BLUE EARTH - Fifty years ago, it was common for farms to have a few chickens, hogs and cattle.
Today, the farm scene has changed dramatically. Farmers specialize in one kind of livestock, and even in one portion of raising them.
Julie Becker, co-owner of LB Pork, spoke recently to the Blue Earth Kiwanis about changes in the pork industry. Becker is a speaker for the National Pork Board Speakers' Bureau and a past president of Martin County Pork Producers.
Her theme: Pork is more than just the "other white meat."
"The idea is to get out to the local community and talk about how it's changed through the years," she said. "It's because of the consumers. They demanded to have a lean, nutritious product. It was in the late '70s when people became aware of the fat in their diet."
Different technologies have been used to trim the fat. A U.S. Department of Agriculture study in 2006 found that a pork tenderloin is now as lean as a skinless chicken breast.
"The six most common cuts are 16 percent leaner than 15 years ago and have 27 percent less saturated fat," Becker said. "There have been some drastic changes."
Two areas came into focus for producing leaner hogs: genetics and nutrition. Animals are bred with qualities the industry and consumers are looking for. Hogs also are fed a prescribed diet with the right amount of nutrients and protein.
Care of pigs also has changed. Before, they were kept outside. Given Minnesota winters, Becker said, it made it more difficult for people to care properly for pigs. Now, hogs spend most of their lives indoors, where they can be kept warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Pigs are divided into separate holding areas, where they had been lumped together before. Different areas include breeding, farrowing, a sow-gestation barn, a nursery barn and a finishing barn.
"Each of the barns are kept very clean," Becker said. "They are power-washed and disinfected. Cleanliness is very important in today's operations."
Indoor care also helps producers keep an eye on their biggest challenge - disease. Becker said disease in southern Minnesota is something particularly challenging because of the quantity of hog operations.
Since farmers have generally gone away from diversified livestock farms, more changes have taken place.
"This is the era of specialization," Becker said. "We have been a farrow-to-finish operation until this year. We decided it's time."
She and her husband wanted to find a way to spend more time with their children and now have two independent operations.
There are generally three options for hog producers: a start-to-finish operation; specialized operations with either breeding and weening, or feeding to market; or a third option of specialized markets - producing specifically for restaurants.
"The great thing about doing the specialization is that anyone can plug into the industry in all different places," Becker said.
The pork industry has a strong eye to quality. It has implemented a Pork Quality Assurance Plus program, which all Becker's employees go through. Anyone moving or handling pigs goes through a transport-quality assurance program. This year, Hormel required all its producers to not only go through those two programs, but also to have a third-party evaluation.
"It gives us a way to prove to (consumers) that we really care," Becker said, "and that we're taking care of our animals."
Becker showed statistics for Faribault County's pork production. Farmers sold 575,000 market hogs in 2008, generating $74 million in income. The report showed that production generated $207 million in the Faribault County economy because of spin-off from the gross income. Hogs in the county consumed 6 million bushels of corn and 2.2 million bushels of soybeans. The county ranks ninth in the state in hog production.