Change energizes the world. It can do the same, in a good way, for farms.
Until 1995, the Braun family's farm near LeSueur, MN, was diverse, including a dairy, beef, several crops, certified seed production, a retail seed business and farrow-to-finish hog production.
With just 50 sows, hogs ranked fairly low as a business enterprise. Breeding, gestation, farrowing and nursery operations were in confinement barns, over pits. They finished 900 hogs on outdoor platforms each year.
Environmentally, that had ominous potential, since they're located near the Minnesota River. It was time to change.
“The changes we made meant we took on debt,” explains David Braun, who partners with brothers Brian and Bob. “But the world was changing and leaving us in the dust. Our hog facilities were either worn out or would not satisfy the environmental requirements we knew were coming. It seemed prudent not to chase good money with bad.”
First, though, the Brauns had to decide whether to remain in animal agriculture at all. Mapping out a true course took plenty of thought. A consultant was brought in to help make projections.
“The long and short of it: We decided to stick with animal agriculture, as well as cropping,” David says.
Turkeys, chickens and dairy, as well as hogs, were considered.
“Dairy looked like a better fit until we considered labor. That steered us to a farrowing co-op. Most of the labor required would be our own rather than having to manage a staff of people,” he explains.
Farrowing pigs would have required the Brauns to hire a staff, so the sow co-op fit their management philosophy. The Brauns became shareholders of Pheasant Run, a farrowing cooperative affiliated with the Pipestone System, and built a 1,400-head nursery and two 1,400-head finishing barns.
“Pheasant Run is a closed co-op approaching 3,000 sows, with 10 investors who pooled equity to build a farrowing and gestation unit. It's six miles from here, so the short move minimizes piglet stress. Pipestone Systems is employed to manage it,” David says.
It means 1,400 weaned pigs arrive at the Braun farm every eight weeks. They finish about 8,000 yearly.
“Economies of scale apply. It lets us compete with the Tysons of the world,” he adds.
Being Good Neighbors
The Brauns built the new swine units with an eye firmly on environmental impact. The barns rise over 8-ft., engineered, reinforced concrete pits. They can store almost a year's supply of manure, if necessary, but pits are pumped twice annually. Only one set of equipment is necessary to agitate, load and haul it.
It was an expensive venture, but a necessary one, David explains. “We updated facilities and manure management, and became a much more environmentally friendly neighbor.”
Being neighborly is a priority for the Brauns. It's even more important considering that a country club and golf course sits nearby.
“We pump the pits twice a year because it reduces odor. We also think the health of the hogs and workers in the barns is better if the manure is confined to the bottom half of the pit,” he says.
Plenty of available farm ground helps them manage the manure applications. “We have enough for a four-year rotation on manure application,” David says.
Manure is incorporated into soybean stubble so it's available for the following corn crop. Their fields are no-tilled, and they use a double disk opener for manure applications, leaving ridges in the field that have to be leveled before planting. It disturbs surface residue more than they'd like, so they're evaluating manure application alternatives.
They grid sample fields on 2½ acre blocks, which gives them a good idea of the value of the hog manure. They supplement with commercial fertilizer.
Average nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium (N-P-K) analysis runs 53-31.6-40.2/1,000 gal., giving it a 2006 value of $28.39/1,000 gal. Out-of-pocket application costs run $5.40/1,000 gal. They figure the manure reduced this year's fertilizer bill by $25,550.
The Brauns grow 2,500 acres of corn and soybeans, and 250 acres of canning peas. The 900,000 gal. of manure the hogs produce covers 300 acres, at most.
“We structured the scale and scope of the hog units to fit the farm's ability to maximize the use of livestock manure as a source of crop nutrients,” David says.
“For crops, manure is more than N, P and K. It's bacteria culture. It's tilth, which affects water-holding capacity. We can tell what part of a field had manure and what didn't, to the row,” he says.
“We're strong believers in the value of manure. The way fertilizer prices have gone recently, that's really bounced up,” says Bob, the brother in charge of crops for the partnership.
“Soil conservation is the first thing on our minds,” explains Bob. “We have sandy loam soils here, and unless there's a lot of residue on the ground through winter, or even in spring after planting, they'll blow away. So we went to no-till on lighter soils, which allows us to grow a better crop, cheaper. We're more concerned about net profit than high yields. It might be up to a 25-bushel yield advantage, depending on the weather. A fringe benefit is how much moisture no-till conserves.”
Yield monitors give him a precise measure of what works in fields, reducing overall inputs like seed and fertilizer.
“Instead of putting more fertilizer on the poor spots to level out fields, we're actually increasing yield variability. Where there's blow sand on top, we can't put enough water there to make a crop, and now we can show that. So in some areas we shoot for 220 bu./acre of corn, but in other areas, we might know 60 bu. is the best we can do,” Bob says.
“We might cut those bad spots to 18,000 plants/acre, while we have 33,000 on the good areas with clay that can hold water. We're trying to farm every acre to its maximum potential, concentrating inputs where they do the most good. The bottom line is what we're operating for. It's working for us, but I'd be the last guy to say anybody else has to do this,” he says.
Brian, the youngest brother, manages the finishing barns. Phytase is added to rations, reducing phosphorous content in manure. He also feeds by phases, by budget and split-sex to avoid over-feeding nutrients.
“A pit additive lessens crust formation, fly and rodent pressure and odors. We add fat in the feed, which keeps pigs eating and gaining better in hot weather and keeps dust levels down. Dust is one of the main carriers of odor,” Brian says.
“We do all we can to fight odor. When we spread manure in the fields, the tanker's double-disk incorporates and folds soil over the top of it. It saves a larger percentage of the nitrogen and drastically cuts down on odor in the field.”
In barns, wet/dry tube feeders and drinking cups conserve water by making it impossible for pigs to play with open nipples. Adjusting waterers frequently cuts back on wastage, which cuts the amount of manure hauling and the fuel burned to do it.
“We treat neighbors like we'd like to be treated. We call the neighbors around a field where we're planning to apply manure to make sure they don't have something special going on,” Brian says.
Barns sit well back from roads and are at least partially screened. At least a half-mile from neighbors, they spawn no negative comments.
The Braun's, like most of their friends and neighbors, enjoy watching wildlife in this area near the Minnesota River. They see deer, rabbits, pheasants, raccoons and wild turkey from the barn door. It's not unusual to spot an occasional bald eagle overhead or a fox running along the edge of a field.
“We're not avid hunters, but we sure love watching wildlife,” David says.
“We do all we can for wildlife habitat, things like buffer strips along fields. We made a decision to not till sensitive areas adjacent to the building sites. This past New Year's Day morning, I saw 75 turkeys in the backyard.”
It's all part of their attitude toward life, viewing each day's choices from the standpoint of a steward and caretaker.
“As a starting point, we have to remember we are not livestock producers, not hog farmers, not even pork producers. We are food producers with all its inherent responsibilities. It is our responsibility to maintain the reserves of clean water, including surface and aquifers,” David says.
“Clean air is a second resource for which we assume responsibility. The soil is also a resource we guard carefully. Environmental stewardship means being a contributing and engaged citizen in the community where we live. We try to be good neighbors by keeping the lines of communication open. We lead by example, showing people that we are a trusted source for food in which they can have confidence,” he adds.
Shifting gears to modernize the farm and make it environmentally friendly required a big leap of faith. It's one the Brauns are glad they took.