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Iowa State Fair’s Big Boar Contest has only 2 entries amid soaring inflation, heat

by Jared Strong

It’s possible that the cost to feed giant pigs was too much.

Or maybe the summer’s unrelenting heat made those 1,000-plus-pound bruisers lose their appetites.

Either way, there were just two entries in the Iowa State Fair’s Big Boar Contest this year — the smallest number in at least two decades, according to Ernie Barnes, who oversees the fairgrounds’ Swine Barn and emcees the contest. Usually there are between five and 10 entries.

“Those boars are going to eat 25 to 30 pounds of feed a day, and feed cost is higher than we’ve ever seen in the history of pork production or livestock production,” Barnes said. “So, if a boar is eating that much feed and a guy is doing it as a hobby or as a fun deal, do you really want to feed a boar for a year with high-priced feed?”

The person who raised this year’s winner was able to sidestep that problem, almost by accident.

A doughnut-eating champ

Marv Rietema, 73, of Sioux Center, bought his pig Pee-Wee at an auction last summer. At the time he was about 950 pounds, but he gained another 170 pounds by the time Rietema showed him at the Clay County Fair in Spencer last year.

“He did about 4 pounds a day,” Rietema said of the pig’s weight gain. “I thought, ‘Wow. This could be a record-setting pig.’”

But Pee-Wee plateaued at too low a weight. The pig gained 70 or 80 pounds over this past winter, and in May it was clear to Rietema that he needed at least an extra 50 pounds to be a contender for the top prize.

Rietema, who said he has raised pigs nearly all of his life, added dried milk to the feed. He made slop. He mixed in food additives and drugs.

“I tried everything that I humanly knew,” Rietema said. “He’d take one sniff of it, and he’d walk away. He turned out to be an ideal jerk. He got to be a foodie.”

On a whim, Rietema picked up a load of old doughnuts that were set to be tossed at the end of a week at the Dutch-themed Casey’s Bakery in Sioux Center. He had found a meal for the pickiest of pigs: cream-filled long johns.

The creature’s appetite for the sweets swelled to the point that Rietema had to seek an additional source of stale doughnuts. He knew a guy at a nearby Hy-Vee who obliged and at times was fetching up to 25 pounds of them from the store.

Pee-Wee washed down those pastries with gallons of creamy milk from a nearby dairy farm.

“It’s been expensive having to drive to get this stuff,” Rietema said. “Yes, it’s not a cheap hobby, but what hobby is?”

In the other corner…

Purdy Boy, the other contender, favored a mix of ground corn and soybeans. When it came to pastries, he turned up his snout.

“He always just nosed those out of the feeder,” said John Sweeney, the state veterinarian for the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission. He raised the boar jointly with a group of about a dozen long-time friends. One of the friends, Bob Dvorak, did most of the chores on his acreage near Ankeny.

The pig’s name is a nod to Brock Purdy, the recent Iowa State University quarterback. Most of the group are alums.

One of their previous pigs — dubbed Fred Hoiboar, a reference to the former star Iowa State men’s basketball player and coach Fred Hoiberg — lost to the record-setting winner of 2012. But another, Peabody, the nickname of a friend who died of cancer, won the contest in 2014. He weighed 1,273 pounds.

“It’s hard to find old boars now because with almost all of the swine industry being artificially inseminated, they don’t keep a boar around for more than a couple years,” Sweeney said. Both Pee-Wee and Purdy Boy are 6.

The group bought Purdy Boy from a Missouri farm last year and fattened him with increasingly expensive feed. Sweeney estimated it cost about $6,000 to ready him for this week’s contest — nearly double what the group has spent in previous years.

He said the high costs and sweltering heat of this summer were likely contributors to the thin field of competition for the state’s biggest boar.

“The economy is off, and grain prices have gotten so high,” Sweeney said. “Obviously, the climate has not been good. There might have been other pigs trying to come, but with the heat, maybe they weren’t able to gain weight.”

And the winner is…

Pee-Wee tipped the scales at 1,300 pounds, well ahead of Purdy Boy’s 1,156 pounds. The champ was about 35 pounds short of the all-time record, and despite the lack of competition, his girth was sufficient to win most years.

For comparison, the typical market weight for pigs raised for meat is about 280 pounds.

Barnes, who oversees the contest, anticipates more competition in next year’s fair if feed prices come back down and the weather cools.

“It’s been an extremely hot summer,” he said. “Those big rascals weighing 1,200 or 1,300 pounds don’t like to move around a lot. They might not want to eat.”

Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of the States Newsroom, a network of similar news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

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