Impress your friends at Bacon Fest with these 5 facts about pigs

January 31, 2014

pig farmerShowing up to a party empty-handed is not cool.

That includes Saturday’s Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival.

Northern Iowa farmer Val Plagge and I want you to bring something enticing. We’ve rounded up five pig facts you can use to impress your fellow bacon connoisseurs.

1. They don’t always “act like pigs.” It seems like you’d never need to coax a pig to eat, but that’s the case when a pig is too hot or too cold.

Hogs reach market weight (roughly 270-300 lbs.) in six months. At that time, they prefer temperatures in the low to mid 60s.

“Our modern, temperature controlled barns allow us to keep our pigs at a comfortable temperature year-round,” says Val. “Even during the winter, when we’ve had wind chills of 30 degrees below zero, we heat our barns with market weight pigs to the 60s.”

2. They’ve slimmed down. Pigs have less fat than they did decades ago, to meet consumer demand for leaner meat.

“We’re in close consultation with our veterinarians on the proper diets for our pigs (a mix of ground corn and soybeans and a protein by-product that comes from corn after it’s been used to create ethanol), so they’re able to develop the right balance of needed fat and lean muscle,” says Val.

3. They’re susceptible to the “elements.” “Years ago, my parents and my husband’s parents raised pigs outdoors,” says Val. “To tell you the truth, the greatest thing about moving the pigs indoors is that it took them out of the ‘elements’ – weather, wild predators, disease, etc. Indoors is just a safer environment.”

“We’ve noticed fewer diseases and have had to provide less treatment than before, so our pigs are definitely healthier indoors.”

4. They feel the burn. While pigs have different colored hair (white, black, brown, gray, red), they all have white skin that can sunburn if they stay out in the sun too long.

It’s important for pigs to have shade, whether it’s a hut or a modern barn.

5. They don’t sweat (much). Pigs have a few sweat glands, but not enough to keep them cool during Iowa’s hot summers.

“Hogs raised outside find relief in a shaded area or in a puddle,” says Val. “Hogs in our barns have misters, fans, thermostats, and curtains that automatically open and close to help keep them at a comfortable temperature.”

Bonus Fact! Bacon isn’t all the same. English, American, and Italian bacon comes from the belly of the pig, while Irish and Canadian bacon comes from the back. Bacon can also come from a pig’s shoulder, side, or cheek.

By Zach Bader and Val Plagge.

Zach Bader is the Online Community Manager for Iowa Farm Bureau.

Val Plagge farms in north central Iowa with her husband Ian. You can check out her blog at

New Survey Reveals I’m Pretty Normal

January 15, 2014

When it comes to meat, poultry, and dairy, price and taste drive most purchasing decisions of Iowa grocery shoppersFinally, I have real evidence to support a claim my wife has been denying for a couple years. My habits are normal.

Well, at least my grocery shopping habits are normal.

The new Iowa Farm Bureau Food & Farm Index asked Iowa grocery shoppers which 3 factors are most important to them when they determine which meat, poultry, and dairy products to purchase.

Nearly 8 in 10 shoppers cited “price” and “taste.” The next most popular factors, “food safety” and “nutrition,” were only mentioned about half as often. Other (less popular) factors included “how the meat/poultry/dairy product was produced,” “brand,” and “convenience.”

It makes sense to me. Safe food is something I expect when I make any selection at the meat counter, and I’m not concerned that particular cuts are less safe than others. Nutrition is important too, but I know that I’m going to have a wide variety of meat, poultry, and dairy options to provide my family with the protein and important vitamins we need, so I might as well pick the options that taste good and provide good value.

I also pay attention to labels (according to the survey, 68% of Iowa shoppers do too), although it appears I read those labels a little differently than some Iowans. Of the shoppers who indicated they read meat, poultry, and dairy labels, 36% were looking for a “raised hormone free” label, and 32% were looking for “raised antibiotic free.”

Those labels don’t move me.

Then again, I was raised on a farm, and I work with farmers every day, which is uncommon, even in Iowa. I’ve helped provide medical care to hogs, so I understand how farmers abide by certain practices and work with veterinarians to care for their animals responsibly. I know that farmers administer antibiotics on an as-needed basis (to help ensure healthy animals enter the food chain), and they’re legally required to stop using antibiotics prior to an animal’s market date to make sure no antibiotic residue ends up in meat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides additional assurance that none of our meat has antibiotic residue by testing for it.

I’m also skeptical of labels that are a little too ambiguous, like “hormone-free” (all living creatures have hormones) or “raised sustainably.”

I’m not trying to discourage anyone from buying food with those labels or from reading labels altogether. Read away, my fellow Iowans.

Just understand that some labels are used for marketing purposes, as opposed to sharing material information about food safety or nutrition. If you’re having a hard time making the distinction, seek out a trusted source or two.

Again, I have a built-in advantage in that regard. Farmers aren’t my only source, but I put a lot of stock in information provided by folks who raise livestock and then feed their families the meat, poultry, and dairy that come from those animals.

I’d encourage you to seek them out. My guess is that you’ll find them willing to share how they care for their animals.

They’re pretty normal, too.

By Zach Bader. Zach is the Online Community Manager for Iowa Farm Bureau.

Caring for livestock in the bitter cold

January 7, 2014

For most of us here in Iowa, the latest cold spell has turned into hunkering down time. If we must go outside in the below-zero weather, we bundle up and make it snappy, trying to get back inside before the cold air starts to bite at our toes, fingers and noses.

But that’s not an option for Iowa livestock farmers. They’ve got to head out into the cold, and stay out there, to make sure their cattle, hogs, sheep and other animals have feed, water and shelter from the biting winds.

Chores in the bitterly-cold weather are usually a lot harder. Engines don’t start. Equipment breaks down. Water lines freeze. Everything is just a lot harder to do.

Just ask Dan Golightly of rural Dallas County. On Jan. 6, with the mercury dipping into the double digits below zero, he spent part of the morning hauling hay bales by hand to feed his cattle after his tractor would not start. Then he went to work to thaw a frozen waterline to a stock tank. First he used a torch, but later switched to a hair dryer because he needed to protect the rubber hoses in the water pump.
“It’s not like I can just opt to go inside and lounge on the couch,” said Golightly. “The animals have to be cared for.”

For Golightly, 100 head of cattle require more care and fuel than usual to survive the sub-zero temperatures.

It’s hard work in the frigid weather, but caring for animals in the cold, heat and all of the different weather conditions we encounter here in Iowa has always been job number one for livestock farmers. And it still is today.

By Dirck Steimel. Dirck is editor of the Farm Bureau Spokesman.
Photos by Gary Fandel.

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