Farm Progress

Gallery: Clemens Food Group’s plant in Michigan to open by Labor Day weekend.

June 8, 2017

8 Slides

By Nicole Heslip

One of the country’s first pork processing facilities in more than 25 years is changing the landscape of Michigan’s pork production. For the Norton family in Bronson, it’s meant a new beginning.

Dale Norton farms with brother Kenneth, nephew Josh and son Michael on the same farm that was established by his great-grandfather in 1880. He says it had been almost 20 years since major updates were made to the family’s pork operation, and after the Clemens Food Group announced in 2014 they’d be building a new processing plant nearby, it was time to rethink the future direction of their farm.

“The gestation stalls were wearing out, but also the need to move away from gestation stalls by 2020 had an impact,” Dale says. “Clemens building its facility close by — we’re 18 miles from the Clemens plant — was a factor. A succession plan with retirement considerations was a factor — as was the farm economy, with the crop economy being pretty tough right now,” he explains.

Dale says he can remember at a young age working with pigs on the family farm when they were housed in open pastures and shelters. Things have changed several times over in the last 40 years, he says, in the numbers of pigs raised and the technology used.

A partnership was formed between the two brothers after college and their father, Roland, in 1973, which lasted 30 years. At the time, the farm only had about 400 acres and was built to 3,500 through the decades. Over the years, Kendale Farms grew to a farrow-to-wean operation, with 1,500 sows and a farrow-to-finish operation that marketed 31,000 hogs per year. It has included a cow-calf operation, and over the years it has grown corn, soybeans, hay, green beans, canning tomatoes and seed corn on more than 3,000 acres.

Dale says his father’s partnership was transferred to Michael and Josh in the early 2000s, and the latest expansion of the Spartanwood Sow Farm is keeping the next generation in mind. “Kenneth and I are both at retirement age, and it’s a bit of a succession plan that the management will move to Josh and Michael,” he says. The new sow farm is expected to birth about 3,000 piglets a week, or up to 160,000 a year. With the expansion, the family is also almost completely transitioning to pork production. “We had an equipment auction,” Dale says. “We’ll farm a little bit of acreage and manage the manure, but we’ve opted to rent most of the cash crop ground out.”

The last major expansion for the family farm was in 1996. Dale says their newest venture came after the Clemens Food Group announced plans to build a processing facility. “From the time period that we really got serious about deciding to do this building, it’s been two years, and the actual construction has been taking place for the last seven months,” he says.

After reviewing their current facility, the Nortons decided to build on a 30-acre pasture in the center of their property. It is set back off from a gravel road, surrounded by woods. Dale’s house is just west of the more than 200,000 square foot facility. Two-thirds of the barn will be used for breeding, and the rest will be used for farrowing. “We’ll have 18 rooms of 60 sows, and we’ll farrow about five rooms a week,” he says. The intent is for Michael to manage the original Kendale Farm, which will later be converted into a nursery, as well as manage the cropping and manure handling for the facilities. Josh will eventually manage the Spartanwood Sow Farm.

Dale says before pigs entered the barn, it was important to also invite the community in before it became a closed biosecure site. “There are a lot of people that are removed enough that just don’t understand what agriculture is or the significance of what we do,” he says. An open house provided tours to the public and educational sessions to explain measures the family has taken to protect the environment and ensure quality animal welfare.

There are also four viewing areas that will allow for field trips and visitors to see inside the modern barns while limiting biosecurity risks. “We hope that by opening our facilities up, when other new facilities are built, people will recognize the requirements that are needed and how farmers are working to protect the community as well as their pigs,” Dale says. The first pigs filled the farrowing portion of the facility in early May.

More pork production growth expected
The Nortons aren’t alone in their expansion efforts. As many as 40 new and expanding pork production facilities are in the works throughout Michigan, according to Mike Wozniak with CJD Farm Consulting, who helped throughout the siting process with the Spartonwood Sow Farm. According to Dale, “The Clemens plant coming in has certainly energized the industry in Michigan, and I think there will be continuing interest to raise pigs here.”

Dale Rozeboom with Michigan State University Extension says pork producers in this region of the country will experience transportation savings with the new processing plant and production facilities being closer together. “It gives us an opportunity to save $1.50 to $2.50 per pig that’s produced — the cost of transporting pigs out of the state or region, in recent years,” he says.

Growth in the pork industry is expected in sow farms like Nortons’, Rozeboom says, as well as with nurseries and wean-to-finish farms. New facilities are “sited” by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. “Siting and choosing the location for a facility is not just something that is done haphazardly; it’s really done with a lot of study, and then there is an accountability to the community and the state,” Rozeboom explains. He, like others, is optimistic about the economic growth and job opportunities the Clemens plant will bring to all of Michigan agriculture and surrounding local communities in southern Michigan.

Rozeboom says that new facilities are using new technologies. Gestating sows, by law in Michigan starting in 2020, will have to be housed in groups, which mean new production facilities eliminate the long-used gestation stalls. The Spartanwood Sow Farm will be using air filtering systems that clean the air entering barns to improve pig health, which Rozeboom says is used to filter out not just dust, but also pathogens that may cause the animals to become ill. He says another filtering system will be used to clean the air leaving the barns to reduce odors and to collect the ammonia-nitrogen to be used subsequently as a crop nutrient.

Rozeboom explains, “The air that leaves the facility is being cleaned with another filtering mechanism called a water scrubber, which removes some 40% to 50% of the particulate matter and odors.”

On schedule to open
The Clemens Food Group, a sixth-generation family-owned company in Pennsylvania, started looking for sites three years ago and chose Coldwater, for its proximity to existing pork production and access to major interstates. Earnie Meily, community relations and workforce development coordinator with Clemens, says the more than 600,000-square-foot facility is on schedule to open by Labor Day weekend. The plant will process about 10,000 hogs each day and is in the process of filling more than 850 jobs.

Meily says, “The main reason that we’re here is that the hogs were already here. There doesn’t need to be a lot of expansion in raw numbers. I think what we may see is more finishing opportunity for those animals.

“When we look at the demand for pork and that balance of demand to supply, it does appear there is room for more expansion.”

Heslip works as the Michigan anchor and reporter for Brownfield Ag News.

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