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Published November 25, 2013, 09:33 AM

A 1,000 mile trek

A southwest Minnesota hog veterinary company is providing technical help and supplies to Hutterite hog producers 1,000 miles away.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

CONRAD, Mont. — A southwest Minnesota hog veterinary company is providing technical help and supplies to Hutterite hog producers 1,000 miles away, at opposite geographical extremes in Agweek country.

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 a daisy chain of 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.