“For better or worse, we're still here.” The proclamation — commonly reserved for marital occasions - comes from Max Waldo, vice president and manager of Waldo Farms, Inc., the world's largest purebred seedstock supplier. It summarizes the tenacity and perseverance of a family commitment that has endured for well over a century.
Steeped in tradition and commitment to produce top quality breeding stock, Waldo Farms currently encompasses three generations of family members. For Willard, the family's patriarch, recollections of the early days come a little slower. But at 96 years old, he remains both interested and reflective of a family business that dates back to 1895.
Willard's grandfather, Harmon, fought in several Civil War campaigns before moving to Lincoln, NE, in 1868. Within three years, the Waldo family moved to the DeWitt area and set down roots that have endured to this day.
The youngest of four sons, Willard's father (also named Harmon), was born just a week after his father's death. Just seven years later, the Waldo siblings were tested again when their mother died, leaving them to eke out a living by operating a horse, dray and livery business from their small, 26-acre tract of land on the edge of DeWitt.
In 1895, the Waldo boys purchased their first Duroc sow and launched what is now the oldest purebred swine herd in America. That sow was aptly named “Confidence.” In her first three litters, she farrowed 51 pigs and raised 36.
In 1903, Harmon (H.O.) Waldo exhibited the Waldo's first Durocs at the Nebraska State Fair.
Willard was born in April 1912. His parents took their young son to the state fair that summer; he has not missed a State Fair since.
Willard also likes to relate a story his mother used to tell. “We had an old house — really little more than a cave — on the southeast corner of our property,” he explains. It was flanked on three sides by hog lots. “She said I fed those hogs sand when I was just 2 years old,” the elder Waldo chuckles.
He also remembers one year when he and his father spent nearly a month building 54 individual hog crates in preparation to send entries to the state fair. That year, 13 Duroc breeders from the area filled two railroad stock cars. The crates were loaded in the evening and arrived at the fair the next morning. Docks adjacent to the swine barn made for easy unloading. The Waldo family followed in a Model T Ford the next day.
As a young man, Willard's interest in the Duroc breed grew as he did. He graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1934 and worked as a county Extension agent and a vocational agriculture teacher for several years. This provided the resources to begin building his own herd of Durocs, tapping into the Waldo family's foundation stock.
“It was my ambition to raise hogs and farm,” he explains. “We knew Durocs as the most productive breed. We knew we needed to do all we could to raise good-producing hogs. We started with that goal and never quit. Litter size and growth rate - that's what's important. We wanted to sell the best.”
Drawing on his college education and an appreciation of scientific principles applied to breeding better hogs, Willard was one of the first to weigh and record pig weights at birth, weaning and market, then utilize those figures to guide his selections for the next generation.
In 1946, Willard and his wife, Beulah, moved their young family just two miles south of DeWitt, where Waldo Farms' headquarters remain today. A decade later, Waldo Farms became the first purebred herd to have an area Extension agent probe the entire herd for backfat, supplementing his performance-based selection program.
The Waldos have a long history of utilizing independent performance evaluators and industry-wide trials to measure the performance of their Duroc, Yorkshire and Landrace hogs.
Willard's oldest son, Arley, left the farm to become a professor of economics at the University of Minnesota. Another son, Max, graduated from the University of Nebraska with an animal science degree in 1960. In his senior year, he commuted from Lincoln to manage the purebred herd, while his father served his second of four terms in the state legislature.
Willard remembers those years fondly. He is most proud of a framed “Hogs Are Beautiful” poster hanging on his home office wall. It was presented on April 5, 1972, when he retired from the Nebraska Senate. The poster's backside carries the signatures of many colleagues.
“When you get a picture like that, signed by that many people, you know you've done something,” he says proudly. “And, some of those people weren't necessarily my friends,” he adds with a grin.
With Max at the helm, the Waldo Farms' herd was converted to total specific-pathogen free (SPF) status via hysterectomy procedures that were pioneered by his father and George Young, DVM, about eight years earlier. The herd was closed to outside breeding stock to protect the high health, SPF status, which is maintained to this day. A selection index emphasizing gain and backfat was also initiated in 1960.
The herd has been recognized as the top recorder of Duroc hogs since 1971. Individual pig pedigrees issued to Waldo Farms' Durocs peaked in 1976 at 10,183.
Max cites 1987 as their “busiest export year,” sending out 17 shipments and representing about 5% of the breeding stock sold that year. Breeding stock has been sold to 49 states and over 30 countries.
The last Waldo Farms pigs were shown at the Nebraska State Fair in 2003, bringing a 100-year tradition of show ring competition to a close.
The heyday for selling purebred stock to commercial producers occurred in the mid-'80s. As the number of independent producers shrunk and integration in the industry took hold, greater emphasis was placed on identifying the very best boars for use through artificial insemination (AI).
“When AI came into play, it opened up some opportunities on the terminal boar side to service larger producers that otherwise would never buy a live boar from anybody other than the company they were buying (replacement) gilts from,” explains Max. “We were early adopters of growth rate and backfat measurement, and we will continue to do that. We are also getting some marker (gene) identification to assist with selection, and we are trying to get intramuscular fat (IMF) readings over and above the typical loin eye measurements.
“We have a percentage of boars in the AI studs that can be designated as higher meat quality animals for those producers with access to niche markets. Unfortunately, I don't think we get directly rewarded for our quality any more than the average commercial guy does, in regard to performance and meat quality,” he adds.
In all, Waldo Farms has conducted meat quality work on about 3,000 carcasses, which has helped identify high meat quality sire lines. “We curtailed using a couple of boars because of the data,” he notes.
With nearly 50 years devoted to fulltime production and sales of breeding stock, Max recounts: “We have had a few good years. Typically, when the hog market is really good, we can have a very good year. But, when it's average or below, it's a real struggle. We are held to a higher standard of (herd) health, but we put ourselves on that pedestal to where people expect us to reach a standard above most other suppliers.”
Although many have moved away from the SPF designation for various reasons, the Waldos continue to conduct quarterly slaughter checks to ensure pigs are free of lice, mange, Mycoplasmal pneumonia, Actinobacillus pleuropneumonia and, although it is not included in the SPF protocol, porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) virus.
A son (Lee) and daughter (Linda) of Max and Tryka Waldo represent a third generation to be actively involved in the enterprise.
Lee, also a University of Nebraska graduate, recognizes the current industry issues as unique to his 25 or so years with Waldo Farms. “We've never really been through a cycle like this before. We're definitely at a crossroads,” he declares. Where it will lead, he's unsure. “There might be a niche to be a genetic supplier to the (commercial) seedstock companies. In the corn industry, there is a scant few who raise the germplasm for the major companies.”
Linda Gibbs took a slightly different route after high school, by attending college and working in California for six years and another six years as a franchise business owner in Colorado. She returned to the family enterprise in 1992 to oversee the recordkeeping systems, foreign market correspondence and marketing/advertising.
“It was time to move back home,” she relates. “From my point of view, one of the things that brought us to today is generations of commitment and our family's perseverance. There have been lots of storms that some other people would have been very challenged to weather. The makeup in the Waldo family is we are going to make it no matter what.
“We've always understood that a too-narrow focus is not good for the program. So we stay the course of what we believe is right. That has always seemed to carry my grandfather and my father through the tribulations in this industry,” she adds.
Her father agrees. “About the only thing we have going for us is our reputation for excellence and for treating people fairly.”
Future plans are focused on what Max calls Waldo Farms' domestic forte - providing Duroc boars to AI studs for commercial producer use. “On the sow side, genetic lines must have the ability to raise large litters and also have growth potential and reasonable leanness. Meat quality will have a bigger role to play, whether we get paid for it or not,” he predicts.
Two key issues for the industry are feed efficiency and rate of gain. “There are some exotic ideas about how to accomplish some of these things,” notes Max. “Yet some of Lauren Christian's work at Iowa State, with five generations of comparing hogs selected for lean growth vs. those selected solely for feed efficiency, showed that those selected for lean growth had slightly better improvement in feed efficiency. The idea that you will make the most progress if you just weigh and probe the dang hogs seems to escape some people.”
In truth, Willard's insight over 50 years ago has set a consistent course that serves Waldo Farms very well in today's competitive seedstock market. “It's still mostly about keeping on keeping on,” says Max. “It's about weighing and probing every pig and not cutting corners. Plus, we are able to measure these traits more accurately than when Dad started,” he adds.
“The biggest change in the industry that we've seen is we used to be able to be a farmer, to be able to raise pigs. Now we have to be an expert in so many different fields. If you don't have access to the information needed to get the right answers, you're not going to make it. That's the challenge that people are facing today,” notes Linda.
If the grandkids decide they want to extend the Waldo family involvement in the business another generation, Max offers this advice: “First, be well prepared with a good education. Have an affinity for the enterprise. If raising breeding stock is what they want, they will need to enjoy it to be good at it.”
The benefits in any career cannot always be measured in dollars. “I think the pig business has treated the Waldo family pretty well. We try to treat people like we would like them to treat us,” says Willard.
“We have endured many challenges by the grace of God,” proclaims Max. “The constant is that our family has enjoyed many opportunities, and we've been blessed by meeting many great people and being able to make many great friends.”
— Dale Miller, Editor