Living High on the Hog
A passion for pigs on her in-laws’ swine operation makes way for a new generation of pork producers.
Welcome to Brenneman Pork. I am so glad to be sharing my experiences on this farm and with this family, especially during the busy holiday season. I farm with my husband, Tim, and his family. We have been married for 12 years and we have two sons: TJ, 10, and Peyton, 5. They are living my dream of growing up a farm kid. I’m a city girl, born and raised in La Grange Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. As a kid, I never even drove past a farm or gave a second thought to the people who raise our food.
When I was 8, I started horseback riding lessons at a stable in the city, and I fell head over heels for those hay-burning beasts. That’s where my love for large animals flourished. I worked at that barn throughout high school and even managed to buy my own horse. After graduating from high school, I attended Iowa State University where I majored in animal science. My horse traveled with me to college and stayed with me all the way through. It was at
ISU that I met Tim. We got married and decided to farm with his parents upon graduating. My family was stunned. They had never been on a farm, either. But we planted roots in Iowa and are growing our family at the heart of Brenneman Pork.
Brenneman Pork is a large family farm that tends to more than 29,000 sows and markets about 750,000 hogs every year. It wasn’t always this way. In 1980 Tim’s parents, Rob and Char Brenneman, started the farm with just a few sows and a few acres of land. They survived some of farming’s toughest years and hit highs and lows. Yet they persevered, learning from their failures as well as their successes. By the time Tim and I returned to the farm, the operation had grown to about 5,000 sows, and Rob and Char were ready to add more family to the business.
These past 12 years have been a whirlwind of growth and learning experiences. Multiple members of the family work full time on the
farm every single day. I specialize in day-one care, which is basically like running a maternity ward for pigs. Lately I have branched out to connect with our growers—the caregivers who are responsible for the individual barns in which our market hogs are raised. I feel it is important to be well-rounded and well-versed in all aspects of the farm so that I can understand the big picture of how things work here.
This farm never stops moving and there is never a dull moment, but we also never stop thinking ahead. That makes us who we are today.
Pig Health and Christmas Hams
Dec. 1 It was a struggle this morning getting the boys ready for the day, but I finally had them delivered to the sitter on time. After a morning in the office, Tim and I spoke with the herd vet and truck wash staff to discuss pig health and trailerwashing inspections. We also visited barns that had just received new batches of pigs. We meet with the caregivers to make sure the new digs are clean, warmed and ready to go when the pigs arrive. It can be difficult on colder winter days to get everything set just right. After work was done, it was time to get TJ to basketball practice and Peyton and me to the grocery store.
Dec. 2 I worked on a presentation
I’ll give next week at the AgChat Foundation conference in Kansas City, Missouri. AgChat empowers farmers and ranchers to connect communities through social media platforms. I also checked three barns with awesome new pigs that came in big and healthy. I can’t wait to see how they settle in.
Dec. 3 Because my husband and I both work at the farm, we make it a point to get away every now and then. We also try to avoid talking about pigs—at least for a little bit. Tonight we went to an ’80s-themed birthday party for a friend. It was a real hoot. Dec. 4 Beautiful snow coated our fields this morning. Peyton ran in as excited as Christmas morning. So after feeding the horses and chickens, we got the snowmobiles out and played. The flakes were so big and fluffy, they fell as if in a snow globe. It was truly a pictureperfect farm Sunday.
Dec. 5 A high school senior came to the farm today for job-shadowing. She wants to attend Iowa State and major in animal science with a focus on nutrition. We put on protective suits (a biosecurity protocol to help prevent the spread of disease) and toured the whole thing. I explained how each area of specialization on a farm this size is hugely important. I also explained the importance of every step we take to raise a healthy pig. She was impressed.
Dec. 6 Tonight we have our growers meeting, so it’s going to be a busy day. After a morning of consulting with our staff veterinarian and production manager, I sneaked away to see my newborn piglets in the maternity ward. Sometimes when farm life gets chaotic, I work with my animals to relax my nerves.
The kids and I hurried to complete homework assignments before 90 growers arrived. After a dinner featuring pork chops on a stick, our veterinarian told the growers about new antibiotic guidelines slated for January. A few speeches later, we distributed Christmas hams to show the growers gratitude for being part of the Brenneman Pork family.
Dec. 7 After choring the animals, I finished packing (which I hate with a passion) and hit the road for Kansas City to attend the AgChat conference. After a 4½ hour drive, I reached the hotel and went to my room to finish my presentation.
AgChat Chums and Cold Weather
Dec. 8 My best friend, Cristen, and I presented different topics today at the AgChat conference. I did a breakout session about using farm imagery to tell compelling stories; Cristen talked about using Snapchat as a platform to talk about daily farm life. It’s wonderful to be able to share a passion with your closest friend. I am truly blessed.
Dec. 9 After breakfast I listened to one last panel discussion—some amazing “agvocates” offering tips on sharing the farm story in a more effective way. As with similar meetings, this one was amazing for networking and stirring up new ideas. However, I looked forward to getting home and seeing my boys and my critters again.
Dec. 10 One of the coldest mornings yet. The water buckets were frozen again. All of the animals were out
awaiting the full power of the sun to appear so they could bask in it.
We gathered at Rob and Char’s house in the evening for an informal Christmas with all of the extended family. There are 15 cousins on Tim’s mom’s side of the family, and Tim is the oldest. This Christmas event always gets a little crazy.
Dec. 11 We woke up on a mission: Finish chores quickly so we could get to Tim’s grandma’s house in time for another Christmas gettogether. We needed to strip down the horse stalls and fill them with fresh bedding before the next cold snap arrived. We finished up and drove to Char’s parents’ house for an evening rich in traditions we
love, including making homemade caramels and the blessing of the “peppermint pig.”
Dec. 12 Some nutrition-company reps visited today. We looked at two barns of pigs at different ages to see how they were growing using the company’s feed formulations.
This evening had us running—up to Iowa City for TJ’s indoor baseball practice and then off to the barn for chores. A cold snap drove wind chills below zero. It’s not fun taking care of water buckets and mucking out stalls at these temps, but at least the chores provided a good workout. Dec. 14 After meeting with our production manager, we visited some pig barns. It was crucial to make sure the heaters were working since the temperature hovered at about 10 degrees and more snow was in the forecast.
Cold Snaps and Heat Waves
Dec. 15 I briskly did my morning chores in the bitter cold. I visited some empty barns to make certain they were warm, clean and dry. It’s a challenge to get barns warmed up in such frigid conditions with no body heat from the pigs to help out. Dec. 16 I had a lot of pigs to check on today. Jeremy, our production manager, and Dr. John, our on-staff veterinarian, came along to visit the barns. It’s helpful to get several sets of eyes—and different points of view—when looking at pigs.
This morning, TJ and Tim left early for a basketball tournament. Peyton and I stayed behind to clean the house. He’s a great helper. Wind chills are predicted to reach about -30 degrees tonight, so after choring the horses and chickens I locked them in the barn. We have to be very careful that all of the animals are protected from the wind and cold. Tim and I drove out to the Washington County Pork Board Christmas party in a blizzard, but we made it and had a great time.
Dec. 18 When we woke up, the wind chill was minus 20 degrees. Now that’s bitter! As evening rolled in, Peyton and I visited a barn that is scheduled to get new pigs. (Ever since Peyton could walk he has had a passion for pigs.) Fortunately the barn was warming up just fine. Those pigs will enjoy a snug new home despite what Mother Nature is throwing at us.
Dec. 21 It was almost 40 degrees here today, a 60-degree warming from two days ago. A heat wave. We even had to change some ventilation at one of the barns to accommodate the warm-weather swing. In the afternoon, Jeremy and I met with pig caregivers who were excited to be receiving their first set of Brenneman Pork pigs. They had outfitted their barn with a hightech controller to improve the ventilation and needed to go over a few things. Technology is wonderful, but it definitely comes with a learning curve.
Sick Days and Holidays
Dec. 23 Peyton came down with a nasty cold, cough and fever just in time for the holidays. I had planned to visit a lot of pigs to stay ahead of the holiday weekend, but my duties as a mom called me instead.
Dec. 24 The stockings are hung by the chimney with care, and the kids are buzzing, although Peyton is still sick with a slight fever. Tonight we went to my in-laws’ house for dinner with the Brenneman side of the family. It was our first Christmas since Tim’s grandpa passed away, so it was a pretty special one. There were many stories, a lot of laughter and a few tears. We are blessed to be a part of such a large, caring family.
A cold snap drove wind chills below zero. It’s not fun taking care of water buckets and mucking out stalls at these temps, but at least the chores provided a good workout.
Dec. 25 It nearly reached 50 degrees today—which is perfect for doing chores. We opened presents at home, then headed to Rob and Char’s house for Christmas with Tim’s sisters and their kids. We feasted on some amazing prime rib. After that it was off to my dad’s house near Chicago. We ate dinner and opened gifts for the third time. After a day filled with driving and celebrating, we crashed hard.
Dec. 27 This morning Dad, the kids and I trekked up north to our cabin in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
(Tim went home yesterday.) The kids were so excited during the drive. We found about 8 inches of fresh snow there—plenty for the snowmobiles we brought along from Iowa. Dad and I hauled in plenty of firewood, since the cabin’s heat comes solely from the fireplace and old cast-iron stove. By the time the sun set, we were all exhausted.
Dec. 29 My sister arrived with her boys and we all went on snowmobile rides, including our traditional night ride. When I was little, I always loved firing up the snowmobiles on a cold night and riding through the woods by headlights—so peaceful, yet a little eerie at the same time. I have been coming up to the cabin since I was born, and it makes me happy to give these same magical memories to my boys.
Dec. 31 We closed out our cabin visit with a beautiful winter scene. About 5 inches of snow had fallen during the night and left the trees painted white. We headed back to Dad’s house, where we spent New Year’s Eve before driving back to Iowa on New Year’s Day. We celebrated 2017’s arrival with a fun balloon drop, noisemakers and ice cream.
All in all, we have been blessed to have spent such a great year with family and friends.
There were many stories, a lot of laughter and a few tears. We are blessed to be a part of such a large, caring family.
Erin Brenneman smiles as son TJ gets a sniff from Dr. Watson, one of the family’s two massive Saint Bernards.
Peyton Brenneman feeds his beloved chickens. He loves hugging them and collecting their eggs.
Erin Brenneman visits a toasty warm barn on a frigid day to check in on some new pigs.
Erin and Tim Brenneman met while studying at Iowa State University.
At the Brenneman’s farm, pigs are everywhere, even on the Christmas tree.
Erin Brenneman pets Boots, one of her horses.