Numerous, monumental failures followed by modest success.
I was exposed to hog shows at an early age. I remember hearing people talk about the “barrel” show and wondering why people would show “barrels”. It took me a few years to realize “barrow” was what they were actually saying. Barrow is a castrated male hog in case you don’t know.
Before I was old enough to show hogs, (10 years), my cousin and I would pretend to show hogs. One of us would get on his hands and knees and the other one would walk him around the living room floor. Its no wonder then that the first year I was able to actually show a hog I won showmanship.
I was also interested in the genetic aspect of swine. My Dad would give his old purebred journals to me. My cousin and I would go through the magazines such as “The Spotted News” and alternately divvy up the boars and gilts pictured in the breeder’s ads. We would cut out the picture of the hog we wanted and add it to our “herd” in a cigar box.
My favorite breed was the black and white belted Hampshire. I would wait anxiously for the breed’s magazine, “The Hampshire Herdsman”, to arrive. Then I would read and reread, getting a sense of who had the prominent boars in the breed and what direction, genetically speaking, the breed was going. The biggest issue every year was the July Herdsire edition. I remember taking that to school on a day when we had all-day standardized testing. I would rush through my tests and then pull it out and start reading. My teachers questioned this practice, but didn’t stop me. It was probably too weird for them to object.
It wasn’t long after starting to show my Dad’s crossbred hogs that I realized I wanted hogs of my own. And I wanted a purebred Hampshire. My parents and I went to an auction held by a prominent Wisconsin breeder. This was about 1983 and I was 13 years old. I did my own bidding and bought a purebred Hampshire gilt for $300. That was a lot of money back then and most of my savings. The auctioneer stopped the sale and said when he was my age he bought a motorcycle and he wished he would have bought a Hampshire gilt. Well I wished I would have bought a motorcycle. We took that gilt home and turned her in with our Hampshire boar and she wouldn’t breed. We even tried other boars. All she did was get fat. Well the gilt was sold as a breeding gilt so I could have gotten a refund or a replacement but I was too shy to ask for it and I guess my Dad was too. We took the gilt to market and I took a huge loss.
In a couple of years I had saved up enough money to try again. This time I decided to try my second favorite breed, the Duroc. And I was also determined to buy two. It seems like bad luck to buy one animal on our farm. So I went to a prominent Wisconsin Duroc breeder and bought two purebred Duroc bred gilts and a purebred Duroc boar. I wasn’t going to mess around with trying to get them bred this time. Well they came along pretty nice but about a week before they were supposed to farrow, one had several dead piglets and the other had 4 weak, live piglets and some more dead piglets. The one gilt managed to save her 4 piglets. But they were never very good. When I tried to breed the gilts to the Duroc boar I realized the boar was a non-breeder. Again, my attempt to establish a purebred herd of swine was thwarted.
All this time I continued to show my Dad’s hogs. These hogs were good, profitable, hogs. But they were not blue ribbon winners. So I decided to try to improve the genetics of this large herd.
I scoured the breed magazines looking for a herd with genetics that stood out. At this time in the 80’s most purebred breeders had decided to select hogs that were more stout made. This resulted in short, fat, light-muscled hogs. I found a Hampshire breeder in Iowa, though, that had not gone with this fad. He continued to raise lean, muscular hogs. I asked Dad if we could get a couple of boars from this herd and he agreed. We did, and they were everything we hoped they would be. We started improving our swine herd. Every other year we would go back and buy more boars. I never won our county swine show. But by the 90’s, when I was too old to show, my sisters were getting blue ribbons and winning the show regularly.
In the 90’s, corporate hog buyers decided that the majority of hogs were too fat and they were going to give an incentive for farmers to raise leaner hogs. They devised a system, (grade and yield), whereby hogs were individually measured for quality and paid accordingly. Farmers could see they needed to improve their hogs rapidly if they were to remain competitive. So, many of them decided to buy improved boars and improved gilts rather than wait for the slower genetic change if they had just used improved boars.
Local farmers could see for themselves that we had improved hogs and began to ask to buy our gilts. So, in the early 90’s we sold over 200 gilts per year at a $50 premium over market price. I could see monetary benefit from having improved genetics.
But I still wanted my own purebred herd. So, when I was in college at Iowa State I contacted a prominent Hampshire breeder from Nebraska. He sold me 4 purebred gilts for $400 each. I bred them to one of our boars and was surprised when one of the litters produced a genetic anomaly.
In many mammals, including people and swine, the males of the species undergo a peculiar process in embryonic development. The testes, which begin in the abdominal cavity, descend through the inguinal canal if all goes normally. If the opening is too big, the intestines will also come through the hole and you will have a hernia, which we call a rupture in swine. If the opening is too small, the teste will not be able to descend through the canal and it will appear to be absent. We call this a cryptorchid in swine.
Now I always thought these two conditions were on opposite ends of the genetic spectrum. So, imagine my surprise when each of these conditions was present in two different boars in the same litter. I had purchased a genetic mine field. Evaluation of their offspring also determined they weren’t nearly as good as my Dad’s herd. So, after a couple of years I terminated this herd.
In my last year of college I knew I wanted to come home to the farm and raise and sell boars. One of my college buddies had the inside scoop on an excellent purebred herd in Indiana. They raised Yorkshires and Landrace which were white breeds I hadn’t tried yet. Through my friend’s help I purchased two Yorkshire boars and four Landrace gilts. The white breeds are known for being more maternally productive and these proved true to form.
This was August, 1994. I had also seen enough in the industry to know that Artifical Insemination, (AI), was the future. I informed my father that we would no longer be buying boars but would instead introduce new genetics through purchased boar semen. He was skeptical, but it worked. We have stuck with this program and it has helped us keep our swine herd health very stable. We have never had any of the major hog diseases such as Psuedorabies, PRRS, or Circcovirus.
I had assembled some excellent hogs and had access to excellent genetics through AI. I wanted to use the four major breeds because I felt each offered something. The white breeds, Yorkshire and Landrace were superior maternally. The colored breeds, Duroc and Hampshire were superior for meat and gain and added durability for outdoor production. But how could I use these genetics to produce boars that Wisconsin producers needed?
I asked my dad for advice. He said to cross a colored breed with a white breed and sell the resulting offspring. Like all great ideas it had to go through a process. First, I ridiculed the idea. This is just not done in the industry. Second, I thought others would ridicule us. Third, I realized it was a great idea and would work beautifully.
My seedstock business is called Oak Grove Swine. I began to sell Oak Grove Red boars, (Duroc-Landrace), and Oak Grove Blue boars, (Hampshire-Yorkshire). Farmers would buy a Red boar one year, then buy a Blue boar the next year to breed to the Red boar’s offspring. This program could go on forever. It was very simple, yet utilized the hybrid vigor from four breeds. Plus, the durability of the colored breeds was balanced with the maternal abilities of the white breeds.
I began to sell 40 – 50 boars a year from 1995 on. If each boar sired 250 hogs, Oak Grove genetics were a part of maybe 150,000 hogs in the last 14 years. I achieved my boyhood dream of becoming a swine seedstock supplier.
What’s next for Oak Grove Swine? I will detail my vision for the future in a post to come soon.