What it takes to add contract hog finishing to your farm
Building a contract finishing site to raise hogs can be a challenge. Iowa producers who build two-barn sites often have to go through the Master Matrix scoring system used to evaluate the siting of permitted confinement feeding operations. These have higher standards than other permitted facilities.
Before the producers can be approved for construction, they must earn points on the Master Matrix for choosing sites and using practices that reduce adverse impacts on the environment and the community. The public hearing required in the matrix system opens producers up to opposition and can be a stressful process.
Three producers who completed the task in the past year gave tips at the Farming for the Future Conference in Ames, Iowa, in January. The meeting was organized by the Coalition to Support Iowa’s Farmers. All three farmers worked with the coalition prior to moving dirt to get their barns up.
Meet the producers
Schyler Bardole (right) returned to his family’s century farm near Rippey, Iowa, in 2017 as the sixth generation. He farms approximately 2,300 acres of corn and soybeans with his father, Tim; grandfather Roy; and uncle Pete.
When Bardole decided to come back to the farm, the family needed to diversify the operation to make room. That prompted the decision to go back into hogs after 10 years without them. Two new finishing barns, 4,992 head total, were built in 2019 to feed hogs for Seaboard Foods.
Trent Hatlen (in photo at top with his daughter) is a third-generation family farmer from northwest Iowa. Hatlen’s family discontinued their farrow-to-finish operation in 2012. With increasing volatility in the grain markets, Hatlen decided to reintroduce livestock into the family farming operation. He partnered with Iowa Select Farms and built two hog barns to supplement his farming income, getting his first pigs in fall 2019.
Eric Henry and his family own Longview Farms in Story County, Iowa. Longview growss corn, soybeans, and seed corn in addition to contract-finishing pigs for TriOak Foods. The family started the permitting process in 2018 and got the sites built last summer.
Why add hogs to the farm?
1. Diversified income
When Bardole first came back to the family farm in the summer of 2017, he and his family talked about diversifying their income stream but didn’t act on it. “Then a drought happened, and then a lot of rain happened, and then we decided it might be better to diversify,” says Bardole. He looked at a lot of different options, everything from crickets to buffalo. “I was dead serious,” he says. “Hogs made the most sense. The income stream would be steady and dependable. That was really the driving factor.”
2. Value of manure as fertilizer
“The farm economy was bad and there is a lot of money in fertilizer,” says Hatlen. “Hogs were my first and only choice.”
3. Allows the next generation to invest in ag
Land in Story County, Iowa, home to Iowa State University, is high priced, explains Henry. “A large factor was me coming back to a farm. My brothers are I were looking for ways to start investing in agriculture. Land is too expensive. The hog barns have the manure benefit and stable income. That’s why we chose to pursue that.”
Preparing for a public hearing
When your family has generations of experience and a stellar reputation, that helps the permitting process, says Henry. “People know that we take care of our operation and have integrity and pride in what we do.”
He knew the process would be controversial in Story County. “We were really intentional on how we went about it.” They talked to their neighbors and gave an interview to the local newspaper. “We put our phone number out there and told people if they had questions, comments, or concerns to give us a call. We were able to address some of the concerns going into the board of supervisor meeting.”
Not everyone was supportive. “We realized we can't convince everyone that what we’re doing is right,” says Henry. “We listened to their concerns and addressed those concerns. Sometimes it’s OK to agree to disagree.”
Bardole and his father drove around to talk to neighbors. “We were kind of shocked when the first door slammed in our face,” he says. Another neighbor had five sheets of paper front and back with incriminating questions about how the manure would affect water and air quality. He wondered if the Bardoles had considered raising free-range, organic hogs.
The Bardoles talked to the concerned neighbor for more than an hour, answering questions about antibiotics, manure, and how the hogs will be handled. “It wasn't the most fun thing in the world,” says Bardole. “But we were willing to engage.”
At Hatlen’s public hearing, one neighbor wanted to make sure he would knife-in the manure. “I told him I would lose a lot of nitrogen if I didn’t,” says Hartlen. “We had no backlash. I am very fortunate everything went smoothly.”
Besides neighbors, it’s important to have conversations with landlords, points out Henry. “When the newspaper has ads saying, ‘Stop the Henry family,’ it creates a need for dialogue with our current partners, the seed companies, and landlords.”
Henry’s board of supervisors meeting was standing-room only, plus 100 people crowded in the hallway outside, he says. For several hours, he and his family sat and answered questions about the hog barn plans. “We didn’t let that deter us or our excitement for the project,” he says.
The board of supervisors chose to look at the sites and appealed one to the Environmental Protection Commission in Des Moines, Iowa. “We had to go down and state our case and go through that process again with an open hearing and then wait to get a verdict from the committee members.”
Site beautification and odor mitigation
Bardole had promised his neighbors he would plant trees at the site, but the midsummer timing for his new barns worked against that plan. “I called the nursery and they said if you buy them right, now you’ll be buying them again in the spring,” says Bardole. “I wrote letters to all of our neighbors to let them know I’ll be planting trees when spring rolls around. I also gave them a time line of when we would spread manure, instead of waiting for that shoe to drop.”
Hatlen planted a wildflower and butterfly preserve in front of his site. “The first year, it’s kind of a weed patch, so we just mowed it, but our neighbors are really excited to see it. I’m trying to envision what it will look like five years from now. It’s a fun thing to do.”
Holding an open house
Before the pigs arrived, both Hatlen and Bardole held an open house in the barn. “The neighbors were impressed,” says Hatlen. “They hadn’t been in new buildings of that size. The public learned a lot and really enjoyed it. It was informative and sparked interest from the community.”
Bardole had a few people at his open house who were against hog barns. “They were impressed with what they saw. They had never been in a hog barn. One said I should start a Facebook page about the barns to educate people about them.”
Bardole says he can understand the misunderstandings. “If you don’t have a connection to a farm, how are you going to find information about how hogs are raised? Having a meal in the barn makes it less scary. All of a sudden it’s approachable. People in the community walked away with a much more positive view.”
Henry didn’t hold an open house, but gave neighbors who requested one a tour of the barns. “They told us their concerns and we told them how the facility design and management practices will address those concerns. People have been pleased to peek inside and see where some of their concerns are being addressed.”
“Continual communication is going to be key going forward,” says Henry. “We plan to keep our neighbors informed when we’re going to be spreading manure.”
Hatlen plans to ask neighbors if they have concerns when he sees them throughout the year. At Christmas, he gives them pork loins. “I’m extra fortunate because most of my neighbors are livestock producers and they have been supportive.”
Bardole is taking more time to speak to people in the community and “have that positive connection.” He sends letters if there are changes in the operation. “Stamps are cheap. It’s important to keep people in the loop, let them know what’s going on. I give my phone number and email address. If they have an issue or they want to talk to me, whether it’s a question or a concern, they have my information.”
Choosing a contractor
Choosing a company to work with was an early decision for all three producers. It has to work long term.
“I did a lot of number crunching,” says Bardole. “We met with everybody who was putting up barns in the area, and they all seemed great to work with. When it came down to it, putting up a hog barn was a financial decision. There are a lot more fun ways to spend $1 million. It has to pencil out. We’re taking on this responsibility, so we have to make sure it’s worth the time away from our families. That was a big driving factor behind our decision.”
Hatlen first visited with his local lender, who knew of a company looking to add sites in the area. “I researched Iowa Select Farms and liked everything I read about them. I talked to people who raised pigs for them and didn’t hear any negatives. That’s how I ended up going with them, and I’m very happy I did.”
Building a barn is one thing, but managing it five and 10 years down the road is another. All three producers have a lot at stake by building these hog barns. If they don’t do it right, it’s going to affect other parts of their farming operation, such as custom work and land rentals.
“Our family makes long-term decisions,” says Henry. “We are continually looking to see what practices we can do better. My mom’s going to be the biggest one holding us accountable.”
Bardole says he is looking 10 years down the road. “We have to position ourselves so somebody else in the family can have the opportunity to farm. I have young children, and they were a big driving factor behind my decision.
“It was hard for me to come back to the farm,” says Bardole. “The hog barns helped. I want my boys or their cousins to be able to farm if they want to. We have to do a good job and do things right. We cannot afford just to do the minimum.”