CONRAD, Mont. -- If it wasn't for the Hutterites, the Big Sky State would be home to only a small number of hogs. Forty colonies account for a whopping 95 percent of Montana's hog production.
Midway Colony in Conrad, Mont., is from the Lehrerleut sect of Hutterites, which migrated from Canada into Montana in the late 1940s. The colony was split five years ago from the Miller Colony, north of Choteau, Mont. Midway's central enterprise is a 470-sow,
farrow-to-finish operation, primarily delivering to niche markets on the West Coast and export markets in the Pacific Rim.
Besides pigs, the colony also has about 225 beef cow-calf pairs and sells feeder calves in October. It raises a few broilers and turkeys for local farmers markets, and has a large garden for farmers marketing, as well as its own use. It also has a crop farm that raises winter wheat and malting barley.
The colony's gleaming facility was built in 2005 and populated in early 2006. David J. "Shorty" Hofer started as hog manager and earlier this year was named secretary, or business manager. He is the oldest of four children. He and his wife, Justina, have six children -- four daughters and two sons, ages 7 to 17.
There is nothing old-fashioned about the equipment in this place. The hog operation uses sophisticated automated feeding and some of the top genetics from Genesus Genetics in Manitoba. Midway turns in a prolific 30 pigs per sow per year weaned average and averages just more than 28 pigs to market per sow -- a level in the top 10 percent in the world.
No Hutterite hogs are artificially inseminated, which Hofer explains as a "church thing," especially for the Lehrerleut sect.
The colony starts by breeding York females to Landrace boars. The first crosses are bred to Genesus Durocs, and the offspring are raised to be market hogs. "The Duroc sire line is where you get the meat quality," Hofer says.
A regulated CAFO
The Midway Colony's hog operation has the first new facility built and operated
under a federal Confined Animal Feeding Operation license.
"Everything we do here is scrutinized by the Environmental Protection Agency and every other government agency out there, I guess," Hofer says, smiling.
Manure from the barns falls through slats into pits. It's taken out of the barns in a slurry. They separate solids and apply them to the land. Mineral-rich water waits in a lagoon and is emptied every fall. In 2008, the colony received a $200,000 match from the federal Environmental Quality Improvement Program to install a rubber-like cover, trapping the sulfate smell.
"We get at least $100,000 in value out of this manure every year, and it's as good or better than commercial fertilizer although it's harder to apply," Hofer says. "If you get away from the ick factor and view it as an asset, it's very valuable."
It takes about a week and a half to apply the lagoon water.
Colony members use drag lines to apply the water to their 7,000 cropped acres. They deliver a single supply line to the center of the field. A tractor and plow pull a "drag hose" in four directions from the center.
About half lay fallow for moisture conservation. Fallowed land is planted with winter wheat the following fall. The farm gets 12 inches or less of moisture in a typical year. This year, it got only 3 inches during the growing season, but a heavy hail storm in mid-July.
With sawfly problems in Montana, the colony swaths its wheat, and stores it in an old seed elevator that was on the land it purchased. The colony sells malt barley on contract to Anheuser-Busch, which has an elevator in Conrad. After 2013, it has given up on lentils.
It typically buys half of its feed needs, including all of its soybeans. If it makes malt barley, it'll sell it and buy back feed barley for the pigs.
The Salmon Creek way
The colony is part of Salmon Creek Farms Natural Pork, an association that deals with Independent Meat Co. of Twin Falls, Idaho. A third of the association's pork is exported, a third is in retail and another third is in food service.
Salmon Creek's pork is distributed through Independent Distribution Co., and its Independent Meat manufacturing division. The packer supplies branded and labeled products to wholesale and retail customers in the U.S. and the Pacific Rim under the Falls Brand and the Salmon Creek Farms Natural Pork brands. The companies also have another natural line called Newport Meats for high-end food service customers, mostly in California. Salmon Creek has been operating since before 2000. It includes eight partner farms, including two in Canada. Most are in Montana and some non-Hutterite operations in Utah.
Salmon Creek requires that members finish hogs on wheat or barley. Small grains will "lay down a hard, white fat" on the hog carcasses, Hofer says.
The brands emphasize Hutterite culture. Customers seem to like the Hutterite
"story," which focuses on families and a dedication to the animals. In fact, a picture of Hofer is on the meat boxes delivered under the organization's Newport Meat label. He is currently in the middle of a three-year term as association president.
Midway Colony hasn't fed any corn for three years, Hofer says.
"If you finish on corn, the flavor and marbling might be there, but the fat will be a little softer," he says. "We need that to go into the Pacific Rim markets -- Japanese markets. If western Montana differentiates itself from other producers -- like Smithfield and Tyson -- it's because we finish on barley and wheat."
On the packing side, natural pork is sold in its natural state, with no solutions infused to make it juicier or tender, or to add flavor.
"If you go to Disneyland in California today and order a pork sandwich, you will be eating our pork, from our associations," Hofer says.
Midway Colony buys all of its medications through Veterinary Medical Center and Prairie Livestock Supply in Worthington, Minn., led by veterinarian Steven Dudley. The colony can use medications in water until the animal is 50 pounds but it doesn't use any growth-promotion antibiotics in its feed. Sick animals are treated as needed, but are ear-tagged and diverted from the "natural" program.
He says one common misunderstanding about Hutterites is that because they're church-related they don't pay taxes.
"The Hutterite colonies in Pondera County, other than the utility company, we're in the top 10 taxpayers in the county," he says, of property taxes.
"The county appraiser wants to know if you're even thinking about building something," he says, smiling again. "I'm not saying everybody loves us, but that's everybody's prerogative."
Despite his distance from the larger hog industry, Hofer is involved in meat industry policy issues. Like much of the hog industry, he opposes country of origin labeling for retail meat.
"If you don't believe people buy the cheapest, go to Wal-Mart," he says. "Every cart is heaping full."
The meat industry spends too much energy on infighting, he thinks.
"It's divide-and-conquer across the board," Hofer says. "Instead of uniting to fight a vegan or anti-agriculture agenda in America, they're fighting each other. They're wasting energy; not enough time to promote our product and have everybody eating meat."
He says if there aren't enough U.S. cattle to fill the markets, he'd rather see Canadian or Mexican cattle ("which are U.S.-owned anyway") fill the void, versus bringing in products from places such as Brazil.
Although the Hutterite way is not universally understood or appreciated, Hofer is a strong believer.
"This truly is the socialistic lifestyle -- the commitment to God, family," he says, and smiles again. "Truthfully, it's the best life there is to live."
A 1,000-mile trek
A southwest Minnesota hog veterinary company is providing technical help and supplies to the Hutterite hog producers 1,000 miles away.
Veterinary Medical Center and Prairie Livestock Supply of Worthington, Minn., which is in the thick of the traditional hog belt in the U.S., have been working with the Montana Hutterites for about 18 years.
Twice a year Steven Dudley, president and CEO of the two companies, visits the colonies personally to establish a "veterinary-client relationship." Sarah Vaske is the sales representative responsible for Montana.
Dudley's companies deal with many of the 40 or so Hutterite colonies in Montana. Many are along the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains.
"We each spend two weeks -- 12 days -- out here on the road," Dudley says. They typically can get to three colonies a day.
The Worthington companies offer a study in entrepreneurship, based on relationship building across the years.
Relationship daisy chain
Company veterinary pioneers Conrad Schmidt, Wayne Freese and Craig Pfeifer created a laboratory called Oxford Laboratories, a vaccine company, in the early 1980s. Dudley, a Nebraska native whose father also was a veterinarian, and whose brother is a veterinarian, moved to Worthington to join the veterinary practice in 1987.
George Caraway worked in marketing and sales for Oxford Laboratories, which in 1989 was sold to Upjohn and later to Bayer Animal Health. Caraway stayed with Upjohn and became a sales manager there, working with the Hutterite colonies in the Dakotas and Montana. Later, Caraway and Upjohn would hire the Worthington veterinarians as seminar speakers and eventually became consultants to the colonies themselves.
Dudley is something of a student of Hutterite culture, which has made a success of other livestock enterprises in a region dominated by beef.
The Hutterite hog operations, with their labor availability, operate in a more traditional system than much of the hog industry, Dudley says. A typical colony runs 300 to 500 sows in farrow-to-finish -- a size and style of production that was more common in the U.S. in the 1980s and 90s. Hutterites are noted for their animal husbandry skills and work ethic. Montana is relatively isolated from the traditional U.S. hog belt, where diseases can blow in or come in through farm-to-farm contact.
Production has continued to improve since the mid-1990s.
Overcoming high costs
"The breeding stock out there has become much healthier and cleaner than in past years, and that allows them to maintain this farrow-to-finish operation and be very efficient," Dudley says.
The best of the colonies achieve 30 pigs farrowed per sow per year and more than 28 pigs sold to the packer per sow. Dudley estimates the average in southwest Minnesota might be roughly 25 pigs per sow per year weaned and 22 finished.
"They own them themselves," Dudley says. "They have fewer distractions. They're not worried about getting to a ballgame or going somewhere else. When they have some extra time, they go down and check the pigs. The Hutterite pre-weaning death loss is very low. They just do a nice job, they work hard."
Many finished hogs go to California for slaughter, some to Idaho and Washington state. Many go to Modesto, Calif., which is a lighter-weight hog market. Some of the meat from the West Coast goes overseas to places such as China and Japan. The ethnic markets for Asian customers require more "roaster" pigs, meaning a whole pig or a side of a pig rather than cuts like hams.
In recent years, three Hutterite colonies in Montana have established large "isowean" operations, including one north of Great Falls. These house 2,500 sows and raise pigs to 15 pounds and then send them to the Midwest where corn is more plentiful. There the pigs often are raised in buildings for slaughter in Iowa, South Dakota and Minnesota.
Dudley, who sometimes advises an isowean operation, acknowledges that larger hog operations often are criticized, but he says this size and scope is analogous to the consumer market for retail food and groceries in the U.S.
"It's kind of an evolutionary process," Dudley says. "Larger operations typically can be more efficient and operate on low margins that are available in recent times."
He says Montana Hutterite colonies deal with relatively high transportation distances and relatively unavailable lower-priced corn. Transportation to get hogs to market costs $15 to $20 per animal, about $10 to $12 more than for pigs finished in northwest Iowa, for example.
Who are Hutterites?
Hutterites are Anabaptists, originally from Germany and Switzerland. They moved to Austria and Ukraine. In the 1880s, about 400 came to settle at Bon Homme County in South Dakota, on the southern border of the state. Hutterites believe in community property and are pacifists.
During World War I, they were persecuted and some went to Canada, where they were allowed to opt out of military service. Some migrated southward into Montana in the late 1940s. There are three groups: Lehrerleut and Dariusleut (mostly in Montana) and Schmiedeleut (mostly in South Dakota, Minnesota and Manitoba).