When you think of a classroom, you likely conjure up images of chalkboards and desks. But thanks to a strong partnership between the University of Illinois and a pork production firm known as The Maschhoffs, learning is taking place for animal science and veterinary students outside of the classroom, on the farm — in the real world.

For more than five years, The Maschhoffs has offered internships and research opportunities to college students. Located in Carlyle, Ill., the firm is one of the United States’ three largest family owned pork production networks, marketing more than 1 million hogs annually.

According to Ken Maschhoff, president and chief executive officer, the arrangement is a win/win for everyone. The students gain experience, organizational skills and industry contacts. The Maschhoffs’ production system gains additional resources to focus on research and innovative ideas as well as assistance from bright, capable college students.

For Bradley Wolter, production technology director with the firm, providing internships is a way to give something back to the pork industry. He became acquainted with The Maschhoffs when he was working on his doctorate degree at the University of Illinois. At that time, Wolter was seeking opportunities to conduct meaningful research that would address real questions and issues that commercial producers face.

At the time, Wolter and his instructor, Mike Ellis, University of Illinois swine genetics and management professor, established a Research Advisory Committee. The group, which included Illinois pork producers as well as key industry experts and contributors, began identifying pork industry issues that needed to be explored.

Wolter landed at The Maschhoffs, which has made him an advocate of providing opportunities to others.

The process continues in much the same way today. Support from the university, pork producers throughout the state and other groups, including the Extension service, Illinois Pork Producers Association and the Illinois Council for Food and Agricultural Research, help ensure that real-world research opportunities continue to be available to students.

“It’s tremendous exposure for the students,” Wolter explains. “Otherwise, their only exposure is to the smaller-scale research environment at a university. These students not only collect research data, they’re also forced to deal with management challenges.”

Ellis agrees. “Students are exposed to working with a variety of people with a variety of backgrounds. Because many of these students will work in a commercial setting, it prepares them for life in the real world,” he says.

Students in Ellis’ classes perform research with The Maschhoffs, as well as other commercial producers located in Illinois.

For students conducting research at The Maschhoffs, life in the “real world” has meant examining issues like managing wean-to-finish facilities, hog transportation and lactating sow management.

Veterinary students Stacey Walk, of Neoga, Ill., and Lynette Wellen, of Aviston, Ill., have studied litter sizes of sows with 14- and 21-day lactation periods, and the effect that a new product has on those lactation periods.

They’ve also examined nutrition and environmental effects on weaned pigs, and what role prophylactic antibiotics play. Wolter says this research again shows that antibiotics cannot correct poor nutrition or a poor environment — information that’s vital for producers as they work to ensure both high quality and responsible pork production.

The goal is to share research results with all pork producers, notes Ellis. The students are required to write scientific reports for groups like the American Association of Swine Veterinarians. The University of Illinois also makes those reports available to all producers.

“We’re helping producers improve production efficiency, quality and economics by sharing the findings,” Ellis says.

Jake DeDecker, Cambridge, Ill., has led research efforts at The Maschhoffs looking into the potential feed energy levels in distillers dried grains with solubles. He’s also studied floor and feeder space allowances, and their impact on the pigs. 

The students agree that there are several benefits of conducting research in a commercial setting. Carrie Betelsen, Little York, Ill., says the type and size of research she’s been able to do would not be possible at a university. “I can study 100 sows in a two-week period here,” says the animal science graduate student. “To get that sample size in a lab would take months.”

“By blending commercial producers with academia, we’re helping ground university research in production,” Wolter says. “We’re able to determine what the key questions are, and then provide an opportunity to train young people to discover the answers.”

Wolter says outside groups have given the program the legs to operate. Funding from the National Pork Board has allowed research related to odor to now be conducted at one of The Maschhoffs’ sites.

While the program between the University of Illinois and The Maschhoffs has evolved over the years, Wolter says they’re still just learning its full potential. “Other universities and industry groups are wanting to learn more about establishing such programs.”  

The firm recently committed to providing research opportunities to students at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and is willing to work with other schools. The Maschhoffs also sponsor two internships. Most recent efforts focused on assisting the firm’s efforts to become compliant with confined-animal-feeding-operation requirements. “Our interns helped us make big strides in this effort,” explains Timothy Laatsch, the firm’s environmental systems’ manager.

All involved agree that the program is working. It provides the University of Illinois with important research funding and opportunities. It offers The Maschhoffs opportunities to find new ways to add value to its product. It also sets the firm in a positive light among students, the state and surrounding communities.

It may be an idea worth pursuing for other producers in other states.