For the owners and operators of the 2,700 farms where pigs are raised in Nebraska, there are no weekends. No matter the day of the week, the size of the farm, or the type of housing the pigs are kept in, Nebraska’s pork producers have to be available to ensure their animals are adequately cared for.
And it’s a job they take very seriously, according to Larry Sitzman, executive director of the Nebraska Pork Producers Association.
“We support equally a variety of production systems for pigs in Nebraska, from outdoor pens to climate-controlled buildings,” Sitzman says. “But as different as those are, they all have something in common – to produce a quality product, the animals must receive quality care.”
Swine Health and Comfort
Bart Beattie, of Hamlot, Inc. in Sumner, agrees. Hamlot is a fifth-generation wean-to-finish family farm in central Nebraska that markets 30,000 hogs annually. Wean-to-finish means the Beatties receive piglets from other farmers and care for those piglets until they reach about 250 pounds, big enough to go to market for processing. Beattie says the health and comfort of his animals are of prime concern, and the farm practices he uses call for high levels of attention and progressive technology.
“All of our buildings are climate-controlled,” Beattie says. “We focus on optimal temperatures for pig comfort. We start at 78 degrees (necessary for smaller pigs) and by the time they reach market weight it’s down to 64 degrees.” The piglets even have zone heating, an area of the pens that have a warmer where the piglets can go into and out of at their own comfort.
Air quality systems and facility layout also promote a healthy environment.
“Our barns are designed so the animals have maximum square footage to move around, feed, interact with other pigs and get water,” Beattie says.
Pork producers also care about “biosecurity,” a cornerstone of raising healthy pigs. Shane Meyer, sow herd production supervisor for Plymouth Ag Group, says biosecurity includes isolation and sanitation practices that protect the pigs from the introduction of potential disease. This is especially important at sow herd farms like Meyers’, where piglets are born and get their first start. Meyer oversees Plymouth’s Diller location, which weans 1,250 piglets weekly. Once the piglets are weaned, they are transported to nurseries and finishing operations (where they are fed to market weight) all across the state. Meyer and his team must shower and dress in sanitized clothing before entering animal areas.
“New pigs brought into the herd have to be in isolation for two months,” Meyer says. “They come in on trucks that have been completely disinfected to limit any disease potential from outside hogs.”
Beattie, whose Hamlot Inc., receives piglets from sow farms like Meyers’, appreciates the biosecurity effort and carries the same practices through at his operation. Hamlot, like most other Nebraska pork farms, utilizes intensive record-keeping practices to maintain animal health and deliver a quality product for the meat-consuming public.
“We can trace everything from back to the farm, all the way through to the processing plant, to the day the meat was processed,” says Beattie. “We can even trace it back to the specific truck it was loaded on and tell you who loaded the pig on that day.”
Open Pen System
While good record keeping is critical at any farm operation, those records may be kept differently depending on the type of farm. While Meyer and Beattie each handle pigs on their farms for only a part of those pigs’ life cycle, Karen and Bruce Grant of Meadow Grove have a pork farm that involves the entire production cycle, from breeding and gestation, to birthing, weaning (removing the piglets from their mothers), and growing the animals to market weight.
The Grants’ family farm markets 1,300 animals annually, raises their pen system, incorporating two naturally ventilated hoop structures. A hoop structure provides animals protection from the elements, while allowing them freedom to move between indoor and outdoor environments.
Like the Grants, Belden farmers Jan and Jim Miller also use a hoop barn for their farrow (birth)-to-finish operation. They market 2,200 hogs annually.
“Like other types of production systems, we have to manage our herd for diseases, animal comfort and care,” Jan Miller says. “Our hoop barn provides our animals with an environment that leaves them very content, whether there’s a raging blizzard or it’s a hot Nebraska day.
“Our type of housing isn’t necessarily better than any other swine housing. It’s just that different types of housing require different types of management practices to keep the pigs safe and comfortable, a goal I think all Nebraska producers strive for regardless of what type of building their pigs are in.”
Sitzman, with the Nebraska Pork Producers Association, says most Nebraska pig farmers, regardless of size or type of operation, voluntarily participate in education programs called “Pork Quality Assurance” and “Transport Quality Assurance.” These training programs outline the ethical principles producers should follow. Sitzman adds that 6,689 Nebraska pig farmers or employees have taken this training.
Job Creation and Economic Impact
Nebraska is the sixth-largest hog producing state in the nation and has three major pork processing plants, located in Fremont, Crete and Madison. The industry generates $660 million annually and supports 11,200 jobs. Most of the hog farms, and all three processors, sit primarily within the state’s eastern third, and at any given time, more than 7.5 million hogs are raised at 2,700 sites.
“Nebraska is the best place on the planet to raise pigs,” says Jim Pillen of Pillen Family Farms. “We have the advantage of land, water and people. It allows us to compete with anyone in the world.”
One of the largest hog farms in the state, Pillen Family Farms near Platte Center serves as a major employer, supporting 600 families.
“Pigs need us every single day. They don’t care if it’s Saturday or Sunday,” Pillen says. “Those in the pork industry have to be committed to being the best every single day of the year.”