Farm Horizons, Feb. 2011
NYA farm switches from dairy to pastured pork and free-range poultry
By Linda Scherer
Dan and Lori Brinkman are showing the Norwood Young America community that it’s never too late to try something new, at least not when it comes to farming.
The couple sold their 70 head of registered Holstein dairy cows in December, after months of receiving poor milk prices, and have already shown success in establishing a market for their pastured heritage hogs and free-range chickens.
“You talk to some dairy people and they feel like they have a sense of obligation to produce milk, but I don’t think so,” Lori said. “The stress of the constant fluctuating milk prices I don’t miss that at all.”
The Brinkmans were both born and raised on dairy farms. When they married in 2000, they continued to milk cows on Dan’s family farm, where Dan had taken over the operation from his father in 1990.
Lori began to purchase poultry about four years ago, and hogs in January 2010. The original plan was to sell only half of the cows in 2010, and the rest in 2011 while they worked to build up the hog herd. But after looking at their feed situation, and some farm equipment that needed to be repaired, they decided to sell all of the registered, Holstein dairy animals through a one-time auction at their farm.
Crop prices were good last year, and selling the cows also meant they were able to store a fair amount of corn to sell throughout 2011, instead of feeding it to the cattle.
“Hogs eat some corn, but not near the amount we were feeding to the 70 cows and heifers,” Dan said.
Lori, Carver County’s feedlot officer, became interested in raising hogs and chickens after learning about other similar operations that have been successful.
“I think we are in a good position because we are in Carver County, on the edge of the metro, and there are so many ways to sell and expose our farm on the Internet,” Lori said.
“The big thing about marketing yourself is, you set your price,” Dan said. “You know costs and know what your return is going to be ahead of time. When you are milking, you never know what you are going to get. You milk the cows and on the 20th of the month, you find out what you are going to get for the milk you produced last month, instead of ahead of time,” Dan said.
So for right now, the Brinkmans’ new plan is to just keep going and see where their new business takes them.
Some of the Brinkmans’ pork, chicken, and eggs have been sold to a Waconia restaurant, and local farmers markets, and recently, there has been interest shown by an owner of a restaurant in the Twin Cities.
The Brinkmans are listening to the restaurants and chefs themselves, who tell them what qualities they want in pork for menu specialty items.
“They look to producers such as us to find what they want, and if they want it (pork) pastured, that is what I will do,” Lori said.
There weren’t many changes for the Brinkmans to make to their farm to accommodate the hogs and poultry. Lori attributes that to starting out slow and growing into the business. For the hogs, it means mainly just keeping them inside some simple hog panels surrounding the fence so they can’t get out. In addition, some pasture areas were set up using a woven wire fence with electricity. The chickens roam free, and only require housing in the winter.
To help get the Brinkmans’ hog operation started, they received funding in May from a sustainable agricultural grant through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to study the Red Wattle and Large Black hogs over three years.
The two breeds are heritage breeds which are traditional livestock breeds that were raised by farmers in the past, before the drastic reduction of breed variety caused by the rise of industrial agriculture, according to the website www.sustainable.org. Within the past 15 years, 190 breeds of farm animals have gone extinct worldwide, and there are currently 1,500 others at risk of becoming extinct. In the past five years alone, 60 breeds of cattle, goats, pigs, horses, and poultry have become extinct.
Raising hogs is a learning experience
After a lifetime of raising cows, the Brinkmans are enjoying the experience of learning about their hogs, which currently total 41.
“They are the smartest animals I have ever seen,” Lori said. “I think they are a lot smarter than cows, which surprised me.”
But when hogs get out of their fenced in area, getting them back in is not as easy as it was with cows.
“If you want a pig to go somewhere, don’t even try,” both Dan and Lori laughed. “You just try not to have them get out in the first place,” Lori said.
The Brinkmans describe the hogs as having friendly personalities, manners, and being social beings who do not like to be alone.
“They are very dog-like. They will come up to me sometimes and want their ears scratched,” Lori said.
“And they huddle together in a pile, kind of like cats do,” Dan said.
Lori also said their Red Wattle boar, Lyle, who weighs 600 pounds, is protective of the female hogs and very gentlemanly.
“At feeding time, he lets everybody else eat first. When they are done, he will eat,” Lori said.
After delivering her first two litters of piglets, Lori was also impressed with how gentle the mother pig is with her babies.
For feed, Lori will continue to look for alternative feeds. In the summer, the plan is to keep them pastured so it will cut the grain intake by half.
“Last fall I went to local orchards to find any windfalls they had and they let me have apples for free, so I fed that to the pigs.
She will also check out Bongards Creameries. For 5 cents a pound, milk whey left over from making cheese can be fed to the pigs, too.
“The hogs absolutely love that,” Lori said.
Free-range poultry results in egg hunt
Most of the poultry, about 60 birds, are kept inside during the winter, but a few still like to be outside. During the warmer months, the chickens spend a lot of time in the woods. The hardest part of having them roam is finding the eggs, according to Lori. After awhile, finding the eggs get easier because the chickens like to lay their eggs in the same spot over and over again.
“There were two (chickens) that would visit me in my shop and lay their eggs in the same spot,” Dan said. “I would kick them out six times a day and they would go back until they could lay their eggs.”
Brinkmans’ poultry include Rhode Island Reds, Buff Orfingtons, Americanas, and California Whites.
Lori said she will never get the Americana breed again. “They are still living outside, and roost in the woods at night, almost like they are wild,” Lori said.
The Rhode Island Reds were the best egg producers, according to Lori, and people like the dark, deep brown eggs, which are a nice size.
Her egg customers include neighbors, local farmers markets, and a Waconia restaurant, which takes between 5 to 8 dozen a week during the hens’ peak laying months. All of the eggs have to be washed and candled, then put into cartons. For the restaurant, cartons must have a packing date and “used by” date on every carton, and must be free of any other markings or writing of any kind.
Also, during the summer, the Brinkmans raised 300 broilers. The chickens were taken to Hector, where they were butchered and flash-frozen in vacuum-sealed bags with dates printed on them.
Many of the broilers were pre-sold, while others were sold later by request.
If the family continues to butcher broilers, the process will have to be improved, according to Lori, who said that catching that many at one time wasn’t easy.
For anyone considering a new farming venture, Lori encourages starting out small, but not be afraid to take a chance.
“I have listened to a whole broad range of people on what we are doing,” Lori said. “I have people saying, ‘I think it’s great you’re thinking outside of the box and trying something new trying to adapt to the future of agriculture.’”
“I have also heard people say, ‘there is salmonella in the soil and you can’t put pigs outside. It’s never going to work. You’re going to put everybody out of business because you are putting more hogs on the market.’”
“But we’re an entirely different market,” Lori said. “We are not the commodities side of the market. We are not mass production. We have a separate market and we are moving forward in that direction.”
To learn more about the Brinkmans’ farm and animals, go to the website at www. elmbrink.com or Facebook.
The Brinkmans have four children:
• Nolan is 17 and a student at Glencoe-Silver Lake High School. He is also taking some college courses at Ridgewater College.
• Lilly is 7 years old and a second grader at St. John’s Lutheran School in Norwood Young America.
• Amanda is 6 years old and is attending all day kindergarten at St. John’s in Norwood Young America.
• The youngest, Cole, is 18 months old.