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Tragedy Turns to Growth for Iowa Pork Producer Reicks View Farms
At a rural intersection near Calmar, Iowa, on August 11, 2003, a distracted teenage driver of a Ford F350 truck failed to yield at a stop sign and hit the passenger side of a car carrying four young adults. Melissa Reicks, 21, of Lawler, Iowa, a senior at Iowa State University, was killed.
Today, 14 years later, Melissa’s father, Dale, is driving a pickup truck down rural roads in Chickasaw County past new hog barns built by Reicks View Farms. Dale’s son, Brady, who was 18 at the time of his sister’s death and two weeks from starting his first semester at Iowa State, is riding along. Brady is the fifth generation operating the family farm.
How do you survive tragedy?
“Part of my grieving process was to go to work,” says Dale. “The farm wasn’t that large at the time. Concentrating on growing the business is what saved me.”
Brady nods. “For Dad, that was definitely part of his therapy. He had to keep his mind busy and stay occupied. That was the motivation for expanding our farm.”
Dale pulls into the driveway of the newest venture for Reicks View Farms, a 2,499-head hog-finishing barn. A sign at the driveway’s entrance says the facility is part of an Iowa State University pilot project on odor reduction.
Built last October, the barn incorporates new odor-reduction technology involving air filtration. A cool cell system catches dust exiting the barn through fans, to scrub the air and to reduce odor and ammonia emissions by 50%. A different set of cool cells uses evaporation to lower the temperature of the incoming air in the barn, reducing energy costs.
Dale modeled the design on barns he saw in Belgium and Germany. Jerico Construction, a division of Reicks View Farms, designed the building with the help of Iowa State University researchers.
“Part of Dale’s success is, he’s always wanting to become better, more efficient,” says Laura, Dale’s wife and Brady’s mother. (Dale and Laura have another grown daughter, Kaylie, a recent graduate of the Iowa State University College of Agriculture.)
“Designing something that is more efficient thrills and excites him,” continues Laura. “He builds each building different. He’s always wondering, ‘What else can I do? What can I change?’ ”
Growing the farm
Change has been a constant for the Reicks’ farm. Dale started with 10 gilts in 1977 and built the herd slowly for the first 25 years. Health was a challenge until he repopulated to a SPF herd and switched to all-in/all-out production in the early 1990s.
“We had pseudorabies and every other disease before that,” he says. “My drug bill was $40,000 one year, so I learned a lot about health and how to do my own AI.”
After they repopulated, he started selling gilts, working with several genetics companies over the years. Today, he is a PIC multiplier.
After Melissa’s death, Dale started building sow farms. He grew from 1,200 sows in 2003 to 15,000 sows by 2009. Today, that number is 32,500. Brady has another swine venture in Michigan with additional sows.
Dale also ramped up the number of contract finishing barns that he built in the community over the past decade.
“Contract finishing was still unusual in northeast Iowa,” he says. “I started working with friends, neighbors, and relatives. I did all the recruiting and never advertised. We built 85% of the barns that are in our contract production system.”
“Contract finishing is a very successful model that works,” says Laura. “We are not the only benefactors.”
In the past five years, the business has constructed 20 hog-finishing barns and has grown on the crop side to 10,000 acres farmed. Dale has been a fixture at land auctions in the local area.
“When we put up a barn, people see the benefits and want to get involved,” he says. “We have people who call us frequently; they’re wanting to build barns.”
All the facilities are geographically close. “We can get to every farm within an hour and a half,” says Dale. “There is not a lot of windshield time. It is an efficient system. We can touch everything every day if we have to.”
Fertilizer and feed benefits
In one year, the 2,499-head hog-finishing barn produces enough manure to fertilize 180 acres of corn. “It’s a sustainable system,” says Dale. “We produce fertilizer to grow feed for the market hogs.”
Brady adds, “In Iowa, we have a huge advantage to use manure as fertilization. Injected manure has less runoff than commercial fertilizer. It’s natural and has a lower cost. If you are a row-crop producer and don’t like hog farms, you should, because it increases the corn basis.”
The farm’s grain operation provides about one third of the hog enterprise’s corn needs. About 85% of the feed is milled at the farm’s headquarters. “We are still buying two thirds of our corn locally,” says Brady. “With six ethanol plants within 60 miles, that’s a chore.”
Trying new ideas
Dale was an early adopter of alternative ingredients in hog feed. The farm uses distillers’ dried grains with solubles (DDGS) from the ethanol industry and wheat middlings left over from the milling processing.
“We are big on alternative ingredients,” says Dale. “Our in-house nutritionist helps us. We were early adopters of DDGS and wheat midds. We took risks.”
He also experiments with crop-production practices like cover crops. “One year I put in 3,600 acres of radishes and turnips as a cover crop,” says Dale. “It worked great and really broke up the soil. But in 2015 we seeded 1,800 acres of radishes by helicopter and that didn’t work.”
The past few years have hammered home the need for herd health. “Our competitive strength is our herd health and genetics,” says Brady. “We were early adopters of filtration in barns and have a healthy system for the most part. Our sow farms never broke with PED when it came through Iowa.”
Dale says he moved quickly when the deadly virus hit the state. “As soon as I learned of PED, I knew time was of the essence. I decided we needed to bake each individual trailer. I ordered four new trailers, took four heaters and stacked them up in the truck washes, and started cooking trailers.”
The air-filtration systems also helped. “Our filtered sow farms create a disease barrier,” says Dale. “We are one of the pioneers in filters.” Dale’s brother, Darwin, a veterinarian in Minnesota, has provided valuable health advice over the years, says Dale.
Another advantage, says Brady, is the location. They supply market hogs to four different packers. “We have options on packing plants. We are strategically located.”
Starting later this fall, Brady will also supply pigs to the new Clemens Food pork processing plant in Michigan. Those pigs will be produced in that state. “Seventy percent of the growth in the swine industry right now is from integrated systems,” says Brady. “We’d really like to be part of it. It’s not easy, so I decided to join forces with another producer from Michigan.”
The most challenging part of the running the farm today, says Dale, is managing 240 employees. Production work on sow farms and nurseries employs the largest chunk of people.
“When we get one family member, we often get more family members,” says Dale. “Our employees help us get employees.”
About a quarter of the employees are Hispanic. This includes 40 seasonal employees who work for nine months of the year. They help pump manure, put equipment in barns, and haul corn.
“We are proud to hire Hispanics,” says Brady. “We feel good about that. We’ve been growing like crazy adding sow farms, and we need the help.”
Brady’s comment prompts a question from Laura. “When do we stop referring to people by their ancestry? After two generations? Nobody calls us Germans anymore. Maybe we should stop categorizing people. In 10 years, when we are hiring their sons and daughters, do we still call them Hispanics?”
Half of the company’s sow farm managers are women, and 35% of all employees are under 30 years old. “That is amazing for northeast Iowa,” says Dale. “We are bringing people back to the area. About 70% of our employees grew up within a 30-mile radius of here.”
In Chickasaw Country, with 12,000 residents, there are 1,100 swine jobs, says Brady.
“Our payroll was over $10 million last year,” says Dale. “It will be more this year with our construction projects. That is a huge amount of capital. We are one of the top employers in the area.”
Giving back to the community
The hog barn that makes Dale most proud is at the Howard County Fair in Cresco, Iowa. Last year, the family made an investment in the fairgrounds to help get youth involved in agriculture. The county fair, held at the end of June, gets 40,000 visitors, but it did not have much of a 4-H livestock show. Dale and Laura donated the seed money to tear down the old hog barns built in the 1920s and replace them with a modern 200-head hog-finishing barn, farrowing display, show arena, dairy barn, and milking parlor. The hog barn has air-filtration technology and provides pens for 35 local 4-H and FFA kids to house their market hog projects for the fair.
This afternoon, Dale stops his pickup outside the hog barn at the fairgrounds. He wants to show it off. It’s still two months before the fair, but five high school students are in the barn wearing supplied coveralls, working with their project pigs in the pens. Dale smiles with pride and says, “It’s great to see these kids in here.”
(Note: Dale and Laura Reicks established the Melissa Lea Reicks Foundation in their daughter's honor to support various community organizations and provide scholarships to college students.)
Dale Reicks is featured in Successful Farming magazine's "10 Successful Farmers" article (on pages 16 and 17) in the June/July 2017 issue.