By Matt Reese
As all aspects of the hog industry have evolved, Isler Genetics has changed accordingly. This incredible Marion County family tradition in the Ohio pork industry is now in the capable hands of another generation, including Nathan Isler, who is the Ohio Pork Council swine manager of the year.
“We’re working on six generations farming here. My grandfather had a little bit of everything. My Dad and uncle really grew with the hog industry. Our farm was built off of breeding stock. We’ve been a closed herd since the 70s,” Nathan said. “My Uncle Don and my Dad, Bill, built and grew the farm. Uncle Gene had a hand in it too. Dad came back in ‘68 to the farm. At that time we had Durocs, Yorks, Landrace, Hamps and large Whites. When Dad’s generation came back they started raising more breeding stock. There were maybe 50 sows before Dad and Don came back and grew it into what it is today. Yorks and Durocs are what we’re known for now.”
In those days, the business served numerous small-scale pork producers around the region.
“The niche they filled was the breeding stock. Everybody had 200 sows and there was no AI back then. Everyone had to have boars and breeding females. We sold a lot of boars. Those 200-sow operations don’t exist any more. You either got big or got out. We have changed with it. If you don’t change or diversify you won’t be in this business anymore,” Nathan said. “My childhood growing up we had production sales three times a year. When I was young we were selling 300 or 400 boars a year. Durocs are still our true passion. They have the meat quality and feed efficiency and the Yorks have the mothering ability. We have a primarily York base. We breed pure York to pure Duroc for terminal hogs for market. We do sell some breeding stock. We are now mostly raising internally. We are still a closed herd.”
Today, Nathan oversees the sows and three full-time employees in the sow barn. His brother Scott oversees the nurseries and finishers and brother David oversees the 3,000 acres of crops and feed mill.
“As a farm we try to be as self sufficient as possible. We raise enough grain for our feed and we grind it,” Nathan said. “We are still a small farm where everybody has to work together to get things done. I do the scheduling of moving animals from the facilities. I have a lot of office work too. It is pigs first for Scott and I and then we help with the crops as needed during the day and we are the evening and weekend crews. My dad and uncle still help a lot on the crop end of things. I am the gopher too. I keep up on the seed and fertilizer and drive semi.”
In terms of the hogs at Isler Genetics and Isler Crest Farms, they now work to fill a number of different niches.
“Commercially raising hogs for market is the way we are going and our future as I see it today,” Nathan said. “The vast majority of our hogs go to market, but we also sell breeding stock, show pigs, and pigs for medical research. We sell commercial semen as well. We also have three contract barns. Through the progression of things we are 70% pure York sows. We are essentially a commercial producer but we have our hands in everything.”
Nathan enjoys every aspect of the hog business.
“On the commercial end it is not somebody’s opinion. You look at the numbers. I like the numbers of the commercial side. I appreciate being able to say this is what it is,” he said. “With show pigs, it is somebody’s opinion and I can appreciate that too. With show pigs I can have a champion and have half the people that don’t like the pig. But I am a competitive person and I like the challenge of being the best out there and we are on a stage with the show pigs. We have a passion for the show pig industry, Duroc especially. That is the industry I grew up in and that is what drives us. On the commercial end you’re competing for more success with the numbers.”
When making decisions about which pigs should serve the various niches for the farm, Nathan said they usually sort themselves out.
“The pigs just sort of split themselves. We are used to competing on performance and competing at shows. Now they are two different worlds. It was really in the late 90s when they really started to separate themselves. Now it is just the way it is. I can see the pros and cons of both. I love the production side of things but the goals are not the same for both. You’re selecting for different qualities,” he said. “We sell a lot of research pigs too. We go to Cincinnati once and week, Columbus once a week and Toledo once a week delivering hogs for medical research. That is something that has picked up in the last five years. They are extremely picky on specs for those. Sometimes they give you a 3-pound range with no age fluctuation. In some cases they are used to test surgeries with goal of bringing them back to full health. Then they are sent to market. That is a small part of our business but another niche that we do.”
The business recently expanded to update facilities that meet the upcoming group sow housing requirements and improve production.
“We expended in 2015 and built a new barn with updated facilities to meet the standards. We went from 650 to 1,200 sows and made everything compliant. It is a management thing,” he said. “I think it is easier and better for the animals to be in crates but it has not been a hard transition. It is stepping back in time the way my Dad did it. It adds some labor and management and you have to go at it with a different mindset. It also adds to the cost of facilities, but overall it has been an easier transition than I thought. I have been very happy with the setup. We have pens of 10.”
Ohio sow facilities all must have group housing by 2025 as a part of the requirements set by the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board.
“They have to be able to turn around and move. There are more square feet per animal. We try our best once we mix them to not pull them out. You want to minimize the stress on the animals. We do our best to get them to even condition for when they start out prior to going in there. They will fight as much the last week prior to going into the farrowing pens than they do when you mix them. We essentially get two turns of them fighting with each other where with the crates we didn’t have that,” Nathan said. “It works well, though, and it has been a better transition that I thought. We’re here to feed people and if that is what they want than that is what we do.”
The newer facilities also help with biosecurity.
“Our sow unit and nurseries are all shower in shower out. As the weather changes, PRRS PED and flus are all more active and there are more outbreaks. You just have to regularly revisit that with your employees,” Nathan said. “We will pull out the show pigs. We do some online sales. We use the older outdated facilities for only show pigs. No one goes in any of our barns except for the one barn we use for show pigs seasonally. Like any commercial producer we intensely test our boar studs, our sow unit and our gilts. We have gilt isolation buildings for biosecurity. We have been very fortunate to carry the health status we have for as long as we have.”
Isler Genetics continues to build on the strong tradition associated with the family name.
“I was very fortunate. I had my father and uncles who were extremely successful within the industry. Those are big shoes to fill, but I had a step up in the beginning because I grew up learning from them,” Nathan said. “There is not a better industry to be in. The swine industry is truly an open book. We all share information to make each other better. We talk and share ideas.”
When asked about his favorite part of the diverse hog business on the farm, Nathan gets noticeably uncomfortable.
“It is like asking if you love your wife or your kids more. It is trick question and you don’t want to answer it,” he said with a smile. “Pigs are my favorite thing. If you work in the livestock industry you have to have a passion for animals. We are here to take care of them. The pigs’ interest has to be before our interests. That is just the way it was growing up. No one ever talked about it. But hogs are our life. There was no talk of animal husbandry. You just took care of hogs. On Christmas day you took care of the hogs before you opened presents. Anyone who is successful in the swine industry has a passion for animals first.”