When in Roam...

When in Roam…

By Bill Stork, DVM

Find yourself wedged under a Brush Hog that successfully located the long-lost sewer cover, overgrown by burdock and thistle, and Gary Edmonds is the friend who will lay an 11/16 box end in your palm and be on the top side with a socket to wrestle the mangled blade off.

Google Maps says it’s 180 miles and three hours from his door to mine. If I called and said “I need…” he’d drop his fork and phone and head north. He and his wife Dianne would be pulling down my drive in 2 ½ hours.

Gary grew up smack between the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, in Pittsfield, Illinois; 100 miles east of my hometown of Decatur. He is the epitome of a family man: a husband to his wife, a coach and father to his daughters, and a brother to his siblings as well as his friends. So much so, that in order to preserve his carcass and provide for his family, he has traded his Wranglers, ropers and 1-ton dually for a Toyota, khakis and a laptop. The man who is far more comfortable on a tractor or a roof with a nail gun, will make sure your home and auto are insured to their full replacement value by State Farm Insurance, Moline, Illinois.

The thread he will staunchly maintain to his porcine past is an outright, yet elegant, refusal to eat so much as a bite of chicken. Under any circumstances.

While not physically imposing, Gary walks with purpose and speaks decisively with a nearly concert baritone. Like many, the years and life behind a desk have served to round his shoulders and soften his hands. The inevitable march of time has thinned and peppered the hair on his head, but the physical feature the caricature artist at Disney would draw first is his mustache. The full-on horseshoe variety covers his upper lip and extends past his chin; later emulated and made popular by the likes of Hulk Hogan. I have no evidence he wasn’t born with it. He stood out like an electrical engineer in a Georgia Baptist choir in his 8th grade yearbook.

Gary and I met in 1986 at the University of Illinois Swine Research Center (SRC). SRC was a 500 sow farrow-to-finish research laboratory: one of three hog farms, a horse, sheep, dairy and beef operation that were known collectively as “South Farms”.

SRC sits just past Assembly Hall, where the once mighty “Flyin’ Illini” came within a game of a NCAA championship in 1989; and a soft southern breeze past Memorial Stadium, where Ray Nitschke and Dick Butkus once struck fear and crushed bones. (Chancellor Phyllis Wise recently appointed an independent commission to conduct a study as to why high-value academic and athletic recruits from the Chicago public and parochial school system are hesitant to commit to the University of Illinois.)

SRC conducted research on feed efficiency, carcass quality and genetics. We compared weight gain and feed efficiency of groups of pigs raised in simple environments and darkness to those in stadium lights and Dale-designed porcine playgrounds. We were early to the party in the field of Environmental Physiology, seeking to design animal containment facilities that maximized animal comfort, under the tutelage of a professor named Stanley Curtis.

Dr. Curtis furthered a very simple concept that largely defines animal agriculture to this day, called “The Welfare Plateau.” Simply put, the kinder we are to animals, the more healthy and productive they will be. Dr. Curtis was an amazing man, known for having an enormous backside, a photographic memory, and a graduate student named Temple Grandin. His hinder was a fortunate anatomic adaptation, as he was never without an entourage of academics, and prone to sudden stops.

In her early days, Temple researched the effects of running pigs into a chute and squeezing them – a technique she eventually showed to have a significant calming effect on dozens of varieties of animals. Since that time she has gone on to be the world’s leading authority on the humane handling of production animals, and has written several books on companion animal behavior. Temple is a heroine to families worldwide: she was born Autistic, and is one of the first to describe the condition from the inside, out. It can be said, without a thread of exaggeration, that she has done more to further the future of children with Autism than anyone before her, or since.

SRC was run by a man named Bill. At least, in the sense that he had the front office, two filing cabinets and a phone. His Oklahoma drawl and physique spoke of a man who believed in his product. “Boss Man” was amiable as the day was long; however, when it came to running a farm, he couldn’t find his butt with both hands.

Fortunately, SRC was staffed by a full-time cast of characters who were as diverse as they were capable. Dale was the maintenance man and metal fabricating magician. There are rumors that he blames me to this day for any missing tools (I drew my last paycheck in 1990).

Diane, literally, ran the farrowing barn and nursery. She only took days off to make emergency trips to Memphis, as her brother Leroy/Elvis/Bubba had multiple personality disorder and a penchant for hostile takeovers of Graceland during his weeks as The King.

Scotty ran the breeding barn, built his own home, got married and had kids in diapers, grade school and middle school by an age when most of us are getting the hang of shaving.

So in the University of Illinois Hog Farm Hierarchy, you have Oklahoma Bill and the professors at the top, the graduate students and full-time farm crew in the middle, and Gary and I bringing up the rear, technically classified as grunts. This classification was confirmed by the sizzle of a 3ft cattle prod vaporizing the sweat between my clavicles, a fraction of a second before I grunted like being tackled by Clay Mathews and hit the woven wire deck of the trailer. I figured it was either some sort of rite of passage, or payback for a well-timed quip that questioned the preferences of Dale, 48 hours into my tenure at SRC.

We were deeply concerned with the ultimate goal of putting the most healthy chops and brats on your Weber, as humanely and efficiently as possible… and water skiing.

In order to appreciate the vitality of our roles in the execution of the world-class research taking place at SRC, you'll need a brief lesson in porcine behavior, anatomy and nutrition, as it relates to agricultural engineering.

Two of the most important measures of porcine production are weight gain and feed efficiency. Scientists are charged with the responsibility of weighing what goes into the pig, and measuring how quickly and lean they grow. Kind of a scientific version of pencil marks on the basement door frame on the first day of school, if mom were to count every bowl of Cheerios and chocolate chip cookie in between.

Mark Twain said, “Never teach a pig to sing, it wastes your time and annoys the pig.” Mittsy Voiles, CPDT-KA (she’s really smart and knows about these things), said they are cute, funny and smarter than dogs.

Chefs will debate peach demi-glace and Riesling, vs. Arthur Bryant’s barbecue and an IPA.

What has never been said is they are delicate, neat or polite. Gary Edmonds and Willy Stork will testify.

Agricultural engineers have worked for years to design a feeder that will deliver grain to a pen of pigs uniformly, without being destroyed. In decades, the design has changed little. Feed is poured in the top, regulated by a baffle at the bottom, and covered by a lid.

As alluded to by Mittsy, pigs are smart enough to lift the lid, if you assigned it a 6-digit entry code and a touch pad. The association they have yet to make, is what happens when they mangle the lid or get it stuck in the “up” position. First, there will be mayhem as the lid is open for free access. Then things get ugly.

If Mr. Twain thinks it annoys a pig to teach them to sing, then what if you “piss in their cornflakes”? Given the opportunity, pigs are relatively good at not soiling the area where they lay and eat. There are exceptions: like a 3 year old at McDonald's Playland, or the line at a Jimmy Buffet concert.

Mike Perry advises to limit your time behind a sneezing cow. Similarly, never place your breakfast behind a gilt (young female pig). If the urge strikes at the exact moment that another pig is breakfasting in front of a failed or mangled feeder lid, the integrity of the world-class research at the University of Illinois Swine Research Center is in jeopardy.

That is the time when the grunts become a gilt's best friend.

At 5:00AM, Gary and I would divide and conquer. Armed with a feeder rod and the second half of a 48oz Mountain Dew “Mega-Buddy” from 7-Eleven, we would descend on the grower and finisher barns. Dale’s feeder rods were a 3-foot piece of steel, with a hand loop on one end, and a hook on the other; perfect for digging wet grain from under the baffles. Dale was a skilled fabricator, but there is only one tool that could efficiently dig feed, manure and urine out of the feeder bowls: your hand. Preferably the hand opposite the one you used to install the first dip of Skoal, when the Mega-Buddy hit bottom.

Off the clock, Gary and I talked for hours about girls, water skiing, music, and girls. Though it was never spoken, we were bound and damn determined that when the first of the full-time farm crew kicked up the gravel dust, every pig was eatin’ clean. Research could commence at the top of the clock. The integrity of the work at SRC and the welfare of the herd was our first motivation; getting to the lake, just a perk. Having arrived three hours early, Gary and I could be on Lake Decatur by the time the full-timers hit the shower, on the end of a 65ft tow rope, kicking up a massive wall of muddy water.

As glamorous as our position was not, there were jobs we jockeyed for.  Mowing grass, trimming weeds, spreading gravel in the parking lot pot holes and moving irrigation pipe, to name a few. You may sense a trend. Outdoor jobs were a premium, even though the closest thing to “fresh” air must have been on a mountaintop in Colorado.

There was no job more desirable than hauling pigs from the finishing barn to the final phase of the research project. Competition among the crew was directly proportionate to the weather for the day: the warmer and more sunny, the more intense. The Meat Science Lab was on the corner of campus. Though not the most direct route, you could catch a public park, three sororities and the Intra Mural Physical Education Building along the way. IMPE had an Olympic sized swimming pool surrounded by a deck the size of a football field. Chances were good, especially during summer session, you were going to see things far more attractive than a thousand pigs, or Dale.

Transport was a 7x16 pig pen on wheels, drawn by a 1969 Case 530. Like a mini-van chair lift, it raised from flat on the ground to chest high. For that function we would soon become eternally grateful. Arranged orderly - ham to shoulder to bacon - it would haul eighteen 250lb passengers. On this fateful day we had 21. Rather than take two trips, everybody sucked it in.

I looked both ways, and pulled onto South 1st St. Grinding and skipping from 2nd to road gear, I dropped the clutch and throttled up. The old tractor lugged a puff of black smoke and by the time I passed the first of our unfortunate neighbors, the tires were whining against the blacktop.

My barber, an 80-year-old WWII Veteran named Wes Gillespie called me “Duroc”.  I sported a full head of dark red hair, expertly trimmed by Wes - flat on top, tight on the sides. In order to keep the sweat out of my sight, I sported a blue OshKosh B’gosh do-rag, formed to my head in homage to my guitar totin’ buddy, Bruiser. Caked with feed dust and manure, my favorite pair of holiest Levi’s would have stood in a corner without me in them. My left foot in brown rubber boots tapped the beat of “Pain as Big as Texas” on the gangway as I rolled down the road and sang out loud in full voice behind the growl of the tractor. T-shirt cropped cool like Kenny Chesney, I was quite the sight.

Cars passed as I waved and spit between the tire and fender, nothing could break my rhythm. The closer I got to town, the more friendly, if not exuberant, folks became. Every person I passed was waving. I pulled into town contemplating how I might lure one of the bathing beauties from her Walkman and blanket to my tractor, which was not in the least bit sexy. Before I could work out those details, the afternoon took a turn.

As the first University buildings came into view, I downshifted and throttled. Northbound was a young man with his left arm and whole head out the door of his Chevy, waving frantically and pointing.

Curious, I turned my head to see the tender-foot bottom of the hog hauler with only fragrant evidence there had ever been a pig inside. Their exodus was manifest by the endgate swinging freely into oncoming traffic.

Immediately I thought: Will this hurt my chances with the girls? How will I get the pigs back on? What’s Oklahoma Bill going to say? Others would follow.

Were it not for good fortune, the nature of pigs and the Ogallala Aquifer, the feral pig population of central Illinois may have started with a cotter pin placed backwards.

On the east side of South 1st Street, there was a Mazda Rx-7, Nissan Z-something and a Corvette, parked bumper to bumper. I backed the trailer so the gate matched the bumper of the Mazda, and they became my crowd gate.

As for the pigs... Beginning with the Romans, centuries before chisel plows, there were hungry people, and pigs. Where ground was too hard, dry and rocky to pierce with a pick or a shovel, they would turn herds of pigs. In search of insects and mud, pigs instantly bury their snouts and root.

Mid-summer ’88 we were squarely in the middle of 15 consecutive 100-degree highs, and dust bowl dry. The one notable exception was the manicured and landscaped quarter-acre lawn of the University of Illinois Credit Union. Thanks to an abundant under-ground water supply, employees could gaze at a veritable oasis in the middle of an historic drought.

Having spent the first six months of their life under roof and on concrete, the pigs moved with efficiency, purpose and power. There were water lines, wires and divots to be rooted up, as if a far-sighted Paul Bunyan golfed with Babe as his caddy. The polarized glass of the U of I Credit Union reflected the morning sun, and left us to forever wonder what was going on inside.

The gentleman who had waved me down had farm-smarts and two brooms. Thankfully, the nature of pigs is to move to what is familiar. Shortly, we had them rounded up and secured.

Cell phones were a decade in the future, which mattered not. I would have tried anything short of issuing an SOS. I had no fear of discipline; it was the ribbin’ from the fellas I’d avoid at any cost.

I’m fairly certain who put the cotter pin in, open towards the pigs.

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