Doris and Keith Neier

Doris and Keith Neier raise pigs in Osage County, Missouri. They have changed their operation through the years to continue to succeed and to get premiums for their livestock.

LINN, Mo. — On a late-May morning in Osage County, Doris and Keith Neier were having coffee. They had fed their livestock and were looking out across wet fields after another round of spring rains.

The Neiers have a diversified family farm — row crops, cattle and hogs — in central Missouri, located in the rolling terrain south of the Missouri River. During their decades as pork producers, they have seen a lot of changes in the industry.

Their latest change has been their farm’s transition to raising heritage hogs, meaning pigs raised in more traditional ways for a premium. The designation includes restrictions on breeds, feed ingredients and antibiotic use. Pigs also have to have access to outside areas and be raised without growth hormones.

“We’re transitioning into the heritage hogs,” Keith says. “It’s all natural, non-GMO.”

For the Neiers, it’s a familiar way of taking care of hogs.

“It’s kind of the old-fashioned way of raising hogs,” Keith says. “… It’s the way my dad raised them.”

The Neiers put up hoop-style buildings that work well for raising the pigs according to these standards. Doris says this approach is responding to a consumer segment that wants pigs raised this way and is willing to pay for it.

“A lot of it is the consumer drives it,” she says.

Raising the pigs this older way has its challenges, including feed conversion not being as good due to what feed additives are allowed.

“It’s got its drawbacks,” Keith says. “You don’t use some of the antibiotics and vaccines that really make hogs do well.”

But the premium is worth it to the Neiers, especially in tough financial times on the farm.

“It’s the difference between loss and profit, between making money and not making money,” he says.

The Neiers had some structures in place that worked well for raising heritage hogs, but Doris says making a move like that is a big deal for producers.

“It’s really a big move, with the dollars invested in that operation, in those buildings and in those pens,” she says.

Like pork producers across Missouri, the Neiers continue to watch the ongoing trade news and the situation in China.

“I think exports will be good because that African swine fever is prevalent over in China,” Keith says.

“It’s pretty serious in China,” Doris says. “They’ve lost a large number of their swine.”

The situation serves as a reminder of the importance of biosecurity.

“The biosecurity, it’s just the way of life,” she says. “Every farmer has to put more security things in place.”

Doris enjoys the marketing opportunities with pigs, saying she knows why they have a reputation as “the mortgage lifter.”

“With cattle, you have one calf a year,” she says. “With hogs you have higher numbers, and more market product to go with.”

The Neiers enjoy the way of life that comes with raising pigs.

“It’s been in our blood all these years,” Doris says. “Keith has raised pigs his whole life.”

Of course, sometimes hard times come knocking at the door.

“This is a family farm,” Doris says. “Even in the ’90s when prices were low, we were determined to persevere, and we did.”

“She went back to work in town,” Keith says of those times.

The Neiers have a lot of stories like that, such as the time an incredibly wet spring kept them from getting corn planted until June 12. But they needed the livestock feed, and so they still planted it, and it turned out decent. Farm life can be challenging, but it makes for good stories.

The Neiers enjoy each stop of that process, the long journey of bringing a product to market.

“You see it from the beginning to the end,” Doris says.

Ben Herrold is Missouri field editor, writing for Missouri Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.