For Donna Reifschneider, the adjustment of rising to the presidency of the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) board of directors is probably only matched by the changes being made in the family's hog operation.
The operation evolved from 125 sows, farrow-to-finish to 600 sows, farrow-to-wean. She hopes it helps them survive and thrive in the future.
Reifschneider is the 26th president of NPPC and the first woman to attain that spot in the organization's 44-year history.
She knows all too well the time commitment required for this job after her climb from vice-president to president-elect and now president. She estimates she will be away from home on NPPC business an average of 3.5 days a week during 1998. At home, the fax machine churns out about 100 pages of documents she must read each week. Add to that conference calls, interviews and pork producers calling for her views on a divisive subject.
Reifschneider says officers of NPPC need to have good backup systems on the farm to provide flexibility while they are in the three-year officer rotation.
"I know the commitment is huge for this year," she says. "But we have made other arrangements to compensate for my absence." Daughter Julie, 23, returned to work fulltime on the farm and two part-time employees were hired.
"My husband Jim and I both know that what I am doing is important and can have a big impact back on the farm," she says.
Family Partnership Donna is an integral part of the family's Smithton, IL, hog operation by overseeing recordkeeping and computer records and filling in where needed with farrowing, moving or marketing pigs. She feels fortunate she is not in charge of the day-to-day activities of the Reifschneider Brothers' farm. Those jobs fall to Jim, who is in charge of the hogs, and Robert, who grows corn, soybeans, wheat and milo on their 1,100 acres.
Like the industry, evolution has come to the Reifschneider hog farm. "About two years ago, we looked at our own operation," recalls Donna. "This is a fairly urban area. We had older buildings, older genetics (typical three-way rotational cross) and some lingering diseases and we wanted to do things differently."
The traditional 125-sow, farrow-to-finish operation was at a crossroads. Everything was paid for, three of their four children were graduated from college, and the operation could have continued on as usual, for a while.
Donna recalls: "It would have been very easy to say: 'Well, our facilities are old, our genetics are old. We don't think there is a future in this business. We don't want to invest a lot of money.' "
But the Reifschneiders knew that the pork industry was rapidly changing and they wanted to be a part of that evolution.
The couple went through a lot of self-evaluations. Their decision to stay in business and expand from 125 sows to 600 sows in a farrow-to-wean operation was based on three main factors:
1. Jim and Donna like pigs. "I think that is important. We really wanted to continue to raise hogs," Donna explains.
2. Jim is a good manager. "He was a good manager in the old system and so we thought we could carry that forward, too. We know the cost of the operation. We've separated out the grain from the hog enterprises so we knew where money was being made, and we were making money in the hog business," she continues.
3. Jim's strengths and interests are in breeding and farrowing pigs and the attention to detail those jobs require.
Practical reasons also figured large in the decision of the Reifschneiders. Because they farm between the growing suburbs of Smithton and Belleville, IL, and about 20 miles southeast of St. Louis, they decided that not raising grow-finish hogs would greatly reduce manure output. And, it would reduce feed needs.
Corn prices are good because they farm close to river commerce. They can sell much of their corn as a cash crop and still have the flexibility of feeding milo or wheat to their hogs.
And, of course, they recognized expansion at their current location would be difficult with the growing population and escalating land values.
Production Changes One finishing building and one farrowing-nursery-finishing complex were completely remodeled into farrowing houses with 40 crates. A 32-crate farrowing barn was constructed, increasing total crates from 20 to 92.
A breeding/finishing facility was converted into 300-crate gestation. A 250-stall breeding barn was added, which also has room to house some gestating sows Donna notes that gestating sows can stay in the breeding barn for up to 60 days, to be heat checked or rebred as necessary.
All the buildings are on one site, interconnected by 4-ft.-wide hallways. That's preferred because it eases sow movement to breeding, gestation and farrowing facilities, she says.
For breeding stock they went with a new player to the U.S. market, Bunge Meat Industries. The high-health Australian stock is basically Large White with some Landrace bloodlines. The sows raise large litters, are good mothers and docile, reports husband Jim. BMI's base in the U.S. is in Kentucky.
All breeding is done artificially in the breeding stalls. Jim has been AI'ing for about 25 years.
Jim reports they operate on a three-week, batch farrowing system, weaning on Mondays and Thursdays. The batch system allows them to synchronize matings and farrowings and fill up all the crates at the same time. That enables all-in, all-out farrowing and produces cleaner, healthier pigs, all weaned in less than a week, he says.
Because sows have been added to the herd very gradually during the past year, and the family has had to learn a whole new production system, it will probably be several months before accurate farrowing and weaning production data can be reported, Donna adds.
It's not unusual for the BMI stock to farrow 13-14 pigs per litter. When pressed for a weaning average, Donna replies, "We don't lose many."
Litters are weaned at 14-16 days of age; the goal is to wean a 10-lb. pig. They don't like to wean a pig under 5 lb. But when it happens, they stay with their group and are either discounted in price or counted as a pig of no value.
Contract Agreement At weaning, pigs are sold to two Illinois producers to be finished out in a profit-sharing contractual agreement. The contract provides for adjustments so both the farrower and the finisher share about evenly in the profits and losses of producing and feeding-out early weaned pigs, Jim explains. To achieve that, the pricing formula takes into account futures prices for market hogs and corn and soybean meal. They do not share in any marketing premiums.
"We want a long-term relationship with somebody when we do this," Donna says. "One of the things we thought was fair was to have this profit-sharing arrangement to share profits equally in the good times and take an equal hit in the bad times."
No Success Formula While only a year into full production, Donna makes it clear that the family's switch to a farrow-to-wean enterprise is no formula for success for other small producers. A number of producers have approached her for advice on how to follow in her footsteps.
But she makes it clear everyone has to make their own way. Call on all the experts you can find. Set goals. Find your weak spots and what good ideas you can develop to improve your farm business, she points out.