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It was the most stainless steel I’d ever seen but then I’d never been inside a confinement hog operation before — not because I wasn’t interested but  because no one (except for employees) gets inside such facilities for health reasons.

Not for human health reasons, rather, to protect the pigs being raised there.

I was one of  an estimated 800 people who came  to see the not-yet-open Blake’s Point Sow Farm at an “Open House” near Glen Haven in Grant County last week. I suspect most all of the visitors were as awed as I was to see 4480 individual maternity pens, 600 gilt development pens, 936 farrowing pens and 600 nursery spaces, all built with stainless steel.

The host of the event was Pipestone System of Pipestone, MN, a swine management company that began business in 1989. However, the series of barns which we toured, as are the pigs soon to arrive at the barn, are owned by about a dozen hog farmers living in several states.

Blake’s Point Sow Farm is the latest of some 65 such facilities scattered across the corn belt owned by shareholder farmers and managed by Pipestone System.

A new and better way

This method of raising pigs began in the 1980’s when several veterinarians at Pipestone Veterinary Services thought there was a better way to raise pigs than what was then current: Hog raisers bought feeder pigs of varying genetics and backgrounds to raise to market weight or owned farrow to finish operations.

The veterinarians came up with  plan whereby hog farmers could jointly build farrowing facilities and have Pipestone Veterinary Service manage the labor needed in the breeding and farrowing of pigs. The result was the formation of Pipestone Systems. In 1990, the first Pipestone System sow barn, named Hiawatha Gilts, LTD, was started with 700 sows.

Today

What it is today according to the company: “They’re family farmers who aren’t willing to give up their private stake in the pork industry. Still, there are a few things they don’t mind giving away. Labor-intensive breeding and farrowing can really wear one person down. Good genetics and modern sow barns require huge investments. Everybody knows today’s employee benefit package is too costly for a single farm family to absorb.

Once they hand over responsibility for sows and employees though, our local owners get back the three things they really want. We provide healthy baby pigs and the opportunity to raise those pigs their own way and they keep all their profits.”

Obviously it has worked well as today the fledgling company started by four veterinarians in 1989 has developed into a holding company with multiple divisions that includes Pipestone Veterinary Services and Pipestone Systems along with marketing, transportation and maintenance divisions and 1,000 employees.

Why in Grant county?

Blake’s Point Sow Farm was built in Grant county for a number of reasons according to the original plan: Ag zoned community, low swine density area, feed availability, low population density, access to Midwest work ethics and animal husbandry skills, good school systems - ideal for new families relocating and a  developed community.

The estimated approximate cost was $12,000,000 for real estate and $3,300,000 for livestock. The shareholder farmers, about a dozen in total, will pay  for and own the facility, Pipestone System is paid for the cost of production.

30,000 pigs

John and Karen Helvig and their son, Dan, and wife, Kendra, feed out 15,000 pigs twice a year on seven sites spread out in a 10-mile radius of their 6th generation farm, were on the tour.

The Helvigs grow corn, soybeans, oats and pigs. “We are wean to finish, but in the process of building a farrowing unit at Blake's Point  with the Pipestone System,” said Dan. (Interestingly, there is already a similar, but full, facility near their farm).

Soon the pigs will come

In a month or so the first gilt piglets bought from “multipliers” such as PIC, USA (owned by London-based Genus PLC who also owns ABS Global) will arrive at the facility where they will be raised, bred and produce an average of about 10 little pigs that will find their homes on farms in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin where they will be raised and sold as market hogs.

As it was

There was a time not too long ago — that many readers will remember — when most every farm in Wisconsin milked cows, had a flock of chickens and a small herd of pigs. Diversification was the watchword in farming, the theory being that if milk prices were low, eggs and pork or any combination of the three enterprises might be higher.

Then, the entire farming program (and economy) changed. Mechanization and its big, fast, efficient and labor saving equipment meant farmers could raise more hay, corn and soybeans. At the same time (in the mid 70’s) Wisconsin dairy producers saw Doug Maddox (probably the first mega dairyman) milk a thousand cows at Riverdale, California and other big herds springing up in the Central Valley  and they asked “why not us.”

By that time the farm chicken flocks were gone: Too much work, farm mothers who often took care of the chickens, got jobs in town or turned to feeding calves in the expanding dairy herd and mega egg producers with millions of birds provided uniform, perfect eggs for the consumers.

Wisconsin still had many hog farmers, in fact, the state’s swine herd had jumped to near 2 million hogs during the 1970’s. Swine operations were growing in size and hog raising was becoming a specialty  enterprise, and the future was bright.

The bad times

The “farm financial crisis: of the 80’s and 20 the percent interest rates stopped farm growth and many farms were lost. Then there was the still remembered and horrible pain of the late the 1990’s when hog prices collapsed from over-production and market hogs were selling for $10 per hundred — not worth the gas cost it took to get them to market. Swine production in Wisconsin dropped from 1.5 million to the current 340 thousand head inventory and the state is no longer a serious hog state.

The future?

However, the new 5400 sow operation is one of several large swine producers already in, or seeking to locate, in the state. New Fashion Pork, a member of Triumph Foods, has a new 1400-sow farm near Thorp, where gestating sows live in groups of 250 in large pens. Sows and gilts are held in stalls for a few hours to be bred and then released and allowed to move around within a breeding group pen.The farm also features turnaround-style farrowing stalls.

Will Wisconsin ever return to its glory days of hog production? A good question without an answer. It depends on rules, regulations, the public and farmers. Chances are there will be more swine farrowing operations like B lakes Point built but I’d guess dairy will be king for a long time.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.

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