Chinn Hog Farm of Clarence, MO, is doing its part to bring profits back to the pork industry, and one of its most visible employees, Chris Chinn, is equal to the task of defending agriculture against some of its harshest critics.
Chinn Hog Farm was a 2,400-sow, breed-to-wean operation at the home farm until last fall, when owners Gary and Kathy Chinn made the decision to reduce the herd to 1,400 sows.
“It wasn't an easy decision, but we felt like people needed to be doing something to bring sustainability back into the industry,” says daughter-in-law Chris Chinn.
The home farm is four miles north of Clarence in northeast Missouri. The family contracts with a network of area farmers to raise hogs through nursery and finishing phases, retaining ownership until hogs are sold to various packers for processing.
All corn needs are purchased from area farmers, stored, mixed and processed at the family's feedmill. Chris is one of three mill employees and is responsible for the family farm's production and financial records for the feedmill and the hog operation. She also oversees and submits permit applications to meet state environmental regulations.
Father-in-law Gary Chinn supervises all activities at the Chinn Feed Mill. He used to do all of the feed mixing and processing work at the 80,000-bu. capacity mill located on the hog farm. However, when nearby Highway 36 became a four-lane thoroughfare stretching across the northern tier of towns in Missouri, and an ethanol plant set up shop 10 miles west of Clarence, the Chinns knew they needed to take action to protect their source of corn, Chris explains.
Three years ago, they erected Chinn Feed Mill on the outskirts of Clarence, about a half-mile off Hwy. 36, providing good access for corn farmers.
The close proximity of the ethanol plant means Chinn Feed Mill doesn't get their corn cheap. They have to match the bids of the ethanol plant to stay competitive.
But the one-million-bu. capacity, state-of-the-art facility gives the Chinn family control of corn quality, Chris says.
“We really haven't seen too many issues with corn quality right now. There has been some wet corn in this year, but we didn't take any corn over 18% moisture,” she says. The mill has no grain drying equipment.
The Chinns have been blessed with very conscientious grain farmer customers who want to provide a good product, and know in a year when there is a lot of corn for sale, that they have to supply a quality product for the Chinns to feed, she adds.
Corn is regularly tested for aflatoxins at a cost of $14 per test. The mill also tests for vomitoxins.
“The mill provides peace of mind. We know exactly what the hogs are getting, and we can track every batch of feed to every group of hogs,” Chris points out.
Along with reducing sow numbers, diet modifications have been made under the supervision of consulting swine nutritionist Gary Allee of Columbia, MO. Corn germ meal was added to replace some expensive corn. Distiller's dried grains with solubles (DDGS) is added at 30% in nursery diets, stepped down to 20% and then 10% in the finisher diets, and eliminated from the last ration due to concerns about iodine levels in the fat.
DDGS are purchased from the local ethanol plant, but still tested to ensure that they are getting a consistent quality product free of aflatoxins.
The Chinns have not “cheapened up diets” or cut corners to reduce feed costs faced by all producers these past few years, Chris insists.
“We want to make sure that we have a healthy product because we eat the same hogs as those we sell. We butcher our own hogs and don't buy any pork from the grocery store except for the occasional package of pork patties, to compare quality with our own to make sure we are providing consumers with a product they want,” she exclaims.
Gary runs the mill, with eldest son Kevin, Chris' husband, as his second in command. Kevin also handles fieldwork at his and Chris' farm, where 160 acres is planted to alfalfa, and another 120 acres to corn. They also run a 30-head cow-calf operation.
Gary's wife, Kathy, is in charge of the Shelby County home sow farm.
Gary and Kathy's other son, Kyle, is responsible for the five farm trucks that haul all of the feed from the mill to the farms. This includes a second, 5,800-sow, breed-to-wean hog farm that Gary and Kathy co-own with a young farm family about 16 miles away in adjacent Macon County. A separate feed truck exclusively picks up loads of soybean meal from Mexico, MO. Two other semi-trucks handle market hog shipments.
An Eye to the Future
The second hog farm was established with an eye on the future. “They (Gary and Kathy) added the hog farm with the intention of helping to bring their four grandkids into the farm and making sure there was enough work to bring the family members home,” Chris says.
Too often today, kids graduate from college and the family farm is too small to support those children, she says.
Kevin and Chris, both in their mid-30s, have two children, Rachelle, 12, and Conner, 8, who they hope will now have a chance to return to the family farm. Kyle has two children: Katlyn, 13, and Garrett, 7.
The main hog farm and feedmill employs 16 workers in all and supports three families.
Speaking Out for Agriculture
Kevin and Chris spent four years on the Missouri Farm Bureau (MBF) Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee in 2004-2008, including two years on the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee.
In the second year on the national committee, Chris was elected chair and also served a year on the AFBF board of directors.
“It was a great experience for us. Our entire committee went through media training, and when you become chair, you are offered more media training,” she says.
That resulted in extended travel to a dozen states or more, and countless speaking engagements. “I looked at it as a one-time opportunity. I had a great passion for telling the story of agriculture and raising awareness about what really goes on at a farm that people just don't realize,” Chris says.
Farmers were receptive to her message, but often told her they didn't have the time to get their work done and educate consumers. “I am just a farmer,” they often added.
“Farmers underestimate their value and how important they are to their industry, their state, their community and their family,” Chris says.
To further her investment in agricultural leadership, Chris joined Missouri's Agricultural Leadership of Tomorrow. The two-year program sends participants on nine, three-day trips around the state to become more acquainted with the various agricultural commodities raised, learning from community leaders, and spending a week in Washington, D.C.
“It has been a really good program and connected me with farmers and businesses all over the state. I would never have learned about cotton and rice farming if I hadn't joined this program,” says Chris.
She continues to speak frequently to Farm Bureau groups around the country, and one of the important pieces of her platform is defending farmers on the animal welfare issue. Animal activist groups continue to pressure producers that pens are more welfare-friendly than individual sow stalls.
“We used to have sows in pens, but we converted to gestation stalls because we saw dominant sows biting other sows to move them out of the way so they could eat. No matter what you do in pens, you are always going to have the one bully sow in a group,” Chris exclaims.
By having sows in stalls, fighting is prevented and feeding and health concerns are easier to monitor for Allee or their veterinarian Jack Coleman of Monroe City, MO.
The elimination of sows fighting has eased management tasks and cut mortality rates in half, she points out.
Countering Farming Myths
Kevin and Chris Chinn felt strongly that the hog farm environment got a bad rap from activists, so three years ago they decided to build their new home within 100 yards of the swine lagoon adjacent to Chinn Hog Farm.
“We built our home next to the lagoon to show that we are not afraid to live there, and it is not a bad place to raise your family. We drink the same water and we breathe the same air as our neighbors,” she says.
The Chinn family also produced its own YouTube video, which has been active online for nearly two years now. “The Truth about Modern Pork Production” is a virtual tour of the family's hog farm, Chris says. It has resulted in more than 28,000 views.
“But because it shows a different side of the story and the truth about what a family farm really looks like, activists have complained that it is inappropriate content,” Chris adds. Now, to access the video, viewers must be over 18 years old and create a YouTube account.
“I want people to see what a normal farmer looks like, what an average day on the farm is like and that 99.99% of farms are like ours — clean and with good animal care,” she says.
Without the truth, falsehoods can prevail. For example, she says, social networking on the Internet was a key factor that led to the passage of Proposition 2 in California. “There were a lot of conversations on Facebook and on blogs where people were asking questions about animal welfare. The people who were answering the questions were not farmers and ranchers,” she observes.
A proposed initiative in Missouri to place limits on pet breeding could produce a lot of negative impact as many farmers' wives supplement farm income by breeding dogs, she notes. Although it starts out targeting dogs, it could end up being much more damaging than that. That's how Proposition 2 started out, Chris explains.
Now, a variety of state ballot initiatives are being proposed across the country to push back activists' idealistic notions of animal welfare. “A lot of people have misconceptions and think that the ballot initiatives will only hurt the big companies and corporations. But in reality, 96% of the farms in business today are run by families, so legislation like Proposition 2 could have a huge impact on family farmers and ranchers,” she points out.
It is an intense assault on agriculture. California farmers are still trying to figure out how the details of Proposition 2 will impact them. And, they now face a new ban on tail docking in dairy cattle and a proposed ban on the use of antibiotics in livestock.
It is a calculated plan. Proposition 2 won't become fully implemented until 2016. “That way, if the activists can get other states to cave in and pass similar initiatives, the states won't know what the true implications are until it is too late,” Chris warns.
The damage from such legislation could cripple the ability of U.S. farmers to feed their own country, and an increasingly hungry world.
Added costs to meet these types of regulations and anti-agriculture sentiments are two reasons why some large U.S. farms are expanding elsewhere, such as in Mexico and South America. More are sure to follow if the trend is not reversed, Chris says.
Hope for the Future
There is some cause for hope, however. States are developing animal care boards to block the activists.
Chris recently joined an AFBF program called Partners in Agriculture Leadership, designed to hone leadership skills and speaking abilities. She is continuing to speak out for agriculture and urging farmers to use social media to share their message.
More and more farmers are using social media, thanks to innovations such as global positioning and automatic tractor steering that frees them during fieldwork to go online with their mobile phones, Chris suggests.
Chris tries to engage folks whenever she can on Facebook and Twitter to tell the real story about farming.