By EMILIE THIESSEN, Staff Writer
Pam Gierke always knew she wanted to own a farm of her own, but coming from a German background, owning a farm wasn’t initially in the cards for Pam.
“My dad is very German, the boys are given farms when they graduate and the girls go off to college and get married,” she said. “I wanted a farm, but I was a daughter so I went and got a job.”
Pam worked for a tax agency in St. Cloud for two years before her oldest brother Mark asked Pam’s husband Bob to work on the family farm with him.
After asking Bob to help with the farm operation, Mark parted ways with the farm, something Pam said he had always wanted to do, and started his own snowmobile dealership, Centre Sports in Sauk Centre. Pam and Bob were happy to pick up where her brother left off.
“My brother didn’t want to be a farmer, so I always kind of thank my brother for my start in farming … I really wanted to get back into pigs,” Pam said.
Gierke Farms, a high health hog farm headquartered in Villard, was born in 2005. Pam and Bob began to fully implement high health standards in 2007, years before high health standards would really become popular, Pam said.
Gierke Farms is considered a multiplier farm with Genetiporc, an international swine genetics company that has pioneered high health hog breeding. The main tenant of high health hog raising is biosecurity, meaning at every step of the process from conception to slaughter, Genetiporc animals are kept isolated from other herds and are kept in meticulously clean environments. Even twhe trucks used to transport Genetiporc animals must be kept at high health standards.
“But the number one thing is having the pigs inside,” Pam said.
Every visitor to the barns owned by Gierke Farms must shower in before seeing or working with the pigs and must shower out when leaving. Pam said all of their 30 employees are very familiar with high health practices, which may include throwing away shoes and frequent car washes after visiting another farm or a fair that features livestock. Pam said all the hard work has paid off, however.
“We have been disease free since we started in 2007,” she said. “We have never had a break in our health status, but we are vigilant to a fault.”
Gierke Farms purchases their gilts from Genetiporc itself, which are then raised and bred in their gilt maturation barn. Pam said having the new pigs in a separate barn for no less than 53 days after receiving allows the workers to do thorough blood work before they come into contact with other pigs at the farm.
Once the pigs have reached the appropriate age, the gilts are then transferred into the farrowing barn, where they will eventually give birth to baby pigs.
The finishing barn is where baby pigs go after being weaned from their mother, and are then sold to other commercial barns in the Genetiporc system. Commercial barns then sell the pigs to larger meat packing facilities.
“The whole idea was you spend all this money up front, you are going to have healthier pigs, better performance, better gains. It really has worked,” Pam said.
Randy Whitt, customer service manager at the Genetiporc office in Alexandria, said the core benefits of raising high health animals deal with reductions in expenditures and increased yield.
“[Having high health animals] limits expenses on vaccinations and medications, improves performance and decreases death loss,” he said. “The Gierkes maintain a herd free of most common hog diseases.”
Pam said she has seen other hog farmers loose significant portions of their animals to disease, while their animals have remained 100 percent disease free since they began.
High health farm techniques have come under increased scrutiny in the past few years, however, as many opponents to the practice believe pigs should not be exclusively kept indoors, Pam said. Many individuals have come to both her and Bob with their concerns.
“I think that is partly our fault as farmers,” Pam said. “We maybe didn’t do a good job of educating the public about changes that are happening and why they are happening.”
Pam said she continues to assure skeptics that her employees provide everything the animals may need, including attention, and give them plenty of space in the barns and healthy food.
Pam said she hopes high health standards will continue to rise in popularity as farmers, like her and her husband, continue to educate the public about the benefits. The backlash, she said, is a normal consequence of a growing, evolving industry.
“Whenever you have an industry that is growing or changing, you have growing pains,” she said.