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The Best Farrowing House Ever Designed

Homemade hog barn in Illinois runs nonstop for 55 years.

The November 1964 issue of Successful Farming magazine featured a story on the Mulch brothers, Roger and Richard, of Hancock County, Illinois, who were pioneers in using slatted floors in hog barns. The brothers designed and built a 40-stall farrowing house in 1961 that featured slats and zone ventilation.

That barn may have ended up being the longest continuously-used farrowing house in America.

“We farrowed in that barn for 55 years,” says Steve Mulch, Richard’s son. “We sold the sow herd in December 2016. That was a sad day. But it was time. I turned 60 last summer and the sows got so they were beating me up pretty bad.”

Article on Mulch Brothers IL

Richard, 83, is now fully retired from farming (older brother Roger retired in 1981). He had been the main guy in the farrowing house for many years.

“The farrowing house was Dad’s deal,” says Steve. “He helped with that even after he retired. He also helped when we loaded hogs on the semi.”

Farrowing house aisle 1964

Despite the long history of producing pigs, Richard took the changes in stride, says Steve. “I thought Dad would be more distraught when the sows were sold. He understood.”

Steve has five daughters who grew up helping on the farm, but the youngest one turns 21 in May.

“I lost my help on the farrowing end,” he explains.

Steve reworked the nursery, built in 1996 and in good shape, and one finisher into contract production.

“I had no pigs on the farm for six weeks, and that would be the first six weeks since my great-grandfather owned the farm,” he says.

He now feeds 300 to 600 pigs at a time on contract for a local producer who is part of the Carthage System.

“The worst part of contract feeding is having to load the blasted things,” he says with a laugh.

The farm’s main enterprise today is 715 acres of corn and soybeans.

Farmstead 1964

The farrowing house was remodeled three times over the 55 years. In the beginning, the family farrowed four times a year, then later transitioned to running about 10 sows through the barn every week on a rotation. The 200-sow herd produced just shy of 4,000 pigs a year.

Challenges

Over the 55 years the farrowing house was in use, what was the biggest challenge?

The hog market crash of 1998, says Steve.

“That was a very depressing time. We contracted pigs for $12, just so we could deliver them. Otherwise, you couldn’t get rid of the hogs.”

He credits their hog buyer at the time, Jim Nightingale, who is now the mayor or Carthage, Illinois, with being proactive. “Our buyer was a very producer-orientated person. He said, ‘Guys, you need to sign this so we have to take your hogs.’ We did whatever it took to get through it.”

The farm was producing 3,500 head a year, farrow to finish, in a constant flow at that time, selling a trailer load every two weeks or so.

“My dad kept us afloat in 1998. He had cash reserves, and we made it through,” says Steve.

That winter of 1998-1999 was a worse time for the family than the Farm Crisis in the 1980s, he explains. “In the 1980s, I was buying my uncle out. We didn’t get caught up in the high interest rates. The hogs served our family well. We weren’t aggressive buying land at that time, and it didn’t hurt us that much.”

Richard Mulch in farrowing barn

Back in 1961, Roger and Richard mortgaged the farm to put the farrowing house up, says Steve. “The first group of pigs was wonderful, and the second group of pigs about died of scours and they said, ‘What have we gotten ourselves into?’”

The first attempt at cooling sows was installing air conditioning and directed air down to the sows’ noses for their comfort. In the early 1970s, they installed evaporative coolers. “That was the ticket. That keeps sows comfortable,” says Steve.

Richard Mulch litter

When Steve started buying into the operation in 1982 they started ramping up production, going from batch farrowing to constant flow. They added finishing barns, paying for them in cash.

Production technology changed, as well. “Hand mating and A.I. was the biggest thing ever,” says Steve. “I started hand mating sows in ’87. Knowing when sows were going to pig and having a schedule changed everything.”

The early years of the farrowing house weren’t easy, he says. “We had pasture-bred sows, and I can still see Dad every day udder-checking sows, trying to figure out which ones need to go in the farrowing house. He spent many evenings in the farrowing house by himself.”               

One goal for Steve in 2018 is to work on the details of a generation transition for the family farm corporation. “I need to spend time on a plan to make it work,” he says. “I need to fine-tune the corporation and the home parcel with the buildings and the grain bins.”

Steve Mulch family

Steve Mulch's family is shown above.

Richard Mulch reflects on the Mulch brothers’ history of slatted floor experiments:

Between 1958 and 1959, Roger made a 4×4-foot pen with slatted flooring using 1×4-inch board on edge and elevated. The slats were spaced ⅝- to ¾-inch apart. He put three pigs in the pen and hand fed and watered to see if they would survive. They seemed to do well.

From 1959 to 1960, we put a slatted floor in an old building that was built for hogs. The slatted floor was made of oak 2×4s sawed on one side at an angle for manure to drop through. We were told our grandfather tried farrowing in this building during the winter. He had a wood-burning stove for heat. However, this was not successful.

We put in six stalls for sows to farrow in. We built a mechanical scraper under the floor which was moved with a hand crank and pintle chains that ran continuously over pens and under the floor. We were visited by the county farm adviser and professors from University of Illinois and Iowa State University.

We castrated the male pigs and some died. We had a vet come and determined that they had bled internally. He tried to reassure us the floor was not the cause of the pigs’ death. This was the only time we saw this happen while raising hogs. 

Information about the original farrowing house:

40 5×7 pens, 10 in each row. All fitted with oak slats.

Building is 60×42 feet.

Sow feeding units at each end of the house.

Concrete holding pit under slats is 6 to 8 inches deep. A trench and retaining wall impound water and manure under the floor. It is collected in an 8,000-gallon pit and spread slurry on fields.

Slats made from oak 2×4s.

5×7 foot farrowing pens.

Ventilation: A fresh air duct conveys air from the top of the building to each row of 10 farrowing units. A fan in the duct directly over each pen with a flexible metal pipe that directs fresh air into pen.

A thermostat controls the fans for all four rows of farrowing units.

A gas furnace heats the house for winter pigs.

Sows are let out of pens for an hour twice daily for feed and exercise. Each sow feeding exercise area (shown at right) accommodates 20 head or serves as a machine shed.

Machine shed 1964

Pigs are farrowed in January, April, July, and October.

Pigs are weaned at 4.5 weeks.

Pigs remain in the slotted floor units for two months in summer, then go to pasture. In the winter, pigs are finished out on concrete feeding floors nearby.

Another Amazing Illinois Hog Barn

The following letter and photo arrived in response to the story above.

Here is a Behlen Manufacturing Company hog building that my father, Jerry King, built on our farm in 1963. The picture shows him standing in front of the building. The building has had hogs inside since 1963 with only a few interruptions – for remodeling and herd repopulation. It remains in use today, although the super structure was rebuilt on the same foundation in 2014. Buildings like these are relics in today’s hog production world, but just like my 1963 John Deere 4010, they’re still valuable to those who rely upon them. - Brent King

Jerry King Hog Barn IL

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