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The sterile barn

Photo by Brian Hansel The Deon and Melanie Roth family includes Keira-Mai, Alex and Jared. The family has been raising hogs for 13 years.1 / 4
The Roths own two barns in the Wadena area and ship 30,000 hogs a year.2 / 4
Hogs feed on a mixture of corn and soybean meal. They arrive as 15-pound piglets reach their shipping weight of 55 pounds in six to seven weeks.3 / 4
Modern livestock production calls for keeping hogs in environmentally controlled barns.4 / 4

You might think Deon Roth was handling plutonium with the precautions he takes in running his operation.

It is not radioactivity that Roth concerned, it is viruses in his hog barns.

Modern livestock production relies on volume, and volume is increased with a good, safe environment. Roth's Pigs-R-Us hog operation near Wadena is geared to producing breeder-feeder-gilts. His two hog barns are built to house 5,000 hogs at one time. In a normal year, 30,000 hogs are shipped to commercial pork producers.

While the Roths are independent contractors, they raise the hogs for Genetiporc, a company based in Alexandria. The Roths have been raising hogs for 13 years and just signed a three-year contract with Genetiporc. The livestock breeder offers technical support to Roth along with the hogs, the feed and the supplements. Roth is very much his own man on the farm. On the average, he sees his Genetiporc rep only once every six months.

The Roths take delivery of 15-pound, 21-day iso-wean piglets from Genetiporc every eight weeks. By being connected with Genetiporc, Roth does not have to market his hogs so he can concentrate on caring for them. There are hogs going out of Roth's farms every week at around 55 pounds. There is also precision to the operation. Genetiporc wants to deliver the same product every time.

The need to keep thousands of hogs in pens inside an environmentally controlled barn for many weeks makes the threat of a disease a very real one. Some hog diseases no longer exist in the United States but one that does is Porcine, Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS). The disease causes reproductive failure in breeding stock and respiratory tract illness in young pigs. First reported in 1987, the disease costs the United States swine industry around $600 million a year.

Roth showers each time he enters one of his hog barns and then puts on a new set of clothes which he only wears inside the barn. The same procedure is followed when he leaves the barn. The barns are locked at all times and a casual visit to one of the barns by a stranger can be a disaster. Deon's wife, Melanie, is his right arm. In addition to doing her part in raising their three children, Melanie does the bookkeeping for the operation and even helped to build one of the hog barns. Ironically, she has never been inside that barn since hog operations began. Deon occasionally has the help of his sons, Jared and Alex, but they have to follow the same strict precautions he has laid down for himself. Roth lives in two different worlds and he does not want them to collide.

Hogs are totally pampered by the indoor environment in big operations.

"The barns, the way we run them, we actually develop a micro-zone environment for those piglets," Roth said. "If you're warm you can go over lay over here where there is a little more air movement, if you're cool you can come over here where there is less air movement. The way the ventilation system is set up it can give the pig a variety of choices where he wants to sleep."

The pigs have a nutritionally balanced diet consisting mostly of corn grown in central Minnesota and soybean meal. Trace minerals and vitamins are also put in the feed.

"They eat better than most people do," Roth said.

When the hogs arrive as piglets, the temperature inside the barn can be as high as 80 degrees. A hog can move around in their pen to find the most comfortable spot but those days of the old mud wallow are as dead as the dinosaurs.

In addition to its profitability, the Roths measure their growth as a business in two ways -- the Pork Quality Assurance Program is their way of delivering a good product all of the time. They also take part in a land stewardship program called "We Care" which addresses their care of the land.

It is a good life but a demanding one. The Roths are very much a farm family and they realize that to build their business takes sacrifices. Roth has taken his family on just one vacation.

"It's a lifestyle," Roth said. "You're pretty much married to the job."