The Last Dance

Ray Rankin, Eastern Allamakee Agriculture/Industrial Technology teacher, is interning for six weeks at Gruber Ridge Ag located outside of Lansing, Iowa which is a 2,500 head sow farm managed by Waukon Feed Ranch.  When asked why he wanted to work at a pig farm Mr. Rankin said, "I have zero experience with swine, and since Iowa is the nation's leader in swine production I wanted to learn some things about it that I could take back to my classroom to share with my students.  What better way than hands on!" 

I was able to attend a Holden Farms Managers' Meeting up in Minnesota at the Holden Farms Headquarters.  While at the meeting I was able to meet other managers and ask them questions about how they do things.  I also met one of the owners/president, Kent Holden.

The Holden family has been farming in Northfield, Minnesota, since their great-grandfather John Holden and his family moved there in 1876. Today, Holden Farms operates three turkey farms, is a part owner in a turkey processing plant, owns 55,000 sows and has nearly 200 contract partners in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa.  Gruber Ridge is one of those contracted partners.

At the meeting they introduced some of their new staff members and internships.  They had just hired some new vets.  Holden farms has their own team of veterinarians on staff that specialize in hogs and turkeys.  After the introductions they announced their sow farm competition updates.  Some of the categories they focus on are Farrow Rate, Total Born, Pigs Weaned per Female, and Weaned per Mated Female.  They have plaques in the hallway that they put the farm names on if they lead a category for the year.  Gruber Ridge cracked the top five in one category and that was Farrow Rate where they came in at number 4.  The leading barn in that area was at a 90.86% and Gruber Ridge was at 89.05%, so within just a couple percentage points from being the leader. 

Some other things that they do is have incentives for example if a barn can average 30 piglets weaned per sow for 26 weeks the barn employees get an all-expense paid trip to Las Vegas and if they can do that for 52 weeks they get a trip to Cancun, Mexico.  They were proud to announce that one of the barns had reached that goal and has earned the trip to Cancun.  That would be very exciting goal to achieve.  I have heard there is a Wisconsin Dells trip as well that barns can win by establishing a certain standard for a period of time.  This would be just one of the great benefits of working at one of these barns, and not to mention they also get quarterly bonuses based on the number of pigs weaned at their barn.  These are just extras on top of other benefits that full time employees receive. 

Another topic they talked about was Boar Stud and Genetic Update.  They are trying some different boars to try and improve their genetics, but it didn't seem like they were getting the results that they were hoping for, but seem like they have a really good genetic strand they will stay with. They also talked about the different colors of semen tubes and what they mean and are from which boars.  They discussed which are to be used first and when they collect and deliver to the farms.  They also discussed ordering procedures for the barns and when this should be done, so they get the semen on time and use it in a timely manner.

The next topic was about Farm Compliance and Audits.  The processing plants hire a third party company to come in and inspect barns and make sure they are caring for the pigs appropriately.  I believe barns can be fined or even lose their contracts if they don't do well with these inspections.  One of the veterinarians went over some things they wanted to make sure were being done and done correctly.

Lastly they had a keynote speaker from the University of Illinois, Dr. Firkins, who is a veterinarian specializing in swine, but changed his focus to people.  His talk and activities are geared towards the managers and how they could influence their staffs so they can make a positive impact at their barns.  They wanted everyone to feel valued and be part of the team and want to do a good job.  After Dr. Firkins was completed with his lecture/activities they fed us some very good food, pulled pork sandwiches and ribs.

My externship came to an end August 1st.  As I reflect on the last 8 weeks, I learned so much from this experience and the staff at Gruber Ridge.  The first couple of days I was questioning myself and wondering what I got myself into but by the end I was really enjoying it.  It is hard work but very satisfying work.  I have nothing but respect for people that raise and or work in the swine industry.  I enjoyed working with the sows, piglets and the employees at Gruber Ridge.  I am not going to miss the gilts though, let’s just say we didn't see eye to eye.  I would also like to thank the manager at Gruber Ridge, Michelle Harrington, for allowing me to work at her barn and ask so many questions of her and her staff.  I hope I earned my keep and thank you for treating me like one of the employees.  That is exactly what I wanted.  I also want to thank the staff at Gruber Ridge which includes Jared, Jeff, Brock, Chelsy, DJ and Tucker.  I learned so much from you guys. They are a very professional and knowledgeable staff.  I am not going to lie I am going to miss working there a little bit.  The staff there knows how to have fun but also works hard and gets their work done.  I wish them well.

I also want to thank Nancy Everman and Michelle Winkie the HR ladies at Waukon Feed Ranch for giving me this opportunity and helping me set this up.

I hope this blog/experience has opened some eyes to the swine industry.  I know it has mine.  So if you like working with good people and you like animals this could be a career choice for you.  They are always looking for good people to join their team.  They have good people to work with and good benefits.