — and the flash point for disagreement — is the development of a system to assess a pig's state of being. Critics argue that pigs have feelings and rights that must be considered. Curtis counters animal welfare must involve objective, measurable criteria and be based on performance standards, not environmental design standards.
The pork industry has asked the pig to meet increasing performance expectations. Curtis is pleased with what he sees as a return to emphasis on husbandry that will continue to improve welfare and productivity.
A love of animals
Born 64 years ago and growing up in northern Indiana on a small farm, Curtis came to love animals of all kinds, but especially pigs.
“I've always liked pigs, even though we also had sheep, a few dairy cows and even some geese,” he says.
He jokingly says that maybe that special fondness for pigs grew out of “fetal imprinting.” He explains his mother sat at ringside at the Indiana State Fair in 1941, pregnant with him, while his father showed the supreme grand champion sow.
All joking aside, Curtis admits he was always a serious student and knew he was going to college. In a small farming community like Culver, IN, the most educated person to associate with on the animal side was the local veterinarian.
But a counselor advised him to opt instead for medical school.
So Curtis trudged off to DePauw University (Greencastle, Ind.), spending two years wrapped up in studying zoology and chemistry.
He enjoyed that stint, but soon longed for involvement with livestock. Thrusting pre-med studies aside, he transferred to Purdue University, and graduated in 1964 with a degree in animal sciences, finishing at the top of his class.
His interest in animal environment was stirred by a course leading to a master's degree in environmental physiology from his alma mater in 1966.
After visiting several other universities Curtis received a PhD in environmental physiology from Purdue University in 1968.
His graduate research on temperature regulation in baby pigs also traced back to childhood.
“When I was growing up and we had baby pigs on the farm, we put them in a washtub and brought them into the house in winter and clipped their needle teeth and put iodine on their umbilical cords. We got them dry and warm and then put them back with the sows. We knew those little pigs shivered like mad and were prone to starve out and get crushed.”
During his first position at the University of Missouri, he gained an appreciation for monitoring animal performance when doing environmental physiology work.
There, he also became intrigued by the potential impact of air quality on swine respiratory diseases, following the work of noted Iowa State University veterinary researcher William Switzer, who encouraged Curtis.
Soon he moved to the University of Illinois, where he pioneered animal-environment research, first studying how ammonia in the air slows the clearance of bacteria from the respiratory tract and reduces growth in pigs in research which was funded by the National Pork Producers Council.
By 1976, the oil crisis coincided with the birth of hot nurseries, which Curtis did not favor.
Instead, he and his students pursued operant heating strategies, designing rooms with switches that pigs could push to receive heat, “so the pigs could tell us what they wanted.”
That pioneering strategy, which Curtis is returning to as fuel prices soar, indicated that nursery-age pigs preferred 80 degrees F during the day and 60 degrees F at night. This cycling led to drastic cuts in LP costs.
That research project also introduced Curtis to the study of pig behavior, for which he is noted. Even so, he believes behavioral scientists today carry that approach too far when they focus on behavior as the sole indicator of an animal's state of being.
Until pigs learn to talk, pig performance will remain the best indicator of animal well-being, Curtis argues.
Actually, researchers have started to learn what pigs have to say. Pigs have a certain cough vocalization when they start to get sick, says Curtis, and he is starting to work with a European scientist to find out what else pigs have to “say” about their welfare.
Among other pursuits
Curtis has left a legacy with the graduate and undergraduate students he has mentored over the years, who are working throughout the livestock industry today.
One example of a practically important finding by Curtis' group was that when an animal experiences several stressors at once, the total effect on performance precisely equals the sum of those individual effects.
Curtis also pioneered the study of the pig's mind while head of the Dairy and Animal Science Department at Pennsylvania State University during the 1990s. He and a student helped pigs learn how to play video games to get feed rewards — a first step in developing human-pig communication.
Because of the need for information on environmental management, and his knack for straightforward, entertaining speaking, Curtis has appeared before more than 800 audiences worldwide the past four decades.
Since 1998, Curtis has been an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois.
Besides his pig linguistics research, Curtis is working with Illinois colleagues to study swine environment, behavior, housing and management.
Other current collaborative studies include:
Applying the performance axiom to develop schemes for assessing state of being;
Evaluating and designing weigh-sort systems for hogs;
Evaluating facilities, crate-front gates and watering for sows; and
Consulting with several industry firms.
For all his accomplishments and awards over a 40-year career, including the 2001 Pork Industry Distinguished Service Award from the NPPC, Curtis remains a humble servant of the industry.
He observes: “No man is an island. I've always had excellent support from employers and the industry. I continue to enjoy wonderful working relationships with collaborators, especially former students.”
— by Joe Vansickle, Senior Editor
Pork market prognosticator extraordinaire
Only one man can claim over a half century of market analysis in the U.S. pork industry — Glenn Grimes.
Grimes has achieved the title of professor emeritus at the University of Missouri, but a more fitting title might be “hog market analyst extraordinaire.”
His southern Missouri roots in a general purpose farming operation included cattle, sheep, goats, corn, wheat, oats and, of course, hogs — “But not very much of any of them,” he says.
It is perhaps this multi-layered farming background that prompted Grimes to take the advice of Farm Management Specialist Tom Brown when he said: “One thing you might want to think about is, rather than trying to be everything to everybody in livestock marketing in Missouri, just pick one segment and see how good you can get.”
At the time, Grimes, with a young family, had been struggling with a decision about whether to pursue a PhD. “Instead, I took my chances and started to focus on the pork industry and market outlook,” he says.
“On July 1, 2006, I will have headquartered out of Columbia, MO, for over 50 years, having been employed by the University of Missouri for 55 years,” he says proudly.
Grimes assumed the duties of a state Extension marketing specialist in 1956, providing price analysis and, later, market outlook projections for the cattle and hog industries.
His emphasis on the pork industry really took shape in the mid-'70s, when Jim Rhodes from the teaching and research faculty approached him about a USDA list of large hog producers.
“We'd been talking about the change in structure of the hog industry, and he asked if I'd be interested in assisting him with a study,” Grimes explains. “At least I had the good sense to say ‘yes.’”
Problem was, they didn't find very many big hog producers. A call from Gene Johnston, editor of Hog Farm Management (no longer published), got his attention. “You don't have anywhere near all of the large hog producers out there,” he said. Grimes replied: “I'm willing for you to prove that to me.”
A second industry structure study was conducted in 1975, and has been repeated every three years since.
Industry's biggest challenges
With a wealth of background, Grimes is a valuable pork industry consultant.
“In the short- to medium-term, over-production relative to the available market may be the biggest challenge the industry faces,” he says. “By the time we build the hog numbers up to 105-106 million, we'll have to see if demand can bail us out again.
“As we look at domestic demand, I'm convinced that we do not have good data on how many pounds of pork — or pork and water — that consumers are paying for. Practically all case-ready pork is pumped, so consumers are paying for about 10% more pounds than we're allocating with raw product from the carcass,” Grimes points out.
Whether pumped pork products are a good trend remains open to debate, but as Grimes notes: “We have to remember, not all people know how to prepare pork. The average person will probably end up with a superior product (using pumped pork) compared to pork in its natural state. Besides, we're at a point in the industry where the natural product may be too lean for the average consumer.”
Turning to the production side, he predicts finishing will continue to shift to where the feed is raised, while farrowing will migrate to less pig populated areas.
Considering the growth of farrowing in Oklahoma in the past decade, Grimes says, “If the industry grows, I would not rule out that Texas could grow quite a bit. The Dakotas are another possibility, but I'm not sure what energy costs will do to their ability to compete.”
And, Canada's influence is fraught with two variables — what happens with their government programs and Canadian currency relative to U.S. currency.
“For the first time in 10 years, Canadian hog numbers on Jan. 1, 2006 were below year-earlier levels,” Grimes notes. “I think the big shift in Canadian production has occurred. If you look at the last decade, 92% of the growth in the North American pig crop has been in Canada.”
Domestically, Grimes says, “The big change in concentration probably has already occurred, with 150 producers now responsible for 65% of the production. Economies of scale and productivity growth will keep the industry under pressure. Unless we can be bailed out by demand in some way, the next five years will not be as good as the last five years have been.
“We're not through concentrating, but we're going to see some relatively small producers for a long time,” he predicts. “Segmentation, such as catering to the ‘natural’ pork market, will probably provide opportunities for smaller producers.”
“There are some interesting questions about trends in retail,” says Grimes. “Walmart looks like it will continue to grow and shift to Super Centers — those with grocery stores. So, as they restructure, their share of the meat industry will grow. With case-ready products, they can take out some costs.
“Wal-Mart's strategy of offering a fairly constant price — if it is used by the industry enough — will be a disaster, however. Because of the biological nature of the animals, we cannot produce the same number of hogs every week. The number of hogs that we slaughter in June is roughly 20% different than it is in November. Therefore, we cannot price them the same year 'round,” he says.
“We have an over-supply of shackle space — and it's shackle space that is hard to shut down,” notes Grimes. “I'm convinced that the pressures to run these big, efficient plants at a reasonable capacity is dominating packers' actions now. Even with 2-3 years of record numbers of hogs, packer demand has been strong.”
Packer sources tell Grimes the difference in variable costs between a 2,000-head/day plant and a 16,000-head/day plant is $10/head.
For producers tempted to join with a packing plant, he has this advice: “Unless you can be involved in one that kills 15,000 head/day, you'd better look at some other industry, first.”
Reflections of a veteran
With his many years of industry experience, two things occurred differently than Grimes visualized them:
“First, the growth away from the feed surprised me. And, even though we thought hog production would get large, we didn't visualize one producer with a little over 15 million hogs.”
His advice to young people interested in raising hogs is simple. “If you're located in the Corn Belt, where we're going to feed the hogs, take a look at contract production. If you have good enough records to know you're good at raising pigs — if you can produce pigs at $37/cwt. and cover all costs — I would say there's an opportunity for you, if you can survive the start-up period. And, remember, you have to be big enough to provide for your family. I would say that would be 500 sows, minimum.”
His closing thoughts about the industry: “I'd like to be here to see what it's like 25 years from now.” Grimes is currently 82.
— by Dale Miller, Editor