There's not much in the hog business that 53-year-old Scott Tapper hasn't seen, experienced first hand or managed.
Starting from scratch at the age of 13, Tapper borrowed the money to buy 10 shiny new farrowing crates. By 16, his hog enterprise had grown to farrowing 24 sows, four times a year. As a junior in high school, he was farrowing 36 sows, four times a year. And, as a senior in 1975, he pushed 100 sows, six farrowing groups, through his modest facility.
From that meager beginning 40 years ago, Tapper has experienced the trials and tribulations of virtually all phases of pork production and the booms and busts in the hog cycle from a Century Farm located just south of Webster City, IA.
The Early Years
Tapper's father was a crop farmer with a penchant for finishing western calves. He had zero interest in raising pigs.
“The pig thing kind of interested me, but he didn't want any part of it,” Tapper remembers. “I did it all the hard way. I turned sows out in the morning before school, and again after I got home. We used wood chips and sawdust for bedding, cleaned all crates morning and night and hand-pitched everything. Then we came back and did it all over again the next day. But I really enjoyed raising pigs,” he says.
As a senior, as boys will do, he wanted a new car. “Dad said, ‘If you want to buy a new car, that's your business.’ So, I had my neighbor bring over his straight truck, and we loaded 38 market hogs and headed for the Omaha stockyards. I topped the market and went down to the local Dodge dealer and bought a brand new Barracuda; paid cash,” he says proudly.
But college necessitated the selling of the sow herd. “I tried farrowing while I was at Iowa State, but it just didn't work,” Tapper explains. So he resorted to finishing a couple of groups of feeder pigs in the summer.
As a student in Iowa State's two-year farm operators program, he found the curriculum to be less than challenging and considered quitting and returning to the farm.
Maynard Hogberg, the current head of the ISU animal science department, was a graduate student at the time and served as the farm-op advisor. “He told me to get out of the two-year program and enroll in animal science,” Tapper remembers. He took the advice.
“I was lucky because I had a group of friends who were all livestock guys. We decided we were paying for this education and wanted to do well, so we formed a study group. We would study together five days a week. We're all still friends,” he adds.
Tapper received a farm operators/animal science degree in 1979 and took a few pre-vet courses, but decided that he really wanted to be a farmer, so he bought some replacement gilts and began breeding them.
“I graduated Feb. 28, 1979, and started farrowing on March 1,” he remembers. “I tried farrowing four groups of sows, eight farrowing groups a year, with the same facilities.” Facilities were taxed to the limit.
A year later, he drew up plans for a new nursery and finisher. “I learned how to build buildings, pour the concrete, and do the electrical wiring. Dad was a pretty good carpenter, so that helped, but he told me, ‘this is your deal, I'm not co-signing anything,’” he explains.
In 1981, a hot nursery was built and the farrowing house remodeled with a scraper system. Gestating sows were kept in large groups in outside lots.
In 1988, the sow barn adjoining the outside lots was destroyed in a windstorm, which provided the next incentive to build and expand. A sow barn with gestation pens for 200-250 sows was constructed; the farrowing house was updated and expanded to 32 crates. A semen collection room was included.
“I had started experimenting with artificial insemination of sows while I was in college. Then, we used the style of catheters that you had to sterilize. Whole milk and eggs were used as (semen) extenders,” he relates. “By 1988, the technology worked pretty well, so I did all of the collecting and extending in my own semen-processing lab.”
In the mid-'90s, the itch to expand surfaced again. Tapper called on University of Nebraska Extension Swine Specialist Don Levis to help design a new breeding-gestation barn.
The breeding herd grew to 350 sows. Sows were weaned into breeding stalls where they spent four weeks, confirmed pregnant, then moved to another row of stalls. Midway through gestation, sows were regrouped in pens.
“I've managed gestating sows in large groups, in stalls, and in a combination of pens and stalls. I've done them all, and the best welfare for the sows is still individual stalls,” he explains. “Sows don't get picked on, they get fed the way they should, and they are in better shape.”
Tapper was batch-farrowing groups of 48 sows, yielding about 500 pigs, so additional nursery and finishing space was included in the mid-'90s expansion.
Feeling fairly optimistic about the hog business, Tapper began putting together plans for two, possibly three, 2,500-sow complexes. Investors were sought and found. Then the devastating hog market of 1998 hit. Investment money dried up.
“As it turned out, I would have hated to have two or three, 2,500-sow units sitting in hog-dense central Iowa with as much porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) as there is here,” he reflects.
PRRS and PRV
In 1999, a pseudorabies (PRV) buyout program was initiated in Iowa. Tapper kept his sow herd at the home farm, while nurseries, finishers and gilt development facilities were about a half mile down the road. Sows were vaccinated with a PRV marker vaccine and, when tested, were free of the disease. However, a couple of pigs at the finishing site tested positive.
“The mandatory buyout program was the last leg of the pseudorabies eradication program,” he explains. “They came in one day and, with the help of eight or nine neighbors, weighed and loaded every pig on that farm site, including my gilt pool. That was one of the lowest moments in my hog career,” he says.
While he regrouped over the next few years, PRRS held a pesky presence. “My sow herd had gone from 24 pigs/sow/year to 15,” he explains. A total depop-repop was a temporary fix, but good farrowing management help was impossible to find. While his daughter and two sons pitched in with chores, they were entering high school and becoming more active in school, church, 4-H and FFA activities. His wife, Lisa, held a full-time family and consumer science teaching position. “I was missing too much, so I made the choice to change my lifestyle,” he says.
In 2002, the difficult decision to eliminate the sow herd was made, and the search for quality Isowean pigs began. A source near Fort Dodge, IA, provided pigs for a while, and then went down with PRRS. Another source near Prairie City, IA, provided pigs through mid-2008, but PRRS plagued that herd as well, and the contract was allowed to expire.
Tapper took the opportunity to gradually empty the barns. “We went through all of the buildings and did all of the neat and pretty stuff that you normally don't have time for — patching slats, putting in new ceilings, painting door frames, refurbishing feed systems. We got everything back up to where it was really nice again.
“What basically kept me alive in 2008 was the fact that every group of pigs that I didn't buy and finish — from May through December — allowed me to sell 5,000 bu. of corn, including some $7 corn,” he explains.
In the winter of 2008-2009, Tapper focused on locating a consistent, high-health source of Isowean pigs, and found them in a Danbred multiplier herd in Manitoba, Canada.
The source herd farrows about 500 pigs/week, collects two weeks' worth of barrows and delivers 500 to Tapper every three weeks. “They're all white, maternal line barrows — and I love 'em,” he says.
All pigs are sold to Tyson's Perry, IA, plant, where they are designated “B” pigs, as required by mandatory country-of-origin rules. “Tyson has been wonderful to work with and the pigs grade and yield well,” he adds.
Getting, Staying Involved
Tapper was elected to the Hamilton County Pork Producers' board of directors in 1989. Three years later, he received an Iowa Master Pork Producer award, which drew him into state committee work. A friend's run for the state legislature pulled him into state-level lobbying and public policy issues.
In 1996, Tapper joined the first class of the public policy and leadership development program. He describes the two-year commitment — which includes public relations and public policy training — as “probably the best thing I've ever done in my life; it's a great program.” He notes that the class of about 20 people boasts at least a half dozen state and national pork producer presidents.
His state lobbying activities escalated in 1999 as the policies for the PRV buyout program were being drafted. “We tried to make it as fair for producers as we could. They published a price every week — a sliding scale on the market hog value basis — and producers had to choose what average price they would accept. But they had to be out of production by a certain time,” he explains.
Tapper served two full terms on the Iowa Pork Producers Association (IPPA) board of directors, starting in 2000, and was elected IPPA president in 2007.
“We went through a lot of changes, reorganizing the state from 16 districts to eight districts with regional directors. The pork industry is a huge economic force in Iowa and we need to include everybody, whether they are producers, contractors, integrators or employees,” he emphasizes.
Tapper also sits on the ISU College of Agriculture advisory council, as well as the Ellsworth Community College agricultural advisory committee.
“Everybody seems to think that everyone needs a four-year degree. I disagree. There are a lot of kids who will find success in vocational and family consumer sciences, whether it is in a teaching role or in a trade industry,” he relates.
Tapper is quick to recognize his father's guidance, set by example. “Dad taught me how to work hard and how to give back,” he says.
He also recognizes Hogberg for his confidence and encouragement to seek a four-year degree at Iowa State. Lauren Christian, Iowa State swine geneticist, and his brother, Al, ISU breeding and teaching herd manager, tutored Tapper in key aspects of swine production, particularly artificial insemination and genetics.
Tapper turned to the late Al Leman, swine veterinarian and partner in Swine Graphics based in Webster City, for practical production and personnel management advice.
“Al would jog out to a restaurant south of town and I would sit and pick his brain during breakfast. He would walk the buildings once a month. He taught me the pig business and how to work smart. Some of the best advice he ever gave me was, ‘hire good people, pay them well, and get the hell out of their way,’” he remembers.
One day, as Tapper was pouring concrete slabs, Leman showed up and offered to pitch in. Leman accidently stepped into some fresh concrete that day and quickly wanted to trowel over his footprint. Tapper told him to leave it, his misstep serving as a reminder of the knowledge shared by his friend and consultant.
This well-seasoned and tested-by-fire pork producer remains a self-described optimist. “You have to be willing to work hard; you can't hire everything done,” he emphasizes. “I built and wired most of my own buildings. We still grind all of our own feed and haul all of our own pig manure; I bought a semi-tractor and trailer to haul my own pigs. If you are willing to do all of that stuff — grow the corn to feed the pigs to produce the manure to grow the corn to feed the pigs — that still works.
“We still have an advantage in Iowa that some other places in the country don't have,” he says. “We are going to raise 300 bu./acre corn and we're going to need a place to feed it.”
Of the Tapper's children — 22-year-old twins, Katie and Mark, and 24-year old Mathew — he says: “The best gift I can give my kids is a choice. I want them to have their own lives and if they decide they want to come back to the farm, I will have a spot for them.”
All three have undergraduate degrees from Iowa State. Katie is pursuing a master's degree in animal science/animal behavior, with plans to pursue a Ph.D. degree. “I think my greatest accomplishment is the fact that we've gotten all three of them through ISU degrees,” he says proudly.
“It's been a good way to raise a family. I have three good kids and a wife I adore, and we have been able to live on the family's Century Farm — I'm proud of that,” he says. “It's been an absolutely phenomenal ride. How else could a country boy from Kamrar, IA, see the world?” he asks.