AMES, Iowa -- For nearly 50 years, the swine teaching farm at Iowa State University has been helping students learn about pork production. The farm was built to provide Iowa State students with pigs to be used as part of their education and that continues to play a big role today, according to farm manager Jacob Myers.
“The teaching farm has all stages of production from breeding to farrowing to finishing,” Myers said. “As far as how it’s run, the operation is similar to a commercial production, and that’s vital to help prepare students for understanding how today’s operations are structured. Experience is a big thing in the industry, it’s huge!”
Begun in the mid-1960s as an entirely outdoor operation, the farm started moving toward indoor production 30 years later. Today all phases of production are in indoor facilities. In 2012, the farm was named Allen E. Christian Swine Teaching Farm in honor of Al Christian who managed the facilities for more than 50 years.
The primary goal of the farm is to educate students about current pork production operations, and this includes student workers at the farm, Myers said. The more modern facilities and having all stages of production at one place are great tools for achieving this goal.
“Animal science graduate student Greg Krahn is the swine teaching farm herdsman. He looks after the pigs and handles day-to-day functions of the farm,” Myers said. “There also are three undergraduate students who help care for the pigs and complete daily chores.”
Myers, who has been manager since April 2012, said he gets enough inquiries about employment at the teaching farm that he hasn’t had to post a job opening yet. Although he is limited to the number of employees he can sensibly hire, he doesn’t turn away those with little or no experience.
“I pair inexperienced hires with an experienced student worker to help them learn about the operations of the farm,” he said. “The experienced students learn some leadership skills and those new to the farm learn correct procedures for everything they do.”
Dan Harmsen, junior in animal science, started working at the swine teaching farm about a year ago after he inquired about employment. Harmsen said he and his coworkers trade off daily duties that consist of “everything a normal worker on a farrow-to-finish swine farm should expect.”
For example, a typical day starts at 7 a.m. with morning chores of feeding and checking pigs. From there, employees may treat pigs, do heat checks, breed sows or do facility maintenance such as power washing. The evening chores of feeding and pig checking start around 5 p.m.
Because employees work in between their scheduled classes, they may only be at the farm for a couple hours at a time. They often try to complete their daily tasks together.
“Having a second opinion when making a decision can be the difference between a right and wrong decision,” Harmsen said.
Although Harmsen brought experience from a commercial farrow-to-finish swine operation to the swine teaching farm, he said he has gained new skills.
“I have had the opportunity to help make breeding decisions on the farm, and therefore directly influence our school and farm’s reputation and successes in raising quality purebred showstock and seedstock,” Harmsen said.
The Allen E. Christian Swine Teaching Farm has won state and national awards for its well-known high quality meat-producing Berkshire pigs. The farm sells pigs to market and as breeding stock from their 200 litters per year. Staff and students take pigs to the National Barrow Show, Pork Expo and the Iowa State Fair, gaining experience in different venues in the industry.
“Many students help with these events, even if they aren’t employed on the farm,” Myers said.
A variety of opportunities, from farrowing to ventilation to marketing, are available for any Iowa State student who wants to learn about modern pork production at the farm. Those interested in learning more can contact Myers by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 515-290-3742.
In the hoop building at the ISU Swine Teaching Farm, Dan Harmsen carefully evaluates the health of the 6-month-old pigs that will soon be loaded up and taken to market. The feeder pigs are familiar with people because they are routinely checked twice a day. Photo by Elizabeth Sample.