While most of you know me as a farmer wife, I started off as a city girl with plans to move to a big city. And while I have learned a lot about farming over the past 11 years, there is plenty about the farm industry that I have yet to experience or understand. So when I was given the opportunity to take part in the Iowa Pork Tour it seemed like the perfect chance to gain a better understanding of the big picture of the pork industry. After a few days to process the tour, and all that I learned, I thought it was time to sit down and share some of what I saw in the world of pork producing (and consuming!). This post is going to be overflowing with information on the hog industry. But we all know that it is important to understand where our meat is coming from, and just how much work is going into this care and production of pork.
One of the stops on our tour was a visit to a hog farm. The location we visited raised hogs that had been weaned (no longer drinking their momma’s milk) until they are ready for market.
Pigs Life Span
When baby pigs are born they weigh in at 2-3 pounds and are immediately given their mothers colostrum. The piglet will continue to nurse with their momma until about 3 weeks of age.
At this point the pigs are weaned and they move to a nursery where they grow with other pigs who are the same age and size. Pigs stay in the nursery for about 6 weeks, coming in at about 13 pounds, and moving out at about 60 pounds.
After the 6 weeks in the nursery the pigs are ready for a bigger space and go to a finisher style building. Here is where they will stay until they reach market weight, which is about 280 pounds. The average lifespan of a hog is 6-7 months.
All the work that goes into keeping pigs healthy is incredible. New boots and coveralls for each building, showering before going into the pigs, and showering when coming out of the pigs. I know my husband takes multiple showers a day, as do all other farmers. (Think about this. When doctors are seeing healthy patients they don’t change clothes, shoes and shower between rooms. It’s just assumed that washing hands is enough to stop transferring disease. But these farmers are doing everything in their power to prevent pigs from getting sick and needing antibiotics.) Feed trucks and semis go between pig sites and so to help stop them from spreading disease they are power washed between trips. When preparing for the tour I was told that I had to be sure I had no contact with our own pigs for 4 days leading up to the tour. All of this just to make sure the healthy pigs stay healthy.
There is a stigmatization associated with “factory farming” and many hear the phrase and picture pigs that have no space to move, and pigs who are miserable, hot and unhealthy. Really factory farming just means a farmer is raising enough hogs to help supply each one of us with pork products. On the tour we had a chance to go into a building where the pigs were getting ready to move out in a day because they had “outgrown” their pens. These pigs, who were the most crowded they would be in their entire lifespan, still had room to move and run, lay down, and get to the food and water whenever they wanted. Rooms in all of the pig buildings were controlled to the exact degree, and alarms call phones when the room gets too hot or cold 24 hours a day to alert the farmer to any change. Proper ventilation plays a big part in keeping the pigs comfortable as well with curtains that go up or down to block out extreme cold, or allow a cool breeze to flow inside.
Going To Market
When the hogs are ready for market the farmers have a few options for their pigs. One would be to see the hogs to major packing plants. This is where many hogs end up, and places like Tyson purchase the hogs and then prepare the meat you buy in the store or eat at most major food chains. Big packing plants have a bad reputation, but the more I continue to learn about the plants the more I am impressed by their standards.
Big Packing Plants & Proper Pig Handling
Anyone who touches a pig at the packing plants must be trained in proper pig handling. This means if the trucker has not gone through the course to be certified they are not allowed to get out of their truck and even help unload the pigs. Truckers and other workers who are not following the guidelines are banned from the packing plants, regardless of if they have passed their pig handling test in the past.
Big Packing Plants & Antibiotic Testing
All farmers know the withdrawal time for each antibiotic a pig may need to receive. This means they have to have “x” number of days after being given an antibiotic before they are allowed to sell the hog, which is to ensure the antibiotic is completely out of their bloodstream. The withdrawal period varies by medication. To ensure that the farmers are following these rules they test hogs that come into the plant to make sure no antibiotics are present in their system.
Those who do not sell their hogs to large packing plants take their hogs to smaller locations. Some sell directly to restaurants, small butchers, and smoke shops. We had a chance to visit some of these places who source their pork from specific farmers and taste their delicious pork products!
Central Iowa Shops & Restaurants With Locally Sourced Pork
As part of our tour we had the opportunity to visit shops and restaurants that source their pork from local farmers to offer high quality products for their customers.
Located in the Amana colonies the Meat Shop & Smokehouse currently smokes their own brats, and produces their own hams and jerky. In the first half of the 1900s they smoked meats in a smoke house that could only be used for three months out of the year. Now they use an industrial sized smoker that can hold up to 500 pounds of meat. They have a store front where people can stop in to purchase their products, but 85-90% of their sales are mail orders that ship all over the United States.
Also located in Amana, Iowa the Ox Yoke Inn offers traditional recipes and hearty food. One of their customers favorites is the Pickled Ham, which is supplied by the Amana Meat Shop, as well as their tasty bratwursts. Our filling lunch was served family style and gave us the chance to try all of their delicious pork products, which also included their smoked ham and pork chops.
The head chef at Pullman, Sepher Sadrzadeh, served us a delicious 4 course dinner that showcased pork sourced from a local farmer in Iowa. Dinner included a variety of pork such as fried prosciutto, a house BBQ pork pave, and bacon creamed kale. The entire experience, from the atmosphere to quality ingredients, made for a fabulous evening enjoying good food.
Mosley’s BBQ catered a tasty pork dinner at Fireside Winery for our second dinner. Their BBQ pork was some of the tastiest pulled pork I’ve had the chance to enjoy (and I’ve had a lot of pulled pork!). They source their pork from Heartland Fresh Family Farm in Iowa, and they took it one step further by finding all of their supplies from their vegetables, the hickory for the BBQ pit, to the pit itself, from various vendors in Iowa. The result is a delicious and hearty dinner that is all thanks to hard working Iowans.
The entire tour from beginning to end was enlightening and helped me, as the city girl who turned into a farm wife, to have a better grasp of the hog industry. So much hard work goes into the industry, from the farrowing of pigs (birth of piglets), raising of pigs, butchering meat, and then preparing the meat for sale or consumption at restaurants. At the end of the day I can sum it all up by saying I have a much higher appreciate for the delicious bacon that I enjoy with my breakfast, and all of the hard work that is required at each step of the process. A huge thank you to the Iowa Pork Producers Association for having me along on this #IATourDePork.