5 Things You Need to Know About Iowa Pork Farms

Many thanks to the Iowa Pork Producers for taking me on an Iowa Pork Farms Trip in July!  I went on this trip because I think it’s important that we all know where our food comes from and I wanted to see a production pig farm first hand. 43 million hogs annually are raised in Iowa – the nation’s top pork producing state, and my own father-in-law was a pig farmer until the late 1990s. Pig farming is a pretty big deal here and it was time I learned more about it.

5 Things you need to know about Iowa Pork Farms5 Things You Need to Know About Iowa Pork Farms

While I see the outside of pig barns almost every single day, I hadn’t been inside one since when I was 20 years old.  In 1994 I took a quick tour of my future father-in-law’s pig operation. The buildings I saw on my recent #IowaTourDePork trip were not all that different from his, and I was interested to learn similarities and differences between his 1996 farm and the pig farm of 2016.

Today’s pig farms come in all shapes and sizes.

A large portion of Iowa pig farms (94%) are family owned farms and 39% of these farms raise 1,000 or fewer pigs. The Gent Family Farm that we toured supports three families by producing 35,000 pigs and growing 700 acres of soybeans and corn each year. Iowa pork farms use one-third of all the corn and soy beans that are grown in Iowa, which means the Gent Family Farm also buys crops from other Iowa farmers to feed their pigs.

#iowatourdepork finishing pigs

My father-in-law raised about 4,000 pigs a year until 1996 in a farrow-to-finish farm, which was a large pig farm in the 1990s.  I thought 35,000 pigs was an enormous farm, but we also met another pig farming family on our trip, the Brennemans, whose farms are even larger. The Brennemans have 25,000 mama sows at four different farms. You will find mama sows giving birth to 800-900 piglets every single day on three of their farms (so 2400-2700 total piglets born per day), and around 3,000 piglets are born per month at a smaller fourth farm. They finish some of their pigs themselves, and also hire contract farmers to finish their pigs as well. I can’t even fathom the scale of their operation, but I really enjoyed talking to them and learning about their farms!

salad at Pullman Diner in Iowa City

We were also treated to a delicious meal at the Pullman Diner in Iowa City. This restaurant sources  pasture-raised pork from Heartland Fresh Family Farms – a different type of pork production at the opposite end of the spectrum. We didn’t get to visit that farm unfortunately, but it’s on my list of things to do because I prefer to buy pasture-raised pork.

There are several different types of pork farms.

Nursery Barn - Gent Family Farms #IowaTourDePork

Not all pig farmers raise the same age pigs or even use the same raising methods. We toured two different types of pig barns owned by the Gent family on our trip. The first was called a nursery barn and the inside is pictured above. Piglets arrive at nursery barns when they’re between three to four weeks old, after they’ve been weaned. They stay in the nursery barn until they’re about eight weeks old.

The pigs in the nursery barn we visited were moving to a larger finishing barn the very next day after we saw them. So, we saw them at their most crowded. They live in the finishing barn until they’re around six months old and ready to go to the processor to become bacon, sausage, pork chops, ham etc. In addition to the nursery barn, we also saw two finishing barns that house 1,200 pigs each, pictured below. These barns are similar to the ones my father-in-law has. In fact, one of his finishing barns is rented and still has pigs in it.

Gent Family Farms #IowaTourDePork

Other types of pig farming include farrow/breeding farms  – where mama sows birth piglets. Some Iowa pig farmers are contract finishers which means they are hired by breeders to feed out babies but don’t really own them. We were told that being a contract pig farmer is a good way for young farmers to start their businesses because start up costs are a lot less.

This means, some Iowa pig farmers have all age pigs, some have only baby pigs, some have nursery pigs, some don’t get pigs at all until they’re eight weeks old. Most Iowa pig farmers raise their pigs indoors, but there are niche pig farmers as well. Niche farmers might pasture raise pigs or raise indoor pigs that are fed a non-gmo or organic diet.

Pig farmers are making positive changes to reduce antibiotic usage.

One big concern about pork is often the amount of antibiotics that it takes to keep the pigs healthy. I was very interested to listen to Erin Brenneman of Brenneman Pork, describe how her farms have been able to reduce antibiotics by providing around-the-clock care to the mama sows and baby piggies. Just as human babies need colostrum and breast milk to get off to the best start, piglets do too.

Erin told us that they have 25 people working three different shifts every single day to make sure all of the piglets get colostrum soon after birth. She said more piglets are born around 8 pm than any other time, and simply by having people assist the pigs born overnight, they’ve been able to drastically improve the health of their piggies and reduce antibiotic usage by 30%.

bio security during the pig farm visit #IowaTourDePork

Other changes that have deceased antibiotic usage include improved indoor air quality in the barns as well as increased bio-security measures. I was surprised to learn that farmers shower IN and OUT of their pig barns and wear only barn clothes and shoes in the barns {which they do NOT wear anywhere else).

We did not have to shower in and out during our tour, but we did have to wear two layers of booties and protective coveralls while we were in the nursery barn. We also were not allowed to have had contact with other pigs for several days before our tour. And finally, we learned that the pork industry faces big changes in 2017 when farmers will be required to work more closely with veterinarians for antibiotic prescriptions to reduce usage even further.

Patrick Gent - #iowatourdepork

Pig Farms don’t smell as bad as you might think.

Okay, pig farms definitely don’t smell like roses, but they don’t smell as bad as you might think, either. One of our gracious hosts was Patrick Gent. We sat outside his parents’ home for about an hour learning about their farms, and were very close to two barns and 2,400 pigs. Honestly, we couldn’t smell a thing. I’m sure they get a nice whiff of pig poo every now and again when the wind blows in the right direction, but not on this day.

This super family lives with 2,400 pigs in their backyard and for the most part, we couldn’t tell. By the way, I really liked this family a lot. We met mom, dad, kids, grandparents, and cousins. They let us in their homes, fed us lunch, and joked with us. The Gents reminded me a lot of my husband’s family and I really enjoyed the time we spent with them.

What happens to Mama Sow?

My pressing questions had to do with the mamas. As a mother of four myself, I feel for pregnant and nursing mamas, and I wanted to know about the mama pig’s life. So I asked. We were supposed to have visited one of the Brenneman’s farrowing barns to see the baby piglets and the mamas, but because of a death in the family, we weren’t able to at the last minute. We still met Erin, though, and she told me what I wanted to know.

Mama Pig gestates for three months, three weeks, and three days. She give birth to her piglets in a gestation crate so she can’t roll over and kill her babies, and she lives in this gestation crate until the pigs are weaned at around three to four weeks of age. Mama pig is ready to breed again via artificial insemination five days after the piglets are removed. Mama Pig has on average two and half litters of about 14 piglets per year. After about five litters, her production decreases and she’s turned into less desirable meat products like sausage and bratwurst. And that’s the life of Mama Pig. {I’m glad I’m not a mama pig.}

Food safety recommendations regarding pork have changed.

The last thing I wanted to tell you about pig farming is that the the safety recommendations regarding cooking have changed. In 2011, the USDA decreased the cooking temperature recommendation by 15 degrees. It’s safe to enjoy medium-rare pork and cook pork to 145 degrees followed by a three minute rest. That’s great news for those of us who want to enjoy juicer and more flavorful pork!

Many thanks to Iowa Pork for this opportunity. I’m glad I learned so much about pork production in my state and I hope this information benefits you as well. 

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