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Niche pork partners

When Bob Uphoff joined his dad on the Madison, Wisconsin, farm in 1974, he was the fourth generation to raise hogs there since 1866.

But he and his dad positioned their new business partnership for the future, naming it Uphoff Ham & Bacon Farm.

“We're food producers,” says Bob. “It was a way to recognize the end product produced by our farm.”

Bob's older brother, Fred, returned to farm a few years later. By 1998, Bob and Fred were marketing about 2,000 head of hogs per year. Fred retired in 2006.

Now the next generation is on deck. After graduating from University of Wisconsin's Farm and Industry Short Course in 2008, Chris, 23, joined his parents, Bob and Julia. “I knew I wanted to be part of it,” he says. Son Brian, 18, is a high school senior.

The Uphoffs farm about 800 acres of corn and soybeans 6 miles from the state capitol building. Their operation has evolved just as visibly as the suburban housing surrounding their farm fields near Dunn, Fitchburg, and Blooming Grove.

After the 1998 hog market crash, the Uphoffs changed course. Bob, a National Pork Producers Council director, had chaired a genetics program committee in 1995 to evaluate nine breeds for meat and eating quality. “Lo and behold, Berkshire came to the top,” he says. “We decided to give it a shot.”

In 1999, they purchased 100 purebred gilts. Less profilic than its commercial counterparts, the breed requires 40% more breeding females in the herd.

Their herd is certified 100% Berkshire by the American Berkshire Association (ABA). They blood-test all boars and semen for the stress gene, file litter records with ABA and agree to an annual audit.

For a few years, they participated in a Berkshire program operated by Tyson. When it was discontinued, they began marketing pork to Japan through SIG International, a Boyden, Iowa, processor.

After H1N1 erupted in 2009, the Uphoffs reevaluated their business plan. “What if the world market completely closed the door?” Bob asks. “It forced us to push harder on the domestic markets.”

Last year they also began working with Neesvig's, a Wisconsin meat and food supplier for restaurants, country clubs, and hotels. Their hogs are processed by Black Earth Meats. “We're working to get our packer and distributor certified as 100% Berkshire,” Bob says.

On the production front, Bob handles breeding, gestating, and the books, including certification and registration.

Chris takes charge of balanced rations and feed manufacturing, as well as the day-to-day nursery and finishing building operations. He works on nutrient-management plans, using SNAP-Plus, a software based on state requirements.

“We used it in Short Course,” Chris says. “I jumped on board with it.”

They're improving their use of yield map data. “We're making more effort to tie fertilizer and nutrient management plans and soil tests together,” he says.

Bob agrees. “Chris brings technology skills, along with Brian, who also is mechanical,” he says.

The Uphoffs plan to expand domestic markets. “I'm upbeat about the arrangements we've made,” Bob says. “There's a good market potential for us.”

They're also taking transition steps. “For plans to fall in place, we have to work at the challenges every day,” Bob says.

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