Liv­ing High on the Hog

A pas­sion for pigs on her in-laws’ swine op­er­a­tion makes way for a new gen­er­a­tion of pork pro­duc­ers.

Farm & Ranch Living - - GRASSROOT VENTURES - Story by Erin Bren­ne­man Well­man, Iowa

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.

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