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Best of NAMA 2020


Lannin Zoltenko, Hardy, Neb.
Age: 22
Education: Kansas State University, one year.
Farm Operation: 1,100-head capacity boar stud facility and semen delivery service, in partnership with wife and parents, Jim and Sherryl.
Family: Wife, Melanie; son, Chandler, 4.
Interests/hobbies: Fishing, hunting, computers and technology.
Personal motto: The choices you make determine the life you lead.
What he loves about farming: The opportunity to work with and serve our customers.
Farm background and current enterprise: I grew up with farrow-to-finish hogs and crops. My intent was to continue my education and move the operation in a more business-based direction, but the business changed radically. When we started out we had six customers, and we were doing 700-800 doses a week. Now, we are doing 8,500 doses a week for about 85 customers in Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Missouri, Iowa and southern Minnesota.

Iím not a believer in change for the sake of change, but I seek it out. The Pig Improvement Co., Franklin, Ky., a large swine genetics company, is very young. The average age, outside of senior management, is 28. In an industry like genetics, which is extremely competitive, weíre all making progress. Itís a matter of who can make it faster.

Weíre very strong in central management. Itís hard to let go of some of that control, but itís necessary to continue to grow and develop the business. We have about 30 employees, and by the end of this year, we will need somewhere along the line of 45.

In the hog industry, there are fewer and fewer people who have animal husbandry skills, which requires more personnel management. Thatís a challenge, especially for someone like my dad, because itís just part of him. He can walk into a farrowing room and tell you about the pigs by the way the air feels. I would take someone with no experience who wants to learn, over someone who has some experience and is bull-headed. Whatever they know about hogs, or animals in general, really doesnít apply here. Itís like nothing theyíve ever done before.

We are continuously more efficient with our animals in terms of space and personnel. We can run one person for every 200 sows now, as opposed to a 50 to one ratio several years ago. The dirt lots we started with involved a lot of labor. Now you walk into a gestation barn with 1,000 sows in one place. Thereís no straw to throw and thereís no feed to scoop. Itís not labor intensive - itís management intensive.

Weíre very technologically savvy here. All of the processing is driven from computers, and everything is completely automated and runs off of bar codes and databases. In the boar stud facility, the computer makes all the calculations for total sperm cells and determines the total number of doses you can achieve. There is a project in the final stages of development where the computer will evaluate the actual value of the semen, take a picture of it and track the motility as it moves. So itís not a subjective analysis, the computer does it every time.

"The hog industry has changed more in the last five years than it did in the first 150. In the next two years, we are going to see changes that absolutely dwarf that, because of the imple◊entation of biotechnology and molecular biology. For PIC, research and development is absolutely the most important thing done. Mapping the swine genome will accelerate the natural selection process. The number of gene markers that are currently in development is exciting, and itís hopefully something that will continue to enhance profitability to the producers and result in a safer product for consumers.

Resistance to e-coli is something that is a focus right now. It would be tremendous to sell a pork chop and you can guarantee that e-coli couldnít live there. AM

Aaron Holcombe, Jay, Okla.
Age: 30
Education: University of Arkansas, bachelorís degree in agribusiness.
Farm operation: Two 10,000-bird pullet breeding houses contracted with Peterson Farms; 40 head of beef cows; 40 acres rotated in wheat and green beans contracted to Allen Canning Co.; works as a bank lending officer.
Family: Wife, Tammie; daughter, Ashley, 3.
Interests/hobbies: Golf, hunting.
Personal motto: Iíd rather be happy than rich.
What he loves most about farming: The overall lifestyle.
Farm background and current enterprise: Working on the family farm was really the only job that I had through high school. A career that fit with farming was always important to me. Working at a bank in a rural area fits my background. I love the business part of it, I love numbers, and itís a way to stay closer to home. With our chickens, someone has to be there through the day. My wife and I couldnít both work off the farm.

Our poultry houses are totally environmentally controlled through a computer system. The heaters, the fans, the fogger system, the lights, the curtains - they are all managed through one computer control that handles everything.

Peterson Farms wants us to adopt technology and integrate it into our houses, but it also comes up with a payback plan. Most of that pays out in a three-, four- or five-year period. It makes financial sense because weíll have those upgrades for their longevity. Our houses are 10 years old, and they should last 25 years if they are properly maintained.

The poultry business returns a lot of dollars in a yearís time, and the cash flow will fool people. Many people strictly operate off of cash flow. They donít really pay attention to whether they are profitable or not. A lot of times you can cash flow something for two or three years and not be profitable and all of sudden it will catch up with you. All of a sudden, there is no operating capital.

The industry as a whole is a tighter, tougher industry. I think all lending institutions are looking closer and harder at their loans. Poultry has been a great industry for a long time and has made a lot of banks a lot of money. Right now, itís a little weaker so banks are being more cautious.

There is a concentration of poultry companies in this area. All of them want to maximize their profits. In doing that, they often overproduce with the hope that consumption will increase and they will have product available to take up the demand. Thatís essentially what has happened to the market. A couple of years ago, production increased more than consumption. We are slowly eating our way out of the oversupply. The biggest part of our farming operation does hinge around what the poultry industry does and the decisions they make directly affect us. Thatís taken out of our hands as producers.

Many people have been successful in the poultry industry because so much management has been taken away. They can grow 100,000 or 200,000 broilers and have a huge farm financially with income coming in and going out. But, so much of it is managed for them, either by their bank or by the poultry company. If we had to market our own poultry and be subject to the volatility of the market on this scale, I donít think we could do it. Right now the companies take on all of the market volatility. We donít care what the cost of chicken is, because we donít have to.

In our area, the big concern is environmental issues. If rules continue to get stricter, it could hurt us. Right now we are using our litter on the pastures as much as we can in accordance with what our soil tests will allow. With tighter scrutiny, it would be less profitable. Locally, we are trying to develop ways of removing litter from the area. No one outside of the area wants to pay enough for the litter to offset my commercial and trucking costs. The few times weíve had to ship litter out, weíve broke even. Technology can help in the future. For instance, a cooperative of farmers is talking about using poultry litter to make a fuel that could help to recoup our costs. AM

Candace Krebs is a freelance journalist based in Enid, Okla.

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