Growing pigs in an expensive way
(Second of a two-part series)
WEBSTER CITY – As vertical integration continues to vie for larger market shares of the U.S. pig crop, independent hog producers are finding themselves looking to new markets and technologies to compete and stay independent.
Dr. Gary Dial, a Hamilton County-area veterinarian, is one among many vets who have moved into finding a niche that independent producers can market into – naturally raised pork – through Truebridge Foods, an Iowa company.
The rewards can be great, said Janelle Roker, who oversees Truebridge’s financials and marketing.
But it’s expensive, and far from being easy.
That’s because Truebridge Foods’ pigs are classified as “never-ever pigs,” meaning they have never been treated or fed antibiotics, for health or as a growth stimulant.
Gestation stalls and farrowing crates are not part of the management system.
The pigs get a strict vegetarian diet, which is probably the biggest challenge in growing pigs for Truebridge.
“This system works really well for progressive farmers,” Dial said, “who want to use new technologies, that really want to have a more connected relationship with their animals.”
Raising pigs in a welfare-friendly system for a premium price when they hit market weight, Dial said, offers incentives that attracted Iowa and Illinois producers to grow these animals that require intensive animal health competence.
“This system is not only more labor-intensive,” Dial said, “but requires more husbandry skills.
“You have to be able to go in and really look after the welfare of these pigs.
“The standards require that. Since we don’t have antibiotics to fall back on we have to make sure the management of the pigs are right so they can tolerate the lack of access to antibiotics.”
Despite the extra work and the extra finances of raising each sow, Dial said there are incentives, including:
- Good PR: “Without argument most people can see that our pigs are more comfortable than in a conventional environment,” Dial said. “It also works out for worker comfort as well.”
- Good income: “The premiums are substantive,” Dial said, “but more importantly, we are able to capture long-term agreements with natural processors (with contracts) that are lucrative and friendly toward the farmer.”
- Know the enduser: “It ties the farmer into the customer,” Dial said. “The customer gets to know the farm in which they get their pigs.
“They often visit and get to know the farm and with that you get the farm owners and the workers to understand they’re not just producing a commodity product that you don’t know where it ends up.
“They know where they’re meat is going and it creates a linkage there that I think is really important.”
When pigs get sick
But sometimes pigs get sick and they need to be treated.
“If we have sick pigs that are treated, they’re what we call by-product pigs that will be going into the commodity market,” Dial said. “There’s nothing wrong with those pigs and they don’t have antibiotic residues.
“But if there’s a junction in their lives where they were treated, they don’t qualify for the never-ever markets.
“We only sell pigs that qualify for markets in terms of their rearing environment and medical practice, and what they’ve been exposed to in terms of diets, antibiotics and hormones.”
Omnivores as vegans
“Diets,” Dial said, “is a big challenge for us. They have to be vegetarian, or vegan diets.
“So we spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to feed omnivores and convert them into a vegetarian.
“If I had to get rid of one standard we have to follow, it would be the vegetarian diets, because the pigs just don’t perform as well as with traditional corn/soy diets.”
Roker agreed, but on a different level.
“It’s not so much as the pigs not doing so well, it’s from a farmer perspective,” she said.
There’s a difference between never-ever antibiotics, which means the pigs never been treated with antibiotics.
But, she said, “There’s also never-fed antibiotics that means they’ve never been fed antibiotics as growth promoters.
“What that does is it gives a farmer pause before they treat a pig.
“As soon as they treat a pig, they lose the premium on it and it’s sold to the commodity market.”
The stocking density, or space allowances permitted by Truebridge’s markets are different that what’s conventionally used in terms of commodity production.
“We had to learn how to maintain a competitive cost structure to meet the space allowances,” Dial said. “In a conventional commodity system, (a pig) will spend the majority of its life in a 2-foot-by-2-foot gestation stall or farrowing crate, while our markets require 32 square feet of space.
“So it requires a whole different mental approach in how you develop efficiencies in that pig farm.
“Our markets require a longer lactation length, an older weaning age for pigs, a minimum of 28 days for pigs.
“It’s not uncommon for commercial operations to be 21 days or less.”
Niche marketing has a bigger worry for meat supply than conventional markets.
“Everybody that’s in this business,” Dial said, “who has customers who buy these pigs, they have to have a consistent number of pigs to deliver every week.
“In the commodity business, if you are, for example, short on loins, you go out on the open market and buy them.
“But in the value-added business, you can’t do that.
“So getting a consistent supply is pretty important for us.”
Dial said Truebridge’s pigs are toll-processed, which means someone is paid to slaughter and fabricate the pigs.
“Our customers are either other natural pork processors, so we have to have a consistent volume of pigs coming off our farms.”
Because their producer operations are larger than typical niche farms, they can carry small pigs week-to-week to allow them to get to market weight.
“We’ve stuck with three loads per week,” he said. “because that allows us to carryover pigs and even out their slaughter weight size.”
Dial said Truebridge enters into a market agreement with producers to sell their pigs “in a transparent fashion so you’d know what you are going to make.
“We know what their costs are because we produce our own pigs, so our job is not necessarily to extract as much money as we can, it’s to make sure that the monies are distributed fairly along the chain, because we recognize how difficult it is to produce these kinds of pigs.”
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