Always Looking Ahead

How a growing family didn’t give up the dream of owning their own farm.

By Tharran E. Gaines | Photos By Jamie Cole

Murray Vollmer never abandoned his desire to farm, even after selling the 100 acres he bought from his parents. The farm had been large enough to support the family back in the day, but Vollmer and his wife, Shelly, who were also working other jobs, had come to the realization that the small operation in southern Ontario wasn’t paying off in the modern era.

“We actually farmed the home farm for about four years while I was also working as a millwright and Shelly was working as a counselor with the developmentally and physically challenged,” Vollmer says, noting that he had both hogs and cattle at the time. “However, we finally came to the decision to sell the farm.” Murray then took a new job as a herdsman for a hog operation, which provided housing as part of the package. All the while, though, the Vollmers had visions of their own farm that would be capable of supporting them and their growing family without having to hold down other full-time jobs.

It finally all came together 25 years ago. With money from the sale of the family farm, the couple had already paid off their debts. So, when they found the perfect 100-acre farm with a hog barn designed for 100 sows, located just 30 miles away near Wingham, Ontario, they were ready to make the move. Since that time, the Vollmers’ operation has expanded to around 1,800 acres—450 acres of which they own.

A Business Evolution

“When we first started at this location, Shelly was a full-time college student finishing her nursing degree, and I was raising the boys while getting the barns ready. We were fortunate that we were able to start working with a breeding company as a closed multiplier herd business that raised boars,” he says, explaining that his three years as a herdsman provided both industry connections and a good understanding of the business.

“However, within a couple years, we were seeing the AI [artificial insemination] units take off up here in Ontario,” he adds. “I could already see the boar market starting to drop off.”

Shelly balances the books.

Shelly balances the books.

So, Vollmer gave the company the agreed-upon six-month notice to dissolve the partnership and implemented a plan to transition to a commercial hog production. Two years after that, in 1996, the family expanded to accommodate more sows and a finishing barn.

“It’s fortunate that we kind of jumped the gun,” Vollmer relates. “Within two years of when we got out of the boar market, there weren’t a lot of boars being sold.”

Today, KTM Family Farm—which includes the Vollmers’ 27-year-old son, Kyle; 26-year-old son, T.J. (Tyler); and 20-year-old daughter, Micaela, who helps as needed when she is home from college—owns 220 sows and markets about 6,000 hogs per year, about 80% of which go to a meat packer in the United States. At the same time, they produce the majority of the feed they use on the 1,800 acres that are devoted to corn, wheat, soybeans and edible white beans. Some of each year’s harvest, however, is sold as cash grain.

Automation

It was also with an eye to the future that the Vollmers installed a futuristic, computerized feed mill in the hog-finishing barn. Thanks to the system, which automatically blends the feed and distributes it to the animals, Murray and his sons are able to handle the entire farm and hog operation by themselves without hired help.

“All we have to do is walk through the barn a couple times a day to make sure the hogs aren’t wasting feed or coming up short,” Vollmer explains.

“As the pigs grow in size, the computer automatically establishes a growth curve based on the weights we’ve entered in the computer and the feed conversion rate we’ve seen in the past,” he says. “It then calculates the ration, blends it together, divides it by five feedings per day and delivers the amount they should be able to consume before the next feeding.”

A man tests hog feed

Kyle tests feed.

In general, those rations, which are formulated with the help of a nutritionist, consist of corn, soybean meal, distillers grain, roasted soybeans and wheat shorts. However, if the Vollmers see that the corn market is improving, they will often substitute more distillers grain in the ration instead.

“We’re fortunate in that we have enough land to produce much of our own feed,” Vollmer says. “We also have enough land to utilize all the manure, which is especially high in P [potassium] and K [phosphorus].”

Continuous Improvement

Another more recent example of the Vollmers’ foresight was the purchase of a new Fendt® Model 1038 tractor rated at 380 HP. One of the first such tractors to be delivered in North America, its versatility allows it to take the place of both a large row-crop tractor and a 4-wheel-drive model. With a low, unladen weight of around 30,000 pounds, the 1038 can be balanced and ballasted for any number of jobs, including pulling a 10,000-gallon manure tanker.

“For the past 12 years, we’ve been injecting the hog manure,” Vollmer explains. “However, that was so time-consuming, between having to deal with hoses coming loose, the need to drive much slower, etc. Plus, it still required a second trip to level the field. So, we have started spreading it on the surface and working it in with a Sunflower® 6631 vertical-till machine.”

Vollmer expects that the new Fendt will also be used to pull his 1,100-bushel grain cart and their Sunflower 45-foot Model 5056 field cultivator. And since the 1038, like all Fendt tractors, is capable of traveling at 31 mph [50 kph] on paved roads, it is much faster and easier to transport.

“Between the improved fuel economy and the acres per hour we’re able to cover, I’d say we’re getting a minimum of 20% greater efficiency than we were with any of our other tractors,” he says. “Consequently, we’re quite pleased with the 1038. It’s quieter, runs smoother and the cab comfort is ideal.”

Vollmer says it’s yet to be seen what the future holds for hog production in Canada or for crop prices. One thing is for certain, though: The Vollmers aren’t ones to follow trends. Instead, they’re always looking ahead, setting new goals and adjusting accordingly.