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Livestock Farmer, Swine systmes offer hope

Markets from alternative swine systems offer hope for farmers

It was ironic, Jim Van Der Pol says. Just as hog prices bottomed out in the fall of 1998 and farmers were giving up hog production, markets were beginning to develop for special kinds of pork.

"I knew of an Iowa company looking for hogs raised drug-free on grass and straw. That company is still running behind its needs and is looking for producers," says Van Der Pol, a farmer from Kerkhoven, Minn. In addition, Van Der Pol says export markets for Berkshire hog meat to the Asian market were (and still are) growing.

"Both of the markets pay a very nice premium," says Van Der Pol, who recently finished a one-year term as the School of Agriculture Endowed Chair in Agricultural Systems at the University of Minnesota.

Van Der Pol has 20 years of experience in alternative swine production practices, including pasturing and low-cost housing. In the endowed chair position, he worked directly with the University's Alternative Swine Production Systems Program and split his time between the University's West Central Research and Outreach Center at Morris and the St. Paul campus.

At Morris, he worked with animal scientist Lee Johnston in moving 10 surplus sows out of conventional housing into a hoop shelter. "This style of production is vital for any producer who aims at the specialty pork markets," he says. "The piglets are weaned at a later time, and are often grown for market right where they were born, in contrast to conventional systems."

"The piglets did well and produced numbers just a little short of their confinement mates. This little experiment made quite an impression in University circles," Van Der Pol says. "And the idea came from Lee Johnston, whose background is nutrition in conventional systems."

Four new hoop houses at Morris will be monitored for water runoff and percolation, and researchers will use the hoops for ongoing manure pack work. Plans are also underway to convert a gestation building at Morris to a Swedish deep-straw farrowing system for research and demonstration. Hog pastures are also being established.

Van Der Pol talked with other U of M researchers about running feeding trials in hoops and including straw-based systems in University Extension programs.

"These practices are important to farm communities in Minnesota," he says. "Some of the new opportunities in hog production call for hogs produced in alternative systems. The work of the Alternative Swine Task Force and my position in the Endowed Chair were to position the University so it can serve this need."


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