At a time of day when many people are counting sheep, Tom Congleton counts uniform market hogs as they make their way onto a semi trailer. Congleton, a retired vocational agriculture teacher from Springfield, KY, supervises the 5 a.m. load-out of 600 hogs/week on behalf of a group of independent Kentucky pork producers who are happy to still have somewhere to sell their hogs.

The 14 members of the marketing co-op range in size from 40 to 600 sows. Most of the co-op members are full-time farmers. Congleton coordinates the marketing for the group. He also accepts bids from feed companies, purchases feed, prepares a monthly newsletter, plans educational meetings and handles some equipment procurement for the group.

Each producer member of the marketing co-op delivers hogs to a central point every Monday morning for loading and hauling to the packing plant.

The group has a one-year, verbal agreement with a packer in Louisville. Congleton says the group's consistency and dependability are important to the packer, "The packer knows our hogs will be there for the early kill every Monday morning, regardless of weather or anything else that might come up."

All but one member of the co-op are using the same genetics, another plus during packer negotiations.

Members have netted premiums over the cash market in the past. However, since four area packing plants have closed within the past four years, Congleton says the biggest advantage group members gain from working together is simply having access to a packer. According to Congleton, group members received an average selling price of 55 cents/lb. the past two years. Separate checks are issued to the individual producers.

This marketing alliance has more experience than most in the pork industry. After getting a start mainly as an information-sharing group, they shipped their first collective load of hogs on April 1, 1991. "The group has shipped hogs as a group every week since," Congleton says. Members pay 2% of the value of the pig to cover the expenses such as stockyard rental and Congleton's time.

The group produces hogs now that average 6.5% leaner than those first hogs marketed. Hogs are marketed between 235-237 lb., and average 52.5% lean.

"The quality of the pigs and genetics improved much quicker for me as a result of being part of the group versus if I had been on my own," says Philip Lyvers, Loretto, KY. "Our group members now have the kinds of hogs the packer likes."

Packer Closings Barry and Sandra Blanford, Loretto, KY, have been members of the marketing co-op since it started. They decided it was important to start working with the group when three packers in their area closed.

Sandra used to do the marketing, calling packers for bids. "Tom Congleton does all that now, and all we have to do is load them and get them there," she says.

The Blanfords buy all of their inputs through the group. Group members can buy building materials and equipment at a savings. And, most members buy all of their feed as a part of the group.

Congleton gets bids from feed dealers, buying in tractor-trailer lots. Feed is delivered to a building on the Lyvers farm. Group members must pick up their allotment the day of delivery.

Congleton says this method encourages group members to plan ahead so they don't run out of feed. "That's what working together helps us do," Barry Blanford says.

The group's feeding programs are formulated by nutritionists Gary Parker and Richard Coffey at the University of Kentucky. They make farm visits and speak to the group too. Members of the group are not required to use the same feeding program, but most members take advantage of the opportunity.

Most of the pigs that are sold via the marketing group are the result of artificial insemination.

Group members, Philip Lyvers and Barry and Sandra Blanford collect their own boars. They supply semen for almost all of the rest of the group. Group members pay around $5/dose for semen.

Information Sharing Education is stressed as part of the marketing group. The group concentrates on improving financial and production records. Congleton mails out a monthly newsletter, which includes information from every group member's kill sheets. Sandra says the competition among the members to improve their production and marketing figures is a fun part of the group membership.

Lyvers finds the group's information sharing to be a big advantage. His decision to switch to a wean-to-finish enterprise was driven by their information exchange. He just completed construction on five wean-to-finish barns.

Barry Blanford says working together is the biggest advantage he gets from the group. "If you don't keep up with the changes in themarketplace, you will be in trouble," Barry says. "As a group, we can send pigs farther and have access to more packers than we do as individuals."

Lyvers has been in the hog business in Kentucky since 1970. The Blanfords have raised hogs since the late 1960s. Both Lyvers and the Blanfords believe in the future of the pork industry. Lyvers' son and daughter recently came home to the farm, and the Blanfords also have children interested in raising pigs.

"People who are doing a good job are still making money in the pork industry," Lyvers says. He encourages people to get involved with other producers to form marketing groups.

Tom Congleton likes working with people who want to do a good job and want to stay competitive. He says every member of the group would fall into that category.

"I plan to be able to survive in the hog business with the best of them," Barry says.