Sixty-four-year-old pork producer Robert Dircks has striven all of his life to build a progressive hog operation that achieves top production and high herd health that makes it a joy to raise pigs in southeast Iowa.

But a number of starts and stops and surprises along the way have made the effort to excel more difficult than the Clarence, IA, producer ever anticipated. He’s twice faced the biggest challenge of his life: eliminating porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS).

Starting from Scratch

When Dircks returned to the farm after graduation at Iowa State University in the early ’70s, he pushed his father to build a 40-crate confined farrowing house to go with their lone confinement unit, a 16-crate farrowing barn.

They added a farrowing-nursery-grower complex in 1979, which was considered to be the Cadillac of its day with its raised wire decks and production phases all under one roof. But the continuous-flow building proved to be an animal health disaster, and within two years he convinced his father to rework the whole hog operation again.

“Those continuous-flow facilities sounded good, but they provided very inconsistent results. Even though we were weaning early, at 10 days of age, we were always battling scours problems and lots of challenges,” Dircks recalls.

Robert, his wife Diane and his parents jointly incorporated the hog operation in 1978. In 1983, Dircks built their first confined finisher, a 1,200-head, grow-finish facility that, on the surface, seemed to be a “very good quality barn,” but the extra width (46 ft.) meant it didn’t ventilate very well, Robert Dircks says. It had a manure scraper that was the “hottest thing” of those days, except it left a film on the floor. Combined with poor ventilation, that produced a barn that stunk, was moist and the pigs didn’t perform very well in, he points out.

Soon after, pseudorabies (PRV) struck and Dircks encountered lots of problems with the disease, mainly stunted 50- to 100-lb. grower pigs.

Dircks, with consultation from Jim McKean, DVM, Iowa State University Extension swine specialist, says he was one of the first producers to vaccinate for PRV, while many producers resisted for years because they didn’t want to spend the money to protect their herds.

In the early 1990s, Dircks joined a group of Iowa producers who made the trek to North Carolina to visit what he says were the “facilities of the future — double-curtain-sided hog barns.” He returned to build two such barns in what would be a succession of curtained, grow-finish barns. At this time, he had expanded the hog operation from 300 sows to 1,000 sows, farrow-to-finish.

The first of the finishing barns was converted to wean-to-finish in 2000 and weaning age was increased to 14 days. “We were going to eliminate scours by increasing our weaning age, and production was starting to go better because we improved our farm cleanliness as we started to follow all-in, all-out production flows,” adds son-in-law Douglas Hoffman, who along with wife Lori are transitioning into the fourth generation to be in charge of Dircks Farms, Inc.

To improve swine health during this time, all of the finishers were moved off of the home sow farm, leaving just the breed-to-wean operation. The half-dozen, off-site, wean-to-finish systems, either owned or rented, each consist of two, 1,200-head barns. They are all located within five miles of the home farm. These sites also have the advantage of helping to disperse hog manure odor concentrations and provide an efficient means of manure distribution on adjacent farmland.

Adding a computerized feedmill in 2002 improved feed quality and the potential for the farm to remain profitable and more efficient, Dircks says. The operation farms 4,500 acres of ground, part owned and part rented.

Tornado Strikes

Farm improvements in 2003 were stymied when a tornado struck near the home farm, leveling a gestation barn, tearing a roof off a farrowing house and damaging some nurseries. The roof stayed on an old finisher barn converted to gestation, but the curtains and walls were ripped wide open.

“One minute, we thought the operation and herd health were working really well; we had stable employees and we were expanding at a time when most of the producers in the area were leaving the industry and integration was huge,” Dircks recalls with a wry grin.

After the tornado, those integrators came calling to entice Dircks to sell off sows and convert barns to finishers. But the Iowa producer resisted, knowing his experienced staff and the Hoffmans returning to the farm meant the workforce was solid.

Miraculously, there were few animal losses from the tornado, including only a few sows, Hoffman says. In the gestation barn, sows were pinned under wreckage, but were kept alive by the stalls. Crews crawled in to give sows water until the cranes arrived and the sows could be removed safely.

But a big challenge remained. With lost sow housing, what was to be done with the 850 bred sows on the home farm? “We needed the space for sows, and it took us about three days to move the pregnant sows, mostly to rented facilities we renovated several miles away,” Hoffman explains.

Dircks says it was a blessing that no staff were hurt in the disaster. Damaged facilities were rebuilt and a number of significant changes were made in the aftermath of the tornado:

  • Consulting swine veterinarian Joe Connor of Carthage (IL) Vet Service (CVS) stressed that the 14-day weaning age was not viable anymore, and the repopulation of the farm provided a great opportunity to change, so the weaning age was nudged up to 17 days and more farrowing crates were added. Two years later, Connor suggested ramping up weaning age to 21 days, and a 30-crate farrowing house was constructed to provide more crates for the longer lactation periods.
  • Biosecurity protocols were greatly tightened. Before the depopulation, workers could go anywhere on the farm as work dictated. Afterward, all barn doors were locked and a shower-in, shower-out facility was added to the sow farm. All traffic was monitored and no employee crossed a line, meaning sow farm employees and finisher staff only worked in their respective areas. “We had high health, high risk and high dollars,” Hoffman explains. (See sidebar on page 22 for more details on biosecurity changes.)
  • All 850 sows that were moved off-site after the tornado were sent to slaughter as the herd was depopulated, Diane Dircks explains. “We bought 1,350 brand new gilts and created an off-site gilt development unit (GDU) so we could bring in 15-lb. gilts and properly blood test them to ensure they were always PRRS negative before they were grown out and sent to the home farm to be bred,” Hoffman adds.

“That (GDU) was probably the change that changed our whole system,” Robert Dircks emphasizes, “because we needed to make sure that we stayed clean here (on the home sow farm), and we had to make sure that we could blood test them several times before we moved them down here, and that was the way to do it.”

Up to this time, herd health had been improving with the elimination of PRV by the mid-90s, and Dircks figured the farm was practically disease-free by 2000. The joy of raising high-health hogs had arrived.

But he admits that before the tornado and complete restocking of the farm, all was not well with herd health. There were respiratory problems, including PRRS. “It didn’t matter if it was in the finishers or in the sow units, we were always giving shots to these pigs. Even though we thought our herd health was good, we always seemed to have a few sows off feed and we would treat them with injectable antibiotics,” Dircks says. “I was convinced that was the way it was in the swine industry — you walked your pens and you gave shots.”

However, when the herd was repopulated and healthy gilts moved through the system, the pigs they produced “were something I always dreamed about,” Dircks says with a gleam in his eye. “When we started farrowing and these pigs hit the ground, they were all so vibrant and healthy and sows produced these uniform litters that went right to the teat and started suckling. It was just like the difference between night and day.”

Sow and pig injections became scarce and few vaccinations were given after pigs got to 30 lb. The management focus switched from addressing health challenges to making sure pigs got feed and water.

Work Becomes Fun

In the years since 2003, raising pigs has become fun, Hoffman says. “We start with a healthy pig and then the management is about managing the pig, not recovering the pig, and managing the herd instead of fighting the system.”

Long-term employees like it because they can just come to work and do their job and not have to worry about what disease they are going to fight today, he relates.

PRRS Returns

Tightened biosecurity helped keep Dircks Farms free of PRRS for seven years, and that’s quite a feat, Connor says.

But a year ago this month (Novem­ber), PRRS returned. Two sows were off feed and tested positive by polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and the virus was later identified in other sows in gestation, he says.

Connor says three popular strategies were considered to deal with the recurring virus:

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  • Close the herd and let the virus move naturally through the system.
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  • Use live-virus inoculation (LVI), based on the single farm strain identified, and then close the herd to new introductions for seven months.
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  • Use modified-live-virus vaccination with or without herd closure.

“Their system is convenient for herd closure because they have seven months of replacement gilts on the farm. A decision was made to inoculate with the homologous (on the farm) virus for the sow herd and all of the staggered-age developing gilts,” Connor says. All sows and gilts received live virus inoculation twice, six weeks apart. No more new gilts were brought in for seven months.

“Statistical sampling by PCR was used to determine when the herd was stable, as determined by six consecutive weeks of negative PCR samples from weaned pigs. The farm continues to periodically monitor all phases of production for PRRS as they flow the virus out of the downstream, wean-to-finish flow,” he points out.

Gilts were restocked the first week of September and will be segregated from the rest of the breeding herd through their first farrowing, when they can be commingled with the rest of the breeding herd if desired, Connor says. These new gilts will not be given LVI, as they are expected to remain PRRS negative, which also presumes that sows in the herd are not shedding the virus, he says. These gilts will be used as sentinels with periodic PRRS sampling.

Older sows will be replaced at a 50% rate annually, and pig flows will continue to be maintained PRRS PCR negative as any virus is gradually walked off the farm.

The PRRS break was mild, but it still had an impact, Connor says. During the initial four-month period of the break, liveborn pig averages dropped to 6.9 one week before bouncing back up to 8.9, and it has begun to stair-step its way back up. Pigs per sow per year (p/s/y) got as low as 19 from being in the middle to upper 20s.

Production losses were muted by the fact that other than PRRS, swine health issues have been minimal, Connor and Dircks agree.

Preweaning mortality remains higher than its pre-PRRS figure, so that has been the focus recently, Connor says.

Strict biosecurity and logistics kept the virus from spreading from the sow farm to all of the finisher sites, Hoffman notes, and from positive to negative finishers.

Records for late September indicate liveborn has returned to 13.8 pigs/litter, production to 26 p/s/y, and preweaning mortality has declined to 13.3%, Connor says.

Wean-to-finish death loss is back down to about 3% and sow death loss is running 3-5%, Dircks adds.

With the loss of a 20-year employee, Kelly Greiner, DVM, of the CVS staff has spent considerable time at Dircks Farms providing intensive on-farm training to staff on how to start pigs. Connor says the focus has been on showing staff the level of intensity that is needed to attend to sows, get pigs dried off quickly and split suckle piglets as needed.

Staff has come to learn what is expected of them through education and repetitive training, Connor says, eliminating the barriers to success.

By mid-November, Connor expects all wean-to-finish pig flows to be near PRRS-negative status as well.

For Dircks Farms, PRRS cleanup is progressing, and the goal set nearly a decade ago of reaching 30 p/s/y is slowly coming closer to reality, Connor says.

“Close attention to detail in every area, every day” can turn that goal into a reality, Hoffman agrees, who has a business degree but never worked on a hog farm before Dircks Farms.