This family built a home and a hog farm from scratch, while enjoying the beauty of nature. Terry and Diane O'Neel like to relax the old-fashioned way — sitting on the porch swing of their farm home near Friend, NE, listening to songbirds in a nearby grove of trees.
It wasn't always this way. The O'Neel farm site was once a wide-open crop field where, as a high-school kid, Terry picked up straw bales under the searing summer sun. And he rode a tractor each fall, disking down clods to get the ground ready for another crop.
It all changed when the O'Neels bought this ground from Terry's parents and started building their homeplace by planting a thousand trees. They moved in a house, remodeled it to raise a family, and constructed seven hog buildings to house 550 sows and their offspring through finishing.
After nearly 20 years, those trees have matured to offer shelter for birds and bunnies. Add in the white, crushed-rock driveways, neatly trimmed grass, colored-metal buildings and Diane's flowerbeds, and you have a professional pork production system housed in a park-like setting.
“We can see and hear the songbirds, and yet we also have an operation that lets us produce pork efficiently,” Terry says. “I think that is evidence that we are working in harmony with the environment.”
The O'Neel operation is truly a family business, as daughter Danielle and son Ethan, along with Danielle's fiancée, Trent Roesler, also are involved in the farm. The O'Neels produce about 9,000 pigs a year as well as grow no-till corn and soybeans. They manage about 660 acres, with about 300 of those acres under center-pivot irrigation.
The latest building is a 2,000-head finisher, set up with four, 500-head rooms over a deep pit. Since the building is power-ventilated, the O'Neels are working with the University of Nebraska in setting up horizontal biofilters to treat the exhaust air. The project has been partially funded by the Nebraska Environmental Trust Fund and the Nebraska Pork Producers Association.
The biofilter is a farm-constructed system built with a number of recycled items. Old wooden pallets, wire hog panels and gates make a maze of plenums through which the air is directed. Wood chips derived from ground-up pallets provide the filtering medium.
“This medium provides a home for microbes,” explains Rick Stowell, an Extension agricultural engineer with the University of Nebraska. “The biofiltering actually is done primarily by the actions of the microbes. When those microbes are doing their job, a biofilter can be 90% effective at reducing the odor.”
Eliminating as much odor as possible is important to the O'Neels. “We have neighbors located only about a quarter-mile south of the operation,” Terry says. “The barn sits across the road from our home on our original farmstead, where my mother still lives.”
The new barn also has a number of features that help conserve energy and water. Controllers can be set to turn lights on and off, control misters and handle the soaking cycle when the barn is set for cleaning. The O'Neels switched to compact fluorescent lighting in their barns to cut down on electricity use.
The O'Neels also are excited about the new finisher because it will capture and store nutrients in its deep pit. “We will agitate the manure and apply it to our crop ground in the fall,” Terry says. “With the price of phosphorus skyrocketing and other commercial fertilizer nutrients going up as well, we believe there will be more than $27,000 worth of nutrients in that pit for us to apply each year.”
The seven original barns use a pull-plug system and shallow pits, which drain to a three-cell lagoon system. “We dewater the lagoons in summer, applying the dilute effluent to corn fields,” Terry explains. “Then, we agitate sediments in the lagoons as needed, and commercial applicators apply the effluent using a dragline and injectors.”
A consulting agronomist checks soil samples annually for recommendations on effluent application rates. Fields also are grid-sampled on a four-year rotation. Dates and rates of application are recorded in the O'Neel's comprehensive nutrient management plan.
The O'Neels switched over to no-till farming in 2000. “I was skeptical as to how it would work,” Terry says. “Now I believe in it. Our organic matter has increased from 1.8% to more than 3%, and that's a huge increase. Our soil tilth has improved, and the water-holding capacity of the soil has increased. It's also reduced our soil compaction and soil erosion, and we get our crops in using less labor and equipment.”
Yields have been maintained or improved, he adds. And the practice of no-till allows the farm to be certified in an Exchange Soil Offset contract. “Leaving residue in the field provides carbon sequestration that helps reduce greenhouse gases,” Terry explains. “These carbon credits are purchased by certain industries in XSO contracts that, in turn, provide a payment for us to leave this residue on the soil surface.”
The O'Neels also take advantage of a number of federal and state conservation programs, such as the Conservation Security Program. Under CSP, the family receives incentive payments to use no-till practices, cover crops, spring nitrogen applications and buffer strips that help reduce soil erosion and prevent nutrient runoff from their farm.
The O'Neels work hard to build good relationships with their neighbors. They held an open house to show their new finisher to the public. More than 200 folks showed up to see the modern pork production technology and enjoy a smoked-loin sandwich.
Their public relations efforts don't end with the local neighborhood, as Terry is an Operation Main Street speaker for the National Pork Board. He gives 15-minute speeches to various service groups, such as Optimist, Rotary and Lions clubs.
“People are amazed at how much the pork industry has changed,” he says. “I generally run out of time trying to field their questions.”
Back on their Nebraska farm, the O'Neels continue to build an attractive hog farm in tune with nature. To date, they've planted more than 1,600 trees on their homeplace. They now use a band of sheep to graze their lagoon banks, which are steep and hard to mow.
“Since our home is at the same site as the hog facilities, we breathe the same air and drink the same water,” Diane says. “It is important for us to be good stewards of the environment. We have tried to create a clean, well-landscaped farmstead. We take a great deal of pride in our home.”