SF Special: Meet the World’s Best Pig Producer
When Bruce Livingston was a child, his favorite day of the week was Wednesday. He eagerly woke at 3 a.m. to ride with his dad to Harbine, Nebraska, to sell feeder pigs, arriving back home in time to catch the school bus.
“I could not wait for the weekends and summer breaks to arrive so I could work with pigs,” says Livingston.
When he was 8 years old, his father, Ed, and an uncle, Cal, gave him two breeding gilts in payment for helping them with their swine enterprises near Mahaska, Kansas. He also won a gilt for placing first in a 4-H judging contest. By the time he graduated from high school in 1987, Livingston owned a 150-sow farrow-to-finish operation outright. He had his mind set on his future in the hog business, so he never considered college.
Today, his sow number is 25,000 and growing. This puts Livingston on the Successful Farming® Pork Powerhouses® list for the first time.
In the Livingston Enterprises Inc. (LEI) office across from the county courthouse in Fairbury, Nebraska, Livingston opens a thick binder of notes and records. He scans the data, but already knows it by heart.
“Company-wide, the past year we average over 30 pigs weaned per sow per year on 25,000 sows,” he says proudly. In the month of July, that productivity number was over 35 on one of the units. (Most sow farms in the U.S. wean 20 to 25.)
“I don’t know if you could find better numbers in the world on a 25,000-sow system,” says Livingston. “We can be as competitive as anybody.”
How does he achieve high sow productivity?
“First, you have to have a high number of pigs born,” he says. “Second, you have to raise them.”
Sounds simple enough, but, of course, it isn’t.
“It’s the little things,” he says. “We treat each sow as an individual. It’s just like when I was a kid. I knew how many pigs were on every sow. I knew how much feed each sow ate.”
He flips through the binder in front of him and does some calculations in his head, tapping his fingers on the desk. “You can’t measure records you don’t keep,” he notes.
Livingston has his units benchmarked by Swine Management Services in Fremont, Nebraska, which has a database of more than 900 farms and 1.5 million sows. Each of his units is toward the top of the list for many of the productivity and efficiency indexes measured.
Livingston says he has seen numbers from operations many times his size that average 21 pigs per sow per year. He calculates that he produces .25 million more pigs on his 25,000 sows each year than they do on 25,000 of their sows.
“You’ve got to be efficient,” he says.
Driving out of town to visit his newest sow farm, a 7,300-sow unit that started farrowing in April, he talks about his company’s greatest challenge: finding and keeping employees, who he refers to as team members. Some of the people he hires have dropped out of school, had substance abuse issues, or trouble with the law.
“Life is difficult,” he says simply. “If you tell them exactly what’s expected, most work out. We can use any kind of person.”
Two of his employees have been with him for 21 years; one oversees farrowing and the other oversees gestation and breeding. He’s always looking for more employees who want to take on more responsibility and have a rewarding career.
“The limiting factor to how big we’ll get is the number of key people we’ll find,” he says.
Livingston’s oldest child, Connor, 19, is now working full time for the company. He is in Lincoln today with some of the farm’s truck drivers picking up four new semis to haul pigs.
“He’s learning the business,” says Livingston, proudly. (Bruce and his wife, Trudy, have four children: Connor; Bryn, 16; Ellie, 11; and Lucus, 7.)
Livingston constantly needs new employees because he is in expansion mode. The company is in the permitting process for a new 7,300-sow farm to be built in 2017. Each barn is built by Midwest Livestock, based in Beatrice, Nebraska. Modifications to the design make each one better than the last.
All barns are within a 22-mile radius of Fairbury, and Livingston visits each sow unit at least once a week. He works with the breeding stock company DNA Genetics, based in Columbus, Nebraska, to select the most productive sows.
Most LEI pigs are sold as weaned pigs at 20 days old. They are contracted to The Maschhoffs, based in Carlyle, Illinois. He weans pigs four days a week.
The maternal barrows from the multiplier site, as well as the smallest weaned pigs, are fed in a nursery. Livingston retains ownership on up to 10% of the weaned pigs and grows them to feeder pigs.
At the new site, Livingston immediately notices some spilled feed, a tiny amount, around the augers. “I wish they’d get that feed cleaned up. I hate to see spilled feed,” he says. “I will have to talk to them about that.”
Feed, the largest cost for his company, is cheap this year. “I’ve already bought a year’s worth of corn,” he says. “The basis was at a level that I could justify.” He uses a spreadsheet, plugs in the corn price, and buys when it hits the level he sets.
Besides wasting money, spilled feed means rodents. “My two sons and I spent one weekend placing bait stations around each barn and securing them down,” says Livingston.
Around the barns on all sides is a concrete sidewalk, which helps considerably on maintenance. He doesn’t have to spray or mow weeds next to the building, and it is a place to secure the bait stations. Matting material with rock on top is laid neatly between all barns.
This half-section of flat Nebraska land where the barns sit is a prime spot. “I saw the land come up for sale, and I was at the right place at the right time,” says Livingston. He adds that some local farmers were unhappy he got the land. “You can’t make everyone happy in this business,” he admits.
He waves to an employee driving down the gravel road after going off shift in the farrowing house. The next shift has started. “We have someone 24 hours a day in the farrowing units,” says Livingston.
This new 7,300-sow farm is weaning 31 pigs per sow per year “right off the bat,” he says. “We are weaning 12.6 pigs off of gilts.”
Disease issues are low right now, but Livingston is not breathing too easy. “We’ve had our share of PRRS over the years. It’s sickening when it comes through.” He is fairly isolated in southeast Nebraska from other hog farms, so that helps.
To help with disease control, his barns are shower in/shower out, and he has facilities to wash and heat (he calls it “bake”) five hog trailers at a time. “We can house 23 trailers inside buildings.”
the worst day
You can never quite breathe easy in this business, he says, because there is always something unexpected around the corner. Livingston’s worst day in the hog business was March 22, 2015. It was a Sunday afternoon and he was home with his family. An employee called to say the Stateline sow farm was on fire.
“I raced out there,” said Livingston. “You’ve never seen anything burn so fast.” Nobody was injured, but he lost hundreds of sows and pigs. They never figured out the exact cause of the fire.
Bruce and Connor spent that night in his truck at the smoldering ruins of the farm. “It was a turning point for my son,” says Livingston. “That’s when he decided to stay. Ever since then, he has stepped it up.” They rebuilt that farm and kept growing.
The new barns have a totally different electrical wiring system that makes them less prone to fires.
have to work hard
Livingston drives around the new unit and likes what he sees. The barns have manure pits underneath and two lagoons are east of the barns. He is hoping for an early corn harvest in his area so he can start applying manure. His manure pumping system, operated and managed by Connor, is made by Puck Custom Enterprises in Manning, Iowa. “It’s amazing,” says Livingston. “We can apply up to 4 miles away.”
As he leaves the sow unit, he drives by a 12,000-head cattle feedlot. “When it smells bad [the feedlot], we are blamed,” he notes. “The things people put on Facebook.”
He admires a pen of cattle on the edge of the feedlot belonging to his 72-year-old father, who has a cow-calf operation and grows corn and soybeans nearby. “Dad can’t slow down,” says Livingston.
Like father, like son.
What does his dad think of his growing swine operation? “He’s pretty proud of me,” says Livingston. “At an early age, my folks taught me how to work and that nothing comes easy. I have worked hard for everything I have.”