The Right Stuff

Gopher Nation has what it takes to be a stud

piglets

By Patty Mattern

On March 10, 2012, a grand sow gave birth to nine piglets inside a barn on the St. Paul campus. All were cute, but the people who operate the U of M Swine Unit recognized something special about one of the newborns.

“When he was a week old, I knew he was something special,” said Kyle Rozeboom (’94–B.S., animal and plant systems), the youth leadership/livestock expert who oversees the swine unit.

The piglet stood a little bit bigger, wider and stouter than the others in the litter.

Gopher Nation“He was just a really heavy-muscled boar and he’s really big boned,” said Adam Munsterteiger, a sophomore studying animal science and manager of the swine barn.

“He was just more powerful than the other ones in terms of his looks and the way his body was built,” Rozeboom said.

This piglet grew fast, soon bypassing the size of his littermates.

“He was just a very impressive pig to look at,” Rozeboom said. “He was kind of the he-man of the litter.”

So, when the piglet reached seven days old, Rozeboom and the students made a pivotal decision in the young pig’s life. They agreed not to castrate him.

“He was the only male of the litter we kept as a boar,” Munsterteiger said.

His brothers met a different—ahem—fate. They became barrows while their brother became the University of Minnesota Swine Herd’s first boar stud in 16 years.

He was headed for pig stud stardom. But before placing him into exclusive stud line-up, they needed a name for him. The students and Rozeboom brainstormed possibilities.

“We kicked around a few different names. We kicked around just calling him Gopher. We thought of calling him Ski-U-Mah, but we figured that would be too hard for people to remember,” Rozeboom said.

Then, someone mentioned Gopher Nation. “That name kind of stuck when we threw it out. We all thought it was a good name for him. It’s catchy and memorable and it signifies that he is a University of Minnesota Gopher-bred boar,” Rozeboom said.

So last fall, Gopher Nation moved to North Iowa Boar Stud (NIBS) in Riceville, Iowa, and resides there with other studs, such as Freak on The Loose, Fast Lane, Maverick and Day Tripper. There, Gopher Nation’s semen is collected and sold for $30 a vial or $70 to breed a sow, said Bill Owen, who owns NIBS with his wife, Karen.

Placing a boar to stud marked a resurgence for the U of M swine unit. The unit’s barn was built in 1982 and was used mainly for research. At its height, it housed about 100 sows.

It closed in 2008 due to budget cuts. Unit operators dispersed the purebred sows and the swine herd, Rozeboom said. In 2011, Mike White (’80–B.S., wildlife; ’86–Ph.D., animal sciences), head of the Department of Animal Science, approached Rozeboom about starting up a production class and the swine unit again. Rozeboom accepted the challenge.

Today, the student-run herd consists of about 30 sows. It houses mainly purebred sows, including Duroc, Hampshire, Landrace, Yorkshire and Chester White, Rozeboom said. The swine unit has shifted its focus to teaching and raising mainly show pigs. U of M students, along with young people involved in 4-H and FFA, learn management, nutrition, welfare, selection and evaluation skills. “We keep pure breeds out there so students see different breeds and learn about their different strengths and weaknesses,” Rozeboom said.

It took dedication to begin again. To restart, the unit needed gilts. That’s when now-late U of M alumnus Randy Morris (’86–B.S., animal sciences) lent a helping hand. At the time, Morris had one of the most elite swine herds in Minnesota, Rozeboom said.

“He allowed us to go in and pick out a set of replacement gilts. Those gilts became the basis for our replacement of the sow herds."

Tragically, however, Morris was killed in a head-on automobile accident on Dec. 29, 2012.

“He was a good friend to the swine unit who helped us get the U back in the swine business,” Rozeboom said.

Big MamaIn fact, one of the best gilts in the litter that came from the Morris herd, Big Mama, Gopher Nation’s mother, had the pedigree that helped set Gopher Nation on the path to stud status.

“She’s one of our best sows. She’s very outstanding to look at and in terms of phenotype,” Rozeboom said. Add in a father with an equally impressive pedigree—the sire Stinger—and Gopher Nation’s future looked bright.

So Gopher Nation has his parents to thank for his budding stud career. Along with having an outstanding mother and father, what does it take to be a stud in the world of swine breeding? The industry wants pigs that are wide-made or wide-based; possess a high degree of muscle; are sound on their feet and legs; travel freely and are good in their structure—taking comfortable strides—and have acceptable leanness, so that the product is ultimately acceptable to the consumer, Rozeboom said. By those standards, Gopher Nation qualifies.

Gopher Nation flourished on regular feed. The four students who operate the swine barn never catered to him with any fancy show rations. He grew up beside his littermates, but at five months they needed to separate him. Yes, there comes a time in a boar’s life where he publicly displays his boar status.

“Since he’s a boar, he started to ride the other pigs to show off and prove that he was a boar,” Rozeboom said.

So he lived separately in the barn for a time. In late summer, Rozeboom contacted Owen at NIBS—the stud house where Gopher Nation’s father, Stinger, lives.

Only a small portion of Owen’s business deals in collecting semen from cross boars like Gopher Nation to breed show pigs. “My main objective is collecting semen for commercial producers. That’s 90 percent of our business,” Owen said.

But Owen wanted Gopher Nation, both because of his quality and Owen’s desire to honor his late friend, Morris. “I made a commitment to Randy’s wife and son that we would like to pay tribute to Randy with the help of Gopher Nation,” Owen said. So he and the swine unit agreed that a portion of the proceeds from the sale of Gopher Nation’s semen would be set aside for a student scholarship in Randy Morris’ name.

Gopher Nation's offspringMany customers purchased Gopher Nation’s semen, and the boar’s first offspring already have been born. Customers are pleased with the results, Owen said. “His offspring are going to be extremely competitive at county and state fairs this summer.”

Gopher Nation fits right in at his home in Iowa alongside other studs with flashy names and descriptions used to market their semen. Gopher Nation’s been very popular with visitors.

“There are a lot of sows bred to him in Iowa and Minnesota,” Owen said. “He has an opportunity to make a name for himself.”

While pigs can still mate naturally, the industry has evolved to mainly use artificial insemination (AI) because of AI's advantages, Rozeboom said.

"AI allows you to use the boar more. In a natural mating, a boar may only get to mate one sow a day or two to three sows a week,” Rozeboom said. “This way a boar—if he is a boar that produces a high volume of semen—you could breed up to 10 or 12 sows a day in one collection.”

WhiteyThe swine unit uses AI for its breeding. There’s no natural mating, but one boar does get to hang out near the sows. He helps the swine producers determine which sows are in heat by walking around to see which sows approach. They call him a teaser boar. Sows would rather not have anything to do with boars most of the time, but that changes when they are in heat. The sows amble right up to the teaser boars on the other side of the fence. At that point, producers know when to artificially inseminate the sows. A boar named Frenchy held the heat-checking job until recently when the swine unit replaced him with a new and younger heat-checking boar called Whitey.

On the surface, this might seem like a good gig for the teaser boar, but it’s a job that likely results in frustration. “He doesn’t get to actually mate them,” Rozeboom said. “He has to go back to his pen, poor guy.”

Take heart, Whitey. Gopher Nation never gets near the sows either. NIBS staff collects his semen and ships it sometimes hundreds of miles away.

For now, the swine unit is waiting to see what comes of Gopher Nation’s offspring.

“We’re hoping that he produces good offspring,” Rozeboom said. “By summer, we’ll know if he bred true.”