Women on the Farm: I dig the pig!
By PAT LAWRENCE
Connie Surber takes her pork seriously.
She takes your pork seriously, too, because she’s not only a pig farmer, “I’m a bacon farmer!” It’s a big job. The average American consumes over 50 pounds of pork each year.
Connie says, “Pork from our pigs is served in homes and restaurants all across the country, and we’ve exported our pigs to countries including Mexico, Russia and China.” She reconciles the dual nature of raising pigs with a full commitment to both sides of it. “This is a business, an increasingly sophisticated one based on genetics and biotechnology. Improving feed efficiency and , increasing market weight are parts of the business but not all of it. We’re also caretakers of animals that depend on us for their every need; we’re responsible for their well-being. And as long as they’re with us, they get our best efforts to keep them safe, healthy and content.”
Working with PIC, an international supplier of genetically superior pig breeding stock, Connie says they’re always improving. “Our pigs are a blend of about five breeds. We want the best mothers with the best milk.” Most importantly, they implement PIC’s multifaceted programs and protocols to ensure healthy herds. “Our two ‘mother’ barns, two isolation barns and six finishing barns, were all established in bio-secure locations with the healthiest pigs available. Bio-secure sites must be constructed acres away from any other pig facility, so we have barns in Highland, Fayette, Clinton, and Brown counties. Every person who enters a pig barn, worker or visitor, must register, shower completely and change clothes, inside and out, every time. Towels, socks and boxers are used once, overalls are washed daily, rubber boots are kept outside the control room. We don’t even go to fairs where there are other pigs. The protocols are essential bio-security measures to keep pigs healthy.”
Connie and her husband John both grew up on Highland County farms. High school sweethearts, she was head majorette, he was in the marching band. They married in 1975 and John began selling for a local feed business. They raised four children and in 1999, bought the feed business. Connie says, “When Airborne came to Clinton County, farmers sold their pigs and raised grain and beans instead, opting for steady employment and health insurance. We scrambled for customers, going farther and farther away. John heard about this program for raising pigs inside and presented it to the farmers he knew. Finally, one said, ‘If it’s such a good idea, why don’t you do it?’ So, we did. We built the first barn in Highland County in 2001.” Connie admits her first day was a little overwhelming. “We took in about 300 baby pigs, but we learned everything we needed to know, and we could always call for help. I did most of the daily care; Shawn, our oldest son, helped, too. It was a great fit. So we decided to do another one.”
Within a year, Connie’s daughter, daughter in law and future granddaughter had joined her in the barns.
Traci Surber, the youngest daughter, is working on her doctorate in clinical psychology at Wright State University, but she worked her way through college, and a masters degree, as a pig farmer. “Even when I took night classes, I took care of the pigs in the morning. I always liked it. Pigs are smart and clean. And, boys and girls are so different. The girls are survivors! Other students are amazed that I actually worked with pigs and that I found it rewarding. I’m never sure they make the connection between pigs in the barn and dinner on the table.”
Shawn’s wife Rebecca was starting a family and wanted to stay close to home. When the second barn was built, Connie suggested she try taking care of the pigs. Rebecca says, “I’d never even seen a pig up close before I started-and I was pregnant. The first day was a little intimidating; adult pigs are big and can be aggressive. They have to get to know you and know what you’re going to do. That’s why we walk each pen every day. Plus, we can check for injury or illness, see who needs extra attention or feed.” Over the past 11 years, in the finishing barns that house up to 2400 animals, Rebecca has learned plenty about pigs. “They hate having their tummies touched and don’t like strange pigs in their pen. Pigs have a morning routine just like people. ”
With more than a decade of successfully managing not just pigs but also the meticulous testing, record keeping and reporting involved, Rebecca has been selected by PIC to administer a pilot boar program. Since she oversees multiple barns, Rebecca has been accustomed to showering in and out several times a day. She says, “I’m the cleanest girl in the county!” Under the stringent protocols of her new barn, however, other pig sites are off limits. “I’ll just have to keep up by phone-and over family dinners.”
As a baby, Rebecca’s daughter, Brooklinn had special permission to be in the barn. She showers in and out just like the adults, changing into kid-sized overalls and boots kept on site. She helps baby pigs adapt to their new surroundings and to being around people. “It makes them better mommas,” she says. Her job is to help them find the water, and make sure everyone gets plenty of the special feed they call gruel. “They love it, it’s a big treat for them. It’s the only time they act ‘piggy’!”
Pigs deliver 3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days after they’re bred. “So,” Connie says, “we know how many babies we’ll be getting and when. We receive about 600 pigs a week. Baby pigs come in weighing about 14 pounds. They go to 260–265 in six months. As they age, they’re separated and the number of pigs in each pen is reduced. Pigs go through nine stages of digestion and feed is formulated especially for their age group. At different growth stages, pigs have different temperature requirements, so barns are partitioned. Older pigs need cooler temperatures; young ones need to stay warm. They all have 24 hour access to food and fresh water-adult pigs drink up to 14 gallons of water a day. The barns have slotted floors and waste is collected for manure management. ”
Despite the size of their enterprise, Connie says they own little property. “Farmers let us use their land to put up a building and they also benefit from the manure management program. As farmers, we want the land to be better tomorrow than it was today. People unfamiliar with pig farming expect the worst. One neighbor put up a ‘For Sale’ sign when we started construction, but took it down when they realized there was no smell, no noise, just a plain building with feed bins.”
She says, “Since they don’t have sweat glands, years ago wallowing in mud was how pigs stayed cool, but it also exposed them to worms and parasites. Delivering babies in the cold, they often lost half their litter. Here, their environment is monitored and electronically sensored, temperature-controlled, ventilated and cleaned and disinfected regularly. We mist them in the summer or add fans, or drop the exterior curtains for more air movement. We lose very few. Before pigs are transported, every truck is washed, disinfected and dried. Drivers wear clean clothes and boots and are trained in stress-free handling and to minimize transit time. A lot of our pigs become mommas, but many become ham sandwiches. That’s how it is. But under our care, they’re relaxed and comfortable.”
Every pig that comes in, eventually goes out. “Customers may want a 50 pound girl or a 250 pound mother. Some request specific genetic strains. And, we’re our own best customer!”
The Surber enterprise continues to grow and change constantly, with new buildings and programs, new biotechnology and genetic lines and new markets and customers. Connie is on the board of the Ohio Pork producers, the only woman, and actively supports the Feed the World program, attends pork producer conferences and was featured in a television commercial promoting pork farmers. An enthusiastic spokesman for the pork industry, she often speaks publicly. “I get to share recipes and tell everyone they don’t have to overcook pork anymore!”
The Surbers oldest daughter, Shannon lives in Oregon and works in medical administration, but she wears her ‘I Dig the Pig’ t-shirts with pride. Everyone else in the family is or has been involved in the management or transportation of pigs, including Traci’s husband, James, of Ag Haulers. For fun, Connie says, “We all get together for dinner. I have an outdoor kitchen and we love, love, love to cook. Rebecca and Shawn are certified Kansas City Barbecue Contest judges and Shawn has a catering business, High on the Hog. Our son Todd used to truck pigs, now he handles maintenance-and he plays with a bluegrass group. We love helping with the barbecue competitions or listening to the band or watching James in a truck pull. Taking care of pigs has been the best thing for our family.”
(Pat Lawrence is a contributor to ACRES of Southwest Ohio.)