TRIMONT, Minn. — Livestock is central to Ebeling Farms in Martin County, Minn.
And like everything else, it’s changing.
The partnership is two Ebeling (“AY-be-ling”) cousins — Layne, 54, and Cory, 51. The two are contract hog growers and farmers.
Layne’s son, Josiah, 26, is on his own with a cattle feeding enterprise. Logan, 22, works at a local co-op and is looking to join the farm. Cory’s son, Jake, 23, works for Ebeling farm and has his own separate crop acres.
For the past 27 years, hogs have been the center of it all.
Layne and Cory finish 24,000 market hogs per year for New Fashion Pork LLP, a pork producer established in 2004 at nearby Jackson, Minn. The cousins and an employee contract-feed about 8,000 pigs at any given time in farms they either own or manage. The company operates in seven states, including Minnesota, South Dakota and Iowa.
The Ebelings manage pigs on three sites within about a two-mile circle. They use the manure to feed about 700 acres of the 3,700 acres of corn and soybeans, which supports incomes in four households.
Pigs, historically, are called “mortgage burners” for farms, because they tend to provide regular profit, even when other enterprises don’t. Layne said that’s especially true with contract growers, because they don’t own the pigs or bear marketing risk.
Layne graduated in 1985 from Trimont High School. He took a year at the University of Minnesota Waseca before NuWay Cooperative of Trimont (now NuWay-K&H Cooperative) hired him as a fertilizer “floater” operator.
“I wanted to farm,” Layne said.
In 1989, he married Darnel Faber, who had grown up on a dairy farm in Sherburn. She started her own hair business, and together they grew a farm and a family.
In 1994, Layne and Cory partnered to buy four acres from a neighbor. A contractor built their first barn. The $100,000 barn was about $125 per “pig placement,” so it accommodated 600 finished hogs. (Today, new barns cost $350 per pig placement.)
The cousins started doing contract hog finishing for a neighbor. “We were really aggressive and rolled all of the money back into it,” Layne said. They added some “outside lots,” and socked all of the proceeds back into the barns.
In another five or six years, they built another a second barn.
And then two more.
“Our dads gave us a percentage of the farm to help us get started, so we could start buying out the equipment,” he said.
Depending on the barn, NFP delivers “weanling” pigs at either 12 pounds or “feeder” pigs at 50 pounds. The Ebelings feed them to a market weight of about 280 pounds.
NFP pays the Ebelings a per-head basis to cover the building and care.
“Our obligations are (feeding) chores, snow removal, mowing, keeping it looking nice,” Layne said. The Ebelings give vaccine shots and watch for health issues. NFP provides pigs, veterinary, feed and marketing.
For the past 12 years, the Ebelings have employed Tasha Mattson, a woman from a nearby farm, who does chores. The Ebelings do weekend chores, assisting in loading out pigs, and power-wash cleaning between groups.
Significantly, the Ebelings have their own manure equipment. They own a 30-foot-wide applicator in a partnership with a neighbor, and spread on their own land and for others.
They drag hoses to take the manure up to fields 2 miles away. “That’s huge for our fertilizer,” Layne said.
The manure from their own pigs supplies nutrients to almost 700 acres of their 3,700 acres, about a third owned and the rest rented. It is a valued resource.
“Sometimes when fertilizer is cheap, we keep the manure close because it’s cheaper to haul it closer,” Layne said. “The higher the fertilizer (price) goes, the more acres they try to cover with it. We try to put manure on new ground we rent that hasn’t had any manure before,” and hope for a yield bump.
Southwest Minnesota long has been known for its pork production. “I think we’ve proven ourselves to being good stewards with the manure, and trying to make them look nice,” Layne said. Manure applications usually smell some for a couple of days.
The manure supplies nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. The N-P-K percentage analysis averages 55-25-30. They sample every pit so they know the content.
Steering to beef
He graduated from Martin County West High School at Sherburn, Minn., in 2012. He started a lawn care business in nearby towns and a few cattle on his grandparents’ homestead. He did chores and fieldwork for a neighbor, Scott Fisher, who had a 3,000-head cattle feedlot. Josiah moved onto his grandparents’ acreage two years ago.
“Whenever I made money off the steers, I bought some more cow-calf (pairs) and it kept going from there,” he said. He has 30 cows.
In 2017, he started buying cattle to have them fed out on a custom lot. He deals with Fredin Brothers Inc., from Springfield, Minn., an order-buyer who acquires animals from North Dakota and South Dakota, and Josiah buys some local calves.
It’s not cheap. He’s put about 500 of them into a lot, maintained by neighbor Ross Cutler. Depending on markets, it costs about $1,000 each for the steers, plus another $500 to $550 per head to feed them out. He generally takes them from 600 pounds to 1,400 pounds.
Margins are tight.
Josiah would like to grow to 1,000 head in the next couple of years, possibly creating his own feedlot. “Eventually, I’d like to build a barn at my house and be more efficient — have the manure value back home so we can inject that into the ground.”
The bulk of his cattle go to Tyson, Cargill or Greater Omaha Beef. He takes about 60 steers per year to a local locker plant, and sells half- or quarter-sections directly to customers.
The packing dream
“I would like to maybe eventually upgrade into a packing house, or get more prime cut meat out there for a reasonable cost,” he said. “I’d really want to make my focus getting a prime cut to the local people around here, so they don’t have to buy high-priced (meat) at the grocery store.”
In fact, Josiah would like to gather a group of farmers to go into a packing enterprise, to blunt the influence of big packers. “I want to narrow it down, to where (consumers) know they’re eating my cut of beef. Or someone in southwest Minnesota, or northern Iowa.”
One of Josiah’s biggest concerns is the rhetoric of “vegan” thinking, voiced recently by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, whose recent book, “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster,” said rich countries should shift entirely to synthetic meat. Josiah believes it will be difficult for synthetic products to come up with the same protein values as beef. But it's good to remember, Americans are eating more meat than ever before.
Of course he thinks beef is the “best protein.” He adds that it's better than his dad’s pork, and adds, so Dad can overhear: “Definitely, way better.”