By Nate Blum
Travis Dunekacke of TD Niche Pork, near Elk Creek, Neb., began feeding 100% grain sorghum as the energy source in his hogs' diets in 2013. Sorghum made sense, as more of his customers demanded non-GMO and higher antioxidant grains.
Dunekacke noticed the quality of his product improved after switching from a corn-based feed to sorghum. His Berkshire and Mangalitsa breeds grow to between 290 and 330 pounds on average at harvest.
The belly and ham cured meats have improved, and the fat quality is exceptional. He says the meats are darker than corn-fed pork, and his customers notice an overall improvement in flavor.
"We direct market our product to high-end restaurants in Lincoln, Omaha and Nebraska City,” Dunekacke says. “Individual customers come primarily from Nebraska with some from neighboring states. Our clients include Venue and Wilderness Ridge in Lincoln, Boiler Room, DOLCE, The Grey Plume, and V. Mertz in Omaha. Nationally renowned Lied Lodge & Conference Center and Arbor Links Golf Club, both in nearby Nebraska City, are also clients of ours.
“Current retail sale customers are CURE Cooking in Fort Calhoun, O'tillie Pork & Pantry in Omaha and Pawnee Pride Meats of Steinauer. Our customers are willing to pay a premium for our sorghum-fed pork because they like the taste they get from our differentiated product. I feel that the grain sorghum quality is as strong as ever and competes with any starch grain on price and performance. I don't have to worry about mycotoxins in the feed either, which is another added bonus."
What once was considered a traditional method for raising hogs in Nebraska has become untraditional as operations and the pork industry in general has scaled up over the years. Dunekacke, also a third-generation Nebraska farmer, raises his hogs outdoors, with plenty of room to roam and with portable shelters for year-round protection — much like many Nebraska farms did in the 1960s through the early 1990s.
While there is a need for inexpensive proteins in the American diet, which can only come through larger production operations, TD Niche Pork has reinvigorated consumer interest in the exceptional quality that results from revisiting the methods of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations.
"Some people complain that direct marketing is too labor intensive," Dunekacke adds. "To me, labor is labor. An hour is an hour. Because I choose to spend my time focusing on marketing, which increases my revenues, I can afford to hire staff to work with our hogs. That is job creation in rural America at a time when we need more people finding opportunities in rural communities."
Nebraska Grain Sorghum Board.
CONSUMER DEMAND: Dean Dvorak (left) of Plum Creek Farms talks with Nate Blum of the Nebraska Grain Sorghum Board. Dvorak chose to move to a sorghum-based feed for poultry after listening to consumer requests for a product containing fewer GMO products and increased antioxidants.
A half-hour down the road from TD Niche Pork, Plum Creek Farms is feeding sorghum in its poultry operation near Burchard, Neb. Dean and Amy Dvorak — along with the help of their son-in-law, son and two daughters — own and operate Plum Creek Farms. They have grown the operation from producing 30 chickens per week to about 1,000 chickens per week in just a few years.
Like Dunekacke, Dean Dvorak chose to move to a sorghum-based feed after listening to consumer requests for a product containing fewer GMO products and increased antioxidants. Also, like TD Niche Pork, they noticed an improvement in quality and flavor in their product since making the transition. The meat is darker, and there is less fat in the final product.
Plum Creek Farms products are featured in more than 40 top restaurants in Nebraska. They meet the demand of a conscientious consumer base that prefers a free-range poultry product fed on a non-GMO, high antioxidant and gluten-free grain.
As a result, their products often sell for up to three to four times the price per pound of chicken bought from larger poultry operations. The success of their operation has fueled growth as well. In the small town of Burchard, population 82, Plum Creek Farms employs 10 people in either full-time or part-time roles around the farm and on-site processing center.
"We've been able to fill a niche market for high-quality poultry in Nebraska,” Dean Dvorak says. “You have to understand, though, that this scale of operation is never going to feed the world on its own. We just can't produce enough in this way that is affordable and accessible to the average consumer.
“There will always be a place for the larger poultry operations in the market. Just as there is a place for operations of our size. This isn't about us saying either way is right or wrong. Yet, we've found a good market by switching to sorghum-fed chickens that allows us to make a living and provide for our family."
Blum is executive director of the Nebraska Grain Sorghum Board.