Happy 70th Birthday, Dad!
Episode 24_ Part 3 – Dennis Wooden
Hello there. This is Dr. Casey Bradley and you’re listening to The Real P3 podcast, a podcast dedicated to the real pork producers around the world. I hope you enjoy.
Happy Birthday, Dad! I’m so excited to get to celebrate my father’s 70th birthday with everyone. As you all know, he is why I’m a swine nutritionist today. So, we’re gonna go back to Cass County and not only visit with my father, but some of his friends and some of the multi-generational swine producers in Cass County, Michigan. In part 3, we’re gonna be visiting with my dad’s friend, Dennis Wooden. Dennis was my 4-H leader growing up. He was a great mentor to me. He’s been involved in a lot of different organizations for the swine industry and agriculture in Michigan. We’re gonna talk about sow mortality. I think there’s somethin’ we can learn from this long-time pure-bred breeder, and how to select properly. But we’re also gonna talk about what diversification looks like in the swine industry and why we all should be concerned with the problems facing the small producers today in the U.S. and around the world. So, stay tuned.
Casey: Well, hello, Dennis. How are you doin’ today?
Dennis: I’m doin’ great. Great, Casey, how are you?
C: Great. Would you mind tellin’ us a little bit about yourself and your operation?
D: Well, I don’t know how much detail you want, but you know, I’m like your dad, I’m getting up in years, so it’s hard to know where to start from. I’m 63 now. I was raised from birth showing pigs and raising pigs. I’m a third-generation pork producer. We started with Hampshires in 1956, two years before I was born, and had registered Hampshire herd. At that time, it was quite large, 100 sows, pretty much in a few years we had about 100 Hampshire sows. About 10 years later, we added Duroc sows and about 10 years after that, with me comin’ back to the farm, we added Yorkshire sows. So, we got up to about 200 Yorkshire, Hampshire, Duroc sows, and at that time, we really didn’t have any cross-bred sows, and that’s how much the industry’s changed.
So anyway, I grew up that way. I grew up in 4-H. I grew up in FFA. And that’s really helped me mold my life. It’s really… It’s made me what I am to even be able to communicate with you half-way decent. But, so we grew up that way, showin’ pigs everywhere, you know, state, local, national shows and stuff. I became very active in 4-H as a leader of… basically, … well, I’ll get ahead of myself. I only went one year to Michigan State University in 1977-78. I did the ag/tech thing, and soon found out that that was too easy. Ha! So, at term, I guess about 3rd term of that, I [inaudible] a lot of 3rd and 4th year courses in nutrition and genetics and everything. Didn’t ever get a credit for anything, and learned a lot, because I, you know, ‘cause I realized that wasn’t for me. The 4-year program, I knew what I was going to do, so I thought, well, you know, I don’t need that, so, whether that was foolish or not, I don’t know. Time would have told that tale.
Anyway, I came back to the farm. That’s when hogs were great. We were selling 500 boars a year to commercial producers, sellin’ a lot of 4-H pigs, showin’ a lot. Then the following year, basically the crash, I think it was ‘80, the hogs were so bad. Everything with the pseudo-rabies and everything, everything went to… everything changed. Everything went to total confinement. Really, we went [04:00] total confinement about 1972, just because of labor and the land prices and everything else. And then as diseases got worse, like pseudo-rabies especially, that was a smart idea, and it really worked out well for us that we were ahead of the curve on that. Anyway, within a few years, we went from sellin’ 500 boars to sellin’ 200 boars and currently we sell about 100 boars a year. Not even that really, about 70 boars a year. Basically, half of ‘em go to one producer and all the rest go like singles to people. So, the industry’s totally changed obviously, in a lot of ways. I’m not the exception to the rule. A lot of folks didn’t last as long as we did selling breeding stock and boars and stuff like that. We still sell a decent amount of F1 gilts, a lot of club pigs. We’ve kinda got a herd that’s half and half. Ha! Half our sows are commercial oriented, and half our sows are show-pig oriented. The reason being that we still have a decent amount that we can sell as breeding stock and we always have those off-season pigs, we call ‘em, that are born in the winter. Those aren’t any fair pigs whatsoever or prospect pigs. And so, a lot of those go to commercial operations and or to market. So, it’s been a challenge.
We were in a partnership with my dad and my brother for several years, and then my dad got out of it. So, my brother and I did that for about ’78-’88. Then, he was very good in computers, my brother was, so he decided to go that route as his own basically helping, basically non-farmers, anybody with computer programming and stuff like that. But we still crop-farmed 850 acres. A few years ago, we decided to – up until that point we did – and a couple years ago, we got out of the cropping side of it because of our age and other things that we wanted to do in life, so we lease out our land the last few years.
So, I’ve been very active with the Michigan Pork Producers. Actually, [06:00] I just got off the board after 39 consecutive years on the state board with Michigan Pork Producers. I’m a past president on that and every office that they had at the time; I kind of worked my way up. I’ve enjoyed that a lot. It was kinda hard to leave that, but, you know, younger people need to help make a lot more of these decisions and, you know, I kinda get in a lost the flame to do that anymore after almost 40 straight years. I served my term. Then with Farm Bureau, I’ve been very involved in that, too, for many years. Uh, just got off that board in a month after 24 years; not consecutive years, but pretty much off and on for 24-28 years it was. And even on some state things with Pork Producers, I mean Michigan Farm Bureau. So, people are goin’, “Have you got health issues? Are you gonna get out of farming? What is this? You’re getting off all these boards!” I said, well, you know, I’ve had enough. You talk about mentorin’ and stuff, you kinda wanted me to mention that, you know, and then we’ll go with 4-H, too, I’ll get to that in a minute. But the mentoring side of it is real important to me. Bein’ on these boards, you get to help mentor people and you get to know people. You learn so much, there’s so much knowledge base you can get bein’ on these different boards. And I’ll just use strictly Michigan Pork Producers instead of going back and forth. The friends that you meet, the relationships that you solidify and the things that you’ve done over 40 years, and the way the industry’s changed is so dramatic – obviously anybody listening to this know it has – you know, it changed… In 10 years, It changed more than it did in 50 years. So basically, the reason I was involved in all that was it was very educational; it was selfish on my part in some ways, because really you kinda, you’re always up to date on what’s goin’ on in the industry, you always have a handle on it. You always get the most recent [08:00] information; you always know what’s goin’ on. And talking with other producers, which basically on that board, those 10 producers basically produce about 90%of the pork in Michigan, so there’s a lot of big, large producers on that, and the reason I stayed on, one of the main reasons was, I wanted to represent the smaller producer and the show pig industry. Ya know. I know how other states have gotten along with the small-big thing and the struggle with that. I’m proud to say that the Michigan Pork Producers are very, very good about getting along with each other. We’ve never had issues with that. Big, small, you’re big, I’m small, I’m more important than you, you know, what you have to say isn’t important if you’re little: I’ve never felt that way myself and then just Pat Albright just got off as President, he served his 2 year term. Pat’s kinda in the same boat, he’s a little bigger than I am, they got a couple hundred sows but they’re into the show pig thing. He’s gonna stay on for a few years, and so he… ya know. I told him to stay on it for awhile, so he can represent the smaller producers. There’s a lot of large producers on that, but there’s a few of us that are smaller and we have a very good representation of the state of Michigan; you know, which can’t be said for a lot of the boards that are out there.
C: I have a quick question, though? Who’s makin’ more money this year: the commercial producer or the show pig producer?
D: The show pig producer, in some ways.
C: I was just wonderin’ at over a dollar a pig live-weight; I was curious if that’s translated into the show pig world.
D: Yes, somewhat. The biggest factor is – I always have the advantage, and I know you can always sell your corn for whatever market you can get it contracted for – but the last two years, I’ve had to buy my corn, and that made it a little less profitable for me. I kinda ran out early spring, bought it for 5.50 delivered and that was so darn much money, but then you look and see what happened to it after that, so I’ve got a bin of corn there that I can use for quite a while.
C: Yeah, you’re still, you know, you bought it at a average price for the year.
D: Yeah. And so, and we buy things in enough bulk with the soybean meal. We can buy 20 ton of soybean meal and contract that, so we’re still at a scale that we can get some advantage just from scale, but not like the really large guys can. But, yeah, it’s a… We all have our own pros and cons. I know the commercial industry right now is facin’ a lot of issues with the high mortality of sows, sow deaths. That’s one of the things we talked to at our last meeting here last week, how it’s went from 5 to 7 to 10, to some of the herds 15% mortality rate, and blame it on genetics, blame it on the feed man, blame it on your own management. It’s kind of a little of all of those things, I think. And there’s no real handle on that. That was one of the things that we… They wanted to know what to bring back to the National Pork Producers, so the things that are really affecting the industry and that was the one thing that we thought was the most important is what’s goin’ on with that situation. On our farm, I don’t… there hasn’t been much of a change in that. We’ve always been around that 2-3%. That’s not been a factor.
The other thing which affects us, and anybody, is labor. Labor issues are significant. The lack of labor, and it’s only multiplied since Covid 2020 here. It’s made things even worse tryin’ to find good quality labor; no matter how much you pay ‘em, just finding somebody that’ll do a good job and show up and keep your operation going, so it’s been a struggle for the industry. So…
C: I am working on the mortality piece, from my end. I have a group of, probably the larger producers in the southwest and hopefully, through a kind of a cooperative or consortium, we will be hopefully tackling the sow mortality issue. There’s a lot of people working on it but stay tuned.
D: That’ll be very interesting what [12:00] we find out. You know? If it is one main thing or another or just a combination of everything.
C: I think it’s a combination, so…
D: Yep, I’m probably 100% with you.
C: But it’s interesting, I’m gonna say this because you have a pure-bred herd and you raised Hampshires and Durocs, and I didn’t have very good experience with Hampshires, if you quite remember, back in the day when we tried to breed our pure-bred Hampshires, and I think we got the semen from you, but they were a epic disaster trying to farrow them out outside in the winter and that kind of stuff. You know, not the best maternal animals. So, do you think, on your selection criteria, what are you maybe doing different from a purebred selection, smaller scale, that can translate from maybe genetics selection or even management, in your mind, that you’ve been able to maintain 2-3%. Because if you look at pig-champ numbers and you look at mortality, it doesn’t matter if you were the low mortality herd or the high mortality herd, you saw a significant increase in mortality in the last 10 years. So, what’s the difference about your herd being at 2-3% for years?
D: Yeah, you know, a lot of it is selection and record-keeping. The sow production index – give credit to my brother, gosh, back in 19… whenever the first mac, in other words the first computer came out that you can use, the personal computer, we got it. We thought he was crazy. We spent $10,000 or something on it, and my brother formulated a lot of sow-production index records. And on birth weights, litter weights, the whole thing. And basically, it’s been used by NSR ever since. We gave a lot of that information free years ago for that. And so, we’ve always used that based on anything, whether Hampshire, Yorkshire, Duroc, they had to tow the line and be productive sows or else they weren’t around. And I’m not gonna say that, we kept a few that we shouldn’t have that had the really, really good pigs, you do that, but you make sure you don’t keep very many of those kind. Just like the commercial guys should be doing, which it’s hard being they buy a lot of their gilts is selection on feet and legs, uh, structure. I mean, if they are not structurally sound on their feet and legs and the way they’re designed, you’re gonna have issues. A lot of that, the downer sows and stuff like that, it’s just selection. The way the industry’s changed, by and large, they rely on these large – I’m not gonna say anything wrong, good or bad about – but it’s both. You know, the selecting of those gilts is really important. When you can do it yourself, it’s… and you see all of ‘em, and you have the ultimate decision making on every one of those that you keep, I think it makes a big difference, a really big difference.
C: What is your selection rate? Do you know how many gilts you keep back?
D: With us, it’s so hit and miss, Casey, to be honest with you. We try to replace [15:00] our sow, 30% of our sow herd every year, and so we kinda keep our gilts accordingly to keep the numbers the same. Yeah… I mean, it’s not a real science, but that’s kind of the rule of thumb.
C: No, I think you make a good point. I interviewed Pieter Behrens from the Netherlands a while back and he has internal multiplication, and so he created his own similar index that he wanted to focus on, and one of the key things for him on the mortality piece, but post-weaning, not really sow mortality, was quality of litter, right? And he uses that in his index to select back and he has that choice of what trait he picks. But a lot of these people who are buying these commercial gilts don’t really have that choice of what they want. Everybody thinks we want PSY, chasin’ that, at the cost of maybe sow mortality, so to me that’s a question there is do we chase something that caused other issues.
D: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. And you know, currently the way our sow herd is set up, you know, we have a lot of black sows that are mostly Hampshire in ‘em. About a third of those cross-bred, no half the cross-bred sows are blue-butts, Hamp-York and the others are mostly Hampshire, but a little bit of some of ‘em have back in there or Duroc some in there, but we haven’t had Duroc sows for many years. We didn’t like their uh… when they were in the gestating crate, I didn’t like their attitude. I didn’t like their milking. They were pretty erratic on their milking. So, by using the Sow Production Index, we were culling Duroc sows a lot higher rate than even the Hampshire sows. And… You know, when you… the bottom line of when you really started figurin’ it out, there’s some Duroc sows out there that can raise pigs, we just didn’t ever find too many of ‘em that consistently did that, but especially for the longer parities. You know, you’d get about that third litter and they were done. I mean, real erratic on the weaning weights, dramatic differences in size. At birth, they weren’t… when you were weighing them; they always seemed to have a lot wider range in weaning size. Plus, their attitude wasn’t good working with ‘em. They were a little stubborn. [laughter] Little annoying at times. So, we eliminated those basically several years ago.
The Hampshires? The pure, pure Hampshires, I don’t have a single one of them on the farm anymore. They were too erratic, and their quality, I mean, you’d have litter crates that didn’t look anything like each other. And that breed has gotten a lot better in the last couple years, and I can’t say I’ll never have a Hampshire again, because I very well might… I almost bought a Hampshire boar down at the exposition; the reserve down there; and start a Hampshire thing again, and I caught myself: Just wait a few more years, think it over a little bit. I’ve always loved Yorkshire sows; when my brother got out of the Yo… I’d never had Yorkshire sows on the farm where I lived. There was always the Hamps and the Durocs and my brother had the Yorkshires. It just [18:00] worked better that way, you know, we kinda more specialized in that. And when he no longer wanted to do it, when the prices were so bad, ’79-80, I culled the third of my sows up here, almost half of my unproductive sows up here, and brought all his best Yorkshire sows up here. And since then, it was so much easier to raise those Yorkshire sows, just beginning to end. They’re more prolific, and milking, and easier to get along with. From that I made a lot of blue-butt sows, so that way we can fuse ‘em also for the show pig thing. So, yeah, I love Yorkshire sows.
If I only had one breed, it would be just Yorkshires, but even them as a breed have gotten too, they’re just too heavy muscled, they’ve gotten too terminal in their design. A lot of them so you’ve gotta look and choose where you buy ‘em form anymore, and it’s gettin’ to be a shorter list all the time. Ones that are actually raised pigs can be more like traditional Yorkshires, so I’ve got kinda somewhere in the middle they are; they’re not traditional, but they’re not terminal either. And I have some within the breed itself that are more of the ones you’re gonna produce show pigs for, the ones who are gonna produce all my, basically what we call our keeper gilts, to put back in our herd. So…
C: So, let’s take a stab at these show pigs, because my son is 6 and I’m not sure I want him to get into the show pig world, especially after the TLC show that came out. Why do you think the show pig industry has been always so different than a commercial industry –
D: Excuse me?
C: …and how do you merge that back? Is there ever a chance that we’re ever gonna be on the same selection criteria or judged differently? Or how do you see that going?
D: If there’s one thing I almost guarantee in the next 300 years it’ll never happen. It’ll never happen. The two shall never meet. It’s funny because we have a couple guys that are commercial guys that show at our county fair, and they’re a commercial sow herd, and they can’t understand [20:00] why they’re so different. And I go, you’ve got apples and oranges, and they’ll never be the same. He said, “I can’t understand why you gotta look that way.” The industry, it’s went so far out there, and I hate to be negative about it, Casey, but after returning from the exposition – and I go to those, we don’t show nationally, we haven’t for years, it’s just gotten to be just plain crazy. Especially the nutrition, what they feed ‘em, how they feed ‘em. You know, I used to be able to fit pigs, and I don’t even give people advise anymore. Only basic stuff, because what they do now is just crazy. I mean, they have 25 different bags of stuff that you gotta use, and you have little gram scales that they get this and this and this, and it’s like if I’ve gotta do that, I’m not gonna do that. I’m too practical and I’m too old in my years to try to do that. The industry’s gotten so, uh, well, I tried to buy the exotic or cross-bred boar, and I didn’t find one that I even wanted to bid on down there this past week. My criteria – soundness of structure and enough frame-size. And that eliminated 90% of ‘em.
C: That’s my o… Yeah
D: Their criteria is bone, bone and bone. My dad told me when I was a little kid, he says, “You can’t eat bone, and the bigger boned, heavier boned pigs that you have, the more structurally and sound they will be.” I always remember that and that holds true to today until the next 150,000 years. The heavier bone they have the more feet and leg and structure issues they have.
C: I like a little bone, but…
D: A little bone’s good, after that I don’t care. [laughter]
C: Yeah. I think the show pig industry, and I’m not sayin’ they’ll ever be the same, but I think we’ve gone to too much of bone, and not enough frame. Right? Not enough product.
D: Yep. Correct. And I was lookin’ at some boars I kinda liked. A couple of ‘em. A couple of ‘em. Their weight per day of age was less than 1 pound.
D: And I go, check ‘em off. [22:00] On the feeding program they have, with the feeds that they have, the nutrition they have and they can’t gain a pound on the day?
D: Yeah, that’s a problem.
C: What’s your herd doing, like on the purebreds and commercial that you sell? Do you have an idea of what that is for your system?
D: Yeah, our weight per day of age, we really – and it’s only on a select, the better ones to be honest with you, because it’s too much bookkeeping, you know; it just would be… especially at this time of my age because I’m basically on my own – but, the ones we do we really try to get them in that 1-3/4 weight per day of age. You know, about 1.5-1.7 is what we aim at, you know. You can get some of those that are extremer than that, but then they generally don’t have some of the other qualities that we’re lookin’ for. And they’re just fast-growing pigs that don’t have the eye appeal.
C: Do you have feed efficiency kinda calculated in there at all?
D: Yeah, yeah we do. The one barn we have, you know, we try to get that down to brass tax. It’s harder to do that – I only do it once a year on a small group of pigs, just because of the time constraints of that. You know? A lot of it, you know, and I know feed efficiency’s very important, you know, I still… these market hogs… I look at the market hogs. The ones that go out the door that I don’t show and that we don’t keep, that gives you, I think, a better rule of thumb on what your average pig is like. And so, I… we get those… And I know, you don’t weigh every pig, and I understand that, and we used to, and it’s just so time consuming. And so, you know, a group of pigs… I know what litters they’re from and so, and I may know what the weight was on that group of pigs that we sold on that trailer load of 20 pigs, and they’re all almost pretty much the same, you know, within the same week of being born. So, you have some rough idea, you know, where they’re at, are they goin’ to market… [24:00] you know, are they goin’ to market at 150 days, 170 days, 200 days? You know, some of ‘em‘ll surprise you how good they are, some of ‘em’ll scare ya to death how slow they are.
D: And I kinda use that as a rule of thumb, too, on selecting, because obviously that’s gonna certainly be hereditary in some of those sow lines especially. So, yeah. I mean when we were younger, my brother and I did all that. I mean we, we had three employees, we did a lot of that, you know. And it’s harder and harder when you’re smaller scale and you don’t have as much help, cause help is an issue with us, too, findin’ a good employee and payin’ ‘em more than what you make, it gets kinda hard to do that. [laughter]
We wanna take this break to thank our sponsors, The Sunswine Group, NutraSign, Swine Nutrition Management and Pig Progress. But we also wanted to remind you of our new Facebook group, the Global Swine Professionals. We’re gonna be doing something fun; some live interviews, some Q&A and we just wanna hear from our audience, so that’s a great place for you to take the time, leave us a comment, tell us what you wanna hear, or volunteer to be on our show, because we’re always looking for those awesome pork producers around the world. Well, that’s all I had, so let’s get back to that episode now.
C: So, let’s get back to 4-H. So, for my audience, Dennis has been one of my mentors and 4-H leaders when I grew up and one of those producers – he talked about Michigan Pork Producers Association – that has really kinda, I guess mentored or influenced me in my career. Unfortunately, I never came back to Michigan, right or wrong, I’m not there. But, talk about 4-H and the value of 4-H in, as we look at labor shortages and issues, how can that be a tool to fix some of these problems?
D: Yeah, that gets brought up a lot on our Michigan Pork Producer board, and usually it’s from Pat Albricht and I. And the more we bring that up, like at the last meeting about labor issues, ya know, and then we go back to where do you get your labor from? Especially the more specialized, your managers, you know what I mean, not your people that just do more of the menial stuff, but the people that are gonna help you run your business, and then help you become profitable. A lot of those people come through the 4-H program, the FFA program, and the show pig industry, because at least they have the exposure. They have been around pigs. Maybe you have to change their ways a little bit if they came from just the shows pigs, hang on, on some of the ways they look at pigs, but that can be developed. But if you really look at, there’s a lot of young people out there that are in the industry, not just on the production side of it, but on the nutrition side of it, on the genetics side of it, on the just research side of it, like yourself. I mean, you’re a great example of, you know, havin’ a few pigs at home and having that basic experience and getting that bug, thinkin about the good pig bug, of wanting to make your career out of it. And the more that we talk to those producers that are large on our board, they reach like back a lot of the best people that they had came from that background, and they had some knowledge and they had, more than that, they had the drive, the interest that they wanted to do that for a living, you know what I mean; they wanted to make a career out of it. It wasn’t just a oh, maybe I’ll do this until I find something else different. And so, we’ve all had lots of mentors, you know, and it’s… Ya know, I appreciate your kind words that I was one of your mentors, and there’s just people growing up… well, you know, when I was older, I was ousted or you’re probably just like you from Michigan State, [28:00] but when I was younger, other than your own family, obviously ya know, there was Dale Perkiser, who’s with extension; there was Dale Brown that was with extension. And those people are like, ya know, that doesn’t happen much anymore and that’s kinda sad in a lotta ways. A lot of these key people in a lot of these states and counties aren’t…. that’s not available, you know to extension and other things. We had both Dales, and I remember growing up, that was such an influence on us, ya know, on me bein’ my mentors you know. They were so good at what they did, you know, and they were so practical, but yet they had so much great information and they had so much love of the industry. And, you know, that kind of… you know, you’re around it enough and you become the same way and then you become the mentor, you know. And that’s why I’m still, technically I’m not a 4-H leader, I guess they said a few years ago I wasn’t anymore cause I didn’t specifically sign back up, but I was that for probably 35-40 years for the Penn 4-H, and we always had one of the biggest clubs, so we always had a lot o’ kids and that always gave me an opportunity to do that. But being assistant superintendent like your dad, for many years I went to a lot of these superintendents, but I never wanted to be the superintendent. I didn’t want to hear the flack from parents, and so I could work behind the scenes with the kids and with the pigs and with the judges and with the show and with the sale, and not get too bogged down with people’s problems, parents’ complaints and gripes. And it’s usually them that gripes and not the kids. It’s just like little league baseball or anything else, it’s the parents that are the problem, usually.
So anyway, yeah, and so I like to step up to help kids like that, and it’s the superintendent, you know I know I just work with ‘em at fair week, but I… all the customers that I sell to, all the young people that I sell pigs to, I obviously have a closer connection to ‘em, because [30:00] they come and they buy ‘em and then I go see ‘em. I mean, everybody I go sell pigs to, we go, I visit ‘em at least twice while they’ve got possession of ‘em, and if they have any questions, any help, I love that. And the other thing, I still do some swine judging. I don’t do quite as much cause I’m getting older, and I guess they like the younger guys, but I get to do the Michigan State Fair.
C: ‘Cause you can’t handle those ugly pigs! [laughter]
D: That might be it! I might be too blunt and might, yeah, complain too much about some of ‘em. But anyway, you know I still do 4 or 5 fairs, and that’s fine, that’s all I wanna do. But that gives me an opportunity, too, to help mentor in a small way for that day at the fair, ya know. But to kinda, with reasons and with talkin’ to ‘em before and after the show, kinda give ‘em a different perspective maybe than what they’ve heard from other people in their county or whoever’s tryin to sell them the show pig feed or whatever, you know what I’m saying. The more of a practical perspective.
C: Mmmhmm. So, do you have any good stories about my dad?
D: Well, there’s a… you know there’s a lot of little things, but there’s one that my wife reminded me of, when she found out that I was gonna be talking to ya today about Craig. Yeah, your dad, Craig, and I go back a long ways, back before you guys were even born. We knew each other and stuff and of course with our kids and you guys, we all kinda showed at different times but we overlapped each other with showin’ pigs and stuff, and it was always a great time. But there was one thing about your dad. There was one year when he was assistant superintendent, and so was I at the Cass County Fair. For some reason that year we had to tattoo pigs when they were off the weigh scales the day they came in. My wife was doin’ the book work and Craig kinda had a wild swing on one of ‘em and tattooed my wife and her leg.
C: [laughter] Oh no!
D: And she was bleedin’. She was really good about it. She was, “That kinda hurt!” You know, she was doin’ all she could not to [32:00] cry. [laughter] But to this day, my wife’s got a big, she’s got a tattoo. The only tattoo she has on her body, but it’s some pig numbers.
C: [laughter] Ha ha, and it’s from my dad.
D: And your dad felt so bad for so many years about that. You know, and I go, it’s ok, it happened, and it was an accident. I always remember that, my wife’s right calf has got a tattoo on it, you can’t hardly see it anymore, but if you would peel her skin like you would have you could see a tattoo that is there and it never is gonna go away. [laughter]
C: Well, I guess you’re never gonna forget my dad, especially your wife, right? Ha, ha, ha [laughter]
D: That’s correct. But we had a bunch of good times, you know. Just during the fairs and goin’ to visit your house and looking at pigs, talking pigs sales and all the stuff we did at the local level and the state level and stuff. Just a good time to talk to each other. He’s a good friend, and your mom Kathy’s great, and we just always got along. He had his own perspective on pigs and I had my own perspective and they really weren’t too far apart.
C: I know. We bought pigs from you, right?
D: Yep, and I always remember you guys loved Durocs, and uh, you wouldn’t get too many Durocs from us, cause we didn’t really have Durocs much, but I enjoyed that so much bein’ with you guys. It’s a treasured memory.
C: Definitely. I think your family’s a good foundation of Cass County and what it is to be a farmer. Just curious, I haven’t kept up with your children. Is there any 4th and 5th generation coming up?
D: Well, sadly, like it is in this industry, no, there isn’t. I never pressured our kids to go back to the farm, and they found some things that they truly loved and that they always wanted to do. Our daughter, Aubrey is the oldest, she was born in ’89; she is a social worker. She has always wanted to do [34:00] that, so with St. Joe County, Michigan, she kind of heads that juvenile part of that. But her real job that she likes the best part time is she does counseling in Kalamazoo, and that’s what she wants to do. She has to put in about another 2000 hours and she’ll be licensed and will be doing that full time. That was always, uh… that’s what her heart led her to do is to do counseling. So that’s what she’s done with her degree and, Plus, then, once you do counseling, you get paid about 4 times what you do as a social worker. [laughter]
C: As a social worker, yeah, unfortunately, yeah.
D: Unfortunately. There’s a lot of people with a lot of problems out there. And talk about parents. Like with kids, you know the parents are the problem. Well, that’s the problem that most of ‘em have is dysfunctional parents and that’s what leads to dysfunctional kids. Not that functional parents don’t have unfunction… you know what I mean, problems, but…
C: Yeah, just every kid needs a pig! Maybe that’ll help.
D: Maybe that! It would, it would. And then our son, Josh who was born in ‘94, he’s 5 years younger than Aubrey, he wanted to be an architect, and so, his job definitely changed in 2020, it affected him and so he was low-man on the totem pole, he kinda got laid off there for a little bit, and now he’s doin’ his own thing. He’s got his own little company, and he’s buildin’ houses for people. I mean, designin’ ‘em and stuff, and some smaller building, you know, commercial buildings and stuff. So, he’s doin’ some work down south, doin’ quite a bit in Kalamazoo, so. Yep, so they’re doin’ what they love. Josh always liked legos, from the time he could crawl. We probably have 3,000 worth of legos in our attic. He loved lego, he always wanted to build. So, he’s an architect. Unfortunately, it’s sad. And then my brother’s kids, they had two girls, April and Julie and they weren’t interested and their husbands aren’t interested. So, [36:00] it’s sad, but it’s reality.
C: So, what do you think is the future of the industry? Where does the show pig industry fit into the talk around sustainability, antibiotic use, that kind of stuff? Do you think there’s gonna be some tough times for the show pigs? Or will they be the solution?
D: I don’t know if they’ll be the solution, but I think they’ll be around for good. I think they can modify some of the challenges they had, you know like the paylean thing, you know. I’m not gonna say Ractopamine cause I never can say it right, so I just call it paylean. You know, they’ve made some changes with that. Obviously, there’s some states, like Ohio, like last year they pretty much banned the use of it.
C: Which is a good thing, because it’s been abused, I thought.
D: Absolutely; it’s been misused for many years. And then the other thing is is, you know, we haven’t used it on our farms, gosh, since our kids stopped showing pigs. [laughter] It was never used in our herd, not in our sow and our growing pigs like that. With residue and all that, obviously, we get caught with that, we’d be in deep, deep trouble, so we haven’t gone that route. And there’s so many different companies out, feed companies, out there now that’ve got some feed products out there that are list – I don’t wanna say non-legal or legal, but they’re legal and they’re, you know what I mean – they fit the same bill that the paylean thing does without the issues of paylean, so… You know, there’s a lot of technology and obviously you know that more than I do, cause there’s so many products out there now that can replace it. So, I don’t see that bein’ a problem just not having it around ever again, and it’s slowly heading that way. But you know, the show pig industry, I think, will always be around. There’s always that side of it. They have to adapt, too. I mean, like, with the paylean thing, and with some other things they’ll have to adapt to. It’s too hard to tell, you know what I mean, the things you say, this isn’t ever gonna happen or it does, and vice versa.
C: I think it’s a niche market.
D: I don’t know if they’ll ever get practical again, as far as closer to the commercial industry. They go on waves too, trends too, just like the commercial investor has.
C: Well, I would say they’re probably not as far off as I would say the other niche markets out there. So, we look at what a lot of people are raising these Idaho pasture pigs and trying to bring back these heritage breeds. My friend works in um, inspector for Kansas and so she sends me all these pictures of these pigs. Yeah, I think they’re a lot alike. It’s different, so maybe from a taste and restaurant perspective, maybe the show pig industry is somewhat there. I don’t know, I haven’t ate show pigs lately. But it would be interesting to see maybe on meat quality, fat quality if some of those things could transform back into the commercial system.
D: Yeah. Just between you and I, probably the last pig I’d wanna eat is a show pig, because you don’t know of all the things that’ve been said, I hate to say that – you know, their meat quality be interesting to randomly, you know, harvest some here and some there, hang ‘em up and see what you find. It would be interesting, it really would.
C: You know, Tom Rackey, a story about him, when he’d get those paylean pigs, he’d get so mad! Show pigs of people not feeding paylean right, and he could tell and he would just… my dad would just say he’d just cuss about how bad those pigs were and all that.
D: And sometimes you could tell, and sometimes you got fooled so that you couldn’t tell. [laughter] You know? And it’s funny you mention the heritage breeds and stuff. This year, with feed costs and stuff, we did somethin’ a little different that we didn’t do before. This ol’ guy here got on Facebook and my wife’s like, “What are you on Facebook all the time for?” Well, I was merchandisin’ my feeder pigs, instead of raisin’ ‘em and then finishin’ ‘em out. Usually this time of year, you know, we’d have like [40:00] 150 feeder pigs I didn’t get sold, you know, as club pigs or as a few for people to raise up to eat, and…. Well, right now I have 6 pigs in my finishing barn that I have to finish out, and they are sold in August as full grown market hogs for the freezer for people. I have 6 pigs. I have none left. I have nothin’.So it’s a good thing. I’m kinda bored right now. We started farrowing again, pretty heavily now, so now I got stuff to do again, but yeah, my finishin’ barn’s in one pen. They’re all part of 1 little pen out of 10 pens. But a lot of that was we sold our normal 200 feeder pigs for prospects for this, but we sold that many more for pigs to… for freezer, I call ‘em freezer feeders. People were totally crazy about buyin’ ‘em. And…
C: I know. There’s not enough small pastures.
D: I had no money in ‘em. I had no feed in ‘em, so a lot of ‘em 50-60 lbs, you know, for pretty good money and didn’t have to… You know, I knew the market was high, so I based it on what my feed costs were gonna be, and I still came out about $50/head better than I could finishin’ ‘em out. So, you know, we sold 200 head like that. Anywhere from 1 pig – some of ‘em 1 pig people get – to 30 pigs, and now I’ve got a contract with a gal that’ll get 90 of ‘em a year, so…
C: Wow! That’s awesome!
D: And of all places, just outside the city of Flint. But we sold ‘em all over the state of Michigan. I was totally crazy, clear up to Traverse City, Mackinaw City, Port Huron, Flint, Muskegon, you just name it, Cadillac, just everywhere. People were, cause obviously North of Grand Rapids, there’s not very many pigs and if there are they’re heritage pigs basically. But, they sell easiest to be honest with you, still. Well, they’re not heritage, so we’re not really that interested, but when they get desperate enough, hopefully they’ll get some of [42:00] those and they’ll butcher ‘em and they’ll taste ‘em and they’ll go, “Why am I eating those heritage pigs for?”
C: I still considered the Hampshire a American Heritage pig even though Ken Stalder doesn’t. He cracked at me. But I’m like, well, I mean a Hampshire is the American Heritage breed. Let’s determine do you want to go all the way back to England or not? To me, it’s the American Yorkshire, the Hampshire and the Duroc are… you know you could throw a Landrace in there and the Spot, Chester. To me those are the traditional heritage breeds. Now I’m seein’ Tamworth and the Red Wattle pigs, Mulefooted pigs and all those, so it’s kinda interesting to see people keepin’ that goin’.
D: Yeah, there’s a Mangalitsa, those, and then mulefoot, and those all blacks, the old blacks, then there’s those other ones, I can’t even pronounce their names, and they’re like, they have no muscle whatsoever in ‘em, and “well, they’re good bacon pigs.” Well, they better have good bacon ‘cause they don’t got no meat in ‘em. I mean they don’t have any top in ‘em, no ham on ‘em. I have a few friends, a friend of mine and I that I do business with up by Cadillac. He said I butchered a few of those pigs and they were so greasy and slimy and they had so much fat, that even the bacon was just no meat on it and it was just slimy and it was really disgusting butchering those pigs. They were like 300 lbs and they had pork chops smaller than what a goat would.
C: Yeah, sounds about right. Yep.
D: So, you know, it’s a trend, it’s a niche, it’s a whatever it’s gonna be. Yeah.
C: Well, before we go, I usually allow my guest to turn the table and ask me any question you’d like to.
D: Oh, well, lemme think, you see now you caught me off guard on that one. What do you think is the biggest challenge in the swine industry today and what will be in the future?
C: Connection with the consumer. [44:00] And I think that ties into the labor force, right? Our consumers, our labor, is different. And I think how do we connect to that consumer, and it seems, we can even use Covid and this whole vaccination thing, the distrust for science, and so this disconnect from the consumer and this anti-trust of science from the consumer. How are we gonna relate to that, right? And nothin’ against the niche producers or even the show pig producers, but it seems like there’s more trust there, you know and I would say if we go back to organic or these heritage, and everybody thinks pasture and everything, you know, from an animal welfare perspective is better, sustainability perspective’s better, but check the boxes and it’s not, right? They’re not efficient by any means, and I don’t know what havin’ parasites 365 days a year and not dewormin’ you rpigs does, and things like that from an animal welfare standpoint or not givin’ antibiotics because they’re sick, and so when you think about that, that this distrust in science, then you know seeing us as the enemy in that consumer, so how do we connect to them? And then, I think that goes in to your labor as well. We don’t have labor, so we’re gonna have to use more technology, so we’re just gonna keep feeding into the story that we’re a factory farm, right? You’ve got drones workin’ all the pigs and things like that, but in reality that keeps the food costs cheap, that keeps the pigs probably even better than the human takes care of them sometimes and you know things like that, so we’re gonna have to balance that in the future. I just wonder if maybe we’ll go backwards and the niche producer, the smaller producer, is gonna win out over the huge integrated systems. But I could be totally wrong. I think you’ll have maybe have two sides of that story.
D: Mmm, Yeap. You know, [inaudible] and maybe I’m wrong, but it’d be great if we could go back [46:00] to where we could be all sizes and fit all the different needs. You know what I mean? And not just survive, but be able to make a living at it. You know?
C: Oh. It would be nice! But until somebody takes on these packets… I hear it every day, of the small independent producers being taken advantage of or not getting good contracts, and this and that. I understand why the packers wanna control everything, but at the same time, if we don’t have diversity within our industry, it’s not healthy for the entire industry in my mind.
D: Absolutely. Absolutely. I’m the same way, I mean, I’ve tried to… all these pigs that are farrowed in the summer which get sold in the winter-early spring, what I made on my pigs that were club pigs, breeding stock that were farrowed in the winter all that money goes to breaking even if I’m lucky for all the losses that I have from the pigs that I sold in the winter and early spring that were born in the summer. I am small enough that I can’t contract any pigs of any size when you buy ‘em, so I’m the one at the open market: that’s what everything’s based on, what is it 1% of pigs that get sold that way anymore, and I’m one of the 1% and we’re the ones that always get the lowest price. And it’s very frustrating with the quality that I have, and they’re pretty consistent in their type. They’re not as cookie-cutter, obviously, as the commercial, but the quality. If you hang that carcass up against mine, I’m telling you I’m gonna smoke ‘em every time. And the thing was is I get such… I find out… which you know when I can lock it in for ‘em, when I get the profit I could bank on if I was larger. It’s really an insult to get what I get paid, but it’s the way the industry’s set up. I could never get over that. Or I could never get over, you know, selling a boar, you know a culled boar, for $10 when the price of pepperoni is that much in a package.
C: I know. I know exactly what you mean, and I don’t know exactly how we solve that. There’s some talk about… I even heard out here in Missouri, talk of the co-operative goin’ in and helpin’ them get better buyin’ agreements. That’s easier said than done, but… it is a problem, but I don’t think the packers want to address it, because they’re winning.
D: Yeah, there’s no reason to for ‘em.
C: For them. Yeah, so I don’t know if it takes the federal government, the state government stepping in, but if you see where all the lobbyin’ goes and who’s on all the boards, like you said. If different states… you’re… Michigan’s probably the exception where the smaller producers, the niche producer’s represented on the pork board, especially out in North Carolina workin’ with some of the niche producers and stuff and… Don’t get me wrong, my paychecks have come form the integrated market, right? But my heart, my soul, my passion is with producers like you. And the independent producers. And if we do not allow them to win, we will not have future generations and it just compounds it, right? We distance ourselves from the consumers. We distance ourselves from the future labor, and all that. It is a problem for the entire industry, and even in those big executive offices if you’re listening, this is a problem we need to address, and take care of it.
D: And we just love what our current – and I’m not going to get into politics too much here, but – what our current president did just recently it’s slowing down the six-pig packers, 20-25% slower speeds, which is going to affect us June 29th that goes into effect. But if nothing changes, they don’t get it delayed.
C: Yeah. Wasn’t that a judge’s ruling, though, and not necessarily the president, I thought?
D: The way we understand it, the president mandated that to the USDA, and so the Secretary of the USDA, he’s basically doin’ what he was told from somebody. [laughter]
C: Yeah, I don’t know how it all sorted back, but it’s a disaster, absolute disaster.
D: After we got through 2020, with slowed down, you know, processes, rates, speeds, and line speeds, now you’re gonna do the same thing again, right when we got things back goin’, and the thing it’s gonna kill the most are all the small producers that don’t have everything all contracted. It’ll affect big boys, too, but the medium and the smaller producers especially. It’s gonna kill them. They talk about how they’re so concerned about the small business person or the small farmer, but that’s exactly is what’s it’s gonna kill ‘em first. Who it’s gonna affect the most.
C: I already know it is. I mean, it’s a disastrous on these contracts. You know, talkin’ to… I work with a producer in Illinois and he’s not goin’ into contract. Once his contract’s up, he’s looking at the futures and he’s sayin’ well, maybe I’m gonna play that risk, right? And he’s got the option, do I keep or sell? You know, wean pigs, feeder pigs, things like that. And I can tell ya right now, hearin’ all these big guys, they’ve got PRRS 1-4-4, for my growth pig friends out there, keep an eye out that, keep that out of your system. But, there’s a lack of pigs out there, so…
D: Yeah, I heard that’s really, really blew up Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, and it’s not hit Michigan much, but it’ll be here.
C: I’ll hopefully. Yeah, I will not be bringin’ it. [chuckle] But, lock your doors down, lock your bio-security, because if it’s not there, it will be, so… that’s somethin’ to watch that’s the only thing that I think the independent producer this year has a chance with, right, that they’ll have pigs where those big guys have lost a lot of pigs. So.
D: That could certainly help us. You know, if the lower numbers could help, maybe, if it’s… I don’t know if it’ll even up the 20% slower line speed, but it’d sure help. [chuckle] They’ve got less pigs.
C: Yeah, we got another new plant comin’ in, but that’ll be 5 years they said, so, out in Sioux Falls.
D: Yep, I see that. I seen that on the news here about 3 weeks ago. Yep. Competition is good. The more the better. As far as more plants, they’ve gotta be a little more honest. Hopefully. A little bit.
C: Yeah, I guess the precedents of this new plant, I can back, you know, the pipestone system is doin’ a great job of representing those smaller independent producers, still giving them the opportunity to compete, and um… keep them going, so I commend them in that work.
D: Yep. I do too. They’re a good group.
C: Well, it was great catchin’ up with you, Dennis. I appreciate the time and thank you for being on the podcast.
D: Casey, thank you so much. We’ll hopefully see you sometime in the future.
C: In a couple weeks if all goes well!
D: Yep, thank you.
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