Malcolm DeKryger, president of Belstra Milling Co., is supervising the construction of a new, open-to-the-public type of hog farm and the country’s first Pig Adventure.
Truly, for Malcolm DeKryger, there is no such thing as an average day at the bustling offices of Belstra Milling Co., DeMotte, IN.
Supervisor of five swine complexes that serve as gilt multipliers for PIC across the nation, DeKryger is also general contractor-manager of an innovative project dubbed “The Pig Adventure,” which includes a working hog farm (Legacy Farms) that consumers can visit, see pig displays, farm activities, and visit a restaurant tied to the popular Fair Oaks Farms dairy adventure at Fair Oaks, IN.
On top of that, two months ago, DeKryger, 53, was tapped to be the new president of Belstra Milling, handling the day-to-day operations for the feedmill that cranks out more than 120,000 tons of feed annually. That includes dairy nutritional supplements for about 50,000 dairy cows in northern Indiana (including the Fair Oaks Dairy) and swine feed for its farms and neighboring hog operations. The mill, built in 1966, is two years into a multi-million-dollar renovation project to greatly increase its capacity by adding new grain and ingredient-receiving and grain-processing equipment, he says.
Belstra Milling is a family-owned business started by Bud Belstra in 1954. It evolved into an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), when son and owner Tim Belstra elected to sell part of the company to the employees’ retirement plan about seven years ago.
DeKryger, also part-owner of Belstra Milling, says, “We as employees have a stake in our work every single day and we relish that, gain satisfaction from that, and we feel blessed to be working with people who we like to be with.”
The tiny town of DeMotte, in northwestern Indiana, is a close-knit community that is very much reflected in the fabric of the workforce at Belstra Milling and its farms, he says.
“Our whole system really has taken on that personality in that we have lots of local family members who work in and around our feedmill. My children have all worked here and at the farms. My son, Nick, is coming back full time at the end of the year after he finishes his master’s degree at Purdue University,” DeKryger observes.
This summer, 14 children of employees will learn life skills in carpentry, electricity, construction and maintenance, among other tasks, working on the company’s hog farms.
It’s a friendly place to work. Many employees have worked there for decades and turnover usually averages below 10%. “The fact we are considered good to work for encompasses many, many things. It is a happy environment, an environment with high expectations, but one that’s financially rewarding and provides benefits that take good care of employees and promotes from within almost all of the time,” he stresses.
Born in Detroit, MI, and raised in Fremont, MI, for DeKryger, the son of a physician, working in agriculture seemed an unlikely vocation at first. He graduated from Calvin College in Grand Rapids with a bachelor of science degree in biology. The college is affiliated with his church, the Christian Reformed Church (Dutch).
“When I graduated from Calvin, I knew I wanted to get into the pig business after paying my way through college working for my dad’s brother, who owned a 300-sow hog operation,” he explains.
That led to an interest in animal nutrition and a master’s degree in monogastric nutrition from Purdue University.
For a time in the early ’80s, DeKryger served as an Extension assistant at Purdue on a sulfa drug residue avoidance project.
That launched a two-and-a-half year stint in technical sales and service at Central Soya Co., Decatur, IN, followed by a four-and-a-half year hitch as senior regional account manager for the northeastern United States with Fermenta Animal Health in Kalamazoo, MI.
“As providence would have it,” Belstra Milling, a client of DeKryger’s, was looking for someone to handle its growing pig business. Weary from travel and wanting to spend more time with his wife, Donna, and three young children, he accepted the job offer and began working for Belstra in 1991.
This year he is celebrating 30 years of marriage, and 2013 marks the 30th anniversary of the business relationship between Belstra Milling and PIC.
DeKryger is a 22-year employee of Belstra Milling. He has been in charge of the design, permitting and construction of 12 hog production compounds.
His portfolio includes management of the growing feedmill, and 140 full- and part-time employees with a company payroll of more than $5 million.
Since its opening in 2004, Fair Oaks Farms has been a shining example of a highly successful agriculture venue for the dairy industry. Heavily promoted with billboards dotting Interstate 65 and hundreds of thousands of visitors streaming through its gates annually to view production practices and sample tasty dairy treats, the 30,000-cow dairy has set the example for other enterprises.
The Pig Adventure at Fair Oaks Farms is expected to open this summer. It will feature a 2,800-sow farm (Legacy Farms) and a $7.5-million on-farm visitors center that includes state-of-the art exhibits, a hands-on electronic sow feeder and interactive ultrasound machine just a stone’s throw away from the Fair Oaks campus, he explains.
DeKryger points out that in May, three college interns will begin giving “soft tours.” Their summer project will be to figure out how best to give a tour and handle tourists and their questions in the 25,000-sq.-ft. observation decks above 100,000 sq. ft. of pig production that is Legacy Farms, a breed-to-wean commercial working farm.
Pigs will be weaned at 21-22 days of age and 15-16 lb., and are destined to be fed out in five contract finishing farms in Indiana, Illinois and Ohio.
Public viewing of the breeding-gestation, farrowing and nursery holding areas will be above production facilities in glass-enclosed skyboxes. “The public never gets inside the pig production area, but they see everything in the entire operation from the glass-enclosed mezzanine. You can see a lot better from up above looking down than at ground level,” DeKryger says.
Legacy Farms will feature 30 digital, interactive educational displays positioned in all production settings to provide answers to all kinds of pig-related questions, such as:
• How many gallons of water do all of the sows on the farm drink in a day? Answer: 9,000 gal.
• How many gallons of water does each sow drink each day? Answer: 3-5 gal.
• How many sows live on the farm? Answer: About 2,750 sows (2,800 when full).
• How many piglets will be born each month? Answer: 6,500.
Consumers will be able to learn much more about production agriculture at a touch of a button, and find out which pig is eating at a feeder and how much it is eating.
Equally unique, a “go pro” camera strapped to the back of a sow will enable people to “see what the sow sees” as she walks around the sow barn.
Visitors will also get a firsthand look at electronic sow feeders, computerized systems that control the entry and exit gates of the sow feeding system. Visitors learn a sow will receive 4.5-5 lb. of feed a day, consumed in 5-6 minutes. A timer dictates the release of the sow from the feeding station, or she can leave the station at any time by pushing the exit gate open.
In the displays and through the panoramic view through the glass observation decks, the pig will be the star of the show. “Our purpose is to let people see that the pig is amazing, and that the people who do such a good job of taking care of the pig are amazing in their own right,” DeKryger points out. There will be 12-14 full-time staff working at the farm.
In his view, the Pig Adventure is a natural extension of the Dairy Adventure in its location and timing. “We are responding to some of the pressures on farms today and the many, many questions that consumers have. And what better way than to work with our friends at Fair Oaks Farms, whom we know very well and do business with anyway?”
The location is ideal, DeKryger believes. The site right off Interstate 65 is only an hour and a half from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, and an hour and 45 minutes from the Indianapolis airport. Eighty million people reside within a radius of 500 miles, and 30 million people live within 200 miles.
Showing off Pig Skills
With Legacy Farms, its sixth production complex, Belstra Milling will have 14,000 sows in production. By 2014, there will be production and sales of 400,000 breeding and market pigs.
Belstra Milling has held a number of open houses to tell the story of hog farming. Plus, six years ago, digital cameras were installed in one of its hog barns and operate 24/7 to depict a day at the farm (www.realpigfarm.com).
“A lot of this stems from a point where it became apparent to me that we can tell people what we do, or we can just show them what we do. We don’t think much about them because the cameras are in there all of the time,” DeKryger says.
“We put cameras in there because we are proud of the work that our employees do; they know that they are called to take excellent care of the pigs, and having the cameras there is just our way of showing them off and in no way a matter of checking up on them,” he assures.
“One of our key employees once said, ‘You know, we take good care of your pigs; you can show people what we do any time you want,’” he adds.
DeKryger clarifies there are two separate entities in this project. Legacy Farms is a private enterprise that is owned by Belstra Milling and a number of individuals in the community. The second enterprise, Pig Adventure at Fair Oaks Farms, is a not-for-profit touring company that has been heavily supported by stakeholders of the pork industry: the National Pork Board, Indiana, Iowa and Ohio state pork groups and others, including industry suppliers.
“Those groups saw the vision of being able to educate and promote what the pork industry is about by this tour. But you can’t have a tour without a destination, so the relationship is, the tour company will take the people to Legacy Farms,” he says. Legacy Farms will have two revenue streams: pig production and tickets sold to consumers to view the production facilities.
The sprawling 470-ft.-long by 130-ft.-wide breeding-gestation facility will offer a lot of activity to viewers. Gilts/sows will be artificially mated in breeding stalls, and 5-7 days later placed into group sow pens. “We have two different styles of penning systems, as we are trying to find out if more than one kind of approach will work,” DeKryger says. In static pens of 80 sows, the sows stay together until they move to the farrowing barn. In dynamic pens of 240 sows, a few animals are routinely introduced or subtracted at a time. The idea in this approach is that the sows really can’t remember who is who, avoiding the battles of mixing.
The traditional 10-room farrowing complex holds 480 farrowing stalls.
The holding nursery is expected to house pigs for 3-5 days, until capacity of 1,500 head is reached; then those pigs will be sent out to contract growers. He projects annual production to be 75,000 to 80,000 pigs.
Nothing will be held from view. On any day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., consumers will see sows fed, bred and handled; gestating sows treated and pigs farrowed; and pigs weaned and readied for delivery, DeKryger comments. Also under construction is a grow-finish barn, which will actually serve as a gilt development unit to supply females to the breeding-gestation facility. “People will be able to watch them develop. For all practical purposes, it will look like a growing and finishing barn,” he says.
“There is nothing that we are ashamed of; we intend to do all of our work with our pigs with dignity,” he explains.
At the same time, DeKryger says, the barns were designed so that there would be no physical barriers impeding the proper care of the pig.
DeKryger stresses that Legacy Farms was designed to typify a traditional hog farm — with a few unconventional twists.
There are no wooden trusses in the complex. The tall, clear-span, pre-engineered metal building features virtually no flammable material, making it extremely safe and insurable, he says.
Batteries of huge halogen lights provide ease of viewing and put workers on display during hours of operation. Employees have been counseled on how to handle the stress of being “on camera” every day, DeKryger says.
“One of the things that we think is very unique and we are very excited about is the pig as a species is very comfortable with people,” he says.
Observation areas will provide a vicarious experience for visitors, as they get to watch staff members who are “working with these animals, walking with them, touching them, pushing them and holding them,” DeKryger says.
Day to day, the barns won’t change, but what the staff and the pigs are doing will highlight the different activities that occur in different areas. “In effect, the pig environment refreshes itself all of the time, and I think this is one of the unique things that people will really like.”
The pull-plug manure handling system is flushed out every week, and the effluent is pumped through a series of pipes two miles to the anaerobic digester at the Fair Oaks Farms dairy. This massive digester, with a capacity of 600,000 gal./day,mixes fresh dairy and swine manure, and the methane gas that is produced is scrubbed of impurities, leaving environmentally friendly compressed natural gas to provide fuel for milk trucks and tour buses.
Cross-ventilation using a single curtain enhances air movement, combined with a series of attic baffles, the normal complement of fans and a cool cell.
The high ceilings and public traffic dictated various ventilation system adjustments. “We have an extremely sophisticated ventilation system for the people. Their air is piped in through a pre-filter and ultraviolet radiation, and exits through a pre-filter and HEPA filter before it is exhausted.
“In essence, we are filtering the people’s air to maintain the biosecurity and health of the pig, to prevent the people from giving anything to the pig,” DeKryger says. “We want to show people what the pigs are up to, but it is our responsibility to protect them as well.”
Come July 1, DeKryger says, the whole Pig Adventure and Legacy Farms experience will open to the public, with hopes that 150,000 to 200,000 visitors each year will learn the truth about pig farming and take home some memorabilia from the stores at Fair Oaks Farms that they will treasure.
For DeKryger, who calls himself the “chief dreamer” on this project, it will be the culmination of a life’s work to portray one of God’s unique creatures, a pig, in a positive light.
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