Feeding for tastier pork
WEBSTER CITY – Cindy McCollough tells her mill manager, George Sweazey Jr., of Webster City, a batch of organic goat feed was required that day, then turns her attention to the question she was asked.
“I’ve been doing this for 13 years,” she said, “and I still don’t think I have it mastered.”
McCollough owns Blue Stem Enterprises, which includes her organic feed mill southwest of Webster City.
The company grinds feed for swine, poultry, sheep, goats and dairy.
Their stock of raw material, all certified organic grains, are mostly grown within a 100-mile radius of the mill.
She said Blue Stem is a small hands-on company and she likes it that way.
“I want to be able to know my growers and my producers,” McCollough said,” and I want to have my say on every (feed) batch that goes out.”
McCollough said the mill was certified organic in 2003 through the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.
“But we can use anyone’s product certified through any national program,” she said.
Blue Stem is required to be capable of backtracking the growing source of all of its feed components.
It get regular inspections, both annual and spot checks.
“We’ve never failed yet,” McCollough said, “so we must be alright.”
To assure a consistent supply, she said she often works closely with growers in planning their next organic crop.
The majority of the growers have set aside some of their acres to grow organic grains for Blue Stem, while also growing commercial commodities.
McCollough said she has a 40-acre farm of her own and raises small groups of livestock.
When she couldn’t find a mill that provided the organic feed she was seeking, she decided to do it herself.
“It’s expensive to raise a pig organically,” McCollough said. “But as far as flavor, there’s nothing better.”
But it’s part genetics, she added, especially with Birkshire being a common genetic line used in niche pork operations.
“It’s the most flavorful pork I’ve ever had.”
Making yield strides
When asked about maintaining high yields with organic, non-GMO seeds, McCollough said the industry is learning how to maintain a 200-plus bushel yield in corn and 70-plus bushels in soybeans.
For instance in corn, a seed variety called PuraMaize is showing success in protecting organic corn by rejecting foreign corn pollen.
“You still need a 30-foot buffer,” she said, “which is a big step for our growers.”
PuraMaize, she said, is a popcorn hybrid.
“You can’t genetically change the corn,” McCollough said, “but you can breed with other parent stock.
“So we’re making great strides to be certifiable and still keep yields up.”
She said there are other breakthroughs they’ve made, including using cover crops mostly winter wheat and winter barley for controlling weeds.
“Weed management is the biggest challenge,” she said.
The three-year process for organic certification is a big commitment for growers which, she said, she appreciates.
The learning process not only includes weed management without chemicals, but also preparing equipment to handle organic grain without cross-contamination with other non-organic stock.
McCollough said Practical Farmers of Iowa is working with NorOats, in St. Ansgar, which mixes feed for racehorses, for developing organic oats to supply a growing demand in that market.
The bulk of Blue Stem customers for swine feed is from small backyard growers with outside pigs.
The ration contains wheat midds, a byproduct of processing wheat flour. Blue Stem gets midds from an Iowa mill, Early Morning Harvest, based in Panora.
“Wheat midds,” McCollough said, “pretty much matches corn 1-to-1 in weight gain.”
Since Blue Stem feeds cannot contain antibiotics, growth hormones or GMO grains, the ration includes yeast compounds, kelp and essential oils.
Yeast is for digestion.
Kelp is for micronutrients.
Essential oils and herbs, such as oregano, stimulates immune systems.
“A good feed program,” McCollough said, “will help pigs do well against diseases.”
That and being outside, she added.
“If you get them outside and allow them to root and get at legumes, the pigs will look different.
“They have a darker meat than confinement pigs.”
Many of her clients use Birkshire genetics because the bone structure is designed for being outdoors.
“When you eat niche pork,” McCollough said, “it’ll likely be of this genetic make-up.
“It’s good to see these old breeds coming back and that we’re using these genetics.”
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