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October is National Pork Month: Yes I work with pigs, and darn proud of it!


Fri, Oct 10th, 2003
Posted in Features

I havent woke up once and not wanted to go to work. My favorite part of the job is Life being born every day." Kim Merkel Farrowing Manager

The swine industry has taken many a hit over the centuries, beginning with those who believed pork to be unfit to eat in the biblical times. The days of the pig sty and visions of these critters being fed "swill" have long since graduated to those who favor open range production, loose housing, or larger confinement units. Rural boundaries inch back as they make way for urban sprawl and the people they help feed. Manure management battles with ecology. There is an ongoing dispute over usage of feed additives and drugs to produce more products versus those who raise pork in a more natural environment. Regardless of ones choice of farming method, the fact remains that raising quality pork is a business. And if you peel away the many layers involved in this business, the bottom line is that without those individuals who are loyal to their work, that robust, healthy, tasty, and yes, intelligent creature known as the "pig" would not thrive as well as they have today.What is the allure of working with pigs? "Its a personal thing, youve accomplished something, youve made a difference. You treat the pig right and youll get paid back with a good product," explains Barb Lubenow, the Site Manager at Baarsch Pork Farm, (Next Generation Pork), owned by Kathy and Bob Baarsch, located on the Fillmore/Mower County line. "You have to have patience and be able to read the sows and pigs. It only comes with experience, you grow into it." Its a numbers game for any manager when one must blend a teams abilities with the animals challenges. Lubenow feels very comfortable and proud of what she does."I love the babies, when you leave at the end of the day, and everyone has a warm, soft spot," explains Kathy Carmen. Carmen, a part-time employee, is trained in all aspects of the operation. "Theres rewards when youve done your best taking care of the babies because they can be so helpless. I couldnt raise pigs at home, so Im doing the next best thing." She agrees it can be a very physical job, but it is worth it."Its an honest living. You earn every penny you make," feels Cathy Thompson. She is the sites Breeding Manager. She and her partner, Diane Schulte, also play a numbers game . . . get those ladies bred and back in a timely manner. And when it comes to breeding gilts, (females that have never been bred), well, its a kind of dance while artificially inseminating that gal as her penmates try to get a piece of you. Patience is a virtue in this area of the swine industry, too. "The ability to be independent and still have a team back you is great", points out Schulte. Each person has specific tasks that are done according to their ability. Each "does their own thing " and it all comes together, whether its moving sows, vaccinating pigs, completing paperwork, or washing down crates and stalls. "People ask if it smells at the farm," said Thompson. (No, it smells like roses, shell mentally think). "Of course it smells, every kind of animal smells. Its all in how you look at it." "Sometimes its like the show, Whats My Line? where someone must guess what the other persons occupation is. "I can cleanup pretty good when I need to, smiles Thompson. On a serious note, she is concerned that some people dont have a clue as to where their food comes from. She feels that they need to be educated. Americans in general, are used to cheaper food sources than in anywhere else in the world. This allows more money to purchase other items in our consumer driven world.And yet, when it comes to buying groceries, how many times do patrons remark on the price of milk, beef, chicken, or pork? "I dont think people know about the decisions we make, not everything is decreed from above," says Kim Merkel, the units Farrowing Manager. After more than 20 years of working in a nursing home setting, she, and Schulte made a major change in careers. They love the challenges their new employment has brought them. Often decisions are made as one walks through the barns: Is that sow eating today? Can she handle nursing all those pigs? Whats the health of the pigs? Is the room too hot, too cold? When does the next group get weaned and who can be weaned earlier to help out starvers (runts)? That water nipple needs fixing. This pit must be emptied. Im gone tomorrow-what can I do to make it easier for the person who is covering for me? These gilts are big enough to breed. That group of gilts should be cycling. Those nursery pigs are doing great! Merkel gets to experience the daily miracle of pigs being born. Sometimes the sow or gilt will need assistance in giving birth. A gentle hand will sleeve a pig through a difficult farrow. A finger making contact with sharp teeth while sleeving the mom is a welcome sign of life! A newly born litter reminds one of an ant hill as babies jostle for a nipple, silent at first, but quickly demonstrating their displeasure at competition. Once established, a pig will return to that nipple each time for lunch. Good management helps ensure each mouth has a dinner plate. "I think that if we werent doing this job, there wouldnt be as much of a choice, nor the quality of food," says Larry Lee, Breeding Manager at Deer Creek, NGPs second farrowing site. Its not a 9 to 5 job. You may have to come in earlier; you may need to stay later, to get tasks done. I do like the freedom of movement, compared to working, say, in a factory." The breeding manager says one must be open minded, open to change, as consultants and upper management strive to improve the end result of producing pork. Lee has been in the industry many years and has experienced a lot of changes. As an employee, this sorting of ideas and theories can be a challenge at times. If theres any myths about the business, its that the public doesnt always act like agriculture is necessary feels Lee. He believes there must be a continual open dialogue between those directly involved in agriculture and those who benefit from its efforts. Footnote, the author of this article worked in farrowing for six years. Her experiences have helped to foster a better relationship with her newest goal, one of milking dairy goats. Juliann Mueller can be reached at news@fillmorecountyjournal. com

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