Pork production: Homegrown company

Iowa Select Farms continues growth within pork industry in Iowa

-Submitted photo
Air is pushed to one end of the pig barn through the barn’s tunnel ventilation system into an electrostatic fence. This is a new technology to mitigate odor.

WEST DES MOINES — Jeff and Deb Hansen, owners of Iowa Select Farms, always wanted their company to be an all-Iowa company and have stuck to those intentions all of these years.

“They are third-generation farmers right out of high school in Iowa Falls,” said Jen Sorenson, communications director for Iowa Select Farms. “They have been farming for a long time in the state of Iowa and that is something they are really proud of.”

According to information provided by Iowa Select Farms, the Hansens began their farming career when they were married in 1976. They converted an old barn at his dad’s farm for farrowing, bought three sows from a local sale barn and started their own farrowing operation.

After growing their herd to 50 sows, Jeff Hansen sought better equipment to reduce labor and modernize their farm. He incorporated raised decks for the sows and also began selling the flooring system to area producers.

Soon after, he founded Modern Hog Concepts, an equipment supply company that eventually grew to include manufacturing facilities and offering custom turnkey building packages to producers across the Midwest.

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Iowa Select Farms provides 8 percent of the total pork produced in the state and 10.5 percent of the hogs that are slaughtered and processed in the state.

In 1992, Hansen had a vision to build his own farms. After obtaining financing and a contract for his first 10,000 sows, Iowa Select Farms was born.

His dream was to build a farming business that would produce high-quality pork while benefiting Iowa through job and economic growth.

“They put Iowa in the name back in 1992 and made that commitment to stay in Iowa,” said Sorenson. “Jeff built everything in Iowa and kept it all in Iowa, which is good, economically, for this state.”

Fast forward 26 years and Iowa Select Farms has seen tremendous growth, with further expansion planned for the future.

Currently, Sorenson said Iowa Select Farms is aligned with, and markets its product to, JBS and Tyson Foods.

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According to an Iowa Select Farms economic summary, the total economic impact of Iowa Select Farms is $1.5 billion, with impact on processing at an additional $3.2 billion.

Their product is the end result of 800 farms and 1,200 full-time employees, whom Sorenson said all work and live in Iowa. The company also has 650 contracted Iowans that make up contract manure application teams, washing, loading, trucking and vaccination crews.

“They are all Iowans that are providing different homegrown Iowa impacts,” she said. “Not only are we an Iowa-based company, but Jeff and Deb grew the company. This is their home state, hometown. We have stayed within Iowa and, due to the nature of our business, our supplies and inputs are also local.”

“If you look at what we need to run a pig business, the No. 1 thing is feed. Soybeans and corn — that is all in Iowa.”

Sorenson said Iowa Select Farms does business with around 1,700 Iowa companies that represent 310 communities.

“Agriculture gives them an opportunity to have a full-time job with great benefits,” she said, adding that Iowa Select Farms has a current annual operation expense at $550 million.

Growth plan

Sorenson said Iowa Select Farms has a growth commitment that involves 10 new sow farms plus finishers.

Five of those are already completed, and the rest, she said, are in the permitting process. This growth plan is expected to be completed in 2019.

She added future annual operation expenses are expected to reach $750 million.

“These numbers show the impact we have across the state,” she said. “Looking at major costs, feed, labor and inputs that are all supplied by Iowa companies. So when you think about $750 million gushing through rural Iowa, it kind of puts it in perspective.”

Dermot Hayes, Iowa State University economics professor, recently conducted an economic study that was completed mid-December.

His findings show that livestock growth is a viable way to save rural communities.

“He came back with some pretty strong information for us, but his main message was counties without livestock are declining and counties with livestock are growing,” she said. “Livestock growth is a viable way to save rural communities. The important message for a county is that if you’re not growing livestock, you are missing out on $17 million of growth. For every 10 percent increase in livestock, there is a million dollar increase in county income.”

Sorenson said Iowa Select Farms currently has 207,000 sows throughout the company.

“We are growing, which is exciting,” she said, adding that Iowa Select Farms provides 8 percent of the total pork produced in the state and 10.5 percent of the hogs that are slaughtered and processed in the state.

This growth, she added, shows a commitment to grow in Iowa.

According to an Iowa Select Farms economic summary, the total economic impact of Iowa Select Farms is $1.5 billion, with impact on processing at an additional $3.2 billion.

The addition of new sow farms also brings the addition of new technology.

“The technology allows us to ward off diseases that impact the sow herd, and that would be the ability to filter on a large scale,” she said.

The positive pressure filtration system pulls the air into the farm and through two different filter banks.

“This is the same concept used in hospital surgical rooms and other filtered facilities,” Sorenson said. “As far as we know, we are the only hog producer that has done this on a large scale at the pace that we have.”

This system has previously been used on the company’s existing boar stud farms.

“That’s how we knew the technology works,” said Sorenson. “But it wasn’t available to purchase, construct and install these on the scale we needed until recently. Not only do we do this for all of our new sow farms, but we have gone back and remodeled older sow farms with the filters.”

She added Iowa Select Farms has made other improvements to its sow facilities.

“We took out gestation stalls and have now moved to open-penned gestation,” she said. “They have all LED lighting so the environment is nice and bright. The farrowing stalls are bigger because litters are bigger. We had to add square footage to these stalls.”

Much like the filtration system, the company is progressing with older structures, giving them the updates needed to keep them state-of-the-art as well.

For the finishing buildings, Sorenson said Iowa Select Farms has moved to tunnel ventilation-style barns, some of which feature a new electrostatic barrier.

“That has been a good move because we used to do natural curtain ventilation,” she said. “We switched to the tunnel and the advantage of that is we are mechanically pushing air flow down the length of the barn and out the inlets and outside is the electrostatic barrier. This is new. We have just adopted this practice.”

Sorenson said they have been pairing the new practice with the tunnel ventilation.

“It means the air is only coming out of one end of the barn,” she said. “Air gets pushed through the electrostatic fence and it knocks the dust down, and so the odor affixes itself to the dust particles. That’s how odor gets transmitted through the air — it has to attach itself to something. Knock the dust down. It is an odor mitigation strategy.”

This strategy, according to Sorenson, has been around awhile. It just hasn’t been widely used in the pork industry.

“We have committed to all of our finishers, going forward, will be tunnel ventilated with the electrostatic filter,” she said.

Other odor mitigation strategies many of their growers practice, Sorenson said, include windbreaks and tree lines.

“ISU has done research on those and they say those types of efforts really help reduce odor,” she said.

Nutrient management

“The nutrient management part of our business is such a phenomenal story, because manure is an organic, natural fertilizer that’s better for soil health and farmers love it because it increases their yields,” Sorenson said, “and any soil scientist will tell you that it improves soil tilth and the organic matter in the soil which is better for water quality.”

“We see it as a huge asset, and I know farmers do too.”

Sorenson said the nutrient management team oversees compliance, manure management planning, manure application and permitting.

Deb and Jeff Hansen Foundation

The Deb and Jeff Hansen Foundation is something many of the employees really love about being with Iowa Select Farms, according to Sorenson.

“We give back to the state a lot,” she said. “Especially to those communities where we have farms and people.”

The Deb and Jeff Hansen Foundation programs run throughout the year and include:

• Haul Out Hunger, which provided 28 tons of pork to Iowa food pantries

• Pork Care Packages were given to 12,000 Iowa active and reserve military members

• The Power Snack Program provided 18,000 kids on free or reduced lunch with coupons for sliced or shaved ham and bread

• Operation Christmas Meal fed 4,000 families

They also assist 600 families dealing with childhood cancer.

“That’s something we are really proud of, to be able to give back and being in only one state allows us to do that easily,” Sorenson said.

Pork industry in the state of Iowa

“I think there’s a couple of things at play,” said Sorenson. “When you look at the next eight to 10 years of outlook for grain farmers and that is not a favorable outlook for them. The ethanol boom is not as booming like it was years ago, and so those farmers are looking for ways to improve their bottom line and one of the ways to do that is looking at fertility that hog barns bring, looking at becoming a contract grower with a company like ours — that type of opportunity that brings the ability to bring another son or daughter into the family farm.”

“Farmers have to look at these ways to build their own businesses and livestock is one of the ways to do that.”

Although there is an economic downturn facing many producers, Sorenson believes agriculture in Iowa can still bring opportunities.

“I say the future is very exciting for a young person wanting to get into agriculture,” she said. “Not everyone owns land. Not everyone can get their hands on land. There’s not always a lot of land for sale. I think the future is bright for a young person that wants to be involved in agriculture, just in a different way, and that’s with a company like ours.”

The Iowa swine industry is growing, according to Sorenson.

“It’s an exciting time for Iowans to grasp ahold of an opportunity to see the ag sector grow, especially the livestock sector,” she said. “Don’t overlook the benefit livestock brings to the state of Iowa.”

Growth is coming, Sorenson said, with additional pork processing in the state of Iowa with the recent addition of the Seaboard Triumph Foods pork processing facility in Sioux City, and the soon-to-be online Prestage Foods of Iowa near Eagle Grove.

“The pork industry has always been a market-driven industry, and so if the packers have the shackle space, they are going to pull production up, so that creates a lot of opportunity for farmers,” she said. “Especially Iowa farmers, because Iowa is the best place to raise pigs.”

Sorenson said the huge competitive advantage of raising pigs in the state of Iowa comes with the state’s packer capacity and labor, but really revolves around soil quality.

“We have excellent soil quality that can grow the grain and take the manure,” she said.