Mike Paustian may have turned in his lab coat when he left his job as a microbiology research scientist to return to his family’s farm, but that focus on research and constant improvement continues to drive how he raises pigs and crops in east-central Iowa.
Paustian is the sixth generation on his family’s farm near Walcott. They currently grow corn and soybeans and run a 1,200 sow farrow-to-finish operation, raising pigs from birth to harvest. All of the corn they raise is processed through an on-farm feed mill to feed to pigs.
Growing up on the farm, Paustian always had an interest in agriculture, but his path back to joining the farming business included earning advanced degrees and working in microbiology research.
“In high school, I took an AP biology course that included an independent research project. I worked with a veterinarian on antibiotic resistance and bacteria, and became interested in microbiology,” he said.
He majored in microbiology at Iowa State, then earned a PhD at the University of Minnesota. He returned to Ames, Iowa, for a postdoc project at the USDA National Animal Disease Center and then was hired as a permanent scientist.
“I enjoyed working in the lab and being in Ames, but when my wife, Amy, and I had kids, it changed our perspective and our priorities,” said Paustian. “We wanted to give our kids the opportunity to grow up on a farm like we did and moved back in 2007 when our oldest was just getting ready to start kindergarten.”
While leaving his scientific career was a difficult decision, the benefits of working with family and seeing children develop an understanding of agriculture has been the right fit for their farm and family.
“My parents are still actively involved in the farming operation, so we have the opportunity for three generations to work side-by-side,” said Paustian. “It builds a work ethic when kids are trying to keep up with their grandparents, and they learn a lot by seeing that example on how to work hard and work with family.”
Innovation improving pig care
Innovations in nearly all aspects of raising pigs are allowing him to be more precise, efficient and ensure that pigs are healthy and comfortable.
“We hear about technology going into ‘smart homes,’ but we already have ‘smart barns’ on the farm, and they are getting smarter all the time,” said Paustian. “I can pull up each barn’s environmental controls on my phone to see real-time updates of temperature, fans, how much water the animals are drinking, and more.”
Control and monitoring systems allow farmers to check on conditions in barns 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and can be set to send text message and email alerts if something is out of a normal range.
Paustian is excited about a number of technologies under development, including cameras in barns that will use machine learning to visually observe pigs and track behavior and movements in real time. If a pig doesn’t go to a feeder as often as it normally does, that may be a sign of illness, and the system can send an alert to producers to check on that individual animal.
“This will enhance the ability of producers to better care for animals,” he said. “Nothing will ever replace a producer in a barn observing animals – that has to happen multiple times a day – but technology can enhance our ability to provide attention to the pigs that need it most and detect potential issues earlier.”
Optimizing nutrition for improved animal health
Another area of constant innovation is in swine nutrition, as producers are looking at feed rations as a way to optimize health and potentially avoid or reduce medical treatments.
“Consumers have been telling us they want responsible use or no use at all of antibiotics in animal production, so there is a lot of work on how we can use nutrition programs to help protect the health of pigs so that antibiotics are not needed as much,” he said.
There is a great deal of interest in looking at what you can add to a diet to help protect gut health and support good bacteria that naturally ward off pathogens, said Paustian, noting significant research in metagenomics, which is understanding the bacterial makeup of everything living in a pig’s gut.
Innovations are not only driving improvements for pigs, but also for sustainability of the environment and farms themselves.
“I’m excited about the increased emphasis on sustainability that we’re seeing in agriculture and across society,” he said. “I’m especially excited because the pork industry has a good story to tell. Data shows we’re using less land, less water and less resources than we were 40 to 50 years ago, and we are continuing to get better.”
He welcomes the increased focus and the opportunity for Iowa’s pork producers and the pork industry to share their stories.
“As a whole, pork producers are very innovative and more than willing to adopt new technologies and information that will help us get better,” he said. “I’m eager to see what will happen over the next five to 10 years and how much we can keep moving the needle, and even get to producing a carbon neutral pig.”
Farmers key to new technology adoption
As past president and active member of Iowa Pork Producers Association, Paustian recognizes the important role that organizations like Iowa Pork and ISU Extension play in the development of new products and technologies and sharing information with farmers.
“As a farmer, you need to have expertise in nutrition, genetics, engineering, animal health, and more. It is frustrating to me that there aren’t enough hours in the day to be an expert in all those areas, but trying to keep up with all the new advancements and research is like drinking from a firehose,” he said.
“Producers need someone who can distill information and share it in a way that they can see what is relevant to their farm or problems. And, if you are an innovator with a new idea and it works, that’s super; but it won’t go anywhere unless producers know about it,”
The combination of forward-thinking producers, proximity to leading research institutions and a quickly growing startup ecosystem make Iowa the place to be for any founder company looking to bring new ideas to pork production.
“With 30% of the pigs in the U.S. raised in Iowa, you want to be where the pigs are,” he said. “I can’t think of a producer who hasn’t done trials in their barns with extension, universities or private companies looking to collect data to help pigs perform better or be more comfortable. We are more than willing to partner with folks with new ideas.”
Published November 2021.