His multifaceted business revolves around pigs
Mike Lemmon, DVM, wears many hats. But this agricultural entrepreneur is proudest to point out that everything he does relates to the fact he lives, eats and breathes the pig business.
“For some reason I identify with pigs. I think I've always understood pigs, what makes them tick and why they do the things they do,” he exclaims.
From his early childhood growing up in Albion, IN, on the family's diversified livestock and grain farm, pigs won his heart. His dad nurtured that love by bestowing young Mike with a few pigs when he was a first grader.
“In the summer, the chicken coop was for chickens, and in the winter it was for my pigs or for my brother Charlie's pigs. Sometimes I would go out and fall asleep with the pigs because they were just like pets.”
When Lemmon finished high school and left for Purdue University at West Lafayette, IN, it was to fulfill a childhood dream to become a swine veterinarian.
He was also following the sage advice his dad, Ben, gave him to take full advantage of the opportunity for higher education. Mike was the first one in the family to graduate from a four-year school.
At Purdue University, however, he found that once classes ended at 4 p.m., he missed the normal routine of doing hog chores. Once in a while, on weekends and in the summer, he would ride with local Albion veterinarian David Van Meter, who Lemmon describes as one of the old-time general practitioners who loved to help people. Van Meter's community spirit caused Lemmon to view him as sort of a second father.
But those periodic trips home and with Van Meter weren't enough of a “pig fix” for Lemmon, so he talked to Purdue research farm supervisor Larry Underwood about a job. Lemmon was dismayed to learn that there were 33 students ahead of him for a job.
But when Lemmon persisted, he got a job at the Baker Research Farm, where he worked for four years during college.
Lemmon figures he got half of his educational training in the classroom and the other half on the hog job.
While at Purdue, another lucky thing happened when Lemmon ran into then master's student Wayne Singleton, who spent 33 years at Purdue University focusing on a career in advances in swine reproduction.
Singleton and Lemmon became fast friends. When Lemmon told him he was interested in learning about artificial insemination (AI), Singleton turned teacher, showing Lemmon how to collect and process the semen.
Back at the home farm, Lemmon took that knowledge to become one of the early pioneers in on-farm AI in 1970. “We collected our boars, separated the chicken eggs, made our own semen extender and converted a refrigerator to store semen.”
Singleton's singular guidance struck Lemmon that knowledge gained in school could be applied back at the farm and made to work. “I am an applied person, so Wayne was instrumental in helping me in that way,” he says.
Following completion of veterinary school, Lemmon returned home to practice with Van Meter, figuring he could kill two birds with one stone — being close to family and pursuing his dream of veterinary medicine.
But after two years in local practice, he became disenchanted with the job. “This area was really a dairy production area back then, and my real passion was pigs. I would get up every morning thinking about pigs and then go work on dairy cows. Then I would ask myself, ‘why am I doing this for other people?’” he recalls.
Building a Genetics Business
Brother Charlie had committed to returning to the farm. Mike had become an SPF (specific-pathogen-free) inspector, covering farms in Indiana and neighboring states after graduation from college in 1975 until 1992.
“We decided it was time to try to get into pig production and add value to the home farm,” Mike Lemmon says.
In 1977, Mike and Charlie's father got them into the pig business as the 150-sow home farm was depopulated and repopulated with SPF pigs. “A lot of the biosecurity steps that we apply to the farms today originated with the SPF program. They have been modified and of course we are dealing with entirely different diseases today, but a lot of the principles are still valid now,” Mike explains.
By converting the family operation to SPF, the goal was to build a breeding stock business. “We built totally new confinement buildings and repopulated the barns, but quickly realized that if we were going to be in the genetics business, we were going to need help, because at that time there wasn't much science in genetic selection and the testing being done was haphazard and poor,” he adds.
Reaching that goal, however, turned into a tenuous trail of false starts and wrong turns.
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“In 1982, we started looking for ways to develop our own genetic lines, got some C-section pigs out of some Large Whites and Landrace sow and started doing some of our own testing,” Mike says.
Using some genetic calculations obtained from Purdue, Mike spent many evenings poring over records and punching figures into a handheld calculator, trying to develop indexes.
He soon became frustrated. But that frustration became hope when one night he read about the recent introduction of the STAGES (Swine Testing and Genetic Evaluation System) program developed at Purdue by Allen Schinkel and his colleagues.
But the Lemmon brothers' early involvement with that program stalled when Mike discovered the program wouldn't provide ready access to all of the data and results for on-farm interpretation.
So they hired a computer programmer, who promised he could develop an on-farm genetics program in a week, but failed to achieve that goal after a year had passed.
As luck would have it, Mike got a call one day from Keith Schuman from S&S Programming, a Lafayette, IN-based company that provides software solutions to agricultural producers. He offered Mike a program similar to STAGES that he could apply to his farm.
“We started using this Herdsman software program and liked it so much that later on we bought ownership in the company,” Mike says.
“It just made my life a lot nicer. I could put the data in, poke a button and get answers, and I didn't have to sit there all night long with a paper and pencil and calculator,” he notes.
So plans proceeded and they built their foundation swine genetics company, producing what he calls “the most elite Yorkshire, Landrace and Duroc genetics in the world.” Registrations at the National Swine Registry indicate that the Lemmon's Whiteshire Hamroc herd is the largest performance recorder of Yorkshire, Landrace and Duroc swine in the United States. Breeding stock is sold to 22 countries.
But the jump from being a foundation genetics supplier for themselves to being a foundation supplier for other companies and other countries took time. “It really took off when we hired a real applied swine geneticist, Mark Brubaker, who is as determined and focused as we are in taking this business to the next level,” Lemmon explains.
The rules on genetics are clear-cut at Whiteshire Hamroc. Because all animals are SPF or from SPF-origin stock, when there is a PRRS (porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome) or other disease break, immediate plans are to depopulate that infected herd.
That quick action is based on a simple company mission statement that serves as their enduring belief: “If we can't create customer success, then we don't want to be involved in it.”
About three years ago, that motto was tested when one of their nucleus farms recorded a positive test for PRRS in the majority of sows tested.
“We knew it was going to cost us a million dollars to depopulate and start over,” Lemmon remembers, his voice cracking.
Mike vividly recalls when he got the ominous call from the office as he was driving back from a business trip in Ohio with marketing manager Scott Lawrence. “We were talking about what we should do and how to get it done, when we pulled into the driveway back home at 7:30 p.m. and saw all seven company managers already there working on figuring it out,” he says.
The company team debated how they were going to stay true to their mission to create success for their clients by living with PRRS, and quickly decided they couldn't.
“That challenge pulled our company together, and at that moment, our mission statement provided direction,” Lemmon stresses.
Although the majority of that nucleus farm's sows twice tested positive for PRRS, there were never any signs of disease on the farm. Records revealed a loss of only 0.2 pig weaned/litter and 8 lb. less litterweight, for about a two-week period.
Lemmon believes their reputation has helped drive success and add value in breeding stock sales, domestic and abroad.
Research Herd Value
In the late '80s, Mike, Charlie and their dad decided it was time to add more value to their enterprise by creating more markets for their primary SPF herd. There were two goals — to export more pigs and to sell pigs for medical research.
“So again, we went to some breeders and C-sectioned 200 sows and brought pigs to this brand-new farm we built a mile away from our main farm to create this high-health farm,” Mike recalls.
Primary SPF farms can be a struggle to launch because of the extreme measures needed to raise pigs in incubators and the exceptional biosecurity measures that are required.
But the research farm has been a boon in recent years, providing an extra source of income to balance out their sales receipts.
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Three years ago, the company sold 19,000 pigs for medical purposes, and plans are to sell from 3,000 to 5,000 specially raised pigs to medical firms, annually.
“These value-added ventures put a little more spring in your step when you read that somebody is walking around with a pig part that has helped them, and that has been one of the things that helps motivate our employees to do their jobs,” he says. That motivation extends to Lemmon as well, as his mom received a pig heart valve several years ago and is doing great.
‘Heart Healthy’ Building Design
When they started the patented AirWorks hog building company more than 20 years ago, Mike and his team, led by brother Charlie, wanted to ensure that strict health standards used in SPF production systems would not be compromised.
“From the SPF inspection work, inspecting 56 herds four times a year, I saw a lot of production systems, and all kinds of ventilation systems, some that worked and some that didn't,” he says.
So they visited research labs that produced gnotobiotic pigs and noticed that each one of them used a down-draft ventilation system, where air comes in from the top of the building and moves down over the pigs, and then out through the flooring.
“This design really made a lot of sense to me in contrast to building systems where air is brought in one end of the building and exhausted out the other,” thus allowing swine pathogens to be suspended in the air for longer periods of time, Lemmon explains.
Charlie and Mike spent six months brainstorming with university agricultural engineers, who said their design just couldn't work to ventilate commercial hog buildings.
Mike tried to convince them that the ventilation concept operates with six pressure gradients and would function just like the heart he learned about while studying veterinary medicine in college.
“The heart operates like a pump and creates a pressure gradient in the body so that blood flows from high pressure to low pressure — and that is all we are doing here with the AirWorks concept, he explains.”
Finally, the engineers at Aerotech in Michigan grasped the concept and agreed to help tweak the ventilation design that is used for AirWorks, Lemmon says.
Aerotech helped the Lemmons construct a $200,000 research barn to test the AirWorks design on one of their SPF farms. “As far as we know, it is the longest-running primary SPF herd in the country that has never had a bad slaughter inspection in 22 years,” he says.
Expanding Export Sales
The AirWorks building, genetics program and standard operating procedure manual comprise a production package that has garnered the attention of the Chinese market.
That effort actually started in 2001, when Whiteshire Hamroc put together a business plan to investigate potential sales to the Asian giant. Fifteen of 16 potential suitors have been screened, and after prolonged negotiations, the first customer was signed recently to a six-year contract to develop a 10-million-head production system using Whiteshire Hamroc genetics to populate the top of their breeding stock pyramid.
Mike says somewhat wearily that will mean monthly visits to China for staff, and already there is a constant flurry of e-mails as the giant production system starts to take shape.
Plans for a second Whiteshire Hamroc hog farm complex in China have started, leaving staff back in northeast Indiana suddenly feeling “a little bit overwhelmed and excited, but a bit scared as well.” Lemmon, CEO of the 43-member Hoosier firm, says his company will retain 51% ownership stake in this second hog farm venture.
Winning over the Chinese has taken a world of patience, he observes. A farm manager stayed in Albion for a month before Mike and staff were able to convince him that their business model would provide them a viable venture.
But once this first deal was sealed, the Chinese government has pitched in to support and publicize the value of these capitalistic ventures in their Communist country.
When Mike asked a provincial governor recently why there was such strong support for the first hog complex, the official replied that it would result in the creation of 220,000 jobs — from farm workers to truckers to workers producing all the tires used on the trucks, to workers in a projected slaughter plant.
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One U.S. venture that has proven a bit troublesome for the Lemmons is VLR, Inc., a niche pork packing business at Mentone, near Warsaw, IN, that Mike says was purchased several years ago with several partners.
Little did the Lemmons know that at that time, the plant turned out to be kind of a “lemon,” requiring virtually all of the plant's slaughter and processing facilities to be remodeled or replaced.
On top of that, at the time of the purchase, the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) crisis hit, indirectly affecting the profitability of their niche-market slaughter plant.
It's been a very expensive lesson in learning that the meat business is very competitive and it's a constant struggle to make money as markets fluctuate daily, he says.
Pursue Your Passion
But for Mike Lemmon, all of the business ventures have been about pursuing his passion for pigs. Each new day brings a challenge to be embraced.
Whether it is a passion for pigs or another endeavor, the important thing is to find out what your passion is and embrace it, he says.
Now nearing 58 years old, he and his family's goal is to hopefully start to make plans to pass on the business to the next generation of family and core managers, and hope that it can hold value for them as well. He says it has been personally rewarding and satisfying to have had the opportunity to work and grow a business with his wife, family and friends.
For current and future owners of the company, the next 10-15 years will prove challenging as the demand for and adoption of technology and production tools escalates, he predicts.