Competition motivates in show pig businessWritten by Gayle Smith
Many of those pigs have gone on to become champions in events ranging from regional shows in Texas to the champion market swine at the Wyoming State Fair. Burkett has also produced hogs that have been named class winners in the competitive National Western Stock Show in Denver, Colo. each January. Through it all, Burkett continues to improve his genetics and breed hogs that will produce that next champion.
“I got involved in the 4-H market swine project when I was eight years old through 4-H,” he says. “My brother and I initially purchased all our show pigs, and over the years we had our share of champions at the Laramie County Fair. When I was a junior or senior in high school, we started raising some hogs. I really enjoyed it, so I kept doing it until I became an ag teacher and moved to Colorado.”
Five years later, in 1990, Burkett moved back to Hillsdale and decided to restart his swine business.
“To get started, I tried to find some good individuals to become foundation sows,” he says. “Quite a few of our sows go back to the same mother. The key is finding that one sow that generates a lot of champions at different county fairs. If something happens to her, you have to start over and find another one.”
One particular sow started out as a show pig that won several progress shows in Wyoming, and eventually became the champion market swine at Laramie County Fair. Burkett later put the sow in his breeding program, combined the right genetics, and produced a boar in her first litter that Burkett named Ricochet.
“Ricochet went on to sire the champion market swine at the Laramie County Fair three of the last four years,” Burkett says.
His offspring also won quite a few fairs around the state, and a reserve champion at Wyoming State Fair in 2010.
Genetics and management
Burkett collects semen from his boars, and AIs the sows with semen he collects as well as semen he purchases from other breeders around the country. He also sells some semen from his own boars.
Burkett has about 20 sows and produces two crops of piglets a year. The first crop arrives from January through the first part of February. Those pigs are sold in the western region for the mid-July and August fairs.
The second crop farrows during the summer, and most of those pigs are sold at the Ring of Success in Amarillo, Texas for the winter fairs and the National Western.
“Kids come from all over the country to the Texas sale,” notes Burkett.
Trends in the show pig business
During the last 20 years, Burkett has seen a lot of trends come and go in the show pig business.
“It seems like these fads change about every five to eight years,” he says, adding that first, pigs were supposed to have a big frame and long body, with an arch in their top. “Now, the industry looks for pigs that are more productive. These pigs are wider made, with heavier bone, and more stout.”
“I think we’re in a phase now where the industry needs to stay because these pigs are more functional,” he explains.
Comparatively, Burkett discusses a trend from a few years back when pigs were ultra-lean with no backfat.
“What ended up happening was the females couldn’t produce offspring because it takes body fat to produce milk,” he says. “Those ultra-lean sows would lay down in the crate and have problems raising their little ones. Right now, we’re raising pigs that are more productive, and they make nice show pigs, but they can also go on to make a good female.”
Through these fad phases, Burkett said he has tried to stick with the type of hog he likes to produce, even if they go a few years producing no winners.
“Sometimes there have been periods where my hogs don’t win as much, but a couple years later, they come back to the type of hog I produce,” he says. “I don’t chase fads, I just try to produce good hogs that I like.”
Working with youth
Burkett says one of the best aspects of raising show pigs is the opportunity to work with youth, something he says he really enjoys.
“There are a lot of different values you can teach through children,” he says. “To me, life is a competition. 4-H is a project where children can get something of their own, have ownership of it, and take the responsibility of feeding and caring for it. It also allows them to have one of their first financial ventures by keeping records, and being knowledgeable. Even if they don’t go on to an agriculture career, it teaches youth a lot of science, and helps them bridge that gap in areas they learn in the classroom.”
When children come to the farm or to a show pig sale, Burkett likes to see them spend a lot of time evaluating the prospect pigs.
“I think the most important thing to look at in a show pig is structure,” he explains. “Too many times I see kids looking at the pigs over the top of a fence. They can see the top shape of the pig, and they use that to base their entire decision on whether it will make a good show prospect. What they should really be studying is from the ground up, starting with their feet and legs, how they travel, how wide-based they are, and their bone shape. These are all indications of how good of a hog they will be.”
“You can buy the nicest pig out there, but if it can’t travel, it will get beat in the show ring,” he says. “It is important to get the pig out of the pen at a show pig sale and watch it travel. If it is sound, then start looking at its other traits. Take the time to study them, and a good one will jump out at you, even if you don’t have a trained eye.”
Once a youth has their prospect selected, Burkett tries to instill the importance of taking care of their project and preparing it for fair.
“The feeding program for the pig is really important,” he says. “I try to instill in the kids that if they don’t know something, try to find someone who does. I encourage them to find someone who has done it before, and is good at it. Hopefully, they can learn little things that will help them improve their project.”