In 2007, Bruce King hated going to work.
He made good money in the manufacturing sector, and he wasn’t really looking for a different job, but he wasn’t really not looking either.
“I hated Sunday nights because I knew I had to go to work the next morning. I felt trapped there,” King said of his manufacturing job in Mansfield.
He had grown up helping on area farms some in the summer during high school. After high school he served in the Marine Corps before working at the factory for 15 years. He lived with his family in Lucas, just east of Mansfield and he certainly had never considered a career in the field of agriculture, until a want ad for a sow unit manager at nearby Oberholtzer Hog Corporation caught his attention.
“I called about the ad and when I went to the farm I realized right away that was where I belonged,” King said. “I liked the environment and the type of people that were there. It wasn’t a cutthroat work environment. I realized very quickly that everybody’s job is important in agriculture. I liked the teamwork and the camaraderie. That is probably from my military past. Then the hogs kinds of grew on me. I found that I did have a passion for working with these animals that I never realized I had. I like scratching their ears. I find it therapeutic.”
King admits he knew nothing about hogs when he started the job.
“Before I saw that ad for the job, I didn’t even know that this job existed. I thought pork came from Kroger and I didn’t know anything about commercial farms,” he said. “I don’t think anyone ever really knew that I didn’t know anything about hogs. But, from the military I learned leadership and people followed me. Things were slowing down at the time of year that I started and that helped me learn. I spent a lot of time just studying the hog industry and how it worked inside and out. I studied what it took to make a successful hog farm. I was able to absorb the knowledge quickly. Maybe it is because I enjoyed it.”
The farm is owned by Kenny Oberholtzer and there is a sow unit, gilt developer and three finishing barns contracting hogs for the Hord Livestock Company.
“Kenny has a vast knowledge of hogs and working with the Hords was great. Their management team is the best there is,” King said. “They do a lot of vet visits and working with the vets regularly was a tremendous asset as well. As far as the wellness of the animals, you either get it or you don’t. I just seemed to notice some of the details that other people would overlook. It was a lot of trial and error at first.”
The job was a huge change for King and though it was easy to leave the factory, it was not so easy to leave the paycheck.
“I worked third shift at the factory. I would get off at 6 a.m. and go to the sow unit and work until 1 or so and then I would go home and sleep. I did that for three months to make sure it was what I wanted to do,” he said. “It was a big jump to leave my factory job. I went from a job where you stamp your product and made something that was a final outcome you knew right then to something that is longer term and you can’t see the end result for months.”
Soon enough, he was hooked and poured all of his effort into his new job, using the skills he learned in manufacturing and the military to maximize productivity, efficiency and animal care, though there was plenty to learn.
“Coming from manufacturing, I saw that this job was just a different type of manufacturing. You have to do the right things to get the right product in the end — it is just a delayed gratification for seeing the end product,” he said. “The challenges sometimes felt like I was climbing a mountain. You have to wrap your mind around the idea that what you do now will impact the next four months. That was huge.”
King knew from the start that his success would be closely tied to the people around him and he took great care in hiring employees.
“Employee retention can be a challenge and it was my goal to hire people based on what I knew about them. I found people who I knew from my neighborhood. No one that has been added to the team since I have been there has any agricultural background,” King said. “I look at their personality to see what traits they have and then see where they will fit. If people are attentive, I put them in farrowing because they are more caring and kind. Then you teach them farrowing. For gestation, I look for the more assertive personalities. You don’t want to put that meek person in the pen giving shots. You put people in a position according to their strengths. It became very apparent that personality traits were more important than experience. In fact, not having any experience made it easier for us to teach them our way of doing things and they didn’t have any existing bad habits.”
With a good team in place, success has followed.
“We do not cut corners. We never stop trying to be better,” King said. “I realized it was not about what I did, it was about getting the right people in the right jobs. I didn’t have to know everything about hogs. I just had to know enough to make everyone really good at what they did. If you can build a strong team than everything else comes easier. If you have the right people doing the right jobs the numbers take care of themselves.”
Three years after King started, the farm expanded to 2,500 sows and production numbers have dramatically improved since then. The success on his farm led to King being named the 2016 Swine Manager of the Year by the Ohio Pork Council. He is being recognized at the Ohio Pork Congress this week.
“We started going in shifts 24/7 in 2014 and it has really helped. The 24/7 is by far the most valuable thing we have done,” he said. “We were able to get more pigs out the door than we ever have — 80,459 went out the door last year. That is a good number. It is up from 77,062 in 2013. It was a great year.”
The farm also saw lower numbers of stillborn pigs at 5.59% three years ago to 2.93% in 2015. The farm averaged 30.47 pigs weaned per sow in 2015 with a pre-wean mortality dropping from 11% to 8.47% in three years.
“That is a huge difference,” King said. “The focus of that 24/7 was in farrowing. Constant care is where the money is at. We get those pigs towel dried. The quicker they dry the sooner they will nurse and get that colostrum, and the more likely they are to survive. And yes, those towels wreck a washing machine.”
King is very proud of (but never satisfied with) his numbers.
“We focus on the numbers a lot. We have an incentives program based on production and that really drives the workers to do better. I put the numbers up and we talk about them and we are always working to improve. If we have a bad week, we look at why that happened and see what happened to identify the problem,” King said. “We look at patterns. We focus on the numbers and we are goal oriented.”
And as much as he enjoys working with the animals, he takes even greater interest in the crop of townies he has helped turn into farmers.
“I hand picked the employees I hired and it has been a good move to do that. Some started while they were in high school or right after high school,” he said. “The people who do the work every day are the reason I have been successful. Sometimes the guy who power washes every day will come to you with the best idea. I work with guys who do the right things every day and don’t cut corners. Those are the people who need to be recognized for their work day in and day out. I feel like we have some of the finest people you can find anywhere.”
The whole experience has turned King and the other farm employees into uniquely positioned advocates for agriculture.
“I like educating people about the facts of hog farming. They all want to know how hog farms are really run. I like to share that part about it,” he said. “Since I started at the hog farm and hired all of these young guys from Lucas, the whole community now understands more about hog farming and what really happens on a farm. These animals are well taken acre of. They live better than some people do. I wish we had more opportunities to educate people on the positive side of commercial farms. I would invite anyone to walk through with me. “
And, at the end of the day, King has a job that he is passionate about and dedicated to doing better tomorrow.
“I love being there. The time goes quickly and there is no other job I have had when the time goes by too quickly. Part of me is envious of the people who grew up on farms, but I don’t think that I would be as good at my job now if I didn’t come from the other side of the fence,” he said. “’Well how did you end up with a job like that?’ is the most common question I get. Being where I am now was probably the furthest thing from my mind 10 years ago. It is crazy that a want ad would change the direction of my life and allow me to improve other people lives by introducing them to agriculture. And now, I don’t hate going to work.”