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How the Brennemans Built a Pork Powerhouse

Rob and Char Brenneman have built one of the largest family-owned swine operations in the U.S. from scratch. Their four children and spouses are all involved on the 30,000-sow enterprise and grain farm in Washington County, Iowa.

The family recently won the Good Farm Neighbor Award, named for longtime farm broadcaster Gary Wergin and presented by Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig at the Brenneman home farm on May 4. (At right, Rob and Char accept the award from Naig.) We caught up with Rob before the ceremony.

SF: How did you get started in the pig business?

RB: I had pigs as a 4-H project and then as an FFA project. When I got out of high school, I had 150 sows. We got married in 1980 and bought this farm that year. There was nothing here but an old house and we just started building. We built the first barn ourselves together, literally.

The early 1980s were pretty rough. I went to work for UPS from 1983 to 1987, but we continued to have the sows. Char was a nurse at the time, too. I quit UPS in 1987 and she quit nursing in 1988. We built our first inside gestation barn in 1988 and just kept growing.

Every day we got up and said, “We can do better tomorrow.”

She did the farrowing and I did everything else. Char and I ran the whole thing until the mid-1990s. 

I took the Orville Redenbacher approach: “Do one thing and do it better than anyone.” And that’s what we’ve continued to do. We farm quite a bit of ground, but our main focus is hogs.

SF: There are new packing plants opening in Iowa. What do you think of that?

RB: It’s a very exciting time. There’s nothing better for Iowa. It means more pigs, more jobs, more income, and more revenue. It’s a great time for Iowa.

SF: Do you plan more growth?

RB: There’s always growth. It’s just naturally occurring growth every year. We aren’t planning on adding sows, but we are adding pigs. Better production automatically gives you growth every year, no matter what you do.

SF: Talk about sow productivity. What have you seen over your career?

RB: I know that we went from 16 pigs per sow per year to 36. It’s just incredible. It’s not just that the sow is more productive. We are better. We have better facilities. We do a better job. We focus on it every day. The better we are, the better the sow is. It’s all about the people. Without the people, productivity doesn’t exist.

We have our own gilt multiplication, so we make sure we save the best animals. We have our own research facility now, so we are learning how to feed our pigs better and more efficiently so they grow faster and produce more off of a bushel of corn.

SF: You have changed some things in your barn design over the years.

RB: I’m one of those hands-on guys and I like to design things to make it easier for the people who work in the facilities. It should be easier to move animals, putting panels and gates where you need them. Productivity gets better if people enjoy their jobs.

Ventilation is better than it’s ever been, and these buildings are built better than they’ve ever been. It’s a grand time to be in the pork business.

SF: What’s the farm transition plan for your family?

RB: The family is all involved and has ownership in everything we do. We have 11 grandkids. Hopefully they can be involved some day and there will be plenty of room for them.

SF: It doesn’t sound like you are going to retire soon.

RB: I turned 60 about two months ago and it’s full steam ahead. The first hour of my day is the most important, because that’s when I focus my thoughts and plan for the day.

SF: Is there any way for a young person to start out in this business?

RB: The thing about the hog industry is, if you work hard and you do a good job, there is room for you. There are so many young people involved in agriculture and pork production in Washington County. It’s just awesome.

People in this community are good neighbors, and it is our intention to be a good neighbor back. We have 160 employees who rely on us.

SF: For many pig farmers, 1998 was the worst year. How did you manage?

RB: 1998 was easier than 2008. In 1998 and 1999, for some unforeseen reason, I had everything hedged. I just woke up one day in that time frame and said, “There is going to be a lot of pigs.” So we had everything hedged. That saved us.

The early 1980s was the most difficult time, by far, but we didn’t have anything to lose because we didn’t have anything. Everybody was in the same boat in the early 1980s. That built character and made us who we are today, no question.

SF: How did you get through 2008?

RB: 2008 was very difficult. We had a great set of bankers. They believed in us. If the bankers wouldn’t have been along in 2008, we wouldn’t have made it.

SF: What did you learn from that experience?

RB: We learned how to do marketing. We hired a guy to be our marketing expert and he took the markets by the horn. We do a lot of hedging and margin management. 2008 made us better.

SF: Do you worry about how trade issues might affect your business?

RB: We had the opportunity to have Donald Trump, Jr. here in our shop. He told us to be patient. I’ve got to believe we will come out with a better deal. I have faith that Donald Trump will figure it out, because I truly believe that he will.

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