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Focusing on Reproductive Efficiency

Focusing on Reproductive Efficiency

This quarter's benchmarking article will concentrate on two areas. We will begin by comparing production records from the previous quarter and previous year with values from a year ago. This review will help us see what progress we have made in key performance indicators (KPIs).

Secondly, we will examine various factors that contribute to the inefficiencies of the breeding herd. We'll take a closer look at how the abilities of various artificial insemination (AI) technicians can impact reproductive levels. In addition, we'll study the impact that time of day, day of the week and multiple inseminations have on various reproductive performance indicators.

The database used for this analysis is again provided by Swine Management Services LLC (SMS), Fremont, NE. As in the past, we will use pigs weaned/mated female/year (PW/MF/Y) to evaluate whether progress has been made by comparing the 52-week average and 13-week average performance of the first quarter 2007 (Table 2) to the same time period in 2008 (Table 1).

Pigs Weaned Edges Upward

Some interesting points arise when comparing the 2007 and 2008 data. Using the 52-week average KPI values, it is apparent that the top 10% of herds has changed very little. This demonstrates how difficult it is to improve productivity at the upper echelon of the industry.

For example, PW/MF/Y, arguably one of the most important indicators of herd performance, shows a slight drop from 26.8 in 2007 to 26.5 in 2008 in the top-10% farm category. However, when PW/MF/Y is compared for all farms contributing to the database, the 2008 average (22.8) was 0.3 pigs higher than the 2007 average (22.5).

While the best herds failed to improve this important KPI for the 52-week period, the average producer made some gains.

When the 13-week PW/MF/Y averages were compared, again the top 10% of farms remained relatively static. However, the all-farm average jumped over half a pig (22.21 vs. 22.75) for the quarter.

A comparison of other KPI averages shows relatively minor changes when the top-10% and all-farm categories are reviewed. For example, farrowing rate for the top 10% of farms was 87.1% in 2007 and 87.4% in the 52-week comparison for 2008. Likewise, farrowing rate for all farms tallied in at 82.4% and 82.5%, respectively. The difference between the top producers and average producers was maintained at about 5%.

Still, farrowing rate is important when the focus is on improving herd efficiency. Obviously, sows must farrow in order to have a saleable product — whether producing weaned pigs or market hogs. While gains in this KPI do not make up for the adverse feed costs and low market hog prices, it is important to note that the productivity gains made in this area will likely prevail as the market hog price cycles recover to more profitable levels.

Additionally, farrowing rate for the average producer improved from 80.2% in 2007 to 81.8% in 2008 in the 13-week comparison.

Since the average values for the top 10% of operations actually declined slightly (87.9% vs. 87.5%) from 2007 to 2008, the improvement shown by all farms in the farrowing rate category would suggest the improvement was made by those who needed it most. It is a bit discouraging to see the farrowing rate of the bottom 25% slip, however.

Finally, it is worth noting that average parity of culled sows in the 52-week summary has dropped in the top 10% of herds (3.07 in 2007 vs. 2.45 in 2008). The reverse is true when all-farms parity averages are compared in the 52-week data. The same trend is reflected in the 13-week summary.

A Closer Look at the AI Data

The second objective of this quarter's benchmarking review is to examine the factors that contribute to breeding herd inefficiency. In an effort to drill down to find some deficiencies related to AI, SMS provided data focusing on the effects of the AI technician, day-of-the-week comparisons and time-of-day effects. Farrowing rate is the primary KPI used for these comparisons.

Clearly, there are differences between technicians when it comes to a successful AI program. Figure 1 shows the farrowing rate by AI technician, which shows whether the technician made both the first and second matings for a given sow or only the first, second or the third mating, respectively.

Figure 1 reinforces that it is difficult to have the same technician mate an individual sow when she is in estrus for consecutive days. The data serves as a good illustration of the team effort to get sows successfully mated. Additionally, the data can help identify those technicians who are part of a team where poor farrowing rates are consistently found. It is likely that the same technicians in that team would be even poorer if individual sows mated by individual technicians could be identified.

In this case, technicians #8, #2 and #9 have consistently been on teams that have an 85% farrowing rate and above. Conversely, technicians #7 and #5 have consistently been part of teams with a farrowing rate of 80% and below. Again, it is likely that these technicians' farrowing rates would have been even poorer if they mated sows exclusively.

These poor performers are candidates for additional AI technique training and, perhaps, for estrous detection training, which could be provided by their more successful co-workers. External trainers could also be called in.

The day of the week on which inseminations occur can have a significant impact on an AI program. Figure 2 features eight AI technicians and the farrowing rates they achieved, listed by the day of the week.

It is clear that some technicians have more success on different days of the week. For example, technician #1 has a farrowing rate that averages above 84% when inseminations occur on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday. However, Wednesdays and Thursdays are not good days for this technician, whose farrowing rate average slips to about 75%.

Several factors could contribute to this situation. In this case, notice that virtually all technicians have their poorest farrowing rate when matings occur on Wednesday and Thursday. This slump could be caused by some factor or event that takes place on those days or it may just be that Wednesday and Thursday encompasses all of the problem breeding sows or those that have a higher-than-normal wean-to-estrus interval.

One possibility is that this farm may wean sows on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and this technician does a great job of identifying those that come into estrus during the normal time period after weaning. This same technician may have difficulty identifying sows that have an irregular return to estrus.

Another explanation for day-of-the-week differences in farrowing rate may reflect a technician's personal habits. For example, Tuesday night might be this technician's bowling night, where he/she stays out later than normal, and arrives tired on Wednesday morning.

There are a whole host of factors that can contribute to different performance levels. This type of data can help identify problem areas and serve as a basis to explore specific routines that contribute to varying results, whether they are abnormally high or low on specific days of the week.

The last area to examine in this data set is the hour of the day that inseminations occurred (Figure 3). Clearly, sows mated early in the morning or early in the afternoon have a higher success rate as measured by the farrowing rate.

Again, several factors may be in play here. One could be a technician effect. A technician charged with making many matings throughout the day may become fatigued. In that case, successful matings would likely be those made early in the day or at the beginning of a work shift. Others may do their best work after a noon lunch break. Figure 3 supports both scenarios.

Another contributing factor might be how strongly sows display estrus. It is well documented that when sows stand for a long period and get tired, they show less distinct signs of estrus. The results in Figure 3 could reflect this phenomenon where sows are well rested and show good signs of estrus early in the day.

Also worth considering, if the technician does not control the boar used for estrous detection, sows may be stimulated into a standing heat, but then tire and go into a refractory period. If the boar is removed from the breeding area during the worker's break times, for example, the sows may become rested and show good response when heat checked later.

Finally, some technicians have substantially better success with AI at certain times of the day (Figure 4). We all know people who can get more work done or have more energy in the morning vs. the afternoon. This is best illustrated by technician #6, whose farrowing rate with sows bred before noon is below 80% — and sometimes as low as 67%. However, when that person inseminates sows after lunch, farrowing rates jump to 85% or higher. Clearly, this individual is not a morning person.

Management of this operation might consider assigning this person to easier tasks in the morning, then put them back on the breeding team in the afternoon. Several factors could contribute to this situation. Regardless of the cause, the important point is that managers can use this type of information to identify these trends and take action to improve the efficiency of their operations.

This data clearly shows the importance of identifying each technician and the day and time that they are most effective. This information can help fine-tune procedures and identify employees who might benefit from additional training. Similar methods could help identify and track variations in semen handling or quality. Not all batches of semen are equal.

Targeting Greater Efficiency

Ever-increasing feed prices are a constant reminder that we must continue to improve efficiencies in pork production. Today, the focus is on feed costs and market prices. In the future, the emphasis could be totally different. Regardless, producers' abilities to identify areas that demand attention and afford the greatest payback potential will determine their success in the business and the U.S. pork industry's success in today's global marketplace.

If you have thoughts or questions about how to best utilize this benchmarking information, contact Stalder at [email protected]; National Hog Farmer Editor Dale Miller at [email protected]; or the SMS staff at 402-727-6600.

Table 1. Swine Management Services 1st-Quarter, 52-Week and 13-Week Benchmarking Data from 2007 & 2008*
Key Performance Indicators 13-Week Benchmarking Data 52-Week Benchmarking Data
Top 10% Top 25% All Farms Bottom 25% Top 10% Top 25% All Farms Bottom 25%
Number of farms 36 90 361 326 39 99 397 299
Mated females 62,764 197,180 725,332 46,987 82,140 222,809 738,566 133,561
Pigs weaned/mated female/year 27.19 25.95 22.75 15.23 26.54 25.60 22.79 18.58
Wean-to-1st service interval 6.26 6.25 6.81 8.35 6.02 6.28 6.91 8.25
Farrowing rate, % 87.5 86.4 81.8 68.1 87.4 87.4 82.5 75.8
Total pigs born/female farrowed 13.42 12.99 12.38 11.70 13.18 12.81 12.33 11.72
Pigs born live/female farrowed 12.21 11.85 11.24 10.19 12.03 11.71 11.19 10.50
Pigs weaned/female farrowed 10.78 10.50 9.86 8.35 10.78 10.45 9.85 9.05
Piglet survival, % 82.7 82.2 78.6 72.4 82.9 82.7 79.3 74.2
Average age at weaning, days 19.2 19.1 19.5 19.5 19.0 18.9 19.2 19.4
Average parity 2.39 2.44 2.47 2.55 2.47 2.59 2.49 2.22
Average parity of farrowed sows 3.29 3.44 3.39 3.43 3.35 3.45 3.35 2.98
Average parity of culled sows 1.76 3.00 3.40 4.08 2.45 3.15 3.37 3.01
*Swine Management Services LLC, Fremont NE; contact Ron Ketchem or Mark Rix at [email protected] or [email protected]; phone: 402-727-6600.
Table 2. Swine Management Services 1st-Quarter, 52-Week and 13-Week Benchmarking Data from 2006 & 2007*
Key Performance Indicators 13-Week Benchmarking Data 52-Week Benchmarking Data
Top 10% Top 25% All Farms Bottom 25% Top 10% Top 25% All Farms Bottom 25%
Number of farms 33 83 332 82 35 89 359 88
Mated females 41,736 132,809 563,281 109,774 39,185 134,985 615,328 124,828
Pigs weaned/mated female/year 27.16 26.04 22.21 16.14 26.81 25.62 22.52 18.85
Wean-to-1st service interval 5.64 5.81 7.10 9.38 6.01 6.19 6.99 8.27
Farrowing rate, % 87.9 86.2 80.2 69.5 87.1 86.3 82.4 75.9
Total pigs born/female farrowed 13.06 12.87 12.18 11.54 13.10 12.73 12.15 11.71
Pigs born live/female farrowed 12.00 11.80 11.04 10.13 12.04 11.64 11.01 10.40
Pigs weaned/female farrowed 10.83 10.51 9.64 8.42 10.78 10.38 9.56 8.78
Piglet survival, % 85.1 83.8 80.7 74.2 84.5 83.3 79.7 74.4
Average age at weaning, days 19.6 18.7 18.7 19.0 19.3 18.5 18.8 18.8
Average parity 2.17 2.27 2.25 2.06 2.60 2.54 2.37 2.06
Average parity of farrowed sows 3.24 3.29 3.27 3.22 3.29 3.18 3.28 3.16
Average parity of culled sows 2.48 2.95 3.34 3.45 3.07 2.74 2.99 3.20
*Swine Management Services LLC, Fremont NE; contact Ron Ketchem or Mark Rix at [email protected] or [email protected]; phone: 402-727-6600.

Illinois' Newest Packers

The launch of the producer-owned Meadowbrook Farms, and Triumph Foods' announced intentions to build a new plant in East Moline, have been hot stories in the Illinois pork industry.

In 2004, Belleville-based Meadow-brook opened the doors to a $39 million, state-of-the-art plant in Rantoul, IL, with big dreams. About 200 pork producers bought membership shares in the business, agreeing to deliver a specified number of pigs to the plant on an ongoing basis.

Yorkville pork producer John Kellogg saw an opportunity “to participate in some of the profits packers were making” when he committed to deliver all the market hogs from his 1,500-sow, farrow-to-finish operation. “We felt we could produce specialty products and get premium prices for them,” he says.

However, Kellogg says, results during the cooperative's first four years have been disappointing. “It has taken longer for Meadowbrook to become profitable than I had anticipated.”

Packer Faces Protests

The startup has not been without turbulence. Last year, several disgruntled Meadowbrook members stopped delivering hogs to the Rantoul plant in protest after receiving lower prices for their hogs than they could have obtained with cash spot market prices.

Meadowbrook's communications director Jim Altemus says the matter — which included legal proceedings and involved 37 of the co-op's original 200 members — was resolved last June. Litigation spelled out details of how co-op members can exit their contract in “an orderly fashion” while continuing to supply the pigs committed for 18, 24, 36 or 48 months, depending on their chosen exit timeline. During the exit period, members will be paid the cash price from a market of their choosing in return for turning in their co-op shares, Altemus adds. One hundred and fourteen members remain in the co-op today.

Kellogg and fellow Meadowbrook board member Bob Johnson, of DeKalb, both admit their hog operations would have been money ahead by selling pigs on the cash market. Yet they say there are positive signs the cooperative will do better in the future. They point to Meadowbrook's source-verified programs, including a premium product line for export to Europe and antibiotic-free pork, as positive efforts to increase member income. And, the co-op recently entered a strategic alliance with Triad Foods to supply antibiotic-free fresh pork for the brand Nature's Premium. Still, some other cooperative members remain disenchanted with Meadowbrook's performance.

New Plant's Setback

Illinois pork producers have also been keeping an eye on Triumph Foods' plans to build a 600,000-sq.-ft. hog processing plant in East Moline, IL. The company, owned by a consortium of large mid-western hog producers, plans to break ground in early 2009 and begin operating in mid-2010, according to Triumph's Chief Administrative Officer Patt Lilly. He says construction was delayed a year because of startup challenges and expansion projects at the company's existing plant at St. Joseph, MO.

The new plant is designed to process up to 18,000 hogs daily, the same capacity as the St. Joseph plant. Although some hogs will be purchased from Illinois producers, Lilly says most will be obtained from current producer-owners in Iowa and southern Minnesota.

Lilly says the East Moline site was selected for its available work force, proximity to owners' production facilities and to take advantage of Illinois' “good business environment,” including available tax incentives and funding for programs to train new employees.

State Livestock Rules Are Good for State

There were many observers, inside and outside of agriculture, who thought that the Illinois Livestock Management Facilities Act (LMFA) couldn't please all and benefit the state's economy.

But those skeptics have virtually been silenced, notes Nic Anderson, livestock business developer for the Illinois Livestock Development Group, based at his home in Divernon, just south of Springfield.

In his consultant's role, he promotes growth of all of the major grain and livestock commodity groups in the state and also represents the Illinois Farm Bureau.

Anderson, who was raised on a hog farm in Henry County, IL, was specifically brought on board as an industry liaison in 2005 to help farmers understand and cope with this massive regulation.

“Livestock producers felt this thing was going to kill them. It was too prohibitive. There were too many rules, and it was forced on the industry by the state legislature and opposition groups that wanted to have set rules and guidelines on how producers build livestock facilities,” he observes.

Yet once the details were sorted out, the regulation has become very easy to work with, says Anderson. Setbacks are based on animal units and animal thresholds.

For example, the setback is a quarter mile from residential areas for 1,000 animal units (1,000 animal units equals 2,500 hogs over 55 lb.) and a half-mile from population centers. For each additional 1,000 animal units, the setback increases 220 ft. for residential and 440 ft. for populated areas.

The notice of intent to construct since 1997 started out slow but has achieved growth over time.

“The big thing it establishes is, no matter what county I am in throughout the state, we all have the same standards and there is no favoritism because there is no township or county control. The state has set a standard that is high enough to supersede local control, as long as the area is zoned agricultural,” Anderson explains.

“We don't try to build barns in non-agricultural areas or around cities,” he explains.

The challenge for Illinois today is that city folks move to the country and have certain expectations. They live in an agricultural zone and yet they would like to prohibit livestock from coming into their area, which results in some real clashes right away, he admits.

A big part of Anderson's job is to deflect those criticisms and help producers site new barns or expand their facilities.

The Illinois pork industry has seen growth of 5-15% over the last three years or so using the LMFA rule. But dairy and beef cattle industries have lagged behind. Illinois boasts just 125,000 dairy cows and produces only 25% of its milk requirements.

Of the 134 notices of intent to construct in 2007, hog applications represented close to 120,000 pig spaces, or about 75% of the building applications, similar to the previous two years. He estimates the pork industry injects $70-100 million of new monies into the state's economy annually.

So while the pork industry in Illinois has seen a bit of a boom in the last three years, Illinois' livestock industry overall is somewhat stagnant, while it continues to grow nationwide. Total livestock receipts in the last decade fell from $2.3 to $1.7 billion.

Pork producers are younger than their livestock counterparts in Illinois; their average age is 45 vs. 55 for beef cattle and dairy farmers.

Higher labor costs have led the economic drain in Illinois. But Anderson believes that the current economic/energy crisis in agriculture will actually drive the return of the livestock industry to places like Illinois, to enjoy easy access to markets and a bountiful supply of corn and soybeans.

2008 Master of the Pork Industry - Gary Machan

2008 Master of the Pork Industry - Gary Machan

While attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Gary Machan spent a lot of time in judging workouts for the judging team at the Oscar Mayer plant. “I began to really like the speed and the hustle and bustle of the packinghouse,” he explains.

The fascination took hold, and by the time he left the university with a degree in meat and animal science and a minor in business, Machan was convinced the meat packing and processing profession was “a good fit.”

A new job with Oscar Mayer launched him into a career that has stood the test of time and industry transition. He currently serves as vice president of pork procurement at Tyson Fresh Meats, Inc., in Dakota Dunes, SD.

Solid Foundation

Machan was born and raised on a small farm near Friendship, WI, that he describes as “stereotypical” for that time — 35 milk cows, a dozen sows, some laying hens, two Shetland ponies and two collie dogs.

Machan enjoyed farming and working with his father and younger brother, whom he credits with instilling a strong work ethic and an appreciation for hard work. “It was all pitchforks and shovels and buckets, but when we got done with a job, we could see and feel our accomplishment,” he says.

Being the oldest of five children, he realized that a post-high school education was in his future. He envisioned a technical school, but his high school vocational agricultural teacher nudged him toward higher aspirations, so he enrolled at the university. “If it wasn't for him, I probably wouldn't have gone to the university,” he confesses.

Machan entered college leaning toward the dairy business, but his time in the Oscar Mayer plant, primarily a hog slaughter facility, gave him the early exposure to hog procurement that set him on a course that has now endured over four decades — and he's still counting.

He joined Oscar Mayer in 1966 as a relief buyer in the Madison area. In 1967-68, the company was building a new plant in Beardstown, IL, and they relocated him to serve as a livestock buyer for several buying stations in Pike County, IL.

“My wife, Carlette, and I packed up everything we owned in a little U-haul, behind a Ford Mustang and headed for our new home in Pittsfield. Neither of us had ever been that far from home,” he remembers. Both of the Machan's sons were born there.

In 1971, they moved north to Iowa, where Machan became the evaluation supervisor at the Oscar Mayer plant in Perry. “That put me in charge of the grade-and-yield department. We evaluated every carcass whether they were bought on the rail or not,” he says. He served as a local hog buyer, was supervisor of some area buying stations and eventually became the head hog buyer for the Perry plant.

By the late '70s, Oscar Mayer began shifting its focus from hog slaughter to pork processing and marketing. Machan had been talking with the Wiechman Pig Company about managing a livestock dealership in Fremont, NE. He joined the firm in 1978.

“I learned a lot about buying and selling of livestock — hogs in particular. It was a cull animal business, so we shipped livestock all around the United States,” he explains.

In 1982, Gene Leman began building a pork division for IBP. He called looking for a head hog buyer. “I wasn't particularly interested, because I was doing very well with the Wiechman business,” Machan explains. “But I did miss the camaraderie that I had with the livestock buyers (at Oscar Mayer).”

In the spring of 1982, about the time IBP purchased the pork plant in Storm Lake, IA, Machan conceded and joined the growing pork division. “Gene (Leman) and Bob Peterson, CEO of IBP, were such dynamic personalities and they had such a passion for the business,” he explains. “It was very enticing to be on the front end of the startup of the pork division.” Machan was placed in charge of hog procurement at the Storm Lake plant.

IBP (headquartered in Dakota City, NE) continued to grow, adding plants in Council Bluffs and Waterloo, IA; Madison, NE; and Logansport, IN. Machan moved to the headquarters in the spring of 1986. “IBP slaughtered their first hog in 1982. Then we brought on three plants in 1986 and 1987, so that was a pretty good challenge to source hogs for all of those plants during a fairly short time frame,” Machan remembers.

In 1987, IBP bought half of the Heinold Hog Markets' buying station network (western Corn Belt), then purchased the other half (eastern Corn Belt) in 1994.

“We were extremely fortunate to have a very competent and skilled staff. The buyers were experienced hog buyers, but it was still a transition from the dealer business they were familiar with to the packinghouse side. They had to learn how we operated, understand our systems — and do it overnight. In 1994, our procurement organization was about as big as it has ever been,” he reports.

Machan's stint with Wiechman Pig Company served him well during the Heinold purchase. IBP, now Tyson Fresh Meats, continues to operate eight of the buying stations as a service to suppliers. “We call it the Heinold BOS division (boars, outs and sows). It allows us to buy sows and culls that we can add value to by sorting them specifically for plants that are looking for a specific type of animal,” he notes.

When Tyson Foods purchased IBP in September of 2001, Machan had the responsibility of buying all of the hogs slaughtered by the firm — about 18 million head annually. At one point after the purchase, the manager of Tyson's pork production group (70,000 sows) reported to Machan, but company reorganization shifted those responsibilities to others.

Tyson Foods' annual report indicates the pork division accounted for 12.3% of the company's total revenue in 2007. They currently operate six pork processing facilities that slaughter about 18% of U.S. hogs; pork sales totaled $3 billion in 2007.

Changes and Challenges

Machan has witnessed tremendous change in his 42 years in the business. “Some years back, if we walked by the sales and pricing desk, we would get questions about muscle quality, PSE (pale, soft, exudative) pork and the napole gene. In the last 2-3 years, the questions are about who we do business with, the types of facilities they have, whether sows are in gestation pens, etc.,” he explains.

The biggest near-term challenge that Machan sees is the obvious one: “The ethanol mandate put on the (agricultural) industry as it relates to food for fuel. It is really raising havoc in the livestock industry and it's one that is difficult for producers to work through because we're in the beginning stages where the costs are leading the resulting market,” he says. “With these huge costs at the front end — with $6 corn — the breakeven equivalent is $60-62, live. Somewhere along the line, we're going to have to significantly raise prices for producers to cover these costs.

“The result will probably be some liquidation of the herd, which will likely mean some consolidation of ownership. Certainly, these kinds of costs are difficult for a traditional lender to understand. And, when lenders are being very cautious, it makes it difficult for producers to have the capital necessary to operate. Oftentimes, in these times of adversity, the industry has a tendency to align even further in an effort to pass these costs through the system. It is not something that is just going to go away in the near future,” he says.

“The question that remains, then, is this: ‘Who will own the livestock?’ We could have a gap for a period of time until the market catches up with input costs. I would think that at some point, the government would see that this food-for-fuel mandate is creating a tremendous burden on the consumer, as well as creating a shortage of meat protein, not only in the world, but in the United States as well. This food-for-fuel mandate, with its aggressive subsidies, is going to change animal agriculture tremendously.”

Like Tyson Foods, and IBP before it, Machan is a strong advocate of producer-based organizations and industry programs. He was the first packer representative to be seated on the NPPC board of directors.

“We've always been supportive of the efforts of NPPC and the pork checkoff. If I can bring value to the organizations or committees through my industry perspective, that's the role I'm willing to play. I try to represent the good of the entire industry, not just Tyson's point of view,” he assures.

“I wouldn't be able to do it if we didn't have such a strong team in the hog procurement area. They're very skilled, professional people, so that's allowed me the time to be involved in the pork organizations,” he adds.

Mentors and Mentoring

Acknowledging that his career choice has been a good fit, Machan is quick to add: “I have been very fortunate to work with very strong companies that have given me latitude to manage. Maybe it was also that I was lucky enough to have supervisors who had the same values that I have. That has made it comfortable to manage people and the business the same way that the company did,” he says.

Beyond the work ethic instilled in him by his father, brother and the dynamic leadership of Gene Leman, Machan reflects on his first job with Oscar Mayer, the efforts of Ted Fritz, Paul Gould's guidance in learning the details of the business and the technical side of the early grade-and-yield programs. To this day, Machan encourages young staff members to learn the business thoroughly and to understand their role in that business.

“It's important to understand how your strengths will make the business stronger as a whole,” he relates. Again drawing on Leman's leadership, he says: “Gene got the hog procurement department involved in sales so they truly understood what we are selling and the quality specifications that our products have.

“It's also very important to value and respect the role each person plays,” he continues. “I certainly respect the producers out there who put capital into the facilities and the adversity some of them have faced as they've built their livestock production enterprise. It's a tough business, and it takes good pig and people management skills to be successful.”

He summarizes his current role at Tyson Fresh Meats as “setting up an organization that relates well with producers, an organization that is well respected and provides the tools necessary to remain competitive in the business. Some producers might wonder if they raise enough hogs to ensure they will have a market available. To us, at least, if they have good genetics and good management practices, they should have markets available just like any other producer,” he says.

Machan believes that those involved in pork procurement and packing today are committed to the industry and the business. “Where this used to be an in-and-out business on the production side, we now have capital commitment. The same is true on the packing side, and we have brands committed to the business. The task at hand is being able to have competitive inputs so we can produce quality pork efficiently.”

Machan's 42-year tenure in the procurement side of the U.S. pork business surely stands in testament to his commitment. Retirement is not one of his near-term goals, but he is committed to doing a little more hunting and fishing with his sons, and to teaching his 4-year old twin grandsons to fish this summer.
— Dale Miller, Editor

2008 Master of the Pork Industry - James McKean, DVM

2008 Master of the Pork Industry - James McKean, DVM

In 34 years as Extension swine veterinarian at Iowa State University (ISU), James McKean's job title has remained the same, while his day-to-day work and the industry he serves has changed immensely.

One thing remains foremost and unwavering — his support and respect for the pork producers and veterinarians in the state of Iowa.

His undying endorsement for the Iowa pork industry would make you think that the well-spoken educator must be an Iowan by birth.

Not so. McKean was actually born in New York City, but lived virtually all of his youth in various cities in central Illinois. The family didn't raise pigs, but his Dad was a hog buyer and developed the feeder pig business for Interstate Producers Livestock Association, which still coordinates pig sales today.

Young Jim got plenty of pig exposure growing up, however, as a grandfather and an uncle farmed north of Peoria, IL, and raised pigs and dairy cattle.

Career Path Chosen Early

McKean says he knew at a fairly young age while helping his relatives with pigs and dairy cattle that he wanted to become a swine veterinarian. “I learned fairly quickly that standing on the side of the pen holding the pigs — while the veterinarian was standing on the other side of the fence vaccinating them — that there was more money and a lot less work on the other side of the fence.”

An early mentor who solidified those feelings was Roger Kuffel, DVM, who worked in mixed veterinary practice at Kewanee, IL, and did the dairy work at the farm.

“It was a good experience for me. I learned the value of knowledge and being able to treat animals, how to help them get better and improve their welfare — that was a really good start for me in veterinary medicine.”

After completing high school at Decatur, IL, he completed a bachelor's of veterinary science degree and received a doctor of veterinary medicine degree (DVM), both from the University of Illinois, in 1969 and 1970, respectively.

McKean says he probably would have gone on to a career in large animal veterinary medicine due to experiences with pigs and cattle growing up. But an accident as a sophomore in veterinary school changed all that. While working in a corn processing plant to earn money for college, his right leg became caught in a 24-in. horizontal feed auger. The leg had to be amputated.

After six weeks in the hospital and two weeks recuperating at home, he returned to college and finished his degree on time. He was fitted with a prosthetic leg the following spring.

From there, McKean went on to Michigan State University, where he earned a master's degree in veterinary pathology in 1973. His interest in diagnostic medicine led back to the University of Illinois and a mentor, Neil Becker, DVM, who served as an Extension swine veterinarian and doubled as a veterinary diagnostician.

McKean worked for the Michigan Farm Bureau as a technical services veterinarian, before deciding he wanted to work with pigs. He joined the staff of Iowa State University in 1974, where he remains today.

Dramatic Job Shift

There have been some dramatic changes in McKean's position over the years, which have served to keep the job interesting and intellectually challenging.

“When I first came to Ames, we (Extension staff) spent the winters doing anywhere from 50 to 90 county meetings. Palmer Holden (nutrition), Emmet Stevermer (production information) and I (veterinary medicine) would work with the county agents in the late summer and fall to plan the meetings. They would tell us what they wanted us to talk about,” he recalls.

In those days, winter meetings began just after Thanksgiving, when the crops were harvested, and ran through the middle of March.

It was strenuous work. McKean says the words of former Extension veterinarian John Herrick, who passed away in 2007, kept him focused. “John told me my job was not to know everything, but to know those people who might know, direct people to the right places and put linkages together, and that's something that I hope I have been able to do over the years.”

Large numbers of producers attended those winter meetings. It was a fairly homogenous group. Producers were farrow-to-finish, farrowed sows to produce feeder pigs or finished pigs. Most had from 20 to 200 sows and their herds suffered from the same problems, usually diarrhea or respiratory ailments.

Today, disease challenges are much more diverse and so are the producers attending the meetings, explains McKean. Iowa producers are very segmented: there are people who only farrow pigs, people who only raise nursery pigs (weaning to 50-60 lb.) and people who only finish pigs. Then there are all of the different contracting arrangements, he explains.

And while production in the state has stayed stable, producer numbers have shrunk, and with it the number and size of educational meetings. “There might be a meeting of just a half a dozen pork producers who raise multiple thousands of pigs, so you may be impacting the same number of pigs as you did when you had 100 meetings, but you are doing it in a much different setting,” he observes.

Hog Issues Change, Too

The scope of the educational material has naturally evolved as well, McKean points out. Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, sulfamethazine and other antibiotic residues were a major industry concern addressed by McKean.

Also in the late 1980s, McKean was integrally involved in the birth and formation of a new facet of the industry - the pork quality assurance (PQA) program.

“That was a really successful educational program in that it encouraged people to change their attitude and think of themselves as more than just pig producers,” he says.

Almost simultaneously, further emphasis was placed on meat quality with the birth of carcass grading systems and more emphasis on meat-type hogs.

“The pork industry left behind the image that they were just producing a four-legged creature, and instead started to produce a product that would end up on someone's plate,” he relates.

That fueled support for the PQA program, which in turn led to his efforts to help develop the swine welfare assurance program and, of late, the PQA-Plus program.

Focus on Herd Health

In the early 1970s, when McKean began his career, hog cholera eradication was completed, followed by pseudorabies from the late 1980s until its completion in 2002-2003.

Both efforts were producer-driven and government-aided. The Iowa veterinarian helped producers understand the regulations at a crucial time, using his expertise as a veterinarian and a lawyer (he received his degree in 1988). That degree has also proved helpful in educational program development and problem-solving.

McKean stresses now, when pork industry revenues are extremely tight, producers should apply extra focus to herd health strategies to improve grow-finish efficiency and farm competitiveness. He suggests producers start by “taking some diseases off the table.”

Swine dysentery has seen a small resurgence, and Actinobacillus pleuropneumonia (APP) rears its head now and then. Test to make sure they are not on your farm, he recommends.

Then producers can think bigger and work on more serious disease issues like porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS). Along those lines, he strongly suggests formulating a comprehensive surveillance program to target swine pathogens for identification and eradication.

In the case of PRRS, producers and veterinarians know how to clean up a farm, but reinfection is a danger, partly because surveillance work is neglected.

That's especially critical in places like Iowa, because the state imports about 21 million pigs from other states and Canada, all with unknown status, since no testing or surveillance work is being performed.

Just as with the pseudorabies eradication effort, a PRRS plan must be producer-driven and government-aided.

Give Credit Where It's Due

McKean, also associate director of the Iowa Pork Industry Center, makes it perfectly clear that his veterinary career didn't blossom entirely on its own.

During the four years in the mid-1980s when he worked on his law degree, while still working full time at ISU, his wife, Ellen, took care of their four children. He says many times he and his children were studying together.

Likewise, she has helped over the years with swine veterinary research documentation, and also serves as a sounding board on consumer issues when McKean wants to know how consumers might react to pork quality projects. They have been married 39 years.

He credits Iowa pork producers, who have informed him with their insight, resilience and progressiveness. He says it is almost uncanny how they can figure out how something will work on their farms even before the research is completed.

In program development, producers always stress three critical elements for success — credibility, affordability and whether it is workable. He says PQA-Plus passes that test and will help lead producers into new food safety and welfare horizons that include assessments and auditing skills they will need to meet customer demands.

How to help producers, especially independent producers, will remain McKean's focus while staying flexible, listening and learning.

He figures if he can add to the strength of the industry, he will feel pretty good when he takes that final walk from his offices at Iowa State University.
— Joe Vansickle, Senior Editor

2008 Master of the Pork Industry - Larry Rueff, DVM

2008 Master of the Pork Industry - Larry Rueff, DVM

Growing up on a small pig farm near Franklin, IN, just south of Indianapolis, Larry Rueff, DVM, fell in love with pigs as a 4-H'er managing 10-12 sows of his own.

Right after graduating from Purdue University in 1979 with a doctorate of veterinary medicine degree, he went to work at a five-person mixed practice at Greensburg, IN. As with many rural veterinary practices in those days, it was common to work with swine and cattle during the week, but there were also dogs and cats to attend to some evenings and on weekends.

But Rueff's love of pigs won out, so in 1984 he opened his own, swine-exclusive veterinary practice at Greensburg, IN, aptly named Swine Veterinary Services.

“An all-swine practice was pretty unusual at the time,” Rueff recalls. “There were not very many such practices in the United States. Max Rodibaugh, DVM, also had one in Frankfort, IN, but we were very few and far between.”

In fact, a few folks asked if he had lost touch with his senses when he announced the all-pig practice, pointing out that the plan was not a normal career path.

“You have to remember, it was the mid-1980s, and not many people were doing that. But I was young — just 28 years old — and not thinking of it that way,” he explains.

Mentor's Mettle

One of Rueff's early mentors, Purdue University Extension veterinarian Ken Meyer, now retired, was his counselor during college. He strongly encouraged Rueff to learn more about veterinary medicine by “studying abroad,” which in this case meant heading west of the Mississippi River to do an externship in Iowa.

By the same token, after Rueff had been out of veterinary school about a year and a half, Meyer urged him to spend time in southern Minnesota visiting the veterinary practices at Fairmont, MN (Kent Kisslingbury, DVM) and Worthington, MN (Connie Schmidt, DVM, and Wayne Freese, DVM), to learn more about swine-exclusive clinics.

“I was a young, wide-eyed kid and they were kind enough in Minnesota, like so many people in this veterinary profession, to let me come spend some time with them, and see and learn about what they were doing,” he recalls.

That experience gave Rueff some valuable guidance to operate his own swine veterinary practice for eight years from 1984 to 1992.

During those early years in a solo swine practice, Rueff and his wife, Gail, were raising two very young daughters, Laura and Erin. Rueff was just like any other normal, energetic swine veterinarian — a hard charger putting in 12-hour days and loving every minute of it.

Living in Greensburg at the time, he recalls arriving home late one night, about 9 p.m., and seeing his neighbor across the street sitting on his front porch, a common sight in the Hoosier state in the summer. He went to sit and visit with the neighbor for a spell, and got what he calls the best advice he's received during his nearly 30-year veterinary career. The neighbor said, “Larry, they assassinated President Kennedy, and we had another president in five minutes. Remember, you are not that important.”

Rueff says the sage advice stuck with him and reminded him to be careful, not to overdo it and maintain the proper balance between work and family.

In 1992, he added partner Dennis Villani, DVM, and three years later, Matt Ackermann, DVM, also joined the clinic as a partner.

Rueff says the younger veterinarians keep him young and challenge him. The trio has worked hard to stay focused and service producers in Indiana and beyond.

In these times of constant change, Rueff expresses pride at the long history of stability of his veterinary team, only topped by his marriage of 32 years this month, and the initiative of his two daughters. Laura is in medical school and Erin starts optometry school this fall.

Reflecting on Industry Changes

Changes in the swine industry have been striking, Rueff notes. In 1984, when he opened his practice, a large client owned 400 sows. “Most of my clients were 50-200 sows, farrow-to-finish operations.”

During the 1980s, farms were able to eradicate lice, mange and atrophic rhinitis, and take steps to control E. coli scours. “The problems we had then were kind of simple, because we knew that Bug A caused Disease B and you fixed it with Drug C. It worked and you were done!”

The 1990s brought larger farms and larger problems, such as Actinobacillus pleuropneumonia, pseudorabies and porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS), says Rueff. Swine farms went to multi-site production systems to spread out the hog density and lower the disease threshold. It has only partially succeeded, as we still face challenges with PRRS and now circovirus, he says.

Over the years, client numbers have shrunk and hog numbers have grown. Now their average client produces 50,000 to 100,000 pigs a year. And the practice, while still focused on Indiana, has expanded beyond state lines.

Rueff has focused more on international consulting the last 15 years. He has averaged about one trip to China annually since 1996. Extremely high pig density has resulted in numerous disease challenges there, he explains. Half of the pigs are raised in backyards, and the other half consists of more typical commercial production.

“But more and more, the modern pig farm is looking similar around the world, because information transfers and the technologies that work, work everywhere,” he comments.

The relatively rapid growth of hog operations, here and abroad, has probably been the biggest surprise to Rueff. “These 10,000-sow units are pretty overwhelming when you think back just 30 years, when 300 sows was a lot of sows.”

As a veterinary consultant, the accelerated growth in the size of hog farms, the reduction in the actual number of hog farms and more time spent on production record analyses has resulted in less time seeing pigs. His actual time on farms has dropped from 85% down to 50%. Veterinarians need to strive to see pigs more often, he stresses.

Supporting Clients

Over the years, Rueff has drawn on the inspiration provided by Indian Creek (IN) high school coach Ralph Sieboldt, who supported him and taught him to make the most of his talents and to help hog farm clients and employees.

In the future, Rueff realizes it will become increasingly important to “keep clients moving forward” as they face the rising costs of doing business. In this regard, he foresees big changes in the next five years as hog producers face new regulations in the areas of auditing and food safety.

“We've got the safest food supply in the world, but we are going to have to continue to prove that,” he emphasizes.

But Rueff also stresses that successful producers and veterinarians need to refocus on the basics and the pig's biology. The industry has accumulated much science and research through the years. But the objective remains the same — keep every pig fed, watered, warm and dry.

Rueff is a past president of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, and in 2002 was named the organization's Swine Practitioner of the Year. In addition to the veterinary clinic, Rueff owns two boar studs and co-owns a 3,750-sow operation.
— Joe Vansickle, Senior Editor

2008 Masters of the Pork Industry - Philip Bradshaw

2008 Masters of the Pork Industry - Philip Bradshaw

At 69 years old, Illinois pork producer Phil Bradshaw is as active as he has ever been. Ten years ago, the third-generation farmer turned over the day-to-day activities of his corn, soybean and hog operation at Griggsville, IL, to his son, Todd.

But that doesn't mean that the gregarious producer has slowed down. In fact, he's still active in administrative duties for the operation, and is mainly responsible for hog chores on weekends and holidays. His appointment book is filled to the brim with meetings. He's one busy farmer — and he wouldn't have it any other way.

Bradshaw is not your typical farmer. “I am not one of those guys who just wanted to farm. Some guys farm because they just love it. I'm not that way. I've farmed because I thought it was the best opportunity,” he emphasizes.

That opportunity came in 1963, when his uncle asked if he wanted to return to help run his farm. The following year, his uncle rented him the farm and they remained partners until 1972, when Bradshaw purchased the farm. It includes several hundred acres of corn and soybeans and what turned into a 200-sow, farrow-to-finish operation.

Bradshaw grins widely and chuckles when asked how many pigs he raises or has responsibility for. The operation inventories about 5,000 segregated-early-weaned pigs, which he finishes for Cargill.

In 1993, although still working in the hog operation regularly, he decided since he was in his 50s and the future looked uncertain — to turn ownership of the hogs over to his nephew, Brian. The nephew became an integrated producer and contract marketed pigs to local packers. “When the market crashed in 1998, Brian had about 80% of his production contracted, so he never took that beating,” Bradshaw recounts.

Brian sold the LLC that runs the finishing business to Cargill last fall, when the bleeding from high input costs got too bad, Bradshaw explains. Now, Cargill owns the pigs and supplies the feed, removing the risk of feeding pigs. Pigs are sent to Cargill's Excel plant in Beardstown, IL.

Bradshaw quit farrowing in the 1990s, but family members — his son, daughters, brothers, nieces and nephews — have majority ownership in the farrowing units and continue to operate them. He still maintains interests or part-ownership in a farrowing and finishing LLC in Illinois.

Surviving Tough Times

Bradshaw insists family hog farming has undergone major changes that have forced many farmers into contracting arrangements and participating in other hog business ventures to secure their futures. He says there are very few family farms similar to his old 200-sow, farrow-to-finish setup left in the industry. Twenty five years ago, that unit produced 2,000-3,000 market hogs a year.

In those days, there were struggles in dealing with the fluctuations in grain and livestock commodity markets, too. But for Bradshaw, it was all about making sacrifices and keeping costs low in order to succeed. For years, he didn't have fancy hog buildings or drive a shiny new pickup truck, he recalls.

He remembers the '60s, when he farrowed sows in A-huts and raised 1,400 pigs in the timber. To navigate his 10-year-old, two-wheel-drive truck through the woods after fall farrowings required tire chains. The latch on the driver's side door was broken, so he installed a bar to hold the door closed when driving.

Most of the confinement hog buildings and barns that are on his farm were built in the '70s and have been retrofitted as needed.

His home was small and modest. Only recently did he have the 50-year-old family home revamped to provide more living space.

Altogether, the sacrifices he and his family made helped maintain Bradshaw's status as a low-cost producer. He was always told that if he could be the least-cost producer in the area, it would increase his odds of staying in business — and that advice proved to be true.

Bradshaw also found a way recently to cut costs to meet environmental obligations. Long gone are the days in Illinois where you can burn or bury pigs, he says. Feeding out 10,000-plus hogs annually, and family members farrowing 3,000 or more sows at the one-site operation, would place a burden on those disposal methods anyway. Using grant funds from the USDA's Environmental Quality Improvement Program (EQIP), he recently completed construction of a $30,000, nine-bay composting site.

Serving His Fellow Man

Bradshaw boasts a long history of involvement in pork producer boards, agricultural activities and local community endeavors that span the United States and abroad.

His passion for involvement is all about trying to make people's lives better. “In my life, I like to think I do things where everybody wins,” he offers.

That sentiment was on display in his early days. In 1968, when he was just 30 years old, he was elected president of the Pike County Pork Producers. In 1970, he became a member of the Illinois Pork Producers Association. The following year, when the vice president of the group chose not to run for the presidency, Bradshaw was asked to assume the post. At the urging of mentor and pork producer George Brauer, he agreed to do it.

As it turned out, Bradshaw was asked to do more. He is the only producer in the organization's history to serve three years as state pork producer president.

During the late 1980s and through the 1990s, Bradshaw's voice could be heard calling for stricter efforts for control of pseudorabies (PRV). Also in attendance at those animal health meetings was Paul Doby, Illinois state veterinarian, who spoke without wavering of the need for stiffer PRV control measures, earning Bradshaw's lifelong respect.

For Bradshaw, PRV turned out to be a personal issue as well. His was one of the first operations in 1974 to contract the disease. And he suggests that lax biosecurity standards probably played a role in a second infection. He figures his operation endured the disease from 1974 to 1987. It was officially eradicated in 2002-2003.

Pushing for FMD-Free Americas

In 1989, while president of the U.S. Animal Health Association, Bradshaw became integrally involved in a campaign that continues today — the eradication of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) from the western hemisphere. He currently chairs the InterAmerican Group targeting that eradication effort.

He proclaims that an outbreak of FMD in the United States would be more damaging to the pork industry than to the beef industry, because the pork sector exports 17% of its production annually, and relies heavily on that economic infusion.

Further, Bradshaw believes it is only a matter of time, given the world's continuing problems with FMD, before the United States breaks with the disease again. The United States has been free of FMD since 1929.

“It is just a matter of time because you cannot police all of our borders to keep that virus out. Eradicating FMD from South America will lower the risk of North America getting FMD. It is the most contagious disease ever known to mankind, so it will spread and it will spread quickly,” he stresses.

The goal of the InterAmerican Group is to eradicate FMD from the region by 2010. Progress has been steady. There were only 57 reported cases of FMD in South America last year — all in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay.

Bradshaw also serves on the USDA secretary of agriculture's advisory committee on foreign animal disease. And, through his work with the United Soybean Board, he has gained recognition for publicizing the value of soybeans as a protein source, worldwide, and also for the vital role livestock plays. A total of 98% of soybean meal produced is fed to livestock, including poultry.

The National Pork Board works with the United Soybean Board to co-sponsor Operation Main Street. Bradshaw is an approved speaker for the program.

Through his work with the United Soybean Board, Bradshaw also supports a joint project that reviews all of the literature pertaining to the health effects of living next to a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO). He says county health officials in Missouri have used a suspect University of Iowa study, which is suggestive of health dangers from CAFOs, to stop hog construction in many counties. Bradshaw says the review is aimed at determining if there is any validity to that study.

He chairs the World Soy Foundation, which provides soy protein assistance to the malnutritioned in 23 countries.

Bradshaw also travels worldwide in support of the FMD campaign, promotion of soybeans and pork production. In early May, he was set to take a two-week trip to Russia to talk about U.S. pork production.

Bradshaw and his wife, Linda, of 47 years, raised three children, have four grandchildren and one great grandson.
— Joe Vansickle, Senior Editor

2008 Masters of the Pork Industry - The Waldo Family

2008 Masters of the Pork Industry - The Waldo Family

“For better or worse, we're still here.” The proclamation — commonly reserved for marital occasions - comes from Max Waldo, vice president and manager of Waldo Farms, Inc., the world's largest purebred seedstock supplier. It summarizes the tenacity and perseverance of a family commitment that has endured for well over a century.

Steeped in tradition and commitment to produce top quality breeding stock, Waldo Farms currently encompasses three generations of family members. For Willard, the family's patriarch, recollections of the early days come a little slower. But at 96 years old, he remains both interested and reflective of a family business that dates back to 1895.

Rich Heritage

Willard's grandfather, Harmon, fought in several Civil War campaigns before moving to Lincoln, NE, in 1868. Within three years, the Waldo family moved to the DeWitt area and set down roots that have endured to this day.

The youngest of four sons, Willard's father (also named Harmon), was born just a week after his father's death. Just seven years later, the Waldo siblings were tested again when their mother died, leaving them to eke out a living by operating a horse, dray and livery business from their small, 26-acre tract of land on the edge of DeWitt.

In 1895, the Waldo boys purchased their first Duroc sow and launched what is now the oldest purebred swine herd in America. That sow was aptly named “Confidence.” In her first three litters, she farrowed 51 pigs and raised 36.

In 1903, Harmon (H.O.) Waldo exhibited the Waldo's first Durocs at the Nebraska State Fair.

Willard was born in April 1912. His parents took their young son to the state fair that summer; he has not missed a State Fair since.

Willard also likes to relate a story his mother used to tell. “We had an old house — really little more than a cave — on the southeast corner of our property,” he explains. It was flanked on three sides by hog lots. “She said I fed those hogs sand when I was just 2 years old,” the elder Waldo chuckles.

He also remembers one year when he and his father spent nearly a month building 54 individual hog crates in preparation to send entries to the state fair. That year, 13 Duroc breeders from the area filled two railroad stock cars. The crates were loaded in the evening and arrived at the fair the next morning. Docks adjacent to the swine barn made for easy unloading. The Waldo family followed in a Model T Ford the next day.

As a young man, Willard's interest in the Duroc breed grew as he did. He graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1934 and worked as a county Extension agent and a vocational agriculture teacher for several years. This provided the resources to begin building his own herd of Durocs, tapping into the Waldo family's foundation stock.

“It was my ambition to raise hogs and farm,” he explains. “We knew Durocs as the most productive breed. We knew we needed to do all we could to raise good-producing hogs. We started with that goal and never quit. Litter size and growth rate - that's what's important. We wanted to sell the best.”

Drawing on his college education and an appreciation of scientific principles applied to breeding better hogs, Willard was one of the first to weigh and record pig weights at birth, weaning and market, then utilize those figures to guide his selections for the next generation.

In 1946, Willard and his wife, Beulah, moved their young family just two miles south of DeWitt, where Waldo Farms' headquarters remain today. A decade later, Waldo Farms became the first purebred herd to have an area Extension agent probe the entire herd for backfat, supplementing his performance-based selection program.

The Waldos have a long history of utilizing independent performance evaluators and industry-wide trials to measure the performance of their Duroc, Yorkshire and Landrace hogs.

Willard's oldest son, Arley, left the farm to become a professor of economics at the University of Minnesota. Another son, Max, graduated from the University of Nebraska with an animal science degree in 1960. In his senior year, he commuted from Lincoln to manage the purebred herd, while his father served his second of four terms in the state legislature.

Willard remembers those years fondly. He is most proud of a framed “Hogs Are Beautiful” poster hanging on his home office wall. It was presented on April 5, 1972, when he retired from the Nebraska Senate. The poster's backside carries the signatures of many colleagues.

“When you get a picture like that, signed by that many people, you know you've done something,” he says proudly. “And, some of those people weren't necessarily my friends,” he adds with a grin.

With Max at the helm, the Waldo Farms' herd was converted to total specific-pathogen free (SPF) status via hysterectomy procedures that were pioneered by his father and George Young, DVM, about eight years earlier. The herd was closed to outside breeding stock to protect the high health, SPF status, which is maintained to this day. A selection index emphasizing gain and backfat was also initiated in 1960.

The herd has been recognized as the top recorder of Duroc hogs since 1971. Individual pig pedigrees issued to Waldo Farms' Durocs peaked in 1976 at 10,183.

Max cites 1987 as their “busiest export year,” sending out 17 shipments and representing about 5% of the breeding stock sold that year. Breeding stock has been sold to 49 states and over 30 countries.

The last Waldo Farms pigs were shown at the Nebraska State Fair in 2003, bringing a 100-year tradition of show ring competition to a close.

Industry Changes

The heyday for selling purebred stock to commercial producers occurred in the mid-'80s. As the number of independent producers shrunk and integration in the industry took hold, greater emphasis was placed on identifying the very best boars for use through artificial insemination (AI).

“When AI came into play, it opened up some opportunities on the terminal boar side to service larger producers that otherwise would never buy a live boar from anybody other than the company they were buying (replacement) gilts from,” explains Max. “We were early adopters of growth rate and backfat measurement, and we will continue to do that. We are also getting some marker (gene) identification to assist with selection, and we are trying to get intramuscular fat (IMF) readings over and above the typical loin eye measurements.

“We have a percentage of boars in the AI studs that can be designated as higher meat quality animals for those producers with access to niche markets. Unfortunately, I don't think we get directly rewarded for our quality any more than the average commercial guy does, in regard to performance and meat quality,” he adds.

In all, Waldo Farms has conducted meat quality work on about 3,000 carcasses, which has helped identify high meat quality sire lines. “We curtailed using a couple of boars because of the data,” he notes.

With nearly 50 years devoted to fulltime production and sales of breeding stock, Max recounts: “We have had a few good years. Typically, when the hog market is really good, we can have a very good year. But, when it's average or below, it's a real struggle. We are held to a higher standard of (herd) health, but we put ourselves on that pedestal to where people expect us to reach a standard above most other suppliers.”

Although many have moved away from the SPF designation for various reasons, the Waldos continue to conduct quarterly slaughter checks to ensure pigs are free of lice, mange, Mycoplasmal pneumonia, Actinobacillus pleuropneumonia and, although it is not included in the SPF protocol, porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) virus.

Next Generation

A son (Lee) and daughter (Linda) of Max and Tryka Waldo represent a third generation to be actively involved in the enterprise.

Lee, also a University of Nebraska graduate, recognizes the current industry issues as unique to his 25 or so years with Waldo Farms. “We've never really been through a cycle like this before. We're definitely at a crossroads,” he declares. Where it will lead, he's unsure. “There might be a niche to be a genetic supplier to the (commercial) seedstock companies. In the corn industry, there is a scant few who raise the germplasm for the major companies.”

Linda Gibbs took a slightly different route after high school, by attending college and working in California for six years and another six years as a franchise business owner in Colorado. She returned to the family enterprise in 1992 to oversee the recordkeeping systems, foreign market correspondence and marketing/advertising.

“It was time to move back home,” she relates. “From my point of view, one of the things that brought us to today is generations of commitment and our family's perseverance. There have been lots of storms that some other people would have been very challenged to weather. The makeup in the Waldo family is we are going to make it no matter what.

“We've always understood that a too-narrow focus is not good for the program. So we stay the course of what we believe is right. That has always seemed to carry my grandfather and my father through the tribulations in this industry,” she adds.

Her father agrees. “About the only thing we have going for us is our reputation for excellence and for treating people fairly.”

Future plans are focused on what Max calls Waldo Farms' domestic forte - providing Duroc boars to AI studs for commercial producer use. “On the sow side, genetic lines must have the ability to raise large litters and also have growth potential and reasonable leanness. Meat quality will have a bigger role to play, whether we get paid for it or not,” he predicts.

Two key issues for the industry are feed efficiency and rate of gain. “There are some exotic ideas about how to accomplish some of these things,” notes Max. “Yet some of Lauren Christian's work at Iowa State, with five generations of comparing hogs selected for lean growth vs. those selected solely for feed efficiency, showed that those selected for lean growth had slightly better improvement in feed efficiency. The idea that you will make the most progress if you just weigh and probe the dang hogs seems to escape some people.”

In truth, Willard's insight over 50 years ago has set a consistent course that serves Waldo Farms very well in today's competitive seedstock market. “It's still mostly about keeping on keeping on,” says Max. “It's about weighing and probing every pig and not cutting corners. Plus, we are able to measure these traits more accurately than when Dad started,” he adds.

The Real Payoff

“The biggest change in the industry that we've seen is we used to be able to be a farmer, to be able to raise pigs. Now we have to be an expert in so many different fields. If you don't have access to the information needed to get the right answers, you're not going to make it. That's the challenge that people are facing today,” notes Linda.

If the grandkids decide they want to extend the Waldo family involvement in the business another generation, Max offers this advice: “First, be well prepared with a good education. Have an affinity for the enterprise. If raising breeding stock is what they want, they will need to enjoy it to be good at it.”

The benefits in any career cannot always be measured in dollars. “I think the pig business has treated the Waldo family pretty well. We try to treat people like we would like them to treat us,” says Willard.

“We have endured many challenges by the grace of God,” proclaims Max. “The constant is that our family has enjoyed many opportunities, and we've been blessed by meeting many great people and being able to make many great friends.”
— Dale Miller, Editor

Pork Industry Resources Compiled

To help the pork industry deal with the current financial crisis, the University of Minnesota Extension has compiled a list of resources pork producers can use free of charge.

The online guide, “Pork Producer Resources for Difficult Financial Times,” can be accessed from the University of Minnesota Swine Extension Web site.

The site provides direct links to downloadable fact sheets, interactive models, market forecasts, web programs and contact information on pork production, economics, financial and business management, legal issues to consider and managing family and personal stress.