Illinois Farm Families Blog

May 30 2014

Defending Agriculture on Chicago Streets

Saturday morning dawned bright, clear and cool as we loaded onto a bus in a Chicago suburb with nearly two dozen Chicago moms. The moms were part of Illinois Farm Families Field Moms program, chosen for their interest in food production. They've been on a couple tours already, to a grocery store and to the Gould family hog farm.

This tour, however, took us to Paul and Donna Jeschke's picture-perfect farm at Mazon, Ill. No kidding, the sky was blue and full of high, fluffy clouds, the farm was shined up and looking great. It really made me want to go home and do something about my dandelions. Another day, I suppose.

I have come to expect a handful of things from these tours. One, that I will meet some really fun, really thoughtful women. Two, there will be good, deep conversation. And three, we'll all find each other on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter later on and become actual friends.

This tour was no different and I have to share a story from Sara McGuire. Sarah lives in the city and I loved talking with her. We didn’t agree on everything and that's ok; her comments made me think about my position and I can only hope mine did the same for her. But I love this story.

Early in our conversation, she mentioned how her trip to the hog farm changed everything for her. Then she told of being stopped in the street by an activist who was trying to raise money for something that had to do with agricultural runoff.

"He's showing me these pictures and this was right after we visited the hog farm," she said, adding that he was referring to the pictures of "big ag."

Sara asked, "'Did you know 94% of farms are family owned?' And he said, ' I did not know that.'

She had a response. "Well, you should probably do some more research before you stop people in the street and tell them this stuff."

It was at that point that he began pointing at his flyer and suggesting she call them and tell them what she knows. 
It gets better.

"They're really responsible about the fertilizer and the fertilizer is manure, not a chemical," Sara told me. "And it's injected in the ground. It's not like it's laying there and they're hoping the rain doesn't wash it off.

"It was interesting; I was like, 'NO! You're wrong!' Usually I would be the one signing the petition: 'OK, Greenpeace, yes!'"

As I have reflected on the day, I believe this might be the actual perfect scenario. Sara is a very thoughtful, educated young woman who took time from her life to come to the farm and learn about what we do and how it affects her family. She was not swayed by every argument; she's still uncomfortable with some aspects of genetic modification. I respect that. She's learned the facts and she's walked our fields (and barns).

She's taken our plight to heart, even to the point of defending us on the streets of Chicago. I'll take that. Every day. I'll take that. 

Originally posted on Prairie Farmer.

Holly Spangler
Marietta, Illinois

Holly and her husband, John, farm in western Illinois growing crops and producing cattle as well as raising their three children. Holly is an associate editor for Prairie Farmer magazine, a publication dedicated to sharing information about farm life and farm business. Read more from Holly on the Prairie Farmer blog.

May 29 2014

The Bees Knees

When I walked onto the corn and soybean farm run by the Jeschke Family on a fine May day, the last thing I expected to be thinking about was bees. I’d had the usual week of craziness at home between my full time job, my girl scout troop’s service project,  my two beautiful daughters, my theatre company’s upcoming showcase, my husband graduating from his master’s program and a visit from my mother-in-law, I was a bit distracted. 

Slowly as we worked our way toward the farm, the landscape changed from urban to suburban to rural, and I began to breathe and think. I wasn’t really thinking about bees. 

I saw the plants coming up in the fields, finally showing signs of spring after a long and difficult winter. I saw the kind faces of the Jeschke’s, and their love for their farm and each other. They practically oozed kindness. I think this is a lot of what we miss when we talk about farming and the policies and procedures large (note large not factory) farms adhere to, we miss the human element. 

As my partner and I moved from station to station – 8 in all, I began to think about Bees. According to a paper issued by the National Resources Defense Council, cross-pollination helps at least 30% of the world’s crops and 90 percent of wild plants to thrive. We need the bees. A condition now known as Colony Collapse Disorder is causing the bee population to plummet both here in the U.S. and in the United Kingdom. But what causes the disorder is still greatly argued. According to many and multiple sources: It’s definitely pesticides, it is definitely the bad winter, it is definitely the use of GMO seed, it is definitely the isolation of crops, it is definitely the lack of flowering plants. 

You can see where a mom could be confused. I want to help the bees, and the farmers and I want good food on my table for my kids. 

Paul Jeschke told me this, “The bees are definitely important. And we do use a pesticide that can hurt them. We follow the instructions on the label. The hives run by the guy on my land are doing fine despite all of this.” Mr. Jeschke regularly talks to his neighbors and the people keeping hives on his farmland to make sure that the bees are thriving and that they are reducing the amount of insecticide they use every year. 

At the end of the day I am assured that individual farmers are doing the best that they can to reduce the devastation. What is so good about this is that individual family farms make up 94% of all farms in Illinois. If every farmer has the heart of the Jeschke’s, we will continue to build knowledge. I am coming to believe through my experience with the Illinois Farm Families that indeed, they do. 

In my humble bumble under-educated opinion, we need to do more than just save the bees; we need to think like them. A hive mind produces intelligence unequaled by any single bee. If we could stop arguing the points for a minute, and stop talking in dollars, and start talking to each other – then perhaps we could find a solution.


Sara McGuire
Chicago, Illinois

Sara is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2014 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each visit, the Field Moms share their thoughts by blogging about what they experience on these farms. Want to learn more? Read Our Story: Chicago Moms Meet Farmers.

May 27 2014

Today’s Corn is Not Just for Food Consumption

When I think of a corn farm and its many corn stalks I’m thinking it’s there for food and for people to eat, plus it’s great to eat a delicious corn on the cob in the summer time. Well, I can honestly say that I had a lot to learn about corn. I feel very lucky and privileged to be a field mom and just recently last week we took a trip to a corn and soybean farm. Even though it’s still early in the corn season we learned a lot and I was very surprised by the facts I learned. I thought majority of the corn crops that we see on the farms will more likely be for human consumption and boy was I wrong. Can you believe that only 1.6% of today’s corn harvest actually go towards the production of cereals, canned corn, popcorn, and other food items! Yes, 1.6% of it – which made me think, where does the rest of the 98.4% go to?  

So here we are, as a field mom I just had to know, if we’re only using 1.6% for human food consumption where is the rest going? Being part of the field moms group we were very happy to visit Jeschke Farm who specializes in corn and soybeans. There are so many aspects of growing corn and soybeans, it’s not just about planting the seed and watching it grow but rather many different processes and factors that go into it. Not all corn is the same – well, I only thought there were the sweet yummy corn and the other kind that isn’t so tasty and goes to animal feed. Did you know there are actually 41 varieties of corn and the type of corn seed selected by the farmer determines the use(s) for the corn crop. And speaking about animal feed, did you know that 40% of today’s corn crop goes towards animal feed – yep almost half! I was aware that the US grows more corn than any other country in the world, what I was shocked to find out was the amount of corn that is actually exported out of the US for other countries. It’s estimated that about 11% of today’s corn crop is exported out of this country with Japan, Mexico, and China among the 3 major importers of today’s corn. 

You might not see an ethanol fueling station as often as you see the usual gasoline stations, but you might be surprised that 30% of the US corn crop goes into ethanol production. It is a cleaner fuel and today’s world is certainly in need of cleaner and efficient alternatives than the standard gasoline made from crude oil. The use of technology has greatly increased the use of corn for many other products such as paints, candles, cosmetics, plastics, soaps, textiles, fiberglass and so much more. It’s even getting used for pharmaceutical products such as antibiotics. If you take a look around your home, chances are corn was used in many of the items we all use in our daily lives.

So next time you take a road trip and you pass by a corn farm, don’t just think it’s growing there for food but realize all the great uses and products that corn has given us and the potential for so much more in the future. Let’s not forget our farmers and technology, if it wasn’t for the great collaboration of them we wouldn’t have such an amazing and wonderful crop we call corn. Hail the mighty and magical corn! 

Veronica Ortega
Berwyn, Illinois

Veronica is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2014 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each visit, the Field Moms share their thoughts by blogging about what they experience on these farms. Want to learn more? Read Our Story: Chicago Moms Meet Farmers.

May 16 2014

Dairy Sustainability Made Me Rethink Being Vegan

My decision to become vegan was not taken lightly. It was after much soul searching and research that over two years ago I chose to vote with my fork for sustainable agriculture, health, and animal care. I am currently a dietetics student, finishing up school and preparing to take the dietetics exam. While I don’t preach veganism to my patients/clients, for the last two years, I have personally followed this lifestyle and made those choices.

But late last year, one of my internship rotations was with the Dairy Council of Utah/Nevada. While all of my rotations were wonderful, the Dairy Council was by far the most fun and creative. It was also the most influential to me personally. During my two-week stint, I had the opportunity to visit two dairy farms. Watching the process of milk production on a dairy farm was an eye-opening opportunity. I have seen many horror films depicting animal cruelty in ‘factory farms’ across the nation, and before my initial farm visit, I thought that the tour was set up well in advance in order to prepare the farmers to be on their best behavior and to sanitize the environment from their normal practices. When I left the farm that day, I was confused. This large dairy was a family run business, it didn’t seem like a “factory” at all. I was stunned by how easy-going the workers were and even more amazed as I watched the cows calmly go through their daily routine. This occasion of showing their livelihood to the public did not seem staged in the slightest. The second farm tour confirmed my suspicions. Dairy farming is a family affair.

Sustainable agriculture practices are deeply important to me and one of the primary reasons I chose a vegan lifestyle. In a lot of ways I wish we could go back to the days of small farms where the farm to fork principal works in everyone’s backyard, but in today’s world of 7 billion people (that is quickly growing!) we have a food security issue and need modern agriculture in order to produce enough food. Therefore, we must move forward with larger farms, and help fine-tune their processes to create a greener environment. I was under the impression that animal protein production was not very sustainable, but I had the opportunity to learn first-hand how the dairy industry is a leader in this area.

Here are some of the things I learned:
  • Milk is a local food. From the time the cows’ milk is stored in a cooling tank, it is typically just 48-72 hours before it is on a shelf at your LOCAL grocery store.
  • Any type of energy waste is money lost on the farm and to the producers of dairy, every dollar counts to these families. Farming is a tough industry, one that is barely breaking even every year. Efficiency is essential and good business for dairy farmers. I witnessed farms using the natural heat from the milk to heat the milk parlor in order to create a warmer, comfortable environment for the cows during the cold winter months, and I heard about how water is recycled and used multiple times on the dairy for cleaning, cooling, irrigation…
  • When people would ask me why I was vegan, I would sometimes say I would rather feed humans than animals. By not consuming animal products, I felt I was taking a stand on world hunger. I worried about a large portion of our grain crop going to feed animals instead of humans. But on my tour I had the chance to learn more about what cows actually eat. Much of what goes into a cow’s 100lb per day food ration are actuallybyproducts that humans cannot ingest. Cows, due to their powerful stomachs, are able to produce nutrient dense milk by eating crops that would otherwise be useless to humans. This realization was my tipping point…thoughts of milk, yogurt, cheese, ice cream started flooding my mind.

Animal care was another important motive for my choice to be vegan. While attending different dairy farms in Utah I was impressed at the still, quietness of the cows and calves. Could they possibly be content or even happy with their lives? If not, I was fooled.

After my rotation with the Dairy Council, my mind was consumed with thoughts making a big lifestyle change for me and becoming vegetarian.  At first, the thought of this transition frightened me. I do not view myself as an easily persuaded person nor one who makes rash decisions. Being vegan was a big part of my life. It ade me feel connected to nature, animals, and the Earth in a more personal way, but after viewing the amount of hard work and dedication that goes into dairy farming with clean, healthy practices and love for the animals, I had a new perspective that fundamentally challenged some of my core beliefs. No one likes to be told they were wrong, but by being open-minded I was able to learn and even change my dietary habits.

So about 3 weeks after my time with the Dairy Council and many hours of health related research on dairy, I bought my first yogurt in almost two years!

By Kayla Thomas – Utah State University Dietetics Student

Originally posted April 22, 2014 on The Cow Locale.

May 13 2014

Hog Farm Tour, Chapter 10: Mmm ... BACON

Mmm...BACON. My husband quotes this every time we cook bacon (in his best Homer impersonation, of course). We do love bacon, especially wrapping dates or scallops. This is the story of bacon through the lens of a Field Mom. At the Gould farm, it all starts with an adorable pink porky piglet (and those ears!), weighing in at a mere 3 pounds. 

These are the basics of the meat we eat. The market pigs don’t ever live in a stall; it’s always open-pen living for them because there are no fighting issues. They are never given growth hormones. They are vaccinated when they’re just a couple of days old to prevent illness. Then, they are only given medicine when there is sickness, which is hopefully never. They drink fresh water and have access to an unlimited and highly efficient diet of ground corn (to supply heat and energy), soybean meal (to provide protein), vitamins and nutrients. Feed rations are tailored to optimize health and growth at each stage of their life.

In the farrowing crate, usually ten to eleven piglets are born in a litter. They have teeth and curly long tails; the tails are clipped to prevent tail biting. The temperature in the farrowing room is about 70 degrees Fahrenheit to accommodate the needs of the mother (sow), but there is a heat lamp and heat pad in each crate for the litter to warm themselves. The piglets actually need about 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The bars you see in the photo on either side of the sow are to prevent her from crushing the piglets. They start life at about 3 pounds and grow very quickly on their mother’s milk for 2-3 weeks until they are weaned. At that point, they weigh somewhere around 15 pounds.

Upon weaning, they are moved to a “nursery” farm (or pen, if kept at the same farm) where the floors are usually plastic for comfort for the smaller weaning pigs. The temperature is kept warm, around 85 degrees Fahrenheit and they each get about 3 square feet of space. They had feed to taste in the farrowing crate and, upon arrival at the nursery, they have unlimited access to feed and water.

Sometime between 6-10 weeks, or 50 pounds, they are moved to a “finishing” farm (or pen) where the temperature is lowered to about 70 degrees Fahrenheit and they each get about 8 square feet of space. They continue to receive as much feed as they wish to consume and will grow to 250-280 pounds by the time they are about 6 months old. When they reach that weight, they are ready for market! I was surprised to learn the meat we eat comes from such a young animal.

At that time, they are loaded on a truck and taken to the processor. At the processor, the animals are harvested, packaged, and immediately shipped fresh to retailers.

One of the things I wondered, going into this tour, was whether there is any chance that our meat at the super-market is raised locally. The answer is, probably not. There are three states that make up about 50% of the U.S. pork production, Iowa, North Carolina, and Minnesota (Illinois is no. 4). So, if you live near one of those states, there is a chance you will be eating pork from a “neighboring” farmer. Otherwise, there is a good chance it has been shipped from further away. That’s not all bad if you believe in the economies of scale.

Every animal has a tattoo or tag. We learned that once the animals are harvested, tracking stops. So, looking at that package of bacon in the meat case, the store can determine what processing plant it came from, but as of today, there is no way to know what farm that specific meat came from.

Before our farm tour, I had heard about  “corporate” farming. I didn’t really have a good definition of what that meant, but was wondering if the pork I was buying was farmed by one of those very large top five pork processors. The answer to that is, probably not. The percentage of farms owned and operated by the hog processors/retailers is very small. Most pork is raised by independent family farmers, like the families we met - the Goulds, Hagenbuchs, and Janssens.

We learned some interesting things about super-market pork and Hormel. First of all, Hormel has something they call the “red box.” This “red box” is used by Hormel, at the time they purchase the pigs from the hog farmers, to achieve better consistency in the size, flavor, and leanness of the meat. This demand for consistency is driven by what the consumer has come to expect. A very specific weight range is one of the qualifications of the "red box;" and if the farmer is “in the box” he is rewarded with a price incentive. If he’s “out of the box,” the price is docked. In this day-and-age, I expected the farmers would weigh each pig to make sure it’s on target before sending it off, but that technology isn't available to all farms, yet. Many farmers actually choose the pigs for market by sight – and that is a very valuable skill. When the pigs get to the processor, the farmers find out how they did.

Most farms write a standards of practice (SOP) plan and comply with PQA Plus (Pork Quality Assurance Plus), which is an educational program for the continuous improvement of production practices. It addresses food safety, animal well-being, environmental stewardship, and public health issues. A few of the 10 Good Production Practices (GPPs) that are part of the program include, establish and implement an efficient and effective health management plan, use antibiotics responsibly, and practice good environmental stewardship. Assessments are done every three years by the farm veterinarian; and Hormel can do unannounced audits as part of their contract with the Gould Farm. Every employee must go through PQA training, even the weekend high school student.

And last, but certainly not least, our tour ended with a delicious seasoned butterfly pork chop sandwich grilled by a local butcher who came to talk to us about different cuts of pork and demonstrate how to cut a pork loin into several different cuts. His part of the program was fun and we learned a few new things about cooking pork. His mantra to us was "Grill It, Don't Kill It!" That was to remind us we can turn down the heat and not cook dry pork chops like we all remember from our childhood. We no longer have to be worried about trichinosis in the meat we buy from the super-market. Look for 145 degrees Fahrenheit, he said. Or, grill it to 135, wrap it tightly in foil, then let it sit for 20 minutes and it will come up to 145 and be juicy and tender. Check out Pork Be Inspired for some great pork recipe ideas!

Thanks to being a Field Mom, I had an eye-opening tour of the Gould Hog Farm in Maple Park,Illinois, and learned a lot from the Farm Moms who joined us. Now I know where our super-market pork comes from and the background of our bacon! It’s actually pretty awesome knowing. 

The Gould Farm is a “farrow to wean” operation, which means they specialize in the birth (farrowing) of the market pigs. The Goulds are investors in a local network of farms that retain ownership of the pigs until they reach market weight (about 280 pounds). When the piglets are weaned, they are transported to another farm that specializes in the “nursery” stage of the pig’s growth. There is a third farm that specializes in the “finishing” stage, which is the longest and final growth stage of the market pig’s life.

We had two Farm Moms on our tour with us; they were Kate Hagenbuch, of Hagenbuch Family Farm, and Pam Janssen of Janssen Family Farm. Both raise hogs and have crop land to support the hog farm, similar to the Goulds. Not all hog farmers specialize, like the Goulds do, and the operations vary as much as the people who own them. Kate’s operation is a “wean to finish” farm and Pam’s is “farrow to finish” farm. Thank you to both for sharing photos from your operations with me.

Heather Guido
Oak Park, Illinois

Heather is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2014 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each visit, the Field Moms share their thoughts by blogging about what they experience on these farms. Want to learn more? Read Our Story: Chicago Moms Meet Farmers. Read more from Heather on her blog, Field Mom Journal.

May 08 2014

Hog Farm, Chapter 9: Moms, Farmers Employ Extreme Protocol Against Germs

Moms know a lot about germs or, at least, how they get shared. In mid-winter, we take our kids to the library, grocery store, or museum and usually a few days later said kids have runny noses – or worse. The battle rages on and we keep fighting, armed with our sanitation gear. “Wash your hands,” we dictate, before school, after school, after playing, before eating, after going to the bathroom – wash, wash, wash – “with soap and warm water, please!” Along with the tissues and wet wipes, we carry around two or three mini-bottles of hand-sanitizer in our bags. We use disinfectant wipes on all those nasty surfaces – you know the ones. Our mantra becomes “Cover your mouth when you cough,” “Sneeze into your elbow,” “We don’t share toothbrushes, drinks, or silverware!” We take our shoes off at the door. We keep sick kids home. And, oh, putting everything in their mouth before they turn two – yuck! We can’t see all the germs, but we sure do know they are there. Do some of us go to extremes? We can’t seem to do enough to stave them off, no matter how much "ammunition" we employ.

Farmers do even more than moms to prevent the spread of disease. I was surprised to learn that hog farmers (and other livestock producers, as well) go to extreme measures (by our "mom" standards) in their battle against pathogens. They refer to the germs by more scientific and specific terms like pathogens, micro-organisms, bacteria, or viruses. Their program is far more formal than ours, of course, and theirs has a name. It is called “biosecurity.”

Defined, “biosecurity” is a strict isolation and sanitation program practiced throughout farms to prevent the spread of disease between herds. The livestock farmers we have been talking to take this very, very seriously. In fact, when asked what the ideal hog (livestock) farm would look like, Eldon Gould said, as isolated and remote as possible. All in the name of disease prevention.

I had no idea that pigs, especially young pigs (and all market pigs are young) were so susceptible to diseases, just like our own children. As an example, this past year, and especially this winter, there has been a virus called PEDV (porcine epidemic diarrhea virus) that has proven very difficult to control and has spread rapidly across borders, killing several million piglets. It’s not a new virus, but it is the first time it has been seen in the U.S. You may have seen in the news, there is a possibility that we may see the economic effect of this virus at the supermarket this summer in the form of higher prices for pork. It is just one of many diseases that a young pig can easily contract.

Some farmers in harder hit (by PEDV) locations, like Iowa, have stepped up their strict biosecurity protocols, even going so far as to ask farm-hands to not go into town to avoid contact with other farms (think shoes and tires); and they will avoid parking in parking lots that could fit a large farm truck trailer. It affects everyone’s daily life, on and off the farm.

The two Farm Moms who joined our group for the tour have hog farms of their own. As part of standard biosecurity protocol, they could not set foot in their barns for 72 hours prior to the trip to the Gould Farm. They actually extended it an additional day out of respect for the Goulds. They, in turn, had to wait 72 hours to set foot back in their own barns. They also brought a change of clothes with them to change into after being in the barn, in addition to wearing the protective gear we wore.

Here’s a standard biosecurity protocol that surprised a lot of us Field Moms. At the Gould Farm and Hagenbuch Family Farm (one of our Farm Moms), everyone who goes into the barn must shower in and shower out. You read that right. Hagenbuch’s have two barns and our Farm Mom is in and out of them twice a day – add that up, eight showers in the barn, every day. Yes, it is true! We couldn’t believe it. For our Gould farm tour, we were given a free pass on the showers, but we did have to wear Tyvek® coveralls, hair nets, and giant plastic bag boots over our boots. They went in the dumpster after we came out of the barn. Visitors to the farm are not the norm and biosecurity is the reason why.

Physically, the barns are separated from other parts of the operation like the farm house, field operations, and other barns. Part of a stepped up protocol may also include a series of steps to physically isolate delivery trucks (feed, supplies, fuel, etc.) from the hog housing. The Farm Moms explained a scenario I would not have considered. A truck that has been to an infected farm can pick up the disease on its tires. Then, the snow plow can spread the disease on the roads, taking the pathogens toward the next farms. A dog, or wild animal, walking on the road and back to the farm can bring along those pathogens.

The hog buildings are secure to keep out undesirable animals, both wild and domestic. Cats, dogs, birds, bats, and rodents of all kinds can carry the pathogens on their bodies.

Raccoons and deer used to spread trichinosis when the animals were housed outside. Trichinosis is extremely rare, now, and all but non-existent in supermarket meat. Moving the pigs inside has helped manage those types of risks.

The isolation barn is part of the biosecurity program to protect the herd health. The new-to-the-farm gilts live in the isolation barn, separate from the rest of the herd. Their health is closely monitored for at least two weeks. When deemed healthy, they are moved into the main barn with the rest of the herd. Some farms may also have a hospital barn to treat sick animals and isolate them.

Washing and sanitizing crates after pigs are moved out is standard procedure.

Keeping the animal living quarters clean and sanitary is part of the standard protocol.

Biosecurity focuses on herd health. It’s good for the pigs, good for the farmer, and ultimately, good for us (the consumer) as well. The farmers would much rather keep the pigs healthy than treat sickness.

Heather Guido
Oak Park, Illinois

Heather is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2014 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each visit, the Field Moms share their thoughts by blogging about what they experience on these farms. Want to learn more? Read Our Story: Chicago Moms Meet Farmers. Read more from Heather on her blog, Field Mom Journal.

May 06 2014

Hog Farm, Chapter 7: Gestation Stalls

I didn’t know what a gestation stall was until about a month before our Hog Farm Tour. Among hog farmers, their veterinarians, and others in the hog industry, they are an acceptable method of sow containment. Among others, not in the hog industry, they have become a controversial topic of great debate.

Animal-rights activists are applying pressure on restaurants, pork retailers, and state legislatures to remove them from use industry-wide. “We the people” are voting on the matter. There is a lot written on the internet by both sides. In this post, I will share what I learned at the hog farm about them and relate it to what I’ve read online in the past week.

But first, this is what I’ve learned about the controversy. Under pressure by animal-rights activists, legislators in nine states have banned gestation stalls (Arizona, California, Colorado,Florida, Maine, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, and Rhode Island). Hog production is very low in those states (all nine states make up about 6% of US pork production). By the way, the top five pork producing states are Iowa, Minnesota, North Carolina, Illinois, and Indiana. The stalls are also partially banned (they are allowed to use them for part of the gestation period) in the European Union. Also under pressure from the same activist groups, several restaurant chains have made public statements about phasing out gestation stalls in their supply chain. Under pressure from the animal-rights activists, a couple of the pork retailers have committed to changing to open-pens at their company-owned farms. Company-owned hog farms make up a relatively small percentage of overall production. I saw one figure that said it is in the 20% range.

So, who are the U.S. pork processors? The top five pork retailers in the U.S. are Smithfield Foods, Tyson Foods, JBS Swift, Hormel Foods Corporation, and Cargill Meat Solutions (Excel Corp.). As of this writing, I’ve learned that Hormel and Smithfield have announced they will phase out gestation stalls at their company-owned farms.

There are several methods of housing pigs, but the two most common that we learned about on our hog farm tour were the gestation stall and the open-pen. There are advantages and disadvantages to both methods of containment.

Open-pen is what the name implies. A group of pigs are contained in one open pen (a minimum square footage is allotted per pig). 

Disadvantages of the open-pen include the following:
  • I’ve learned that pregnant (gestating) sows (400-500 pounds), when placed in a new group, can be aggressive toward one another and try to establish hierarchy in the group. The bigger, older, or more dominant sow usually bullies the younger, smaller, or reserved sow. Pigs have sharp teeth and bite each other. They can cause minor scratches or more major wounds that require medical treatment to prevent infection.
  • Feed control is also an issue. The dominant sows will tend to get more feed.
  • The farm-hand needs to be well-trained and skilled at working in an open sow pen. It can be a more dangerous work environment. It also takes more skill to individually monitor each sow in a group.
An advantage of the open-pen is the following:
  • Freedom of movement. The sow can move about freely and stretch out on her side to lie down.
  • The sows can socialize.

Following is how I can best describe the physical characteristics of the gestation stalls at the Gould farm. They are metal. I’ve read they are 2’ x 7’ and I’d say that is about what we saw at the Gould farm. There may be some slight variations in size. The pigs I saw at the Gould farm had room to shift their weight, sit, and lay down. They were not tight against the front or back of the stall. There is a trough at the front of the stall where a rationed amount of food is dropped from a feed tube twice a day. There is a water spout at the feed trough for 24/7 access to fresh water.

The sow lives in the stall for the duration of her pregnancy (gestation), which is about 3 months, 3 weeks, and 3 days. Then, she is moved to a farrowing crate where she delivers her litter and remains with them for about 3 weeks. After those 3 weeks she moves back to the stall to breed again. Her life-span, on average, is 2 to 2-1/2 years; and she will deliver 2.3 litters each year.

Disadvantages of the gestation stall are the following:
  • Some breeds of sow can grow too large for the stall during pregnancy and develop lesions on their sides.
  • The most common concern by animal-rights activists is that the sow cannot turn around or walk around in the stall. (Activists accept the open-pen.)
Advantages of the gestation stall are the following:
  • It solves the fighting issues of the open-pen to reduce injuries and treatments.
  • Sow feed rations are consistent.
  • Individual sow care is easier to provide.

The first thing I wondered was, aren’t there studies that prove one system is better for the health of the sow? After digging around on the internet, it seems to me that more study needs to occur to determine how pen configuration affects optimum health and productivity. Most of the studies I read about claim that one is not better than the other in terms of maintaining sow health or productivity.

Then, I wondered if anyone has come up with solutions to the problems by designing a better system. In my online search, I saw a system that has both privacy stalls and open-pen space, and the sow can choose. I also saw an option for a modified stall that may allow for stall expansion for the larger sows.

Different farms use different methods. So, who is right? According to our Farm Moms, both are right and it depends on the farm. According to the Farm Moms, what works at one farm may not work at another farm. We could see, first-hand, that the pen is central to how the farm is operated and managed. It appears to me that it can be considered one of the major risk management tools of an operation (and one of the biggest investments).

The Goulds cited three benefits of the stalls that help them manage the health of their animals. They are the following: consistent sow feed rations for each sow, less injuries, and the ease of daily monitoring and care for each individual sow.

After hearing from several hog farmers on our tour last weekend and seeing the Gould Hog farm, I am convinced that the gestation stalls are a safe and healthy way to house the Gould’s pigs. It works for them. They have healthy and productive animals. 

For more facts,

Heather Guido
Oak Park, Illinois

Heather is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2014 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each visit, the Field Moms share their thoughts by blogging about what they experience on these farms. Want to learn more? Read Our Story: Chicago Moms Meet Farmers. Read more from Heather on her blog, Field Mom Journal.

May 03 2014

Hog Farm, Chapter 5: The Healthier the Sow, the More Productive She'll Be

The Gould Hog Farm raises 16,000 market piglets (the pork we buy at the supermarket) annually, or about 300 piglets per week. Their farm operation is called “farrow to wean” and that means they specialize in the breeding, gestation (pregnancy), and farrowing (birthing) of the sows.

Even though the piglets are sold, the most important animals on the Gould farm are the 650-700 sows that produce these piglets each day. The Goulds take the health of all the animals very seriously. This was conveyed to us when they described how they operate and it is also evident in the physical aspects of the barns.

All of the sows at the Gould farm have the exact same genetics. The Gould family has chosen this breed and genetic line for particular traits, such as body length, a stronger skeletal frame, and leanness. The sows are specifically breeding animals.

A sow is purchased by the Goulds as a “gilt,” the term for a young female pig who has not yet been bred, and is transported to the Gould farm where she lives for two weeks in the isolation barn while her health is monitored. They will ensure that she is not ill before they introduce her to the sow barn where she will be among all the other sows.

At the time she moves into the sow barn, she will begin breeding. The Goulds own several boars and they also use semen from a neighboring hog farmer. The boar has different genetic traits and genealogy than the sow. Traits they look for in him are leanness and good musculature.

When bred together, the genetics of this sow line and this boar line combine to make the characteristic market pigs that the Goulds desire. Perhaps more importantly, they produce the characteristics that their contracted processor, Hormel, demands. Hormel’s demands are for consistency of product size, taste, and leanness; because that is what we (the consumer) have come to expect at the supermarket.

The Gould farm is considered a “confined animal feeding operation,” which means the sows are housed indoors in individual pens. There is another housing option called an open pen that some farmers also use. One housing type is not considered better than the other and each has advantages and disadvantages. (more on that in my next post)

To start the breeding process at the Gould farm, a boar is walked in front of the sow to determine if she is in heat (estrous). The farmer will recognize signs that she is ready; she will stand still when pressure is placed on her back and she will hold her ears erect. When she shows the signs, there is a two-day window to successfully breed her.

Chris Gould demonstrated the “art” of artificial insemination to us Field Moms. We learned it is an art because some people are more successful than others. A long clear plastic tube, about 18” long and maybe 1/8” in diameter, is attached to a bag of semen. The boar was brought in front of her, she reacted as expected, and Chris gently inserted the rod. He caressed the sides of her belly and her back a little to relax her and in a matter of about a minute she relaxed and the semen drained from the bag. He gently removed the tube and it was done.

In about four weeks, they will perform an ultrasound on her to check for pregnancy (gestation). Gestation is 113 days or, easier to remember, 3 months, 3 weeks, and 3 days. In that time, the sow’s health is closely monitored. At the front of each sow stall, there is a card with all of her stats. Chris casually calls it her “baseball card.” On that card is noted every aspect of her health, such as any medications she may have received; and dates of important events, such as the artificial insemination. It also notes who performed the artificial insemination, so if a number of sows are not getting pregnant, they can look to see if the same person has been doing the job and if that is the problem, they can re-train him or her.

Each stall has a water nipple with unlimited water 24/7 and a “feed tube” that comes down vertically from a horizontal run of tubing at the ceiling. We didn’t get to see how it drops the feed, which would have been interesting to me, but somehow (I think by gravity) it drops her portion of feed into the trough at the floor in front of her. She receives limited feed (as opposed to unlimited) that is specially formulated with added vitamins and nutrients for a gestating sow for maximum health benefits. Her feed rations at the Gould farm consist of corn, soybean meal, dicalcium phosphorous, calcium, salt, sow vitamins and trace mineral pac, and amino acids. The corn and soybeans are grown by the Goulds on their farm and processed at the feed mill.

There is always a farm-hand (the full time employee responsible for the animals) in the barns and the sows are looked at, individually, at least twice a day. The farm veterinarian, Dr. Noel as they call him, visits the farm a minimum of every three weeks and sometimes more frequently.

A few days before her due date, the sow will be moved to the farrowing barn into a farrowing crate. When she moves into the farrowing crate, she will be very closely monitored and they will look for signs of the impending birth.

The farm-hand is present and will watch the birth (farrowing) to make sure all of the piglets are healthy and viable. Sometimes they are not. The Goulds shared some of their farrowing cards with us, which is where they record the stats of each birth. They record how many piglets were live born, stillborn, and mummified (rare). They track important dates, such as when the piglets are vaccinated.

Each litter contains 10-11 piglets. On the farrowing cards we looked at, however, it was not uncommon to see several more than that. We saw several with 18 or 20. As long as the piglets are proper size, that sow would be considered a very productive sow. On the farrowing card we also saw something called “fostering.” If a litter is very large and another litter is very small, the Goulds may transfer piglets between sows to even out the counts. They do this within a day or two of birth and the sows don’t notice.

According to the EPA, each sow raises an average of three to five litters in her lifetime. Each sow has 2.3 litters each year. At the Gould farm they have a number of sows on the far end of the spectrum that are very productive and are six or seven years old.

It is clear to me, after seeing this hog farm first-hand, why health is their number one concern. I’ve learned that the healthier the sow, the more productive she will be.

There does come a time when the sow’s productivity diminishes, usually as a result of age or illness. Some things that change may be inability to become pregnant, litter size decreases, or the size of the piglets diminishes. At that point, they are culled from the herd.

The sow pork does not meet the standards set by the retail processors, like Hormel. The meat is from an older animal, so the meat would be a different flavor, not as tender, and also less lean. The Goulds send the sows to a different processor where the meat becomes ground pork or sausage products.

With that said, at the end of our tour, the Goulds shared 3 pounds of ground pork, bratwurst, and sausage with each Field Mom. The pork was from a recent sow that had been culled and they sent it to a special processor to have the meat ready for us. My husband and I like to make our own homemade Italian sausage, usually from a butcher’s pork butt. We enjoyed the Gould’s sausage and it was tastier than any sausage we’ve ever made or purchased.

More to come about the piglets - the meat we eat!

Heather Guido
Oak Park, Illinois

Heather is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2014 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each visit, the Field Moms share their thoughts by blogging about what they experience on these farms. Want to learn more? Read Our Story: Chicago Moms Meet Farmers. Read more from Heather on her blog, Field Mom Journal.

Apr 29 2014

Hog Farm, Chapter 4: Cacaphony of the Sow Barn

Our first farm tour, to a hog farm, was outstanding. I went from knowing nearly nothing about pigs, except that I really like pork, to knowing just enough to appreciate the hard work, thought, and care that these hog farmers put into raising them - all so that we can enjoy our bacon.

With that said, our hog farmer tour guides may not have realized how dramatic our barn tour was going to be to someone who’s never been around pigs. For me, from a sensory standpoint, it was intense and raw, unlike anything I've ever experienced. I had a high level of sensory awareness – smell, hearing, and sight; and the powerful extremes of each hit me one after the other.

When we first walked into the barns, my sense of smell was overpowered as our air turned into an intense odor of poignant ammonia-like manure. My eyes were at the ground minding where I stepped as I followed the field mom ahead of me. We were walking single-file through a long and narrow, metal enclosed passageway. We had on a white Tyvek® suit over our clothes, hair nets on our heads, and giant plastic bag boot covers over our more stylish footwear (mine was a pair of rubber barn boots). I was a little worried I was going to trip over the plastic bag boots if they came loose, but they didn't. As we walked, about 10 of us, our bag boots made a swishing noise as they scuffed the floor; and our suits, of course, swished as we moved. It was noisy and we had to speak up to talk to the person near us as we walked.

After this long noisy walk, we finally arrived at the sow barn where we began our tour. The sow barn is where the full-grown breeding mothers, probably around 400 pounds each, are housed. I had no expectations of what I was going to see (and hear) and I don’t recall anyone warning us, either! 

Before my eyes looked up from the ground where I was stepping as we entered the barn, my ears caught the loudest cacophony of clanking metal and raucous rumbling and grunting I've ever heard. And the noises were echoing off the metal barn walls amplifying this harsh and discordant swine symphony all the more. Our swishing boot bags now had nothing on these pigs! It was so loud that we could barely hear each other speaking. For a few seconds, I was a little frightened, to be perfectly honest. I thought pigs were quiet and calm like at the fair! I am here to tell you, they are not quiet animals. They can be loud and raucous! I learned, first-hand, on this tour that pigs make a lot of different sounds – and I don’t even know how to describe all that we heard. There were a lot of voices bouncing around and it wasn’t just oink and grunt!

It was explained to us that a natural behavior of pigs is to chew. They were chewing on their bars making them clank. And they were probably “talking” so much because we were there just as they were about to be fed – all 650 of them.

Immediately after my ears caught the noise, my eyes looked up from the floor as we entered the barn. I was overwhelmed for a moment as I took in the view to my left, and then to my right. It didn’t seem to end – an army of them – one after the other, in several rows, all facing the same direction; all the same size, pink color, shape, and with perky big ears. It was so very orderly, and repetitive, and seemingly endless. I could barely see the far end of the barn which was a long way down. 650 pigs is just a lot of pigs - to hear and to see.

It was a dramatic sequence. I took it all in - the smell, the noise, and the sight; and within a moment or two, I came out of my state; or at least moved into the next one.

Heather Guido
Oak Park, Illinois

Heather is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2014 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each visit, the Field Moms share their thoughts by blogging about what they experience on these farms. Want to learn more? Read Our Story: Chicago Moms Meet Farmers. Read more from Heather on her blog, Field Mom Journal.

Apr 22 2014

Hog Farm, Chapter 3: Not Your Grandfather's Farm

If someone asked me three months ago to describe what I thought a pig farm (raising market pigs) looked like, I probably would have naively said a long barn with big open pens inside, dirt floors, and some outside exercise area for fresh air and sunlight. I would have expected to see a slop trough and a lot of manure. The scene from the Wizard of Oz film (1939) where Dorothy loses her balance and falls into the pen is an image that is ingrained on my mind, as well. The only place I’ve ever seen a pig in real-life is at the state and county fairs with usually one sleepy pig per huge pen.

What I saw at the Gould Farm last weekend was a very different picture and more enlightened than the one in my mind. Farming has progressed since the time of the very small farm and a few pigs – the farms that make up most of the picture books I read to my two boys, by the way. I’m learning that the very small operation farmers are few and far between, mostly serving an urban niche market (like Farmer’s Markets). The farms that are producing the meat we buy at the grocery store are still largely family-owned farms (94% of farms in Illinois are family farms), but there are a lot less farms and they have to supply more food than ever before. A small farm by today’s standards is producing a lot more food in comparison to an average size farm 40 years ago.

Upon touring the Gould farm, I learned that pigs cannot survive outdoors in the extreme ups and downs of our northern climate. They need a mild and constant climate; otherwise, they become susceptible to illness or disease.

Another problem with outdoor areas for pigs is rodents, birds, and other animals can easily bring parasites or viruses to the pigs. Preventing illness is always preferred over treating sickness.

Today, pig farming at the Gould farm, and many other farms, has been updated to be exclusively indoors because it is better for the welfare of the animals.

The Gould farm has three long and narrow metal barns that are linked by enclosed passageways. They sit parallel to each other, but are physically separate from each other in order to reduce the opportunity for disease transmission from barn to barn. And each barn serves a specific purpose, housing a different group of pigs.

The first barn is called the isolation barn and it is where new-to-the-farm adult gilts (a female that has not yet been bred) are housed for two weeks in quarantine to assess their health before exposing them to the healthy animals in the other barns. The Goulds take animal health very seriously.

The second barn houses the newborn market piglets and the mothers. The sows are brought to bear their young in a pen called a farrowing crate and that is where they stay with their piglets for three weeks until the piglets have been weaned from the mother. This barn was very clean, as were all of the pigs we saw. After each litter of piglets, the farrowing pens are pressure washed with very hot water and sanitized.

The third barn houses about 700 sows (the breeding adult females). There are several boars that live in this barn, as well. This is where our tour with Chris Gould started. He demonstrated how they artificially inseminate a sow and how they care for her leading up to and during her pregnancy. Just prior to giving birth, she is moved to the next barn to deliver her litter. We saw the metal stalls that are commonly called gestation stalls. Not all farms use this type of containment, but it is common practice and preferred by the Goulds. They place a strong emphasis on the health of their animals and they believe this system allows them to provide the highest level of individual care for each sow. He then pointed out the feed tubes and water spouts that are part of the system. He explained the “baseball card” stat sheet attached at the front of each sow’s pen. This barn was very orderly and clean.

All of the buildings are climate controlled and we were told they maintain 70 degrees Fahrenheit. There are ventilation windows with fans connected to timers and sensors. An adult pig is very sensitive to extreme heat; a baby piglet is very sensitive to extreme cold. In the farrowing barn, the newborn piglets need a warmer temperature than their mother, about 90 degrees Fahrenheit, so in each crate there are heat lamps and heat pads that they cuddle up to if they’re feeling cool.

The floor of the barns has slats that allow the pig manure to fall down through into a manure pit of a specific depth. The Gould’s pit depth, we learned, is four feet, but it is different farm to farm. Until it is pumped out for use on the crop fields, which occurs three times per year at the Gould farm, the manure is held in the pit. I learned the ventilation fans help exhaust some of the odor and dust in the air.

It seems to me, after seeing the barn structures first-hand, that current hog housing responds to animal welfare problems of the past and it is doing a good job solving those problems. Over the decades, the Goulds have updated their facilities to make improvements based on science.

Heather Guido
Oak Park, Illinois

Heather is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2014 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each visit, the Field Moms share their thoughts by blogging about what they experience on these farms. Want to learn more? Read Our Story: Chicago Moms Meet Farmers. Read more from Heather on her blog, Field Mom Journal.

Previous 1 2 3 4 5 .. 10 Next