CAMBRIDGE, Ill. — On Lance DeDecker’s 42nd birthday, at his parent’s kitchen table, they reflect on some of the changes they have seen in the pork industry during the farm’s long history.
The DeDecker family, led by Mark and Karen, are the 2023 Illinois Pork Producer Family of the Year and will be honored at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield in August.
All three of Mark and Karen’s children have found success in ag-related careers. Lance graduated from Black Hawk College before joining a partnership on the farm with his father. Their daughter, Ashley earned a PhD and is the director of production research for Smithfield Foods. Jake also has a PhD and is the director of Extension and Associate Dean for Engagement at the University of Nevada.
Mark, like his father and his son, joined the farming operation early in his 20s. When Mark was 22 and a new college graduate, he let his parents know he wanted to return to the farm and raise pigs.
“It surprised the heck out of my parents,” he said. They agreed and formed a partnership.
Over the last 50 years, he has adapted to changes in culture, automation and regulation.
Being early adopters isn’t something new for the DeDecker family. When Mark was a fresh University of Illinois graduate ready to start farming in 1973, he knew he wanted to raise pigs inside. He had heard all about the benefits of the new systems when he was in school.
However, he farmed in Henry County near Kewanee, “Hog Capital of the World,” where most pigs were raised outdoors at the time. He soon found himself a speaker in panel discussions about the merits of raising pigs inside.
There were still a few farms with pasture pigs in Henry County until the early ’90s, Mark says.
While Kewanee may no longer be the hog capitol and Illinois is not the top hog-producing state anymore, the community’s heritage is still celebrated every year with Hog Days on Labor Day weekend. This is the fest’s 70th anniversary.
Today, DeDecker Pork Farm in Cambridge raises 7,000 pigs wean-to-finish annually. Both the age of the pigs they raise and how they are raised have changed over the years.
At one time, they contract- finished as many as 30,000 hogs. Earlier, they were a farrow- to-finish operation. Today, Lance knows some farmers who are going back to farrowing their own pigs.
Father and son both comment on how things often go full circle — ventilation systems among them. Formerly the best ideas in ventilation were replaced by better ones, Mark says. With further research, some of the older ideas are reintroduced over time, with adjustments.
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Likewise, the philosophy of manure pits continues to evolve. It went from shallow to deep to shallow and now appears to be going back to deep, Lance says.
Pig genetics are always evolving. Lance recalls one interaction with pigs that was very feed-efficient but a disaster to manage. With nutritional adjustments, they were profitable and manageable the next year.
While Mark doesn’t expect most Illinois pig farmers to return to raising hogs outside, he says with Proposition 12 in California and consumer demand, there may be more pigs being raised outdoors in some areas.
The DeDeckers make their technology choices based on long-term profit. Lance says he can’t see that a new, high-speed planter would be a good investment for him. It only takes them about six days to plant their 2,500 acres of corn and soybeans.
“Buying a half-million dollar planter isn’t going to change our yield,” he says.
But Mark says new automation that is labor-saving will to be a good investment because it will likely continue to be difficult to find labor for farms.
While the number of willing farm laborers has decreased over the years, the number of regulations farmers must follow have rapidly increased. You need a license to spray chemicals, to administer medicine to animals and to spread manure. Pork Quality Assurance certification, certified site assessments, and even getting a commercial drivers license are more complicated and time-consuming to attain today, Mark says.
One of their more recent changes is adding solar power to their operation. Karen says the family’s home energy bill this month only amounts to about 30 cents. Solar energy now powers their home, grain elevator, shop and other aspects of their farm.
“We just turned it on in January and February,” says Mark, and already Lance estimates that it will easily pay for itself in two or three years.
Karen says financial incentives help make solar energy affordable. In addition to crunching such numbers over the years, she worked for the Rock Island Farm Bureau for 16 years along with a variety of farm jobs including retrieving needed equipment parts, driving grain carts and helping with the pigs.
Another new addition to their operation is a monitor and app which alerts the family if the temperature changes in the pig barns, sometimes indicative of a power outage. It came in handy soon after it was installed.
“We had it for a week,” says Lance of the day he got an alert from the Gateway system. There were no storms in the area, and they had no reason to suspect a power outage. If he had not been alerted to the temperature change, he would have continued what he was doing unaware of the situation.
“There was no ventilation. The amount of time it was off, it could have been bad,” Lance says.
Monitoring all aspects of their operation is important. The next purchase on their wish list is a camera on the top of their grain leg to make sure grain is going into the bin.
“We watch it pretty close,” Lance said, but they had a recent mishap they want to address.