By Kyle Sharp
When Ben Zientek heads off to work each day, it’s always a mystery what exactly his day will entail. As sow production supervisor for Kalmbach Swine Management, he oversees 80 team members, nine sow units and nearly 22,000 sows, mostly in central Ohio. So while some days he may be at his office in Upper Sandusky, others he may be on a farm working with employees, moving sows or driving a truck.
“In my position, you never know what you’re going to get into,” Zientek said. “Whether it’s moving a truck or doing paperwork, it’s all stuff that has to get done. In most cases I’d rather do the physical work than do the paperwork.”
It’s the variety that he enjoys. In a given week, he might be in his office a day or two, and the other days he is traveling among the sow farms.
“I work with all parts of our team to maximize production and profitability. What I do tomorrow could be a lot different from what I did today,” he said. “I’m usually at each farm at least once a month. I tell them if they’re good, they won’t have to see me quite as often.”
At each level of management within the pork industry, Zientek’s ultimate interest has been to produce high quality, safe pork for the consumer, while maintaining a profit margin for Kalmbach and a high standard of commitment to the communities they serve.
“I like being able to work with producers, veterinarians and all aspects of production in order to gain the knowledge for better production and transfer that information to our internal teams,” Zientek said.
His talent and experience in swine management must show through, because Zientek was recognized with the Ohio Pork Manager of the Year Award from the Ohio Pork Producers Council (OPPC) at the 2011 Ohio Pork Congress last month. The Manager of the Year Award recognizes swine managers who excel in the management of a swine production operation.
“Ben is a steward of animal care and welfare,” said Lynette Holman, veterinarian for Kalmbach Swine Management. “He is a leader for all individuals that he works with.”
Zientek has come a long way in the pork industry, considering he didn’t grow up on a working farm. He was raised in a rural home near Liberty Center in Henry County, and while he was active in 4-H and FFA with hog and cattle projects, his family didn’t farm. But he enjoyed agriculture, and after high school Zientek went to Ohio State University, where he graduated in 1997 with a degree in agricultural economics and a minor in animal sciences.
His first job out of college was at an 850-sow, farrow-to-finish swine research farm for United Feeds outside Sheridan, Ind. At the farm, about 40 minutes north of Indianapolis, he did trials on finish pigs and small trials on sows.
“It was a commercial setting, so what I did most of the time was take care of sows and pigs like a normal farmhand would do,” Zientek said. “I did a little bit of everything in one year. I probably would not have left there if an opportunity wouldn’t have arose close to home.”
That opportunity was at a new sow unit being built near Stryker by Kalmbach Swine Management that was only about 30 minutes from where he grew up. He started working at the Williams Pork facility in April 1998, and by the end of the year, he was the farm manager. Over the next nine years, he went from farm manager at Williams Pork to farm manager at Kalmbach’s Union Pork facility near Marysville, then back to Williams Pork.
“The hands-on working with livestock is what I enjoyed, and the team atmosphere,” Zientek said. “You get to use a little of the management skills from ag economics to manage the sow unit too. Raising the pigs is the easy part. It’s keeping all the people happy that’s tough.”
In 2007, he moved into his current role as sow production supervisor for Kalmbach. He and his wife, Peg, and their daughter, Addison, 3, still live in Liberty Center, and he either makes the 70-minute drive to the Upper Sandusky office or travels to one of the farms each day.
“It seems like I spend most of the time driving and on the phone with my Bluetooth in my ear,” Zientek said.
Kalmbach has two different genetic lines of sows. Two of the nine units Zientek oversees are sow multipliers, and the other seven produce commercial hogs. All of Kalmbach’s animals are produced within their own system.
“Animal husbandry is what is stressed when you work with a lot of people who’ve never really worked with livestock, and that involves continual training,” he said. “It’s a little bit of everything, such as videos, internal training and PQA (Pork Quality Assurance) certification.”
The other big concern is biosecurity and animal health.
“If you can keep them healthy, they all do great. We have an on-staff veterinarian and a biosecurity grid to assist with this,” Zientek said. “All the units are shower in, shower out. It restricts my movement some days, and makes me spend more time at the office sometimes, depending on what’s going on. Twenty or 30 years ago, guys just walked over to the neighbor’s farm and helped, then on to the next neighbor to help them, then came home to their place. It’s crazy how things have changed.”
He doesn’t have a farm of his own, which he said works better in his current position for biosecurity purposes. It also allows him to focus more time on doing his job for Kalmbach.
“The biggest thing is understanding people’s work habits and styles, and being able to manage them for the best outcome. I use the Golden Rule: treat people as you want to be treated,” Zientek said. “Continued training and learning are always important. The way I look at it, a good manager leads by example. So, you go the extra mile to get the job done.”
Beyond working with team members, he spends a lot of time working with other pork producers, OPPC and other local organizations to promote the pork industry and keep people aware of the importance of livestock agriculture.
“For some reason, there are a lot of people out there who just don’t think that’s right,” Zientek said. “The biggest challenge is just dealing with people in society today who do not want us to continue pork production the way we have in the past and how we overcome those challenges and stay positive in the pork industry.”
Along those same lines, Zientek said Kalmbach strives to maintain a positive working relationship with their farm neighbors. In some cases, they offer hams at Christmas and turkeys at Thanksgiving. But the main thing is just keeping their neighbors informed about the requirements of pork production.
“Usually, if the neighbors know what you do and why you’re doing it, even if they don’t like the smell a few days, they’ll deal with it better,” he said. “It helps that our sow facilities are in good sites.”
Zientek has gone through the Operation Main Street program to learn how to better communicate the pork industry’s message, and is actively involved in his home community. He works with the Lytton Fox Hunters, a local organization that works to teach people about agriculture and support local FFA chapters and the Soil and Water Conservation District. He works the pork booth at the county fair and has been on the Ohio Pork Congress planning committee. He also is involved with Ohio Farm Bureau.
Down the road, he sees himself continuing to be very involved with the pork industry and working with Kalmbach to maintain good sow production. He enjoys the close-knit atmosphere of working for a family-owned business.
“I have a great group of people I work with,” Zientek said. “They’re very focused and dedicated. It’s always easier to work with people you enjoy working with.”