Maine Farmcast Episode 02: Swine Industry with Dr. Brett Kaysen

On the second episode of the Maine Farmcast, Dr. Colt W. Knight, Associate Extension Professor and State Livestock Specialist for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, sits down with Dr. Brett Kaysen, the Senior Vice President of Producer and State Engagement for the National Pork Board. I met up with Brett at the national Pork Board Swine Educators and Outreach Professionals Conference held in October, 2023 at the Mall of America in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Dr. Kaysen earned his Ph.D. from Colorado State University, and served as an Animal Science Faculty member there for many years prior to going to work with the National Pork Board. Brett now resides in Iowa, and has a swine farm to keep him busy in his off time. 

Episode Resources

Learn more about Brett Kaysen, Ph.D.:
If you would like more information on the Pork Check Off, please visit:


Colt Knight: 00:18

Welcome to the Maine Farmcast. I’m your host, Dr. Colt Knight. I’m an Associate Extension Professor and State Livestock Specialist for the University of Maine. And I’m at the National Swine Education and Outreach Professionals conference here in the Mall of America in Minneapolis. And I am joined by Dr. Brett Kaysen. He is a senior vice president for the National Pork Board. And he gave a really interesting talk yesterday, and I thought it would be great if we could sit down and talk to Brett today about himself, and the pork industry, and the future of the pork industry. Brett, we have a little bit in common. We both went to graduate school out west, and we both managed the teaching farms at those institutions. And we both went into Extension right after. You have since left Extension and went into industry for a little while, and then you’re now with the Pork Board. So tell us a little bit about yourself.

Brett Kaysen: 01:23

Yeah. Thanks, Colt, and thank you for having me on. And, just honored to be able to speak to the producer community at large in Maine. It’s a state that I’ve been to several times, and I respect that from a pig farmer’s perspective, it’s a diverse production system, as opposed to maybe when we think about corn and soybean country and pigs in the Midwest. And so, yeah, very similar path, Colt. 17 years at Colorado State University in the Department of Animal Sciences. Started as the sheep unit manager, ended as the undergraduate teaching coordinator, acquired some degrees along the way. I spent actually three years working for Zoetis. First year and a half was on the dairy side of the business. I’ve always been a pig kid, and so they’re like, well, how did you get the dairy business? Zoetis called me a dairy production specialist, and I told my boss at the time that was hiring me, I said, “I know the difference between a Holstein and Jersey. That’s my specialty.” And he really said, “no, Brett. You understand large scale agriculture. The dairies were getting so big, Colt, in Eastern Colorado and Western Kansas that my smallest dairy was 5,000 sows. So I could evaluate that as, like, a 5,000 head sow farm. And the largest dairy I had in Kansas was 25,000 cows. And really, my job there at Zoetis was to talk to producers about an emerging technology. Talking about a technology where we could actually take a tissue sample from a baby calf and predict genomically what she would do as a cow. And just as a geneticist, and a love for genetics, I enjoyed that. Year and a half of that, then a year and a half, I joined the swine team at Zoetis, and led a team of salespeople and technical specialists. And after that, the National Pork Board came calling. And the CEO, Bill Even, said, “Dr. Kaysen, I believe that sustainability is going to be a thing in the pork industry. Do you have interest in joining the team?” And I joked, Colt, I told Bill, I said, “I can spell sustainability. I’m not so sure I know what it is.” And I built that program from the ground up and have since transitioned the last two years working in the producer and state engagement portion of the check off. And what’s my role there? Essentially, my job, I say, is I work for 60,000 pig farmers across the United States as identified by the United States Department of Agriculture. And there’s 42 state pork associations. And so I work with them on a daily basis basis as well. So I’ve enjoyed the ride. Academia was fun. I learned a lot working for a publicly traded pharma company, and now in the association world. So, lifelong learner and plenty of challenges ahead, but I enjoy what I do.

Colt Knight: 03:53

That’s excellent. What would you say the main focus of the National Pork Board is? Yeah. For those of you that don’t understand the check off in general, right, that was put together by a group of producers back in 1985 and 1986, and they had the premise of we as pig farmers need an entity to work on our behalf really in three main areas: research, education, and promotion. And really two of those you play a role in, Colt, in your job, right? Research and education. Because the farmers understood, boy, we could use an association to work on our behalf, and we’re willing to mandatorily remit money for every pig we sell to promote that. And so today, the National Pork Board collects 35¢ for every $100 of value sold of a pig. And so if I take a pig to market tomorrow and I get a $100 for it, 35¢ of that comes back to the National Pork Board to be distributed on behalf of the producers’ use around research, education, and promotion. So a very futuristic group of producers thought about that. And what I really like about that, Colt, is when you think about that producers coming around the table, thinking about setting up the check off, they were really thinking about the we, and not the me. And so you had pig people in the room that may have a handful of sows versus, you know, double digit 1,000 sows, but they knew they needed to do something to help promote the U.S. swine industry.

Colt Knight: 05:20

And I think agriculture in general in the U.S., sometimes, is far more advanced than other nations because we both have the land grant system, and our producers take stock in their industries and form things like the National Pork Board, and start the check off and things. And that’s always really beneficial to producers. And as we are advancing the industry, one of the things that the pork board does is it solicits funding for grants for research to address the actual issues that are hitting producers instead of just academics picking a topic and researching it. And could you tell us a little bit about the initiative?

Brett Kaysen: 06:08

Yeah. Happy to share, Colt. I just can’t thank you enough for what you do on a daily basis. I mean, I just love the Extension work that comes from the land grant institution. Obviously, I’m passionate about that. I’m part of that, trained like you are as well. But what I’ve also learned is that in the land grant system, Extension folks, or what I’d call call applied scientists, are becoming limited in number, and also limited in their funding availability. But they’re so key cog in the wheel to be producer facing. And I can appreciate basic bench top science. We need it. It’s important. But we also need folks like Colt out there every day working for the farmer to solve real problems at a farm, or what I call a slot level. And so as I got feedback from the Extension educator community, and they said, “boy, Brett, if the check off could help us, right, be forward facing with our producers, we are a partner of yours, and we span the country.” And so don’t think about the National Pork Board based in Des Moines, Iowa. Think about it as that’s the hub, but we’re the spoke as Extension specialists that we can help preach the good word, if you will, or deploy the projects and the programs. But, Brett, we’re limited on funding.” And so I had a vision last March that I think it would be great to get this group of roughly 100 folks in the room, and give them an opportunity to compete for some funding to take it to a farm level to solve real problems. How the process works is that I proposed $1,000,000 worth of grant funding for this community specifically. And the fun thing about my job is anytime you ask for funding, those funding mechanisms are determined by our 15 member producer led board of directors that, oh, by the way, those folks that are on the board were actually elected by their peers through a delegate process at Port Forum every year. So these are what I call the leader of leaders. And Colt, as I brought the proposal forward, I said there’s a need, there’s a want, there’s a desire, and, ultimately, it’s going to help the land grant system and you as a farmer. They said, “no doubt. We should invest here.” So I had the opportunity to announce, obviously, yesterday that there’s $1,000,000 worth of funding for folks like yourself, and others that work in your role, and that that comes with a level of accountability, and we’re trying to do it in a way that’s agile, businesslike, and solve real problems for the farmer across the U.S.

Colt Knight: 08:27

And you had six criteria that you’re focusing on. Could you elaborate on those six criteria that you’re really hoping to focus on with this grant?

Brett Kaysen: 08:37

Yeah. Absolutely. I can speak to a couple of them in no particular order, but I’ll share a few with your listening audience. And I always start with number one is prevent and prepare for an animal disease. And there’s a lot of challenges that face our industry today. Colt, you and I learned about that yesterday and on to today, but keeping, I think, for sure, African swine fever, and classical swine fever, and foot and mouth disease out of this country is imperative for our pig farmers. So partnerships in that space on how we can prevent and prepare for an animal disease is critical. This whole topic around sustainability, and I know that’s near and dear to the hearts of those folks in the northeastern part of our U.S. that you serve. And then how can we prove that actually pig farming is good for the land, it’s good for the air, it’s good for the water, is critical. The other spot that we’re talking about of partnering in is international markets. 30% of America’s pig business today, you know, is in foreign markets. And so you think about foreign animal disease, its impact to shut down 30% of our business, but you also think about the opportunities where we could even touch other markets. And as I shared yesterday, the U.S. Meat Export Federation really does great work in conjunction with the check off, but the best folks, when we have them on what we call those mission trips to foreign countries promoting U.S. pork, is pig farmers. Whether they be from Maine or Michigan. And so how do we partner in that space? Business continuity, economics, and profitability. I’d like to talk about sustainability, but if our farmers aren’t profitable, they are not sustainable. And so I’ve got to shift to that with the marking conditions in ’23 and ’24 to survivability. Right? And then this whole idea of a grassroots initiative or grassroots effort. Again, I’ll restate, we have 42 state pork associations. And how can swine educators and Extension outreach professionals partner with their local state pork associations, if they have one, to do good work on behalf of the farmer? So that’s kind of a little waterfront to the criteria to the priorities that have been set, and I want to be clear with everybody, Colt. These aren’t Brett’s priorities. These are priorities of information garnered from producers across the country and state pork associations that say, we think this is how the check off dollars should be spent. And we do that annually. And so we don’t see those priorities changing a lot in ’24 and ’25. But that’s the direction the producers that are investors in the check off have said, and that’s where we’re headed.

Colt Knight: 11:08

Very good. So one of the things that the National Pork Board does is it provides resources for grocery stores, for producers, for restaurant tours and chefs. If a small scale producer that’s direct marketing at a farmer’s market or off the farm, wanted to access some of the resources available, how would they go about finding those?

Brett Kaysen: 11:35

I’m glad you asked. And this one’s near and dear to my heart because you may know this, Colt, you may not, but for your listening audience, I’m in the pig business myself. We’ve got a – we’re a small producer. We’ve got a handful of sows. Our main market is we’re in the purebred Duroc and Yorkshire business where we sell seed stock and show pigs. I was actually in Oklahoma merchandising livestock last week. But during COVID, we created a business model at Kaysen Family Farms that said for those pigs that are not good enough to merchandise as purebred seed stock or show pigs, we’ve put those into a direct to consumer marketing package where we sell meat online, we go to farmers markets. So I know in your area, that’s a big thing. It’s been very, very profitable for our business at home. And so back to the resource component, I would encourage your producers and those that are just passionate about swine to go there, and you can move and navigate that website to see our various assets. And then also always remember, there’s a directory there, and, Brett Kaysen, you can ping me at anytime. I get a lot of calls on my cell phone, and emails that say, “hey, Brett, could you direct me to…?” We have some digital assets that are available, Colt, that are somewhat password protected that I can give access to your farmers so that they can go in there and browse and shop for things that would work to help promote their business.

Colt Knight: 13:00

And for those of you that attend my seminars, that’s where I get all those cool pork posters and things that we like to give out. So I just realized we have another thing in common, I’m also a small scale pork producer in Maine. I have a 14 acre registered Berkshire farm, and we sell breeding stock, and also market some freezer pork as well.

Brett Kaysen: 13:24

That’s great. No. It’s – I didn’t know that, Colt. And the Berkshire thing is so fun to watch. You know, the fastest growing purebred breed of pig today is Berkshires. And you have to ask yourself why? It’s pretty obvious why. Pork quality. Right? If you wanna talk about tenderness, juiciness, and flavor, Berkshire’s do a great job. You know, we use a lot of our Duroc pigs in that market, and they do a great job as well. But I think, Colt, what I’ve learned from that, your business, my business, people will pay for high quality pork that’s tender, juicy, and flavorful.

Colt Knight: 13:57


Brett Kaysen: 13:57

There’s opportunities there. And I try to encourage our small producers, like you and I are. Sometimes you may hear, you know, Colt that, “oh, the big farms, and I can’t compete,” and it’s just not true. There’s an opportunity for folks like you and I, and the folks that you serve in the state of Maine, to make a living and a life off this. And I encourage you to just lean into it, and enjoy this thing called the swine industry. The thing I love about the check off, lots of things, but it represents every pig farmer, every pig. But the diversity of production systems across the United States is significant because you serve an 8 year old 4-H kid in Maine with one show pig, as do I. Or Brett serves some of the largest producers that may have a 1,000,000 sows. And the needs are different, but there’s a true passion for the industry and the pig, and the check off should never forget that.

Colt Knight: 14:51

Well, Brett, it was great to have on the podcast. We appreciate your time and information. And I look forward to working with you in the future as I got elected to the executive committee for the swine education on the Pork Board. So I’m hoping that we will get more pork updates as time goes on. And we are going to – we’re hearing that the conference is getting kicked back up again. We’re going to go listen to the final speaker here, and then we are going to get back on the road.

Brett Kaysen: 15:21

Sounds great. Well, Colt, again, thanks for what you do. We’re excited to have you on the executive committee. I will put put a plug in for the producers of Maine. Colt represents you extremely well at a national level. Don’t forget about that. And this grassroots movement in which he leads is important. So, Colt, again, thanks for having me, and look forward to the next time we visit.

Colt Knight: 15:38

Thank you, sir.

Brett Kaysen: 15:39

Thank you.

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