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Ashby brothers find niche in drug-free hogs

Brady (left) and Michael Ashby stand by their pen of pigs in rural Adrian.

ADRIAN — It all began with a single sow.

Now, brothers Brady and Michael Ashby have a nice market for their drug-free hogs.

“We started out by buying one bred sow, which our dad thought was crazy for getting into pigs because he had pigs in the ’80s when the market crashed,” Brady said. “We bought one sow, and she farrowed and we raised out them and kept them for sows. We started selling to the stockyards.”

“We don’t give antibiotics and we don’t put it in the feed,” Michael said. “There are certain ones where you give it to them with the feed to put on weight — I would call it a steroid, basically. We don’t feed that kind of stuff. They have their own immune system that’s a lot stronger.”

Not using any drugs can create some challenges.

“There are some,” Michael said. “If you do get a sick pig, you can’t really treat them. But we really don’t have much problem with it.

“You can’t use any drugs. You can only use vaccines.”

There is only one vaccine given.

“When they are little, we give them one shot,” Brady said. “We give them one so they don’t get a crooked nose. It’s a vaccine. That’s the only thing they get. They get that when they are three days old. After that, they are on their own.”

Even without antibiotics, the survival rate is pretty good.

“Normally, they say 10 percent, but I would say ours is five or eight percent. It’s not very high,” Michael said.

“We also have less pigs,” Brady said. “You can take care of them better.”

At one time, the most they have is 170 pigs. The brothers said it takes a little longer to get them raised to market weight.

“It takes us probably about six months to raise them out, where in most hog confinements it’s five months. It takes a little longer,” Michael said. “That’s a controlled environment. They are outside — they have to eat more and keep their calories up to stay warm.”

The pigs are fed with ground corn and soybean meal, mineral and some sweetener.

“This year we started feeding our own soybeans,” Brady said.

Michael said they would like to raise conventional feed ingredients for their product.

“GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are a big deal now,” he said. “I’d like to switch to conventionals, which is more natural corn. GMO has traits bred into it to fight off pests and stuff. Conventional doesn’t have that, but in my opinion whenever you mess with something, something is going to happen.

“I’ve heard lots of places that it’s a lot better feed. I want to try that and see how it goes, plus it’s a lot cheaper.”

Brady, 23, and Michael, 21, began the venture 10 years ago.

“It started out that we didn’t have enough money to buy the first pig, so then our sister helped pay for it,” Brady said. “After the first bunch, we sold them and bought her share out. It was more of an investment for her.”

The brothers wanted to get into the agriculture business.

“We thought we had to start somewhere,” Brady said. “We didn’t have the land to start farming, so we started with livestock.”

“It’s one of those things where if you don’t have the numbers, you have to have something special — a niche,” Michael said.

When the brothers first began, they started out by not giving any of their hogs antibiotics.

“Most of it we were going off our dad, because back then they didn’t give them the antibiotics like they do now,” Brady said.

“A lot of times now they will continually put it in the feed and stuff,” Michael added. “That costs a lot of money. Starting out and selling our pigs, we were selling them to the stockyard and we weren’t making very much. We had to cut corners somewhere.”

While the brothers began by selling to stockyards, they decided to sell their hogs privately.

“We knew there was a market for it, so we thought we were doing it anyway, so we might as well start selling it privately,” Brady said.

“It was just a trial the first year, just to see how it goes. It seemed to start working pretty good,” Michael added.

They started out small and used the Internet to sell hogs.

“We started out by selling to people we know,” Brady said. “Then we started advertising in the paper and on Craigslist.

“We did the Worthington fair last year. And we’ll probably do a couple more this year.”

The response has been good, and many of their customers can taste the difference in the meat.

“We get a lot of people who say they don’t realize pigs are raised like this anymore,” Brady said.

“A lot of older people like it like it used to be. Our breeds are little more rare,” Michael said. “We have like Berkshire and Hereford and a little bit of everything. They are more exotic. We get orange and black ones. Sometimes they are spotted.”

The brothers say the price is right for both parties.

“There is a little premium, but we are also under the store price at the same time, though,” Michael said. “I like to say you’re getting a good deal and we’re getting a good deal. We’re getting a better price and you’re getting a cheaper price.”

They are hoping at some point to be able to make a living on selling drug-free hogs. Currently, Michael works at Randy’s Welding in Adrian; Brady is a mechanic at the John Deere dealer in Worthington.

“That’s kind of the goal for the next two or three years or so,” Michael said. “I think it’s possible. I figured every year we’ve doubled customers.”

“This is the third year we’ve really been going the way we are now with the drug-free outdoor pigs,” Brady added. “We sold like 10 or 12 the first year. The second year was about, 50 and last year was about 80.”

It’s a market they think will continue to improve.

“It’s only a growing market,” Brady said. “It’s not a market where, ‘This is all the bigger it’s going to be.’”

Anyone interested in purchasing a pig from the Ashbys can contact Michael at (507) 227-4124.

Community Content Coordinator Aaron Hagen may be reached at 376-7323.