Hog Buyers See A Big Market For Small Pigs

Apr 13, 2016

Two underweight boars at the new Wiechman Pig Company location in Delphi.
Credit Annie Ropeik/Indiana Public Broadcasting

Indiana has the fifth largest pig farming industry in the country, turning out 8.5 million hogs a year. But some are too small for the huge slaughterhouses that require pigs to be a certain size and condition for speedy processing.

Now, Indiana's industry to broker these smaller pigs is growing.

Nebraska-based Wiechman Pig Company opened a new facility in Delphi in late March. Inside, a big, friendly sow greets manager Jeff Petree. She's one of a couple dozen pigs he bought from Indiana farmers in his opening week.

"You can scratch her on her head," Petree says, as the sow oinks and wags her curly tail at the metal gate of her enclosure. "She's obviously been around people."

The warehouse, divided into concrete pens with sawdust bedding, food and water dispensers and a few different-sized pigs apiece, is the big Midwest company's first location in Indiana. It's joining a growing number of businesses buying pigs that large slaughterhouses don't want.

Companies like Wiechman can re-sell those hogs to places like luau pig roasters, specialty brands, and sausage-makers, Petree says.

"For an example, a Johnsonville Brats will harvest animals and turn them into bratwurst or Italian sausage or a lot of different products that they make," he explains. "Or, Jimmy Dean has plants that harvest sows and they'll make it into breakfast sausage, or sausage for fast food restaurants."

He says farmers bring Wiechman or another broker their small pigs, older sows, or hogs with abscesses or hernias. They're still okay to eat, but they take more time to process. The broker will pay a competitive price and sort the pigs into categories. The idea is to get enough of each type to sell them in bulk.

Agricultural economist Chris Hurt at Purdue University compares it to to the push for using "ugly food." He says there aren’t as many pigs going to waste as, for example, fruit and vegetables, but still:

"I think this probably will help reduce food wastage, reduce the number of animals that end up with no market value to consumers whatsoever," Hurt says. "But again … this is a relatively small amount. And so I think it's very much of a niche market."

And that niche is growing in Indiana.

Wiechman Co. bought this aging sow, culled from an Indiana farm, because she was too large for standard processing plant.
Credit Annie Ropeik/Indiana Public Broadcasting

"[I'm] kinda excited that Wiechman did decide to build here," says hog farmer Sam Moffitt. "There's definitely a need for that market."

Moffitt is a Northwind Pork farmer in White County, north of Lafayette, and a potential customer for Wiechman once they get up and running.

He says Indiana's pork industry has trended toward fewer farmers and bigger farms -- and the brokers have consolidated, too. Before Wiechman, there were only two left in Indiana.

"The pendulum swung too far one way, where we probably had too many at one point," Moffitt says. "Now we had too few, so I think they saw the opportunity here with a lot of hogs."

And he likes the spot Wiechman picked -- right between Tyson Foods' processing plant in Logansport and and Indiana Packers in Delphi. It's a quick stop for a farmer en route with their main delivery, and that's a plus in a business where convenience is king.

"Our industry is based on time -- we've got to get these pigs through the system in an efficient manner," says Indiana Pork board president Jason Slaton. "There are going to be times when those animals fall behind for various reasons ... and we're going to have those pigs that we need to find a different marketplace for."

Now, with three buyers for those marketplaces in the state, he says they're all going to have to offer better prices and service to compete.

As for Wiechman's competitors -- Steve Jordan is one of them. He's the procurement manager at United Producers' Frankfort location.

"We'll probably feel the pinch for a little while to see how things adjust," Jordan says.

His company is based in Columbus, and he notes it deals with more different kinds of pigs and customers than Wiechman does.

"It's not gonna affect our bottom line quite as much [as] if you're just relying on one specific type," he says.

It may not be so easy for Heinold Hog Markets in Burlington. They're closer to Wiechman, and are dealing with the exact same animals and potential customers.

The Iowa-based company's general manager, Steve Pederson, didn't want to talk on tape, but says he welcomes Heinold's new neighbors in Indiana's so-called pork capital, Carroll County. He calls it the American way -- and back at Wiechman, Jeff Petree agrees.

"This market, we felt like, had room for another competitor,"  Petree says. "That's why we decided to jump in here."