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ARROWSMITH -- There aren't many farms in McLean County where all entering trucks must be inspected, employees begin each day with a shower, and the office kitchen has a washer-dryer and a specialized cooler stocked with genetically selected boar semen.

Biosecurity is a top priority at Bane Family Pork Farm near Arrowsmith. One of the largest livestock operations in the county, it produces 1,200 new pigs each week that are regularly trucked to finishing barns in Ohio.

Two journalists visiting BFPF for a tour last month were allowed to skip the shower and wear full body, zip-up sanitary suits, straight out of a Hollywood biodisaster movie.

"We do a lot of laundry," said Pat Bane, 52, who runs BFPF and owns it with two of his brothers, Phil and Sam.

BFPF's six barns are connected with hallways that make it one giant indoor complex. It's big by design, Bane says, key to staying viable in a pork industry that has found economies of scale through specialization.

BFPF's specialty is "farrow to wean," breeding an all-female herd with artificial insemination. The new pigs are weaned off their mother, then trucked to Ohio to grow, and later impregnated or slaughtered for meat.

And while the county's grain farmers benefit from rising corn prices, the pork industry has been hammered by increased feed costs - and by a public relations battle that has put big animal farms on the defensive.

"Local is great," Bane said of the local-food movement. "But you have to be realistic. We're feeding the world."

These precautions and others have helped BFPF prevent major disease problems since 2007, when it repopulated the herd. Phil Bane, a veterinarian from Fairbury, takes monthly blood samples from their animals. And Pat Bane and his seven employees use ear tags and an Internet-based system to track each animal.

"The minute we break with a disease, our income would go way down," Pat Bane said.

McLean County is Illinois' top corn and soybean producer. In 2007, livestock was only about 10 percent of the $366.5 million in market value of the agriculture products sold out of the county, government data shows.

Myriad factors keep livestock in the backseat. Commodity prices make it unattractive, and state rules and regulations make it more cumbersome to site and manage livestock operations, said Brian Lambert, program coordinator for agriculture at the University of Illinois Extension in McLean County.

And the county's grain farmers can make a good living while avoiding the nonstop lifestyle of a pork farm manager, Bane said. BFPF is one of only three or four commercial farrowing operations in McLean County.

"It's an everyday thing," Bane said. "It's like having your dog or cat, but times thousands."

A changing industry

But like a pet, swine have to eat, about 8.5 million pounds of feed per year at BFPF. The price for corn, typically the main feed ingredient, hit a high of $7.88 per bushel last month - almost double from a year ago.

The Ohio company for which BFPF is a contractor pays the feed bill, Bane said. And to save on corn costs, they're using feed with more byproducts, such as dried distiller's grain from ethanol, even leftover bakery goods.

"It costs more today to feed a pig than it did to raise a pig five years ago," said Mike Haag, president of the Illinois Pork Producers Association. His family runs a farrow-to-finish farm in Emington in Livingston County.

As a result, the U.S. Department of Agriculture in April said pork prices at the grocery store could rise up to 7.5 percent this year - double the rate of overall food inflation - stoking fears that the high cost could scare off domestic demand. Shoppers and producers did get some good news last week, however, when a USDA report projected higher-than-expected corn supplies, lowering corn futures.

"If domestic consumption drops, and the (hog) price slips, it's awfully easy to get a lot of red ink," Bane said.

Despite market forces beyond his control - 2009's imprecisely named "swine flu" outbreak, for example - Bane said he feels that he makes a tangible impact with a day's work at BFPF.

"I feel like I have more control than a grain farmer," Bane said.

The Bane brothers took over their father's operation when he retired, opening the current facility in 1995. The expansion -- their dad had 300 sows, they have 2,700 -- is what survival in the industry required, Bane said.

Emotional issue

Yet big farms face big criticism, from activist groups unhappy with how animals are treated and environmental impacts. Animal welfare is a vital issue, but much of the bad rap large producers face is powered by misinformation or a lack of information, said Paul Walker, animal science professor at Illinois State University.

The problem worsens because so many Americans receive poor science educations and are generations removed from life on a farm, Walker said. That's put ag on the defensive unlike any other industry, he said.

"It gets to be an emotional issue," said Walker. "People identify with warm-blooded animals."

Haag, the pork group's new president, said working on image is a top priority for him this year.

"If producers get the opportunity to explain what we do, we win," Haag said.

BFPF works hard to keep the animals comfortable, Bane said. The 1,000 sows in a late-term gestation barn, for example, are kept in individual pens, not group pens, but that's done in part to prevent one "boss sow" from hogging the food. A temperature-control system keeps it 70 degrees year-round and has sprinklers and rising side curtains.

Walker said livestock is a low-margin, high-volume business, but that doesn't mean there's not room in the marketplace for the many niches that have emerged, such as local food and organic growers.

"We are the face of family farming in the 21st century," Bane said. "This is what it looks like."

Reporter Ryan Denham can be reached at twitter.com/ryanpantagraph


By the numbers

A quick look at Bane Family Pork Farm:

8.5 million pounds of feed consumed per year, or 100,000 bushels of corn and 33,000 bushels of soybeans.

63,000 weaned pigs produced per year

2,700 sows (adult female swine), average inventory

1,400 replacement females, average inventory

300 acres of row crops fertilized with the animal waste.

7 employees and one manager

SOURCE: Pat Bane

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