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FARMERS-HOGS May-4-2008 (730 words) With logo and photos. xxxn
Hog-raising trends mirror changes in farming practices
By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON, Iowa (CNS) -- When Heidi Vittetoe and her husband took over his father's hog-farming operation outside Washington, population 7,100, in the mid-1980s, she figured they were among the top five to 10 hog farmers in Washington County, with about 6,000 hogs raised each year.
Vittetoe still places the family operation among the county's top five to 10 in size, although the number of hogs raised now numbers about 200,000 a year on a confined animal feeding operation.
The Vittetoe operation is considered by some as a "factory farm," a term Vittetoe, a member of St. James Parish in Washington, bristles at.
However, through a series of contracts with other nearby farmers, family members among them, only a relatively small percentage of hogs are raised on the Vittetoe property. Still, the Vittetoes employ more than 40 people in farming and administrative work.
In an April 20 interview with Catholic News Service, Vittetoe recalled the struggles of raising hogs a generation ago. Those struggles included wrangling the hogs to keep them on the property, building fires to keep them warm in the winter, trying to keep them cool in the summer and never knowing when sows would give birth.
The confined animal feeding operation separates many hog-raising tasks. There are farms specifically for sows. When they give birth, their litters are shipped to hog farms that are ready to receive them.
Denny Vittetoe, a cousin of Heidi's husband, who has a contract with J.W. Vittetoe Ltd., the name of Heidi's farm, has what is called a "finishing" operation that takes piglets when they are a few weeks old and weighing but 12 pounds to six months of age, by which time they have grown to 275 pounds and are ready for slaughter.
Denny Vittetoe keeps the hogs enclosed for virtually the entire time they are in the finishing operation. There are generally about two dozen hogs in a pen, with pens on both sides of an aisle. The finishing building has a wall in the middle to keep down the noise of a thousand grunting, snuffling hogs.
Heaters can keep the hogs warm in the winter. Overhead misters cool off the hogs in hot weather, and fans whisk away the moisture from their skin. "I don't know why anyone would want to go back to the way we used to do things," Heidi Vittetoe said.
The increased appetite for pork products comes mainly from overseas, she said. "China was really into hogs a year ago" in the run-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, Vittetoe remarked.
Hogs used to be known as "the mortgage lifter" thanks to the consistent price pork would command on the market, "but it can also be the mortgage maker," Heidi Vittetoe cautioned. There are expenses involved in constructing and maintaining sheds for hogs. The contracts with big agribusiness firms lock in prices without taking into account market changes.
"It was hard" last year, she said, as the price of corn spiked to $7 a bushel, spurred by ethanol production to compete with soaring gasoline prices.
In Epworth, Iowa, 31-year-old twins Ryan and Russell Demmer, members of St. Patrick Parish in Epworth, raise both hogs and beef cattle on their parents' farm. The family also rents acreage nearby for grain farming. Being diversified helped blunt the hit taken in hogs last year.
The Demmer hog operation slightly resembles Denny Vittetoe's finishing operation. There is space for both new piglets and nearly grown hogs on the Demmers' farm. The hogs' pens are larger and wider, allowing them to sprint like the proverbial greased pig. While the Demmers' pens are largely outdoors, the back ends of the pens are covered so the hogs can protect themselves from the elements.
And both farms have centralized feeding systems that permit the farmer to supply feed from a remote location. Both the Demmers and Vittetoe sang the praises of a flaky, sweet-smelling, nutrient-rich ethanol byproduct that can be mixed into the hogs' diet.
Russell Demmer said he studied heating, ventilation and air conditioning after high school, but he never abandoned farming. He said he and Ryan will sometimes work into the middle of the night to plant or harvest crops, talking to each other over walkie-talkies.
"When it gets like we're sounding (like) we're drunk" due to fatigue, "that's the time to stop," Demmer said.
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