Naples Swine preparing to kick-start operations near Eleva
by Beth Kraft
At first glance, the sheer size of the new, state-of-the-art swine breeding facility located a few miles southwest of Eleva is daunting and the technology somewhat mind-boggling.
Naples Swine’s gestation barn is about 650 feet long—roughly the length of two football fields—in addition to two other large buildings for farrowing and weaning.
Once the facility is up and running, it will house about 5,400 sows at the “breed to wean” operation, set to include about five acres worth of structures on a 40-acre parcel on Gonty Road just west of the Buffalo/Trempealeau County line.
Yet future site operator and rural Eleva native Ross Kruger and his business partner, Holden Farms based in Northfield, Minn., both bring strong histories of family-oriented farming values to the table.
Kruger, a 2007 graduate of Eleva-Strum High School, grew up on the nearby Kruger Inc., dairy farm while the Holden family has operated swine and turkey farms for nearly 140 years.
Together, their partnership, which has been three years in the making, will produce what is believed to be the largest facility of its kind in Wisconsin, but that wasn’t exactly Kruger’s intention from the beginning.
“We don’t necessarily like that idea; it isn’t something that we boast about,” commented Kruger on the “largest farm” distinction. “I’ve been raised on the small farm. I think that’s in my heart and always will be, so we want to bring that small-farm history to this facility; that family culture and treating the animals the right way. I think that’s really the only option.”
Crews broke ground for the new facility in April, but the planning stages have been in the works since Kruger graduated from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls with a degree in ag business in 2011.
“It took us awhile to understand what we could do together,” says Kruger.
“Really I didn’t know where the path would leave me when I left school,” he added. “I always thought I’d be on the farm.”
The trouble was, Kruger Inc.’s 80-cow Holstein dairy and 300 acres of cropland isn’t enough to support multiple families. His parents, Greg and Kaye Kruger, both have other career commitments aside from the farm, meaning Ross had to find a way to expand or diversify the home farm or find another avenue altogether.
When plans to construct a 54,000-bird chicken barn through Gold’n Plump didn’t pan out after graduation, Kruger explored a few other options in the ag field, but decided coming back to Kruger Inc. was best.
“I worked a couple of odd jobs here and there, but my heart was in agriculture,” he explained. “I just had to come home and be part of the family operation—I couldn’t stay away.”
With expanding the Krugers’ dairy herd and a chicken barn crossed off the list of options, Kruger turned to the idea of pork production via a hog finishing barn. But given the rural Eleva farm’s distance from much of the industry, located mainly in the southern third of Wisconsin and in Minnesota and Iowa, the idea wasn’t quite workable.
“It’s just never developed in this part of Wisconsin,” said Kruger of pork production. “But, for whatever reason, Holdens seemed intrigued and came out and met with us.”
It was Holden Farms’ idea to transform the site the Krugers’ bought in 2011 into a sow farm, and “that snowballed into this site,” Kruger says. “I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d be doing this.”
Naples Swine is now poised to welcome about 2,900 gilts early next month to begin operations at the new site.
“It’s just a few weeks away [but] we feel confident that we’ll be ready,” said Kruger, who spent the past year working at a few of Holdens’ Minnesota facilities to learn the ins and outs of swine farming firsthand.
The farm’s gestation barn, gilt development unit, and farrowing and nursing areas are all but complete while work on employee office space and a composting unit was ongoing last week.
As a single step in the Holden system, Naples Swine will act as a “nucleus herd,” housing the top genetics and the breeding stock for the entire Holden operation, Kruger explained. He also noted the new farm’s animals will mean a 10 percent increase for the Holden system—a pretty major jump for an organization that already owns about 40,000 sows.
Open House generates interest
The Naples Swine site has been a hive of activity since construction began this spring, and Kruger says plenty of people in the area community have been curious about what the facility will look like and how it will function. After giving impromptu tours of the site over the summer to those who asked, Kruger decided to organize an open house, held Oct. 11, with complete tours of the facility.
“We just thought that this is new to the community; this is a big deal,” said Kruger of the recent event. “We need to let people come in here and see this and see what we’re doing and show them that we’re trying to do it the right way.”
He estimates upwards of 1,000 people came to satisfy their curiosity at the open house, which also featured members of the Wisconsin Pork Association (WPA).
“It was a super-good turnout,” said Kruger. “We were very, very happy with it.
“The community deserves to know what’s going on here,” he added. “It’s going to be part of the community for a long time.”
Balancing act: Modern vs. family farming
As the median age of the farming community continues to increase, WPA rep Tammy Vaassen noted it’s important for the industry that young farmers like Kruger become interested in ag careers.
“As we see the world’s population continue to increase, you will see more demand for meat,” said Vaassen, noting current production numbers will need to double by 2050 to meet that demand.
“This partnership with Holden Farms allows him to maintain the family farm, support the local community and feed a growing world all at the same time,” she added.
Naples Swine will be very much a modern operation with all of the latest technology—systems so cutting-edge that they will be new to both Kruger and the Holdens.
“This is kind of a ‘Cadillac facility,’” said Kruger. “It has a lot of the newest technology incorporated in it. It’s very exciting.”
Some of that technology includes cool cells in the barns, computerized feeding and a modern composting system.
“It’s pretty much like a giant radiator,” said Kruger of the cooling panels installed on the ends of each building.
Ground water is then run through the panels and air pulled through them into attic to be dispersed throughout the buildings from above. The temperature is all computer-regulated, similar to systems in place in modern poultry barns.
Even the feeding system will be computer-driven and preset to feed all of the animals in gestation stalls at once, considered a more efficient practice.
“It cuts down on the noise because they’re all eating at once,” explained Bill Gnatzig, a Wisconsin Pork Association rep and open house tour guide.
Gnatzig currently operates a 200-sow farm near Roberts.
Naples Swine will also incorporate pen gestation for its sows—another relatively-new concept in the industry.
Kruger says about 95 percent of the nation’s pork production facilities use exclusively stall gestation, which doesn’t give the pigs much room to move around or interact with each other.
“They’re very social animals,” noted Kruger.
The sows will be kept in stalls for 30 days after breeding, conducted via artificial insemination, for their own safety and that of other pigs
“They’re the most aggressive during that cycle,” Kruger explained.
Following that 30-day window, the sows will be grouped in larger gestation pens, which feature partitions for comfort and security. Each animal will receive food rations according to an ear tag read by the computerized feed rationing system installed in each pen.
“It’s designed in a pen structure to feed a sow individually,” Kruger said. “We’ll be able to manage every individual animal through the system.”
After the farm’s first sows farrow, which won’t happen until April, the piglets will be weaned off and sent out to other Holden facilities within roughly 24 days.
Kruger said Naples Swine plans to retain about 120 gilts per week on site to continue the breeding process.
“Once we’re fully-stocked here, we’ll never bring any more in,” he said. “It will be completely internal multiplication.”
Each sow can produce about 10-12 piglets per litter with an average of 2.5 litters per year, Gnatzig said.
Sows will be kept for about 8-9 litters before being shipped out for finishing, though Kruger indicated they might be kept longer providing they are productive and healthy.
In spite of all of the modern technology that will be at work at the farm, Kruger stressed it doesn’t change his critical standards regarding animal care and sanitation—a product of his upbringing on a small farm.
“I can almost guarantee that every animal at this facility will be seen and looked at by somebody every day,” Kruger said. “Attention to detail has always been a big part of what we do. We pride ourselves on that.”
In addition to a strict nutrient management and watering systems that can be medicated for animals as needed, the farm’s farrowing and nursing units will be washed and disinfected between groups.
Another common concern for hog farms, especially large ones, is the unpleasant odor.
To address this, the farm’s main buildings incorporated 12-foot deep manure pits for collection to negate the need for lagoons or open pits.
“We plan to inject as much manure as we can and we’ll only need to move it once or twice a year,” Kruger said.
Cleanliness is also key to prevent the spread of disease, particularly given current PED virus concerns.
To combat the issue, the farm will utilize a shower in, shower out policy for all employees, strict supply sanitation procedures, and hold a “clean line” for trucks coming from outside farms to stay behind.
“It’s a very high level of biosecurity here,” said Kruger. “There’s a good protocol in place.”
Kruger said major concerns expressed by members of the area community have been relatively few and far between.
“Really it’s been very positive for us,” he said. “People are happy for us; they’re excited.”
Aside from the opportunity to diversify Kruger Inc. beyond dairy and cash cropping, Kruger said he’s simply looking forward to getting Naples Swine up and running.
“Probably the most exciting part about it for me is to get it finished and to start working with people,” said Kruger, who plans to employ about 15-20 members of the local community.
Once the facility construction, managed by project general contractor Nate Holden, is complete, the regular influence of Holden system supervisors and consultants will gradually lessen as Kruger takes the reins. Once comfortable with all company protocols, Kruger says their presence could eventually decrease to monthly or less.
While parents Greg and Kaye Kruger will be relatively hands-off at Naples Swine, Kruger knows they can be counted on to lend a hand if needed.
“No doubt if we need something fixed my dad’s going to come and fix it,” Kruger grinned.
He is, however, looking forward to having his younger brother, Dylan, who currently works off the farm, come back and potentially join the new operation in a few years.
“We see this as a long-term work opportunity for us—for myself and future generations—to be involved in it,” said Kruger. “It’s a complete family operation that we have here and we’ll all work together.”