Iowa Pig Farmer's Approach to Sustainability
Part 2 of 2
Science and Passion for Nutrition Drive
Innovations in Pig Diets
“It’s a constant challenge of trying to get better every day,” reflected Ben Haberl, Iowa Select Farms’ director of nutrition, where he is responsible for the 22 feed formulations from Iowa farmers’ grains to feed to Iowa Select Farms’ entire herd. Working closely with Chief Operating Officer Noel Williams, Haberl ensures that he hits the mark on fiber, moisture, fat, protein, and carbohydrates.
While he is a pig diet expert, Ben’s interest in nutrition started with a more familiar species - humans. After falling ill numerous times as a child, his sister was eventually diagnosed with a missing enzyme in her liver that prohibited her from digesting protein. As she waited for a liver transplant, the doctors modified her diet so her protein intake only came from synthetic amino acids, which her body could process.
Today, Ben looks at how amino acids can help pig diets, in addition to calcium, phosphorus, sodium chloride, vitamins and trace minerals. All these formulations occur depending on the age, size, and job of the pig – gilt, sow, market, boar.
All of this formulation starts where Ben started – on the farm. Growing up on a row crop and livestock farm outside of Lohrville, Ben was always interested in working with animals. He went to Iowa State University to study animal science, and while studying embryo transfer and breeding, Ben developed a real passion for feeding and nutrition.
Continuous Improvement
When he looks back over his 20 years in pork production, Ben has seen significant changes in the science behind animal nutrition and some of the fundamental ingredients used.
The biggest change he sees is the use of an enzyme called phytase. According to the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, phosphorus is an essential nutrient in swine diets and is abundant in most grains – including corn. However, pigs only use a small amount of the phosphorus in corn because the majority is in the form of phytate, which pigs cannot digest. In comes Phytase – it breaks down phytate to release phosphorus in a form the animal can digest. “We’re utilizing more of the natural phosphorus in the plants that we feed today,” he explained. “In the past, the animal was not using the phosphorus and it passed through the pig.”

Phytase has become even more important with the increased use of a byproduct of ethanol production in pig feed. According to the Iowa Corn Growers Association, the U.S. ethanol industry produces, on average, nearly 90,000 tons of distiller grains each week. Dried distillers’ grains – DDGS or distillers – is a concentrated corn compound.
Future of Nutrition
In the future, Haberl sees additional improvements and efficiencies in pig diets, including how they impact the animal’s general health and immunity. Another area where he sees change coming is in the area of synthetic amino acids – yes, the same type of supplement his sister used to need for that missing enzyme in her liver.
“In the last decade, the use of synthetic amino acids like tryptophan has increased,” said Haberl. “The advantage of the synthetic amino acids is that we are relying less on crude protein to meet the nutrient requirements of the pig.” By switching to synthetic amino acids, the pig absorbs more nutrients which means less nitrogen or ammonia excreted in manure, and therefore less of those gases in the barn, which leads to an improved work environment for our people.
“What excites me most about my job is the efficiency part,” he reflected. “Being able to get better, striving to make improvements in not only how we more efficiently utilize the nutrients we have, but how we optimize performance.”
Protein Power: CJ Bio America

Those amino acids are produced right here in Iowa at the CJ Bio America plant near Fort Dodge. “Using supplemental amino acids has allowed US pork producers to routinely decrease nitrogen excretion rates by 30 percent, while lowering their production costs,” said Joe Lucas, vice president and general manager of CJ America.

Iowa Select Farms received its first shipment of amino acids from the CJ Bio America plant in August 2019. “We like to buy local,” said Haberl, who appreciates the Fort Dodge plant’s convenient location and capacity to provide a consistent supply of amino acids.

“About 90 percent of the product from Fort Dodge is used in feed delivered to farms between Storm Lake and Parkersburg.” Partnerships help Iowa thrive.
Making amino acids at CJ Bio America starts with an Iowa-grown ingredient--corn dextrose purchased from the Cargill grain milling facility next door. “Our plant creates a market for approximately 11 million bushels of Iowa corn a year,” Lucas said.
The dextrose provides the sugar to start the fermentation process that creates amino acids. “Our fermentation process is first cousin to beer brewing and ethanol production,” Lucas said. “It’s a green system, plus we recycle the water.”
While fermentation is natural, it’s also complex. More than 200 skilled employees, including Ph.D. chemical engineers, operate the plant, which runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. The CJ Bio America plant also creates jobs for truck drivers who haul the amino acids to customers like Iowa Select. “We’re retaining and attracting homegrown talent back to Iowa,” Lucas said.