Swine Genetics: Reminisce

UPDATE: Taking orders for delivery every other Saturday to Madison. Next date: March 5th.  Email Matthew with order and/or questions: oakgrovelane@yahoo.com. Thank you!

Blue, red, white, pink.  1st through 4th ribbons at the Lafayette County Fair.   We didn’t have participation ribbons.  Whatever you were showing, the judge told you where you stood.

We showed everything from cattle to crops, but my favorite to show was hogs.  Other than some success in showmanship, that’s where you’re being evaluated rather than the hog, I was stuck getting white and red ribbons with my hogs.

I always had an interest in livestock genetics and subscribed to the breed journals which I read cover to cover every month.  My favorite was “The Hampshire Herdsman” which covered my favorite breed, Hampshire.

Most of the journal consisted of breeder advertisements.  Even at a young age, I understood that much of a breeder’s success was based on perception.

It was interesting to see the different types within a breed and how type changed over time.  I understood that some change was based on the hopes of improvement of the breed.  And I cynically understood some change was based on the need for leaders to change type to stimulate demand for their stock.

One breeder who never wavered in the type of Hampshire he was striving for was C. Elliot Driscoll, of Waldridge Farms.  

I noticed his two page ad in every July issue, (the biggest and best, herdsire issue), of The Hampshire Herdsman.  He always had something to say and didn’t care about offending other breeders.

While it did seem he had a chip on his shoulder, Mr. Driscoll also displayed a sense of humor in his advertisements.  He listed his children and their various occupations, with the boys starting out as “sanitation engineers” and gradually moving up through the ranks to “apprentice breeders”.

I showed Waldridge Farms ad to Dad and asked if we could buy a boar from them in the hopes of improving our hogs.  Dad said sure.

Dad made the 3 hour drive in our Ford ton truck with the stock rack on the back.  Must have been a school day as I didn’t go with on this first trip.  I’m guessing it was around 1985 or 1986.

Dad brought home two boars.  I named them “Wolfman” and “Spock”.  Wolfman was a big, wide-belted boar.  Spock was an off-belt, almost black.  

We had a good base of maternal gilts sired by some good Yorkshire boars we purchased from local Yorkshire breeder, Larry Teasdale.  Wolfman and Spock went to work breeding those gilts.

We saw improvement in our hogs right away.  We went from white and red ribbons to blue, at the county fair.  But the biggest benefit to our farm was economically.  

Perhaps in response to the detrimental effects of the stress gene, I’m not sure, I was too young to know exactly why, breeders selected away from the lean and narrow hogs of the 1970s, and towards short, wide, and ultimately fat hogs in the 1980s.

I remember one Lafayette County Fair carcass show in which the judge kind of chewed out the hog producers as there were hardly any good carcasses and the worst carcass had about two inches of backfat and the loin, (pork chop) was smaller than the largest lamb chop.

Consumers were avoiding fat and starting to demand lean meat.  It was clear that type needed to change once again.

In an effort to promote and pay for lean muscle, pork processors started measuring individual hog carcasses for fat and muscle and paying the producer accordingly.

We were paid a premium for our Waldridge sired hogs.  And, in an effort to help other producers in the area, buying station managers started to promote our hogs to other producers.

Producers started to ask to purchase our Hamp-York gilts for replacement females.  So we obliged, charging $50 over market price.  Demand was good, and this became a nice sideline business.

We alternated Teasdale Yorkshire boars one year, and Waldridge Hampshire boars the next, into the early 1990s.    By this time, breeders had responded to the call for lean hogs and as usual, were taking it too far.

Waldridge hogs were no longer the leanest, meatiest boars available.  I remember discussing this with Mr. Driscoll.  He wasn’t worried, as he knew the type of hog he wanted to raise and wasn’t influenced by prevailing winds of change.

He said something to the effect that a hog with .8 inch backfat and a 6.5 square inch loin was always going to be a good hog.  That really stuck in my mind.  Whenever I’ve been confused about the direction of my hogs, I remind myself of that truth.

By 1994 when I came home from college, it was clear the swine industry was continuing to change.  Teasdale Yorkshires sold out before the market collapsed that year.  Many producers exited the business.  1998 and 1999 were two more brutal market years for the swine industry and many more exited after that.

In college I saw the benefits of artificial insemination and decided to close our herd to new stock, only bringing in new genetics via AI.  August of 1994 was the last time we brought new animals onto the farm.

While many producers had exited the swine industry, there were still enough producers left who needed boars that I started and developed my own business selling boars.  This was a good business for me from 1995 to around 2010.

By then, so many producers had left the industry, I could see the writing on the wall.  I only sell boars to two producers now.

I pivoted once again into selling meat direct to consumers in Madison.  This has been really enjoyable.  As a farmer, we know we are producing food, but I’m one of the lucky ones who actually get to know the consumers enjoying our food.

I guess I’ll end by thanking Waldridge Hampshires, Teasdale Yorkshires, and Swine Genetics International for providing the good swine genetics that help us produce good pork.  Thank you!

7 Responses to Swine Genetics: Reminisce

  1. Heather Butler says:

    And I thank you for the best pork I have ever tasted, which I don’t feel guilty eating. I can’t enjoy food if I know the animal spent its life in torment. I hope you know how much you and your farm enrich my life. 🙂

    • Thank you, Heather! We know, but we still like to hear it. You bless us with the kind of feedback most farmers can only dream about. Maybe that’s why I was thanking other farmers who have helped us over the years. No one does it alone.

  2. Travis says:

    Great article Matt! Good to learn about hog history and your history!

  3. Thanks Matthew, I really enjoyed reading your post. I didn’t know you have been in the hog business for that many years. The Hampshirite happens to be my favorite hog and if I were to raise hogs that is the way I would go. I think consumer sentiment is changing again and they want hogs with more fat. The science of eating is letting everyone know that fat is not the enemy it once was thought to be.

    • You’re right, Gordon! Fat is no longer the devil. And hogs are lean enough, I don’t think most packers even bother to measure fat anymore. If you want Hamps, Waldridge Hampshires are still in business, Williamsburg Iowa, probably not too far from you?

  4. Dave Perozzi says:

    0.8 and 6.5, that does sound like a good balance.

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