Two independent pork producers show that family-owned hog operations are alive and well in the nation's top hog state.

Scott Tapper has successfully risen through the ranks of the Iowa Pork Producers Association (IPPA) and kept his Webster City, IA, hog operation prosperous.

Tapper, 50, president of IPPA, has worked hard to secure his own future. In 2002, he owned a 375-sow, farrow-to-finish operation, and battled herd health issues with porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS), and struggled to find suitable staff for farrowing. He figured he would need to double the size of the herd and raise replacement gilts on-site to remain competitive and improve health.

But his three children were still at home then, and he wanted to spend more quality time with his family, yet continue to raise hogs.

After some soul-searching, he switched to buying Isowean pigs and now has a solid contract with Prairie Pork near Des Moines. He buys about 9,000, 11-lb. pigs annually, raising them to market weight for Tyson Foods at Perry, IA.

There have been some PRRS and circovirus problems. Prairie Pork owner Dan Wilson has started using an autogenous PRRS vaccine on the sow herd. And Tapper has been lucky in getting virtually enough circovirus vaccine to keep that problem under control. With both PRRS and circovirus in check, death loss is about 2%, half of what it was before those diseases surfaced.

Tapper says he cuts costs wherever he can. With 1,000 acres, he raises all of his own corn to feed his hogs. He reduced market weights by 20 lb., and sold some corn to offset higher costs.

“Iowa hog farms are a very sustainable system. We use the manure to grow the corn to feed the pigs,” he says.

Growing with Communities

Craig Christensen, 39, has also paid his dues as an officer, serving six years on the National Pork Board, including one year as president.

He is the fourth generation on his family's 3,500-sow, farrow-to-finish farm. Highway Farms has three farrowing units, one on the home site and two in the Ogden, IA, area. Craig's brother Cory manages the hogs and marketing, while Craig oversees the 2,700 acres of cropland, the family's feedmill and human resources. Their father, Rex, is in charge overall.

Highway Farms employs 18 full-time workers, plus a number of high school and college age part-timers for a total of 25-30 workers during cropping season. They also work with a number of contract producers.

“What we have focused on is being able to work with and acquire farrowing units (two off-site systems were acquired) while retaining most of the staff, taking advantage of their strengths and enhancing some management areas,” Christensen explains.

They prefer an operation that features a solid, diverse labor force with a good mix of young producers, and local producers regardless of age, who can provide fresh ideas. “Labor is one of the biggest costs to raising the pigs, after feed, especially if you have to continue to train and hire staff,” he says. “Labor is key. We empower and trust our team members to manage the sites, and it is important to find a good mix of young and experienced, local and non-local participants to fill these roles.”

Highway Farms is growing its finishing phase of production through contract growers, a practice it started 15 years ago. They prefer a smaller profile grower, 1,200-head finishers, including growers who've converted their barns from farrow-to-finish or built new barns.

“Right now our big phase is putting up new barns, working with existing grain farmers who want the manure, or younger farmers who want to get into farming but can't afford the $400,000 it takes to buy an 80-acre section of land,” Christensen explains.

With the backing of Highway Farms, many times that young farmer can get financing to buy a 10-acre tract of land and a 1,200-head contract finisher for half the cost of that 80-acre section, and own it in 10-12 years. A neighboring grain farmer will usually take the manure.

“We try and partner and put together a system that works for the people in the community,” he stresses. This approach builds community support. Smaller barns, spread out over several counties in western Iowa, help diffuse environmental concerns, he says.

“Business should not be an adversarial relationship. It should be positive and fun. And we think there are opportunities for young farmers who would like to put up a hog building,” he says. “It becomes a win-win situation for the local bank that has invested in a hog building, in the community and in agriculture, and the young person who is able to invest in and grow his operation.”

Highway Farms has also invested in the environment, planting roughly 7,500 trees around the home farm and knifing in all manure twice a year. Even though 30% of their production sits only a mile or less from Ogden, a town of 2,000 residents, they have not had any serious complaints from neighbors.