Fleshners find fulfillment in a hog barn
On a farm in southeast Grundy County near the Tama County line, a Gladbrook-Reinbeck family has made a hobby into a lifestyle.
A few years ago Chris and Holly Fleshner were helping their oldest child Emma decide what she wanted to focus on in her 4-H club.
Emma grew up through the 4-H program and had experience showing bottle calves, horses as well as working with non-livestock static projects.
However, around 2018 it was swine showing that eventually won her heart.
Both Emma’s dad Chris and grandpa Vic Vandehaar had past experience working with pigs and when Emma and her brother Cole expressed interest in focusing their extracurricular attention toward showing pigs, the family got to work.
In earlier years the family ran a cow/calf operation as a supplement to their off-farm careers.
When pigs joined the fold, the family sold off some of their cattle and began outfitting their buildings to support pig breeding and farrowing.
The family began with breeding two sows their first year and with a lot of help and input from neighbors, ag professionals and fellow families around the pig showing community have grown their operation to six sows that produce around 50 pigs each year.
Emma and Cole are both very dedicated to choring on the farm twice a day, though their parents help out when needed as they’ve got other commitments and responsibilities as students and members of other extracurricular groups.
“Some kids sleep in over the summer, our kids wash pigs,” Chris Fleshner said.
During farrowing season when the sows are getting close to giving birth, the family has a rotation where they’ll have someone checking the hogs every two hours from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. before everybody gets up at 6 a.m. to get the day going.
Both parents said they appreciated the benefit that comes with living in a rural school district that understands the demands of farm life and tries their best to be flexible during times like farrowing season when hours get long.
Emma and Cole have also become ambassadors at their school as they often have invited friends out to their farm who don’t live around livestock to bring them into the farm life experience.
“We’ve found one of the great things swine showing has done for our kids is give them a way to test out careers and get more exposure in the ag industry as they’re considering what they want to study and pursue after high school,” Holly Fleshner said.
One aspect of raising pigs Emma has enjoyed is learning about the ins and outs of feed and nutrition. Mid-Iowa Coop Livestock Production Specialist Bailey Uhlenhopp has worked closely with Emma as she’s learned about the nuances of a strategic nutrition plan for her pigs.
Last year the family competed in the Iowa Swine Jackpot series which runs from April to June and gives Iowa youth opportunities to hone their show skills before fair season kicks into full gear.
Both Cole and Emma said the extra time they put into showing through the spring and early summer at the jackpot shows helped with their confidence and showmanship when they competed at the Grundy County Fair and the Iowa State Fair in July and August.
Chris and Holly remarked that they considered traveling with their family (and their pigs) to different jackpot competitions was similar to other families investing time with traveling volleyball or basketball teams.
When the family decided to sign up for the jackpot series shows, they outfitted a trailer that can safely and comfortably transport everything they need for them and their animals while on the road.
Over the past few years the Fleshners have also learned how to primp and prep their pigs to look their best for the spotlight.
Cole learned how to trim pigs from a friend and found the concept not that different from trimming cows for the show ring. There’s just less hair to work with.
As their swine herd has grown, the Fleshners have developed a small business called Fleshners Finest where they make their pigs available for sale to families around the region that are looking for show pigs.
Knowing how much support has been given to them through their swine breeding and showing experience, the Fleshners do their best to pay it forward to the families they sell to.
Over the past year Cole has spent time developing shirts and hats to market the Fleshner brand, as well as a YouTube channel called Cole the Pig Man.
Cole got the inspiration from Cole Langenbau’s Cole the Cornstar farm family vlog that has gained popularity in recent years.
Cole the Pig Man’s videos gives viewers an inside look at the Fleshner’s process of breeding, raising and showing pigs in Iowa.
The Fleshners said the main thing they try to focus on while their kids are competing is showmanship. Given that genetics and judges preferences are factors somewhat out of a competitor’s control, showmanship competition provides a level playing field for all competitors to display knowledge about their animal and communication skills in the arena.
“Watching Emma in the show ring this year, you would have thought she was a completely different person from the year before,” Chris said. “I think before she would have walked out asking, ‘Should I win?’. Now when I see her go into the ring, I see the confidence she has knowing she’ll walk out a winner.”
Emma said working with pigs has helped her learn patience as they can be stubborn and rarely check the family calendar before planning their engagements.
The fair season proved favorable for the Fleshners as Emma earned Senior Showmanship Champion at the Grundy County Fair and Cole earned third among a highly competitive junior class.
At the Iowa State Fair, Cole came away with 4th in class for his breeding gilt.
Though they are often working and showing together, Emma and Cole have different preferences when it comes to their swine.
Emma likes to work with crossbred barrows, while Cole prefers purebred Chester White gilts.
As a senior in high school, this will be Emma’s last year showing for 4-H. She doesn’t yet know what her plans are after high school but said she intends to continue showing pigs with her family in the jackpot series.
Emma said one of the most enjoyable parts of the swine experience has been how each litter of pigs brings something new to work with.
“Every friend you have is not the same,” Emma said. “It’s the same with pigs. No two pigs are the same and that makes the process interesting and challenging in different ways.”