Christensen Farms and Feedlots Inc.
In Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, approximately two hours southwest of Twin Cities Minneapolis and St. Paul, Christensen Farms and Feedlots Inc. (Christensen Farms) has been building a pork-production business for 40 years. A progressive, family-owned business, Christensen Farms is one of the top four pork producers in the U.S., with operations spanning the upper Midwest.
“We celebrated 40 years in 2014,” shares Glenn Stolt, now CEO of Christensen Farms. “The company started as a small family-run operation in 1974 by Bob and Lynn Christensen with two bred gilts they received from a neighbor who recognized the boys’ entrepreneurial spirits.”
New leadership, same direction and dedication
By the time Bob graduated in 1980, the brothers had formed a 140-head farrow-to-finish operation, one of the largest sow herds in Brown County, Minnesota. “Over the course of 40 years, the Christensen family has built an enterprise and we currently have 175,000 sows as one of the largest pork production companies in the country,” tells Stolt, who joined the organization in 2010 as CFO.
“When I joined Christensen Farms I had no prior ag experience,” he recalls. “In November 2012, Bob suffered a heart attack and passed away at 51 years old; it was a shock to the company and the industry. The family asked me to take over his role on an interim basis and a few months later, I was asked to step in officially as CEO.”
Stolt says he’s blessed to have strong basis to build from with a great management team and people who know the industry really well. “Being a first-generation, privately-held organization has allowed us to stay grounded, while demonstrating our broader business skills to help us grow and move forward,” he explains.
Making a mark in the Midwest and well beyond
Today, Christensen Farms is an integrated food company, operating across seven states with its principle office in southern Minnesota. “We touch Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, Colorado, Illinois and Missouri,” says Stolt. “We’re fortunate that this is the region we’re in simply because the Christensen brothers grew up here. It’s the best place in the world to raise pork in the midst of the Corn Belt. We have easy, less expensive access to our feed inputs.”
Over the last four decades, the operation has expanded across the upper Midwest through various acquisitions and mergers with farmers and growers. “Our history is a culmination of inflection points, acquisitions, startups and establishments of contracts with growers and people that ultimately decided to take part of their land to put up a finishing barn and allow Christensen Farms to supplement their income,” explains Stolt. “Raising animals also helps farms secure the ability to repurpose manure to fertilize their fields.”
Between all extensions and 175,000 sows, including sows dedicated toward nucleus and multiplication operations, Christensen Farms produces and brings to market an estimated 3.9 million pigs a year.
“We operate more than 500 farms across the Midwest and Christensen Farms has 1,100 direct employees, but if you take into account contract growers, truckers, load crews and other indirect employees, there are about 2,500 individuals that touch our business every day,” notes Stolt.
From soup to nuts
By far, the company’s largest aligned partnership is with Triumph Foods (Triumph), one of the largest and most highly automated pork processing plants in the nation in St. Joe, Missouri.
“Triumph, of which we are the largest owner, processes roughly 6 million pigs a year,” measures Stolt. “In 2014, through Triumph, we also made an acquisition for a 50 percent stake in Daily’s Foods, a company that dates back to 1893 and is a major producer of bacon, ham and sausage for the food service and retail market.”
From the live animal to the bacon on your breakfast plate, Christensen Farms has fast become an integrated pork company. “If you think about every step in the value chain of pork, from corn and soybeans all the way to the production of a pork chop, we play a little bit in all of those areas,” explains Stolt. “From five feed mills to proprietary genetics to live production and ultimately to further processing, we’ve focused a little on each step of the process.”
Healthy, well cared for pigs
As a leader in this major production industry, Christensen Farms is dedicated to delivering high-quality, safe and wholesome pork products to consumers. “We raise enough fresh pork to feed more than 15 million people annually and we take that seriously,” says Stolt. “By far, the most important thing is raising healthy pigs to produce quality pork. Animal care is paramount in our business.”
Healthy, well cared for pigs start with good genetics and creating the ideal living environment. “Making the right pig that’s healthy as can be, but also produces a good quality pork product down the road is about creating the right amounts of feed, water and ventilation,” he explains. “We have two Ph.D. nutritionists on staff and we’re in regular contact with nutrition vendors. Also, our production people and veterinarians spend an enormous amount of time monitoring feed and water intake, as well as the health conditions on the farm.”
“If you can do all of these things right, especially what’s right for the pig, then you can produce a healthy, affordable product,” says Stolt.
The right formula
But maintaining the proper balance is no small task; it requires robust asset management and data analysis. “We’re fortunate to have a strong asset management group that’s always working on repair and maintenance projects, enhancements and improvements to existing facilities,” shares Stolt. “On the nutrition side, it’s a constant adjustment based on input costs. Today, corn might be $3.50, but tomorrow it may be $7.00; commodity pricing dictates our formulations from an economic standpoint while at the same time making sure pigs get the nutrition they need.”
With so many factors based in commodity pricing, Stolt says it’s often risky business, reliant on data to make informed decisions. “This is a very data rich industry,” he compares. “The challenge is finding the right thing to look at because we analyze everything from mortality rates to health, feed conversions to average daily gain trends, sow litter size, quality and health.”
But he says it comes back to Christensen Farms ongoing mantra; doing what’s best for the animal. “If you do what’s right for the pig, everything else kind of works itself out,” he suggests.
The pressure is on
Even with precise and regular data collection, Stolt says there’s one thing about the industry that just doesn’t add up these days; feeding an ever-increasing global population. And the pressure on farms is unlike anything in the past.
“In the U.S., a little more than 100 million pigs are taken to harvest every year and about 22 percent of that is exported around the world,” he notes. “We’re a major part of this process, raising enough pork to feed more than 15 million people annually. Not only are we responsible for producing a high-quality pork product; at the end of the day, we’re also feeding the growing world.”
“The reality is that 7 billion people on the planet is set to rise to about 10 billion by 2050,” adds Stolt. “Inside that the middle class is expected to double in size by 2030, mainly in countries like China. When people improve their lifestyle, the first thing they do is improve their diet, switching to a protein-based diet where pork and other meats play a big role.”
Stolt describes the situation as sort of a “noble cause” for food producers around the world. “We’re challenged to meet this demand with little arable land and less resources –I think this is something the end consumer doesn’t have a grasp on,” he considers. “When you ask someone, ‘where did that food come from,’ the most common answer is the grocery store.”
Stolt says in the ag-market as a whole, the biggest challenge is the loss of touch with the end consumer. “I think Tom Vilsack, secretary of the department of agriculture for the USDA, said it best at World Pork in June in Des Moines: ‘100 years ago, we were all farmers and our primary purpose was to grow food to support our families.’”
Over the last century, those who farm have had to compensate for the large portion of the population performing other necessary jobs, weighs Stolt. “With greater responsibility on farmers, we take pride in being a leading innovator in the industry while forging new links in the farm to food chain,” he says.
A host of challenges
Rising global population is far from Christensen Farm’s only obstacle. Disease, commodity pricing and labor are all major hurdles, even for a company of Christensen Farm’s size and stature. “However, strong connection with Triumph Foods and our other packer partners helps us mitigate some of this risk,” considers Stolt.
“The PEDV virus, which came to the U.S. in April 2013 has caused production disruption across the industry and within our system,” reveals Stolt. “For farms that get infected, there’s a 100 percent mortality loss in piglets and the reaction is to get sows immune to the virus.”
Stolt says another serious shortfall is recruiting labor in a rural environment, with less and less young people turning to the farm for work. “It’s a fun and exciting business, but very challenging nonetheless,” he admits.
But every year, the family-owned farm continues to produce high-quality pork to feed other families across the U.S., adding to the operation annually. “We’re always looking to improve our current business model through growth and operational improvements,” says Stolt. “We’re also pursuing strategic, value-added acquisitions. Last January, we added about 15,000 sows or 10 percent volume by adding another quality, small business.”
As one of the largest pork production companies in the country, Christensen Farms and Feedlots Inc. is an industry leader, striving for the highest level of animal care and treatment standards while bridging the gap between producers and consumers.