By Sarah Johnson
Missourian Staff Writer
Three local families have been providing pork, dairy, beef and produce to other families for more than a century.
Although they produce different products, Rick Rehmeier, Bill McLaren and Rick Scheer have several things in common — a passion for their family business, the love of the land and dedication to producing a safe and nutritious product.
This was a common message the three farmers conveyed to a group of journalists, bloggers, food critics and members of agricultural organizations that loaded onto a bus early Friday morning for a farm tour hosted by the Missouri Beef Industry Council.
Rehmeier Farms, Inc., Established 1850
The first stop on the tour was the hub of Rehmeier Farms, about 600 acres atop of the highest points in St. Charles County near the rolling hills of Augusta.
Rick Rehmeier, a fifth-generation farmer, led a tour of his farm-to-plate hog operation and grain farm.
There are four generations still working the farm, including Rehmeier’s brother Dean and Rehmeier’s 84-year-old father, Layton Rehmeier, who has lived in the farm’s main house since he was born.
“Dad still likes to take care of pigs and run a tractor in the fall of the year,” Rehmeier said.
The hogs, a Berkshire cross, are housed at six locations, three the Rehmeier family owns, and three they lease.
The tour included a walk-through of one of the buildings that contained nurseries and farrowing rooms.
The building is environmentally controlled, and each room has its own computer to carefully monitor the temperature within.
The weanlings and young hogs are housed in large pens that have a grating system that allows waste to drop through, keeping the building remarkably clean. The waste system pumps the manure out of the building and into a lagoon where it is stored then redistributed to fertilize the 2,000 acres of crops grown at Rehmeier Farms.
The sows, which produce about two litters of 11 piglets per year, are housed in farrowing crates, which Rehmeier said protects both the sows and the babies.
The piglets are protected from the mothers as well, as each sow is situated in the middle of a larger pen that allows them to nurse, but to stay free of the mother’s reach at the same time. Each farrowing room is kept at 70 degrees, with 90-degree heating pads in each pen for the newborns to lay on.
The sows are all artificially inseminated, which Rehmeier said allows them to keep only four boars instead of the 60 it would otherwise require to inseminate the farm’s 1,000 sows.
The lactating sows are fed about 16 pounds of feed twice per day, but Rehmeier said they don’t use any type of automated feeding system.
“It forces you to go look at them,” he said. “Automation is a wonderful thing, but sometimes you still need your eyes to see if there is a sick one.”
In just six months, the babies will grow to about 250 pounds and are then shipped off to market.
Rehmeier Farms produces about 4 million pounds of pork per year for Farmland Foods in Monmouth, Ill.
They raise about 20,000 market hogs per year, farrow (birth) to finish (market).
The family butchers some of its own hogs and there is a smokehouse on the farm where much of the pork is cured.
Rehmeier Farms also has a grain operation that produces much of the corn fed to the hogs. Rehmeier said they consume about 200,000 bushels of corn per year.
The farm also produces wheat and soybeans.
McLaren Family Farm, Established 1891
The tour also stopped at the McLaren Family Farm in Pacific, where lunch, provided by the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association, was served before touring the farm.
Bill McLaren is a fourth generation farmer.
Fred and Caroline Howe, McLaren’s great-grandparents, purchased 80 acres just west of St. Louis on Thornton Road in Pacific in 1891.
The family raised cattle, sheep and chickens, and grew fruits and vegetables that were sold in the St. Louis market.
In 1922, the second generation of Howes bought a second farm near Pacific that added 122 acres.
In 1965 McLaren’s mother inherited the Thornton Road farm, which McLaren operates today with his wife Linda.
The couple leased the second farm from McLaren’s grandmother in 1981.
McLaren says he’s an average beef producer.
“The average beef producer is 61, and I’m 57,” he said. “The average beef producer has 28 cows. I have 26. Look at me with this farm and the rocks and sticks and you can assume this is just your average beef farm.”
Although McLaren said he is an “average” cattleman, Crooked Creek beef strives to produce an above-average product.
“We actually raise every cow,” he said. “The only thing we buy is bulls so we can keep a good handle on disease. We do some vaccinations, but we don’t use hormones or steroids.”
The McLarens sell some of their grass-fed beef direct to consumers, offering whole sides and quarters, which can be ordered from their website, crookedcreekbeef.com.
Some of the beef also is shipped to northern Missouri, where it is sold in the Japanese market.
The beef that goes to local tables gets its start before conception, McLaren said.
“We’re using our knowledge of genetics, reproduction and physiology to improve our plants and animals,” he said.
Genetic engineering is nothing new to the family farm. McLaren’s great-uncle implemented the process of tree grafting more than 45 years ago on some of the farm’s walnut trees, which enabled them to produce a more abundant crop.
“For centuries in agriculture we have looked to be the most sustainable and to be good stewards of the land,” he said.
Scheer Dairy Farm, Established 1897
Rick Scheer, who operates Scheer Dairy Farm in New Haven with his parents and other family members, is a fourth-generation dairy farmer.
“I’m pretty comfortable saying we’ve milked cows in three different centuries,” said Scheer, who was the guest speaker at Friday’s luncheon at McLaren’s farm.
Scheer Dairy Farm was the first in Missouri to install an automated milking system.
“Our cows milk themselves,” he said.
The Scheers have three Lely robotic milkers, and each machine milks 60 cows per day. The herd averages 70 pounds of milk per cow per day, which is approximately 20,000-21,000 pounds of milk per cow per year. The state-inspected Grade A milk is shipped to Prairie Farms.
The 131 Holstein cows come in on their own about three times per day to be milked.
“The cows come up and get milked anytime they want to,” Scheer said. “It allows the cow to set her own schedule and work at her own pace.”
Scheer said a special feed is distributed into the milking stall by the robotic milker that gives the cow incentive to come to the barn for milking.
“We call it cow candy,” he said. “That’s what draws the cows in and gets the high producing cows to come in more frequently.”
The cows have to “qualify” to get milked, which keeps them from coming in too often to get milked.
“The mechanics of the milkers seem pretty overwhelming at first,” Scheer said. “There’s lots of hoses and lots of air valves, but it’s pretty much a vacuum pump, a pulsation system and a milk delivery system.”
A series of sensors near the vacuum pumps on the cow measure numerous aspects of the milk, including color, temperature and conductivity of the milk.
“If there’s anything not quite right about that milk, it will dump it down the drain,” he said. “We can identify which cow might have an issue. We can really stay ahead of health concerns and take care of it before it becomes a bigger problem.
The computer system gathers and stores 127 pieces of information on every cow every time she gets milked, Scheer said.
“Taking care of the cows is my number one priority,” Scheer said. “If I take care of the cows, then they’ll take care of us.”