Southeast Missouri farm raises Berkshire pigs for higher-quality meat

Sunday, June 1, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

OAK RIDGE — The middle of the country — surrounded by the smell of manure, kicked-up dust and the sound of pigs grunting and squealing — is not where most choose to spend their downtime.

But after demand for a particular type of pork grew, Brian Strickland and Luke Aufdenberg joined forces to do just that.

Strickland has operated a pig farm in Oak Ridge for about six years. Aufdenberg operates another near his home in Burfordville and has done so for about three years. The two breed Berkshire pigs for their higher-quality meat, which they market and sell under the name Byrd Creek Farms.

Scattered throughout Strickland's farm recently were piglets, some 6 weeks old, others a couple weeks old and even a day old. They traveled in packs, stopping and scattering at the same time. The ones that had seen daylight only once before huddled together in a hut, their protective mother nudging them along the dirt.

Strickland said he works toward having new piglets once every month to keep the farm's supply steady. About 20 sows and boars make up the farm's breeding stock, and 30 to 50 piglets are running around at any given time.

There are 25 hog and pig farms in Cape Girardeau County, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2012 Census of Agriculture. In 2007, there were 39 hog and pig farms in the county.

The number of hogs and pigs in Cape Girardeau County farms dropped from 5,353 to 1,252 between 2007 and 2012, according to the census.

Farmers who got out of pig farming and haven't found their way back are commodity farmers, Strickland said. He and Aufdenberg said they are invested in a niche market. The two raise a specialty product that can be sold at higher prices, Strickland said, as opposed to those in the commodity market, who raise pigs to be sold to major distributors such as Tyson Foods and Hormel.

The Berkshire pig is historically known for its better meat quality, he said.

The breed has been around forever and evolved into a better meat-quality animal, Aufdenberg said.

Commodity pig farmers breed for lean, less flavorful meat, whereas the Berkshire breed always has meat that makes it different.

"Its juiciness, its tenderness, its flavor, are all just traits of the Berkshire breed that make it more desirable and something that chefs have come to recognize, and (they) are willing to pay more to have it on their menus," Strickland said.

After Strickland and Aufdenberg's piglets are weaned from their mothers, they are moved to a property in Tilsit where they stay for about seven months, or until they reach about 275 pounds. The pigs then are taken to Wenneman Meat Market in St. Libory, Ill., for butchering, then to Stonie's Sausage Shop in Perryville for cutting and packaging. The meat is delivered to a distributor in Memphis, Tenn., that sells the pork to restaurants.

Some farmers are able to sell their meat directly to restaurants, Strickland said. But because of their jobs and families, Strickland and Aufdenberg let the distributor handle the transactions.

Pork prices are reaching record highs after the porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, PEDv, killed as many as 7 million pigs in the U.S. in the past year.

The National Pork Producers Council estimates the virus has killed 10 percent of the country's pigs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and other estimates are lower, projecting losses of 5 to 7 percent, according to a recent National Geographic article.

The virus first appeared in the U.S. this past May in Ohio, the article said, and spread to 30 states. The virus is unlikely to pose a direct threat to humans, health experts say.

The council estimates the price of pork could increase 10 to 12 percent.

When they aren't with their pigs, Strickland and Aufdenberg work regular hours at jobs for a main source of income. Aufdenberg works in maintenance for the Jackson R-2 School District, and Strickland owns Strickland Engineering in Jackson with his father and brother.

Strickland, a father of five, said farming alone does not provide enough income to support a family and the expenses that come with one, such as health insurance and orthodontics. If Berkshire pigs still are a worthwhile venture later in life, Strickland said he will continue raising them.

"Most people that are in farming enjoy it. If that could be their only job, they would enjoy doing just that," he said, though he enjoys his engineering job. "This just has a certain satisfaction and fulfillment you get from working with animals and outdoors."

Although pig farming poses its own time commitment and occasional stress, Strickland sees it as a getaway from dealing with people and sitting behind a desk.

Aufdenberg said he sees his pigs almost like his children.

"I've just always enjoyed pigs a lot," he said. "It's neat watching them grow."

His father and grandfather raised hogs, and doing so has always been a "family thing," he said.

Having the chance to spend time with his family while working on the farm is one of his favorite parts of breeding Berkshire pigs.

Aufdenberg has a 3-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, and, much like when he was growing up, his children are learning the ropes when it comes to raising pigs, whether it's catching or numbering them.

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