“We do it the old way,” says Dolan Worth, 70.
Dolan raises pigs with his son, Bart, 50. Together they maintain a, farrow-to-finish outdoor pig operation that is in turn part of a larger cropping and cattle partnership that includes Dolan’s brothers, Danny and Dale.
From the road, the Worths’ pork enterprise looks like something out of the past. The farrowing huts spread across 60 acres, weaved among the creek beds. “Most people stop along the road and take pictures,” Dolan said. “I’m worried to death somebody’s going to get hit.”
“They call it ‘pasture farrowing,’” Dolan said. The style of production was common in the early 1970s and 1980s. Most of it ended by the 1990s.
“Most of the reason people got out of them is they got tired of them. The price was low. They didn’t have the help they used to have. It’s a lot of work,” he said. Many broke up their hog lots and just farmed the acres.
The Worth's 200 gilts pigs stay outdoors all year-round. In the winter snug in straw bunkers — large round bales arranged in horseshoe shapes, with the opened the southwest, to protect from winds from the north and south.
In the summer, their butcher pigs and gilts hang out in the shade of the straw stacks and have access to sprinklers to keep cool.
They only farrow gilts, or first-time mothers — once in the spring, and then some in the fall.
About a week prior to farrowing, the Worths set the houses out in a 10- to 12-acre pen. They set a few more houses than the number of mommas for each pen. That way they all find a home in case of storms.
“We move (the houses) before we farrow in them,” which is twice a year, Dolan said. “We put them in a different spot so they don’t have so much chances for diseases.” They put a bale of straw in each “house.”
The mommas find their own houses and make their nest. The Worths cover the doors if storms threaten, or if it is cold. They “hand-feed” pregnant sows by pouring buckets-full of feed in the middle of the pen. When they’re done “pigging,” or giving birth, the Worths wait three days and then vaccinate the baby pigs. Sometimes they try to nest outside, so they have to “ease them into a house.”
They always check them at night.
Once they are done farrowing, they put them on self-feeders with high-protein feeds with minerals and vitamins. They remove the sows after five weeks, so the young feeder pigs can continue to eat from the self-feeders.
Dolan’s hog heritage skipped a generation.
His grandfather, Charlie, moved on this place in the 1940s. The house was built in the 1920s. Charlie farmed with horses and milked a few cows. He kept about 20 sows as a sideline, through the late 1960s.
Dolan’s parents, Derwin and Delores, raised cattle 15 miles to the west along the east side of the Missouri River. Dolan was the second of five sons. All Dolan’s brothers first names that started with “D.”
There were no daughters.
Dolan graduated from high school in 1968. He went on to South Dakota State University where he played a year of football and studied agricultural education. He married Susan in 1970. Bart was born in 1971. After graduation in 1972, Dolan spent three months in a Reserve Officer Training Corps obligation at Fort Gordon, Ga. After 1973, he came back to move onto Charlie’s farmstead. Two daughters, Heather and Mandy, were born in 1974 and 1979, respectively.
“After I’d been back a couple of years and moved to place here, I decided I’d just as well raise some hogs,” Dolan said. “ I started with 30 head and as the years went on I just kept growing to 250 head.”
Dolan would farrow all of them in the spring and about half of them again for fall.
Dolan was joined in a partnership by his younger brother. Danny joined after high school and primarily cares for the cattle. Younger brother Dale graduated in diesel mechanics at Lake Area Technical College at Watertown, S.D., and also joined, caring for the cropping.
Dolan and Susan moved into town in 1986. Susan retired from Potter County Soil and Water Conservation District after 25 years.
Bart graduated from Gettysburg High School in 1989 and went to Northern State College in Aberdeen for ag education before returning to the farm.
From the start, Dolan liked pigs from the Duroc, Chester white and Hampshire breeds.
“Hamps” were “durable,” if a “little more ornery,” he said, smiling. The Durocs were just for a “change.” And the Chesters whites were good mothers. (“A lot of guys used York(shires) instead of Chesters, but I didn’t really care much for the pug nose on the York.”)
Hogs were common then.
“A lot of the guys came back from college, Vietnam,” he said. “Everybody was raising pigs.”
He figures neighbors sent 3,000 head head a year to a sale barn in Sioux Falls, S.D., for Tuesday sales across from the old Morrell plant (Smithfield Foods, today).
“They liked ‘outside pigs,’” he said. “They could take ’em and feed ’em outside or they can put them in their (feeding) barns, without any problems.”
Last year, they sold about 750 feeder pigs and about 600 butcher pigs. The Worths direct-sell about 30 to 40 head off the place in the fall. Processing plants have been busy as consumers countered COVID-19 meat shortages. “You’ve got to get in five or six months ahead of time to get anything processed,” Dolan said.
Worth pigs that don’t need medication are sold to an "all-natural” kill plant in Iowa. Some butcher hogs go through a buying station at Aberdeen, S.D., rather than direct to a packing plant.
“We start breeding right after Christmas, so they start farrowing about April 20,” he said. “We usually wean them on June 1.”
They use boars to breed back as many gilts as they can, but about half of the gilts are bred again for pigging for second group in September and October.
Bart declares he loves the pig business.
There is a lot of curiosity about the marketing, and whether there is any money in it. Some people are surprised that the open-air system doesn’t smell, except for a few short times a year when they clean out barns.
There are curiosities. In an era of artificial semination, one problem is that it’s hard to find boars that will effectively mate.
“When you get ’em you have to get about twice as many as you need, to get half of them to work,” he said. “And you have to pen-breed ’em so that you know that they’re ‘working’ or you might find that they don’t work at all.”
In the 1980s, the Worths briefly considered whether to put up a more capital-intensive hog confinement building. But that summer, cement supply became expensive and unavailable. So they stuck with their outdoor system.
“I just want to stay diversified as much as possible,” Dolan said. “Either your grain’s going to be low, or your cattle will be lower. Maybe that year the pigs’ll be higher. It helps even things out in the long run.”
Bart says most people like pigs. His wife, Carmen, was from Eureka, S.D., and is the activities director at the local retirement home. A son, Preston, 20, is a welding student at Lake Area Technical College in Watertown, S.D., and is interested in joining the farm. (Preston’s twin sister, Paige, is in law enforcement training at Northern State University.)
Before COVID, they’d take baby pigs in for the manor residents to greet and enjoy. “Made their day,” he said. Bart said he isn’t sure how long they can go on this way, but he said it would be hard to give up on the pigs or the customers.
“We sell 30 to 40 people around here,” Bart said. “They like our outdoor pigs. They want ’em. It’d be hard to just quit, all together.”