Few people in the pork industry today can walk you through nearly four decades of production evolution. Randy Stoecker can.
Stoecker's personal and professional experiences run parallel to that evolutionary timeframe - much of which he actually led.
Last December, Stoecker retired as president of the Murphy-Brown West operations based in Ames, IA. It was a personal decision. He wanted to spend more time with his grandchildren — all under 3 years of age and living on the east coast — and aging parents who live in western Kansas. Stoecker and his wife, Gwen, relocated to Austin, TX, chosen for its favorable climate and a healthy population of university students. “I like being around young people,” he explains.
The Formative Years
Randy Stoecker's career in the pig business started on his parent's farm near Oakley, KS, where as a teen he bought and finished feeder pigs for an FFA project. His next stop was Kansas State University, where he earned a degree in agricultural economics. Then, in 1970, in what appeared to be a step away from pork production, Stoecker took a job as a farm loan officer in an Ottawa, KS, bank. As it turned out, the bank position launched him back, headlong, into the pork industry.
“Three customers and two other investors wanted to put up a 600-sow unit, but they didn't know how to put a cash flow together,” he remembers. “I worked on that thing from start to finish. I helped get it financed through to operation.”
While planning the new sow unit, Stoecker met with Ralston Purina staff and soon realized that banking wasn't his primary interest. Within months, he took a district manager's position at Lafayette, IN, “where there was some serious pig production.” There, he met one of his early mentors, Horace Ginn. “He was a guy who saw more in me than I saw in myself,” Stoecker says.
Soon, Ralston-Purina recognized Stoecker's extra talent and offered him a new sales position in North Carolina. At the time, Charlie Yeager was one of his leading clients and one of the biggest pork producers in the nation.
Stoecker was reluctant to relocate. “If you don't want to move, why don't you come work for me?” said Yeager.
Stoecker did, as co-manager of Yeager's business. Dick Hicks managed the sizable poultry operation while Stoecker focused on feeder pig finishing and the feedmills and elevators that supported them. “It pushed me into a P&L (profit and loss) managerial responsibility at a very early age,” he remembers.
“We had 60,000 pigs on feed in 1973; all but about 3,000-4,000 were in red barns with Smidley feeders lined up along the fence and water tanks with propane heaters and bedded barns. We used thousands of bales of straw, hauled manure and could spread dysentery about as efficiently as anybody,” he says jokingly, but still serious.
Yeager wanted more pigs than he could buy locally, so he headed to Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky to find them. Large groups were purchased, grouped and processed. Soon others were placing orders for feeder pigs, so Yeager and Joe Sullivan built a feeder pig sales barn and launched the Yeager & Sullivan feeder pig enterprise.
Any pigs that didn't sell were placed on feed “in about every combination of facilities you can imagine,” Stoecker says. “That's where I learned about contracting.”
Early Confinement Systems
Clearly, the health and quality of the feeder pigs were too variable, so in 1973, Stoecker began a campaign to build sow farms. As the first sow farm was being built, he had the good fortune to meet up with Hobe Jones, a Purdue University professor and swine production specialist. Jones was touring with a small group of producers from England, and they wanted to have a look at Stoecker's design.
“As far as I know, this was the first farm that had rooms for weekly farrowings, weekly nursery fills and so on,” he explains.
After the British producers had toured the farm, a young visitor approached Stoecker, explaining that he had drawn the short straw and was designated to offer their critique: “It's obvious you don't know much about confinement pig production,” he said.
Taken aback, Stoecker acknowledged that there was probably more to learn. “After you operate this for a while, come over to England and I will arrange a tour of some of the best confinement units in Europe,” he offered.
About a year later, as plans to build another sow farm were under consideration, Stoecker remembered the British producer's invitation, so he pulled together a small group that included Morris Robison; Yeager's nephew, Fritz Holzgrefe; and a friend from Ralston-Purina and they set off on a three-week tour to England, Germany, Belgium and Holland.
“The goal was to see enough different farms to find the common threads of success,” Stoecker explains. “We decided that we wouldn't visit any farm that was not willing to share their production records. Our goal was to get so committed to a change that we wouldn't get cold feet and go back to what we were doing. We finalized a lot of the design on the flight home.”
A key challenge was to come up with a floor that had a 60% void to replace the montage of farrowing crate flooring materials being used. They had seen flat iron rod grating on supported floors in Europe, but no such product was available in the States.
Robison, the closest the group had to an engineer, began experimenting and eventually developed the prototype for woven-wire flooring. “We found a company to produce them, but we had to order two semi loads to get them to make them,” Stoecker remembers.
“We built double-wide buildings, learned about energy efficiencies, shallow manure pits and hand mating. A lot of people told us we couldn't breed sows indoors, but we decided we were going to start at that level,” he adds.
The farm, built in 1974, was for 1,200 sows. “We picked up the idea that some of the white sow lines have more pigs, give better milk and were pretty docile,” he continues. “Another thing that wasn't very common back then was how to biologically account for a farm. It seems simple today, but back then we didn't have PigChamp or anything like it, so we had to figure out how to get those sow cards into a summary. PIC had a handwritten, manual system that compiled each week's numbers. It's one of the things I took away from one of my first meetings with PIC.”
Stoecker met PIC founder Ken Woolley during his trip. A couple of years later, Woolley made his first overture to hire Stoecker. He declined. A second call enlisted Stoecker as “the token American at PIC” in 1979.
His tenure with PIC spanned eight years, beginning with responsibilities for the southern division based in Franklin, KY. In 1982,Stoecker became general manager of the U.S. division and began focusing on a more functional female line and a terminal sire line that would produce higher yields at the packing plant.
In 1987, PIC's parent company, Dalgety, asked him to move to England and manage PIC worldwide. He declined.
Building Murphy Family Farms' System
But Stoecker was well positioned to join Murphy Family Farms (MFF), having dealt directly with Wendell Murphy while at PIC. His transition to production manager in North Carolina was relatively seamless.
“Murphy's only had 17,000 sows. My goal was to design a sow system that could be built and repeated. By March 1988, we decided we were going to build 3,600-sow units with on-site gilt production, off-site nurseries, and utilize three-site production. We took what we knew about modified- and medicated-early weaning and did our best to modify them so they would be commercially viable,” he says.
At that time, MFF was producing only about 20% of their feeder pig needs. “The pigs that we produced were cheaper and performed better, so we ramped up and didn't even slow down when we went past the 50,000-sow mark,” he remembers. “By the summer of 1998, we were somewhere around the 330,000-sow mark.”
Murphys set up nucleus and multiplication herds, produced their own replacement gilts and minimized the mixing. “As the industry grew, we made the mistake of getting a little too concentrated. That was always one of the debates that Wendell and I had,” Stoecker recounts. “He wanted the pigs close to the feedmill because he could measure the cost of freight.”
But when MFF expanded into Iowa, Stoecker recommended that the commercial sow herds be located in Missouri. “My experience told me that if you put too many sows around concentrated pig production, you're going to have more health problems. The cost of cleaning up a sow farm is far different than the cost of cleaning up an AIAO finisher. We've trucked those pigs to Iowa since 1994,” he notes.
A business philosophy Murphy and Stoecker shared, however, was a focus on finding people with good character. “When we looked for growers, we didn't look for people with a lot of land or a lot of money. We wanted long-term relationships. We did the same when we went to the universities.
“I told Wendell, if we transform this business, all of the people raising pigs today are not going to quit farming and come to work for us. So, we're not only going to have to design and execute the construction of the farms, we're going to have to recruit and develop a team of leaders and managers. The people we bring in early will have a big impact on this business for a decade or more,” Stoecker explains.
When asked to identify the biggest challenges facing the pork industry in the next decade, Stoecker responds: “First, there will have to be serious effort put into understanding the utilization of feed.
“I think we will also see innovation in building and equipment design. We've built things bigger, but we really haven't had any innovation in about 20 years. Today, we have (manure) nutrients that have real value. We have air exchange that is pretty expensive. Energy costs have tripled. We don't even talk about body heat anymore, but it's a real resource and it's more valuable today than it was five years ago,” he says.
In addition, Stoecker feels more attention should be paid to specific components of the production system, such as farrowing. “If you think of a farrowing crate — the floors, the supports, the things that hang on it, none of those things were designed with a consistent life cycle in mind. When one (component) wears out, you have to dismantle everything to get to it.
“We will not be well-served if we just keep doing what we're doing. I think the industry needs to look for people who can actually step away from all of the things that we are so comfortable with.
“You really have to extract yourself from your current prejudices and paradigms,” he continues. “The only way to make serious change is to become totally disgusted with the status quo. Any tolerance for it will lead you right back to where you were.'”
Where are these industry innovators to be found? “I wouldn't look just in this industry or just in this country. Sometimes you have to get out of your industry to find creative solutions,” he says.
“Being large is no security. I tell people they are bigger because they were better first. They aren't better because they're bigger.”
Stoecker credits his depression-era parents and his western Kansas upbringing for his appreciation for honest, hard work and things of value.
To single out a person who has influenced his career the most is difficult.
“The pig industry has given me an opportunity to work with a lot of really good people and shape a business or two,” he reflects. When pressed, he settles on Ken Woolley. “He made me see the world. He would not allow me to focus just on our industry. He forced me to have a broader perspective than anyone I ever dealt with. He would rather argue than eat - and Ken loved to eat,” he says affectionately.
“What this country needs is a couple of people to come along and show the people that think they are pretty good at it that there are still things to learn. It could be somebody who brings a different model, one that really galvanizes quality people and turns it up a notch. I still believe that one person, one approach can make a difference.”
Stoecker's best advice for young people: “Know yourself first. If you don't do anything else, recognize that you are the greatest asset you will ever manage in your life. Then, commit yourself to something that you have a great opportunity to be successful at. Don't fret about your so-called weaknesses. Align yourself with people who have strengths in those areas. If you choose to work in an organization, pick your boss. Be selective; don't be selected. If you don't get the person you want, then go and work for somebody else. Early mentors have a disproportionate impact on your life.”
— Dale Miller, Editor