As the naturalist John Muir once observed, “Going to the woods is going home.” At their farm near Ottumwa, IA, Ryan and Lana Reed have enticed the woods to come to them.
The Reeds have planted about 1,200 trees on their home site, providing a living frame that encompasses a picture-perfect farmstead. A wide, grassy lawn welcomes visitors to a pair of 2,400-head finishers, and Lana’s gardening touch brings a flood of flowers to their adjacent homestead. It’s a place to raise pigs, but it looks more like a good spot for a picnic.
And that’s exactly what it becomes on Independence Day each year. “When we finished construction in 2007, we decided to hold a Fourth of July picnic so people could see what goes on here,” Ryan says. It now has become an annual event, attracting 300 or so local folks who come out to the farm for a good time.
“We provide the meat and non-alcoholic drinks,” Lana says. “They bring a side dish, play games and do other Fourth of July activities. And they have a chance to get a first-hand look at how we raise pigs.”
All the beauty that surrounds these barns was sparked by concerns that neighbors had when the Reeds announced their plans to build the finishers. “One neighbor suggested we plant trees around the barns,” Ryan recalls. “We thought that sounded like a good idea. We try to always keep our ears open, because you can always learn something, whether people are sharing a positive statement or a negative statement.”
The Reeds’ children — Conner, Kylee and Colt — represent the sixth generation to produce corn, soybeans and livestock on this Wapello County land. Ryan was born and raised on the family farm, received a college degree and worked off the farm before coming back for a fulltime venture in production agriculture.
In 2007, the Reeds constructed two, 2,400-head, tunnel-ventilated finishers on the home site, which are operated under contract with Cargill Pork, LLC. The barns are set up with large pens, each quadrant holding 600 pigs.
“This was a chance for me to fulfill a lifelong dream of farming,” Ryan says. “It gives Lana and me a chance to spend more quality time with the family and be a part of community activities.”
The Reeds used the Community Assessment Model offered by the Coalition to Support Iowa’s Farmers (CSIF) in order to properly site the barn for the least impact on neighbors. They also signed up for the Green Farmstead Partner program, which is offered by CSIF in cooperation with Trees Forever and the Iowa Nursery Landscape Association.
Those groups helped the Reeds design their vegetative buffer. It consists of two outside rows of Austree willows, two rows of spruce varieties, and one row of berry- and nut-producing shrubs, such as high bush cranberry, ninebark, hazelnut and arrowwood.
Cost-share incentives offered by the Green Farmstead Partner program helped make the project affordable. “Between the different organizations collaborating on this project, the windbreak was funded 100% with outside dollars,” Ryan says. The buffer also is enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), so it not only saves soil, but also provides the farm with additional cash flow from the CRP payments.
The finishing barns provide a valuable source of nutrients for the farm’s crop acres. Manure collects in 8-ft.-deep pits under slotted floors, providing enough storage capacity for more than a year. That allows the Reeds the flexibility to apply manure at the optimum time.
The nutrients are applied in the fall with a 9,500-gal., quad-axle Houle tanker with Dietrich incorporators and closers. “We traded a 7,300-gallon tanker for this one,” Ryan explains. “In one of our applicator classes, we learned that the 9,500-gal. tanker has less impact on road and field compaction due to its additional axle.”
When used on distant fields, manure is pumped into aluminum semi-trailer rigs that transport manure to the field. Manure is tested for nutrient content annually, while soil is tested every four years to make sure that nutrients are kept in the proper range. Crop fields are managed in conjunction with a neighboring farmer; much of the manure is applied on family land.
“Manure has been a key to our success here,” Ryan points out. “It offers a high-quality source of nutrients at only about one-fourth the cost of commercial fertilizer. It has been a great benefit to the bottom line.”
The Reeds use pit additives to help control manure odors, break up crusts in the pit and help control flies. They also are researching an additive to see how much effect it has in stabilizing manure nitrogen in the soil profile.
“We believe there is no environment more fit for livestock than Iowa,” Ryan says. “Our infrastructure, productive cropland and availability to use manure nutrients for a continuous production cycle makes us one of the most efficient and environmentally sound places to raise hogs. We strive to do all we can to tell this story and maintain this environment that has provided us with the ingredients to be successful pork producers.”
There are a number of other ways that the Reed family helps boost the environment. They use an on-site, covered composter for mortalities. It features a concrete floor and three bays to help manage the composting process. “The composter greatly adds to our biosecurity and also saves money as compared to using a rendering service,” Ryan says. A local sawmill provides the wood chips.
Inside the barns, built-in soakers prepare surfaces for pressure washing, helping to conserve water. Trough waterers and wet-dry feeders also help hold down water use while boosting feed efficiency.
Flow meters track water consumption. Ryan checks meters each day. Reduced water consumption can be an early indicator of an impending pig health problem. The meters also can serve as a tip off of a water leak that, if undetected, could cost money and fill manure storage space.
Surface water also is protected by a buffer strip along a creek running through the family’s land. Along with grassed waterways, the buffer strip helps protect the Cedar Creek watershed.
The Reeds take special care to keep the farm looking great. In addition to the manicured grass lawns and buffers, there are cute playhouses for the kids along with well-kept gardens.
One of the more surprising visual treats is the presence of barn quilt blocks on several of the outbuildings, including the two finishers. These sections of plywood are painted to resemble an individual quilt block.
“Lana put one up on our son’s play barn, and I thought it looked nice,” Ryan says. “I wasn’t aware that she had ordered more.” At first, he objected to the idea of putting a frivolous decoration on a hardworking hog barn. But he warmed up to the idea.
“They’ve worked out nice,” he says. “A lot of people comment on this feature of our barns.”
Planning to persevere
The year started off with great promise for the Reed family, as they were recognized with a couple of state-level awards for their stewardship efforts. But just a week before the 2012 Iowa Pork Congress, where they received the Iowa Environmental Steward Award as well as the Gary Wergin Good Farm Neighbor Award, tragedy struck.
They lost their farmhouse in a fire. The Reeds, ever the optimists, simply picked up the pieces and made a temporary home in a corner of the farm shop while their new home was being built — literally rising from the ashes.
“Having been born and raised on the family farm where we now live and working alongside my father as a little boy, I fell in love with Iowa agriculture and the life and values associated with it,” Ryan reflects. “We believe rural Iowa is one of the best places in the world to raise a family. It is our intent to maintain and improve this environment so that our children and grandchildren may enjoy the same luxuries and values that have made our life so enjoyable on the farm.”