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Meet a farmer: Randy Brinks
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Ossian, Iowa, farmer Randy Brinks (shown in Hong Kong during a trip with Farm Bureau in 2019) had to find a place to market his pigs. Here’s how he managed using creative solutions and kept his family working as a team in the process.
SF: What is the history of your farm?
RB: My dad purchased this farm in 1957 when an older brother returned from Vietnam and took over the dairy. My parents raised feeder cattle and feeder pigs. In 1981, I graduated from high school and bought some pigs and cattle of my own. Interest rates were 17% in the early 1980s, so I went through that era. My wife, Mary, and I were fortunate to purchase this place from my parents in 1988 when we married. In 1993, we bought a sow unit nearby and went from 50 sows to 500, selling mostly SEW pigs and feeder pigs. In 2008, when hog prices crashed, we lost most of our feeder pig buyers, so we started finishing more and cut our sow herd back to 300. We finish about 600 black Angus cattle a year. We farm about 800 acres and feed everything we grow.
SF: Who does all the labor?
RB: My wife and I have never had hired help. We both do chores and fieldwork and raised our children on the farm. Our daughter, Melissa, and four sons were involved on the farm until they graduated from high school. Melissa is now the local FFA advisor and ag instructor at the high school. Oldest son, Devin, came back to the farm full time after college. Lucas is a mechanic locally who helps on the farm in the evenings. His twin, Logan, works in a government ammunition plant, but hops in the tractor in the spring and fall if he is available. Our youngest son, Carson, graduated from high school this spring with plans to go to college and then come back to the farm.
The only thing we hire done is corn silage chopping. We haul our own liquid manure. We spray our own crops. We have two feed mills and grind about 40 ton of feed a week. We try to do as much as we can ourselves to save money. It’s not unusual to work 70 hours a week year-round.
SF: What has changed since the pandemic?
RB: Carson has been home since the March 13 to help us plant. We had more help, so that was nice.
One concern with the pandemic is selling livestock. We only sell 40 to 50 fat hogs a week and had a couple weeks where we couldn’t get in [to Smithfield Foods in Monmouth, Illinois]. I got creative. I went to four different lockers and booked between 15 and 20 slots in each one. We put an ad on Facebook for 300-pound pigs for sale for $120. We have sold more than 100 pigs. People come from as far as Minneapolis and Wisconsin to our place. They butcher them, put them on ice, and take them home.
SF: Did they know how to butcher a hog?
RB: Not all have, but they had butchered deer. It’s been interesting. We helped a few of them. It has worked out well and helped us to get rid of pigs.
SF: What about your cattle?
RB: We are starting to book beef into the lockers. I have 15 slots locked in. Most lockers are booked into February and March next year.
SF: Are you going to cut back on your sow herd?
RB: That is something we don’t want to do. Devin really likes working with the hogs.
SF: Are you getting the help you need from the government?
RB: With the CARES act, the government has given us some money, but we would rather have our livestock and crops be worth something and not have to rely on the government. Some day that debt is going to have to be paid back by somebody.
SF: Do you have a succession plan?
RB: We should have, but we don’t. We need to have something in place. We have talked about it. I’m going to look into it.
SF: Why did you choose to be a farmer?
RB: You can be your own boss, and work when you want to work. Our kids have a great work ethic, and that is rewarding. I want to help my sons get started so they can be successful in their life on the farm. We can split some duties and share others. The cattle setup is on the home farm and the hogs are on another farm, so that is easy enough to split.
SF: What part of the farm do you like the best?
RB: The livestock. Cattle or hogs, either one. It is always rewarding to see a sow lay down and have 14 or 16 pigs and wean 13 of them. I really like that. There is more work involved with pigs than cattle.
I would rather work with the livestock and let Devin deal with precision farming. There are times I have to call him and say, “How do I get out of this program and get this to work?”
He started a small business on the side where he sprays cornfields with fungicide and herbicide with a drone. He can spray 12 acres an hour. The drone flies around the field and then comes back to the base to refill.
SF: What do you think of the situation in the hog industry during the pandemic?
RB: I sat in on a webinar last night and heard that 5 million hogs might be euthanized before this is all over. It would be very hard on a person mentally to have to do that, when you raised those pigs and now have to euthanize them.
SF: Have you made changes to your hog feeding program to slow down growth?
RB: Yes, we were feeding them straight shell corn to try to hold their weights down a little bit. Most of our buildings are outside, and we use bedding, so there is no way we can adjust the temperature to slow pigs down like some people have done.
SF: Any changes on the breeding end?
RB: No. I feel that enough hogs are getting euthanized that a hole might open. It’s sad to say. I don’t want to benefit from somebody else’s problem. I’m hoping we can continue to sell pigs directly off the farm all year round. It would be great to skip the middleman if we can. I’m giving customers my business card, hoping that if they need a hog next year they will call me. I hear from a lot of people that they want outside-raised hogs.
SF: Can you slow cattle down easier than hogs?
RB: Yes, you can. And it’s easier to sell semiloads of cattle, because you only need 35 in a load. With hogs, you need 160 head and I’m not big enough to do that. With cattle, it’s no problem. You can hang on to them three months more if you have to.
SF: Do you think the pandemic is almost over?
RB: I don’t think we are out of the woods in Iowa or anyplace. I’m afraid we are going to have another round of this in the fall. Once people start to run around again, there will be another flare up.
SF: What is the situation with your farm friends and contacts?
RB: There are a lot of people hurting. A lot more farmers than we realize are struggling and hurting. I am involved in Farm Bureau and have had numerous people call me and say, “What can Farm Bureau do for us?” There is more hurt out there than people realize.
Cash rents have not come down enough. Farmers don’t want to let the land go because they know somebody else will take it. They go another year and then the bank shuts them down. It’s been a rough struggle for some people. Some dairies in our area are selling their cows.
SF: What can other farmers do to help?
RB: We need to be there to talk to people who are hurting, listen to them. It is so disheartening to see your livestock not be worth anything, and on top of that have to euthanize pigs you raised.
You just hope next year is better, but we thought that for the last two or three years.
SF: How has your family dealt with the social isolation?
RB: Most of us see each other doing chores every day. On Sunday, we all get together at our house and watch Mass on our TV and have a big brunch. We also have utilized video calls to keep in touch with those not around each weekend.
SF: How do you see the rest of this year playing out?
RB: I can only hope that Phase One comes through and will bring corn and soybean prices back up and hog prices with it. If our country could open back up and get a better, stronger economy, I think a lot of things would turn around. Meat supply and sales would come up, as well, especially with beef.