Sow numbers soar in South Dakota

Farm Forum

Producing pork puts a smile on the face of Lenny Gross.

Especially these days when pig numbers are up and growing in his home state. Sow numbers in South Dakota increased by 15,000 in the first three months of this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The USDA report said South Dakota now has a breeding herd of 190,000. South Dakota State University Extension swine specialist and professor Bob Thaler pointed out that the state has not seen 190,000 sows since 1995.

“It is awesome,” said Gross, the veteran hog manager for the award-winning Spring Creek Colony, tucked just inside the South Dakota border in McPherson County near Forbes, N.D. “It is good for farmers and good for the state’s economy.”

Using a conservative number of 25 pigs per sow each year, Thaler said the additional 15,000 sows will produce 375,000 pigs annually. And those additional market hogs will consume more than 3.5 million bushels of corn and 21,300 tons of soybean meal.

Industry numbers estimate that each sow generates $2,400 in economic activity annually.

Generally, the hog industry been a consistent, annual money-maker in the state for at least the last 25 years, according to some producers. But pork growth in South Dakota may not be linked directly to market prices, which Gross said recently have been around 50 cents per pound.

Producers like Gross and his Spring Creek teammates have seen better and worse prices. Also a member of the executive board of the South Dakota Pork Producers Council, Gross listed some contributing factors to the higher pig numbers:

• Cheaper feed costs, such as corn. Plus, producers are able to use the nutrients generated in the waste from their own herds to reduce fertilizer costs on their lands.

• An ability to find a labor force with a strong work ethic. That is also tied to schools that are producing productive students choosing careers in the pork industry.

“Schools like South Dakota State and its swine unit and the vo-tech schools in Watertown and Mitchell are doing a good job,” Gross said. “They have good training programs that are getting young people involved in our industry.”

Another reason for a willing and able workforce is colonies like Spring Creek. Gross said about 70 percent of the state’s swine production is generated on colonies. And colony children learn a multitude of agricultural skills through hands-on experience.

“By the time they are 15, they know a lot,” Gross said.

He also credited his team and the whole colony for Spring Creek’s successful hog operation, pointing out there are many pieces that complete the puzzle, from infrastructure to the crops that are raised to feed the herd.

• South Dakota hog operations are more spread out, which makes disease transfer less likely due to isolation of herds, Gross said.

• South Dakota has a large processing plant for producers to market their pigs in Sioux Falls with other packers located nearby in Minnesota and Iowa. Two more harvesting facilities are scheduled to be open in Iowa in the next couple of years.

• The South Dakota Pork Producers Council has done a good job of promoting its product and lobbying for its industry. Gross was one of more than 130 pork producers from 20 states who recently flew to Washington, D.C., to lobby lawmakers on important pork industry issues.

It is an exciting time to be in the pork industry in this state, he said.

“South Dakota is 11th in the United States in pork production, and we’re No. 1 in pigs produced per sow. If everything keeps going the way it has been in the next year or so, hopefully we’ll crack the top 10.”

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After a lifetime of working with hogs, Lenny Gross has seen many industry changes, including:

• The rise of technology and the tracking of minute details that were once never thought of.

• An increase in pigs born per sow, leading to less sows and more pigs.

• The use and development of artificial insemination compared to the days of letting boars breed a herd.

• The development of marketing strategies and watching markets worldwide.

• Increased bio-security. Unauthorized personnel are not allowed in barns, and workers who are take precautions to prevent diseases.