Adapting to a changing industry and adopting new business and management practices has allowed Harold Dekkers and his family to maintain and grow the Hawarden, Iowa, farm that has been in his family for decades.
“I’ve lived in the same house my entire life, on the farm that my father bought in 1944,” said Harold.
Harold and his wife, Pamela, have farmed together since they were married in 1976. They have five children, three of whom — sons Jon, Jim and daughter Mary with her husband Josh Hooyer — are actively involved in the farming operation. Their oldest son, Matthew, lives in the Minneapolis, Minnesota, area with his family, and youngest son, Steve, lives in College Station, Texas, with his family.
“We also have 21 grandchildren who all love coming to the farm – chasing pigs, riding in the tractor or combine and helping where they can,” he said.
The Dekkers own or rent nursery and finishing barns with total capacity for 27,000 pigs. All the finishing barns are managed by family members. In addition, they raise corn and soybeans on about 1,200 acres.
“We’ve always raised pigs farrow to finish, but as times have changed, our operation has too,” he said, noting that the first major technology investment he made was the purchase of a skid loader in 1976. “It was a huge improvement from a pitchfork and scoop shovel!”
Over the years, he expanded the number of pigs he was raising by renting barns, old hog houses and outdoor finishing yards from neighbors. His sons began doing chores at confinement barns in the area in the 1990s.
In 1998, he built a modern finishing barn and invested in a new farrowing unit along with several other area producers. Animal health and biosecurity were big factors in making investments in new facilities.
“We had problems with PRRS when we were farrowing, raising small pigs and finishing pigs on the same farm place. No matter what we did, we couldn’t get rid of the virus,” he said, “The pigs did better in a controlled environment and we could keep them warm in the winter and cool in the summer.”
The farrowing unit was managed by Orange City Veterinary Clinic, which is now part of the Pipestone Management. Over the years, the other investors in the sow barn retired or changed focus, so Harold bought additional shares until he took full ownership in 2008.
As his sons and son-in-law finished college and became involved in the farm, they each built nursery and finishing barns that allowed them to become a bigger part of the farming operation. It also allowed Harold to reduce the number of barns he rented in the area.
The ability to receive weaned pigs from the farrowing unit has provided a number of benefits from both an animal health and performance and business management perspective for the Dekkers.
“Hiring and managing good employees at the farrowing unit is really important,” he said. “Pipestone has access to more resources and the ability to find good managers and employees, and keep track of what is going on in the facility.”
Because there are finishing and nursery sites near his home, it is difficult for him to go inside the farrowing units for biosecurity reasons as well.
The combination of farrowing unit and nursery and finishing barns allows the Dekkers to keep a weekly schedule that includes loading finished pigs to send to a packer on Mondays and Thursdays. The farrowing unit typically weans pigs on Tuesdays and Fridays, so the nursery sites receive 600 pigs those days.
“In a typical week, we have 1200 to 1300 pigs leaving finishing sites, and the same number of weaned pigs coming in to the nurseries,” said Harold.
The Dekkers have also started marketing hogs through the Big Stone Marketing and started delivering some finished hogs to the WholeStone Farms pork processing facility in Fremont, Nebraska, in January.
“I’m excited about the WholeStone Farms packing house and the ability for farmers to have a part in the processing end as well,” he said. “I’m 65 years old and when I am ready to hand the reins over to my kids, I want there to be less risk involved in the operation.”