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Eight feed bins stand outside Sunterra Farms' new research nursery Tuesday during an open house near Parkston. (Marcus Traxler / Republic)

'A high-tech home' for pigs

PARKSTON — Sunterra Farms is no stranger to the South Dakota pork industry.

But this week, the company celebrated something new.

It is finishing up its new research nursery facility, which will focus on research with small pigs and their various feeding methods before they advance to finishing operations.

The 2,400-head facility was celebrated with an open house Tuesday a few miles south of Parkston, an area that has become the heart of Sunterra's South Dakota operations. The barn is the first of its kind for Sunterra in the region.

Carlos Gerle, a senior production manager for the company, said the important technology in the building is the feed system, which Gerle said was imported from Belgium. It routes feed from eight bins outside the building into the facility's control room, where there's a large mixer that can create different mixtures for different pens.

Sensors allow a main computer to know when a pen is out of feed, and Gerle said that means pens are pulling the feed, rather than pushing one common feed to every pen. There can be up to 16 mixtures at one time, he said.

"Since we manage a lot of antibiotic-free pigs, we need to understand a little bit better how gut health affects pigs and try a lot of different things," Gerle said. "There's not a lot of research being done with antibiotic-free pigs. That's the biggest challenge we have. We want to be able to do trials in a scientific manner to make sure we're getting the best care for the pigs that we're managing."

The water system to the pens similarly allows for different trials, as well. The facility also includes a large scale in the middle of the building to easily track weights and growth of pigs.

"We should have very accurate data for whatever we're testing at that time," Gerle said. "It's the future of running a farm."

Gerle said Parkston made sense for a research location because of the large amounts of growth in the area and it's close to the company's local offices.

"It's a very high-tech home for the pigs, if you want to look at it that way," he said. "It's always good for agriculture, in general, to show the general population how we operate."

Generally, gut health in younger pigs is considered to be a key part of producing healthy animals and assisting the immune function. In a nursery, quality feed and water intake will help grow healthy pigs (including the daily weight gain), reduce harmful bacteria and lower mortality rates.

Pigs will spend about five weeks in the barn before moving on, and pigs generally grow from 11 to 15 pounds when they arrive to 40 to 60 pounds when they move to finishing facilities.

Chris DeRocher, of LeMars, Iowa, owns the facility. He's been involved with raising pigs for Sunterra for about 10 years. He said the building is structured like the rest of Sunterra's facilities, from the size and setup of the pens to the loading areas. DeRoucher said the open house was important for area community members to understand what kind of work was being done at the facility.

"There's a lot of people that still think that their food comes from the grocery store. And it doesn't, it only shows up there," he said. "People in the Midwest get it a little more than others, but to educate others on what's going on is never a bad thing."

Lance Thury, the manager of Parkston Grain and Feed, said his company's main job will be to get the feed to the barn. Thury's company has a financial relationship with Sunterra for providing the feed, but he sees their presence in the region as being beneficial to the community and to area farmers.

"It's provided jobs in our community, and it's provided a better basis for corn and helped prices for farmers selling at market," he said. "For Sunterra to do research in this area — whether it's their pigs or someone else's — it gives them the tools and the knowledge and the resources to maximize to raise our animals as economically and as healthy as possible."

The Parkston location made sense for Sunterra because of the area hog farms already in operation. There's about 80 barns under Sunterra management in South Dakota and about 80 percent of those barns are within 50 miles of Parkston.

The facility was built on Paul Baumiller's land. The Parkston farmer said the impact of the hog industry has been important for area businesses and farmers. Specifically, he mentioned the availability of the manure for fertilizer, which has been put on area farmers' fields with success.

"It's like gold," he said. "There's just so much value there."

The goal is to have the first set of pigs in the barn in about three weeks, Gerle said. One full-time employee will oversee the day-to-day work at the facility, while other area employees will help when it's time to weigh or move pigs.