2014 Environmental Stewards: Going Green

2014 Environmental Stewards: Going Green

Trees, shrubs, buffer strips and more make this Iowa farm an environmental oasis.

A green mosaic greets visitors to Wessling Ag’s finishing site near the farm’s headquarters just outside of Grand Junction, IA. A blend of tall, fast-growing hybrid willows joins rows of spruce and cedar, along with dogwood shrubs, to form a forested oasis in this landscape dominated by fields of corn and soybeans.

The Wessling family planted the trees when they agreed to be the first farm to sign up for a plan called the Green Farmstead Partner program. Now, five years later, the greenbelt is thriving — and few pig farms look any “greener” than this Greene County operation.

There are practical benefits to the tree planting. For one, the tall growth now screens the buildings, keeping them out of sight of the heavily traveled Highway 30 that runs just north of the site. The trees also break up airflow and filter dust particles, helping to avoid odor issues, while the trees serve as a living snow fence in winter, helping direct snow away from the buildings.

Another benefit, of course, is simply the beauty of it all. “Those trees really help the overall look of the farm,” says Bruce Wessling.

Community connection
Wessling Ag is a family operation that includes Bruce; his wife, Jenny; and their daughters, Jolee and Taylor. The Wessling family has been a part of the Grand Junction community for decades, and they consider the community connection to be an important part of the business.

“Your relationship with your neighbors and your community is important — and not just because you are a farmer,” Jenny says. “We’re trying to help our small community thrive in an area where many rural communities are dying out. We’re very involved in our school and church, and we try to stay engaged in what’s going on locally.”

The Wessling crop and livestock operation has changed dramatically over time to reflect the changes in technology. Bruce’s grandfather, Doug Wessling, started with horse-drawn equipment and picked corn by hand. Bruce’s parents, Roger and Judy, joined the operation and helped it grow with the use of mechanization. The farm’s first hog confinement building went up in 1968.

Once a farrow-to-finish operation, the farm eventually transitioned in 2000 to contract-finishing. Wessling Ag now operates two finishing sites under contract with Cargill Pork, growing approximately 18,700 pigs a year. The field-crop operation continues to expand, now growing 4,600 acres of corn and soybeans.

There are 4,800 pig spaces on the finishing site nominated for the stewardship award; two 1,200-head barns were built in 1997, followed by a doublewide 2,400-head barn constructed in 2009. All barns have fully slotted floors and store manure in deep pits.

Careful planning
Before the first shovel of dirt was moved for their latest construction, the Wessling family took steps to make sure the community would accept their new hog buildings. “We wanted to make sure that the rural community was on board with the project so the buildings would be a good fit for the area,” Bruce says.

The family turned to the Coalition to Support Iowa’s Farmers (CSIF), an advocacy organization supported by eight Iowa commodity groups. The CSIF mission is to assist the state’s family farmers in responsibly and successfully raising livestock.

The Wessling family turned to CSIF to help wind their way through the necessary rules and regulations that must be met in order to build a hog barn. Understanding prevailing winds and how they can impact odor movement also is important when siting a new livestock facility. CSIF guided the family in use of the Community Assessment Model, developed by Iowa State University, which is a site-specific tool that can help identify potential odor issues with proposed sites.

The Wesslings visited neighbors to communicate their intentions and answer any questions about the proposed construction. In the end, the family was able to build the barns without confrontation or public criticism.

CSIF established its Green Farmstead Partner program in 2009, and the Wessling family’s three-barn site was the first to be signed up. In cooperation with Trees Forever and the Iowa Nursery and Landscape Association, the CSIF program assisted the family in putting together a professional plan to incorporate hybrid willows, cedars, evergreens, shrubs and grasses into a vegetative environmental buffer (VEB).

VEBs serve as an environmental management innovation that helps dilute odor concentration downwind of the plantings. That’s because a zone of turbulence is established around the trees, increasing the residence time of particulates in the zone immediately surrounding the VEB; thus, there is a slower release of particulates into the downwind air stream, producing a more dilute odor plume.

The VEB also is an effective filter. Studies show that 90% of the odor particles that leave hog buildings are the size that can be captured by trees. As a result, odor is less likely to move beyond the pig buildings.

Green and growing
Manure nutrients from the hog units also give a boost to crop production, replacing commercial fertilizer and boosting organic matter as well as soil health. The Wesslings make sure they squeeze maximum efficiency out of every manure application. Manure is injected, typically applied after soil cools below 50°F to help stabilize the nitrogen being applied to the field.

“With the high cost of commercial fertilizer, we want to use manure on as many acres as possible,” Bruce says. “Our local agronomist does soil sampling and makes fertilizer recommendations. We hire a consultant to write our manure management plan for the farm. The two work together to come up with the rates needed for the crop to use nutrients at agronomic rates.”

Experience with field trials through the Iowa Soybean Association’s On-Farm Network has helped Wessling Ag to fine-tune nitrogen management. The operation has experimented with nitrogen stabilizers for fall-applied manure, and the Wesslings use side-dressing to spoon-feed nitrogen to growing corn.

The operation also feeds phytase, an enzyme that allows phosphorus to be more efficiently used by animals, reducing the amount of P excreted by 15% to 20%. That helps the Wesslings comply with their nutrient management plan, which is based on a P standard.

Wessling Ag also uses wet-dry feeders to reduce water waste. As a result, the manure in the pits is more concentrated, increasing the number of acres that can be applied per gallon. That reduces the number of trips required across the fields during application. “It costs more to apply wasted water during manure application than the cost of the water itself,” Bruce points out.

Conserving water is a big part of daily operations at the finisher site. Water meters in each barn are monitored daily so that any leaks can be quickly detected and fixed. And, before pressure-washing the buildings, Wessling Ag uses a presoak system to help loosen crusted manure, reducing the amount of water (and time) required to thoroughly clean the barns.

Housekeeping habits
Wessling Ag pays attention to the details that add up to better environmental quality. Barns are spotless before a new group of pigs arrive, then are kept tidy during the growing period. That not only helps get pigs off to a good start, but also contributes to good air quality in and around the barns.

Similarly, the Wesslings keep grass trimmed, along with a neat border of crushed rock around buildings, adding to the aesthetic look of the farm while also controlling pests. On the crop side, the farm has installed 90-foot-wide buffers along streams. These grass strips, established with help from the Conservation Reserve Program, keep water clean by filtering any sediment that might try to escape from fields. A number of crop fields also are protected with terraces and waterways.

Protecting the environment is a way of life that has been passed down through the years. Bruce credits his grandfather, Doug, with sparking his interest in doing the right thing. Doug helped lead an effort to plant more than 400 walnut trees in the Lions Club Tree Park at the edge of Grand Junction.

“As a child, I helped him mow the grass and maintain the area,” Bruce says. “I learned the importance of aesthetics, and how it can affect the way people think about your community or your farm.”

The legacy continues, as the Wessling daughters, Jolee and Taylor, now do the mowing in the park, volunteering their time. Wessling Ag provides the mowers and the fuel.

“Keeping abreast of technology, efficiency and the ever-changing laws of conservation are the way to ensure that you are on the right track to stewardship,” Jenny observes. “You must align yourself with knowledgeable colleagues who specialize in areas such as agronomy, manure management and livestock production.”

The Wessling family combines that approach with simply being good neighbors. They plant a sweet corn patch in front of their finishing barns, providing a summertime favorite for many neighbors. They also help push snow from neighboring drives as the family works to clear its own property following storms.

The Iowa Department of Agricultural and Land Stewardship recognized these efforts by presenting the family with its Gary Wergin Good Farm Neighbor award in 2012. “It is great to be able to recognize farm families like the Wesslings that are such a tremendous asset to our rural communities,” noted Bill Northey, Iowa’s ag secretary. “Bruce and Jenny do a great job caring for their animals and protecting their land, in addition to being caring neighbors who are active in the community.”

Those words describe the very premise that directs environmental stewardship at Wessling Ag. “We drink the water, consume the products we raise and live on the land that we work,” Bruce points out. “We want future generations to be able to continue this way of life if they choose to do so. That means doing all we can to sustainably grow crops and raise livestock — in other words, doing things right.”

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