What I Learned from Pigs


This it is not an easy piece to write, because in some ways it is both a true story with a moral as well as a eulogy. During my 40-year experience with pigs, I witnessed many friends, mentors and almost everyone else who made their living selling pig seedstock lose their businesses. There is no right or wrong in this article, just my recollection of facts and changes that happened in the swine business from the mid-1970s through the early 2000s. During that time, more improvement and structural change came about in the area of swine genetics than had occurred in the previous 500 years. I am not implying that these changes are all certain to happen in the beef industry, but I am confident that it is easier to learn from the mistakes and pain of others than to suffer the same fate because we didn’t pay attention.

In December 1973, I was finally old enough to join 4-H. My father and I went on a mission to find a couple of purebred Chester White bred gilts to farrow and start a project, just as he had with Chesters in the late 1940s. Unlike today, there were thousands of registered gilts to choose from. “Missy” raised seven gilts that next spring and “Kokie” had a whopping pair of twins. The good news was that from the litter of seven came the Grand Champion Litter at the McLean County Fair in 1974. With that and my association member ship in hand, I was officially a purebred breeder of pigs.

In 1974, a 220-pound market hog sold in the mid-$30 per hundredweight range, and anything weighing more than 250 pounds was “too big” for the industry. Even a high school 4-H kid from central Illinois could make money selling boars to local commercial producers, and by the early ‘80s I had the opportunity to export genetics around the world to exotic places like Malaysia, Venezuela, Japan and Italy. In those days, purebred pig breeders dominated the genetics business and had for as long as anyone could remember. There were hundreds of boar sales in the Mid- west, business was good, and the future looked to be no different.

In the mid-‘70s, eight independent purebred breed associations benefited from the industry’s profitability, but few looked beyond their next conference or state association meeting. In those days, there was absolutely no professional genetic expertise on any staff. There seemed to be no need. Lots of handshakes and an inspirational speech by the executive officer before the grand champion was selected or at the beginning of a sale and everyone was satisfied with the association’s efforts. With the exception of number farrowed, number weaned and a little test station performance data sprinkled in from time to time, there was almost no effort by the industry to make genetic progress for economically important traits. Instead, we all gathered at the National Barrow Show in Austin, Minn., or other such events, to listen to industry leaders expound on their reasoning about why heads and tails should be big or small, why ears should stick up or lie down, and why bone should be large or small. As you might expect, the best caretakers and marketers dominated the seedstock business. Producers wanted to emulate those who appeared to produce what they desired, but too often genetics were masked by artificial environments that commercial producers simply could not replicate at home.

While most purebred breeders wrestled with these questions, others in the business were working to improve the traits that mattered most to profitable production. Scientific tools were being developed, empowering the data-conscious to begin down the path of creating immense change. In those days, few people could have ever conceived of 30 pigs per sow per year, 2.25 to 1 feed conversions or millions of uniform 220-pound carcasses that approached 60 percent lean and had highly desired levels of marbling and quality.

In 1974, most pigs were still raised on dirt, crossbreeding was not the norm, there was little or no price differentiation for anything except weight, artificial insemination was not used, feeder pig markets were large and powerful in pig-producing regions, and there were nearly 100 Chester White boars and 100 Hampshire boars and 100 Poland boars in the early February classes at the Illinois State Fair. Pigs literally paid for farms, because of their reproductive rate, ease of marketing and the consistent cash flow they provided to families. There was infrastructure everywhere in the Midwest. You could buy a farrowing crate, heat lamp, nose snare or a Pride of the Farm feeder in almost every town, and pig feed was available in bulk with just a phone call.

Since almost all pigs were raised by independent producers, these local services were crucial. The competitive businesses we had not heard about were the growing number propagating improved hybrid seedstock like PIC, Dekalb, Farmers Hybrid and Lucy. Quietly, they were using data, science and selection to develop better genetics and then offer services that a more competitive swine industry would require for the next 50 years. While purebred breeders were still selecting for phenotype, their growing competition was selecting on genotype and thus would overwhelm them in the long term.

Structural changes were also not far down the road. Within 20 years, almost all swine production had moved into concrete confinement and the aver- age herd size grew exponentially. Over a 40-year period, the number of pig farms in the United States would shrink from 650,000 to 50,000, but total pork production would expand.

By 1984, rapid change was underway. Biosecurity issues had become immense, largely due to confinement production, packers were asking producers for a better product with new, incentive-based grids and my second year at Bethel College was paid for with profits left over from the purebred Chester White operation. The larger industry was also seriously conversing about their needs for improved genetics. Un- fortunately, many seedstock and commercial producers paid little attention, saying they were going to breed and raise the “kind of hogs they liked.” The industry’s response was life changing. Challenged with a product that might never improve and a seedstock industry that was bent on tradition, packers built relationships with breeding companies that understood customer needs and then with corn farmers who were more accepting of change.

In 1985, an article published in the Wall Street Journal, “Rise of North Carolina,” was testament to a period of predictable change and an omen for things to come. In that article, the author documented a 10-year period where integrated production systems had returned an average of 20 percent on investment. At that time, no other investment could boast those stats and Wall Street was anxious to take a seat at the pork production table. That paradigm shift ramped up the sophistication of all facets of the pork business, including genetics.

The events of the next 30 years were simply a logical extension of the changes initiated in the ‘80s. A business model replaced an independent model of pork production. Vertical coordination and integration led to fewer participants and decision- makers in the pork industry, but also to a far more advanced and efficient model than the one I grew up with. Today, with the exception of a few very progressive, small seedstock providers, the genetics that impact large-scale pork production are almost entirely produced by integrated genetics companies that focus only on genetic improvement and service. The breed associations of the past are hard to recognize, as their survival-based mergers and social program priorities have relegated pork industry-based programs to the back burner.

I know what a lot of you are thinking. “Marty, this is the cattle business. It is totally different!”

There are important differences. Pig producers don’t have their friends over for brandings. I promise, however, there can still be wrecks at a pig gathering! Seriously though, the primary differences are important. In general, people enjoy raising cattle more than hogs, industry segmentation in the beef industry is still substantial, in- dependence is cherished and genetic change for cattle takes much longer. More important, cattle production is often largely a function of land owner- ship. In general, when you put swine facilities on a piece of property, it does not increase its value, nor the value of neighboring properties. Cattle producers also seem willing to operate at a much lower rate of return (historically around 1 percent) or even at a cash loss, which is not characteristic of pork producers. Certainly, the challenges that come from diverse production environments are added issues. One more important difference to consider: When you search the internet for publicly available information on genetics research for pigs since 2006, there isn’t any. It is all proprietary.

In my opinion, the beef business today seems a bit like the hog business in 1974. We have a largely segmented industry, but that is showing signs of change. The down chain industry that processes and markets our products is asking for improvement, consistency and added value. But some producers are refusing, saying, “I’ll raise the kind of cattle I like.” Genetic improvement is too often unfocused, unscientific and unprofessional, and proprietary genetics are showing signs of growth. Also, just like in 1974, independent seedstock providers and the organizations that represent them are doing well and are far better equipped with technology and expertise than the organizations of 40 years ago. Seems like the time is right to consider logical lessons from the past.

Written by: Marty Ropp, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Allied Genetic Resources

Article from: Nebraska Cattleman Magazine March 2019

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