Dave Bender reflects on industry changes

Source: Iowa Farmer Today

Dave Stender has been an Extension swine specialist with Iowa State University since 1989, serving northwest Iowa. The Iowa native recently retired and began serving as a professor of animal science at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa.

Stender’s specialization while at ISU included swine management, understanding ventilation principles, production and financial records, niche production systems and cost structure, nutrition, genetics, computers and decision analysis for swine production.

Stender earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from ISU.

Q: Please tell us about your background. Did you grow up on a farm?

STENDER: I grew up on a livestock farm in Crawford County — 100 beef cows and 60 farrow-to-finish sows. I really enjoyed the farm and that’s what I wanted to do for a living. Unfortunately, the farm crisis of the ’80s made that dream unattainable.

A: What was the Iowa hog industry like when you started with Iowa State? Is it even recognizable today?

STENDER: I started with Iowa State during the farm crisis, and at the time the swine industry was the bright spot of agriculture. Most producers referred to them as the mortgage lifter. If you wanted to work hard there was opportunity. The swine herd was owned by small, sole-proprietor farmers. Very few had an employee and never more than a couple hired workers. Most of the issues of today’s agriculture were at their infancy.

Pork Quality Assurance was a new program for food safety, and there were no significant environmental laws. The producers then had to be informed to make educated decisions regarding nutrition, genetics, breeding, ventilation, facility design, reproduction, finance and technology adoption. There were single-site farrow-to-finish continuous flow operations that found a way to be viable. It was physically difficult work, but rewarding.

Q: There have been so many changes in hog production. In your mind, what are the top three?

STENDER: Multi-site production allowed for expansion and efficiency. At the time, removing the weaned and then finishing pigs from the sow herd gave those producers an advantage. There were some initial health benefits, but the management focus on the stage of production proved to be an important benefit.

When corn prices spiked in the early ’90s, the interest in starting a small farrow to finish operation ceased. Only existing operations remained. Then in the late ’90s (1998 and 1999), over-production in the fall exceeded the capacity to harvest at the plants and the price went free falling to single-digit prices per pound. For those two years the price averaged in the 20s and the losses were staggering. That started a new cycle based on periodic financial issues resulting in industry consolidation, which is still happening today.

Q: Are there opportunities available for younger producers in today’s hog industry?

STENDER: Today the hog industry is currently going through tough financial pressures, making the opportunities different. It is not the time to build new facilities.

The construction cost is high and the contracting payments have been at a similar level for a long time. Currently there is no financial incentive to enter the industry that traditional way. However, the need for expertise in the industry is great, and the jobs are good. If I was a younger producer today, I would be looking for an experienced farmer that is looking to exit or maybe find a lower investment opportunity in existing facilities.

Q: When you talk to students, what are their concerns about finding a place in the hog industry?

STENDER: There is a strong demand for animal science graduates in the livestock industry.

Q: You retired from ISU earlier this year. Talk about your new position at Buena Vista University.

STENDER: I am doing one year of animal science teaching at Buena Vista University. I enjoy teaching the students with a variety of classes. Swine nutrition, breeding, health and welfare are some of the topics I taught this year.

Q: Talk about what you like about the hog industry, and why you have made a career of it?

STENDER: It is the people in the hog industry that make it great — good people who are trying to do a superior job of providing affordable protein to society. It has been great working with the industry and trying to be of assistance. I am proud of Iowa’s swine industry and of the support the industry has come to count on through Iowa State University and the Iowa Pork Industry Center.