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Tall Corn, Deep Roots

Hogs and corn provide an environmentally friendly fit for this Iowa family operation. Everything is state-of-the-art at JAC Pork, Inc. these days, but Roger Nath is driven by lessons learned from previous generations of the Nath family who kept this farm together through some tough times. One of the lessons passed down from Grandma and Grandpa, as well as through my parents, was, You don't have to

“One of the lessons passed down from Grandma and Grandpa, as well as through my parents, was, ‘You don't have to be wealthy to keep things neat and clean,’” he says.

The elder generations also taught Roger that a little hard work never hurt anybody. Put those lessons together and you can see how JAC Pork — named for Roger's children, Jeremy, Andrew and Christine — has built its reputation as a hog operation with a manicured landscape outside the facility and immaculate housekeeping inside the barns.

The Nath children represent the fourth generation to have grown up on this northwest Iowa farm. The grandkids that come to visit mark the fifth generation. “As I enter into my sixth decade of life on this five-generation farm,” Roger says, “I have deep roots that hold me accountable to the land and to the environment, which has sustained all five generations.”

Hogs and corn

JAC Pork, which consists of two fully slotted finishing buildings housing 1,760 hogs each, is the heart of this highly productive farm. Roger and his wife, Renee, also farm 700 acres in a corn/soybean rotation. Manure nutrients feed the corn crop, pushing yields past 200 bu./acre.

“We're basically in a cycle. We raise corn to feed hogs and the hogs produce nutrients that we use to raise corn,” Roger explains.

That's a simple way of describing the farm's manure management program, which focuses on gaining an economic advantage by using manure nutrients to grow crops in a corn/soybean rotation. JAC Pork applies nutrients according to a nutrient management plan approved by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

A stainless steel scraper system installed in a shallow pit pushes manure to the center of the 42 × 380-ft. buildings. The manure flows through an 8-in., underground PVC pipe to a lift station that pumps the effluent to a 250 × 250-ft. earthen storage basin.

“We built the earthen basin to provide additional capacity and give us some flexibility in the timing of our application,” Nath says. “The site produces about 1.2 million gallons of effluent a year, but we can store up to 3 million gallons. Ideally, we inject the manure in the fall onto soybean stubble for fields that will be planted to corn the next spring. But if the weather doesn't cooperate, we can delay application until conditions are right.”

Manure application is a big job that takes place on a compressed timetable. Three agitators run for four hours in the earthen basin, blending the material for uniformity. Manure is pumped out through a drag-line hose system where it is injected to a depth of about 10 in. using a chisel plow. All fields are located within a mile of the facility, so hoses never leave the section where the buildings are located.

Running around the clock, Nath can complete the entire application in 30 hours or less.

Manure samples are collected during the application period so he can calculate the nutrient rates as well as the financial impact of the manure nutrients. The effluent typically runs an approximate analysis of 20-25-30 (nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium) per thousand gallons, and the manure plan calls for up to 10,000 gal./acre for fields with proven high yields.

After subtracting pumping costs, Nath figures the annual application saves nearly $45,000 as compared to purchasing the equivalent amount of commercial fertilizer, based on fall 2008 prices.

There may be additional benefits from manure nutrients that he's not including in those figures. “We know there are additional micronutrients that come with the manure application, and those help plants stay healthy and green when under stress,” he says. After 12 years of using manure nutrients, he says corn yields are running 20 bu./acre higher than fields receiving commercial fertilizer only.

Creating compost

The barns were originally constructed as contract finishers in 1997, but Nath renovated them in 2003 to serve as gilt developing units. Currently, the barns are back operating as finishers under contract with Murphy-Brown.

In 2003, Nath also decided to build a six-bay compost unit to handle mortalities. “With our contract for the gilt developer unit, I wanted to maintain the highest level of biosecurity possible,” he recalls. “That meant keeping rendering trucks away from the farm. I studied a number of composter designs and came up with a plan that we built ourselves.”

It features poured concrete pads and sidewalls, with an adhesive bentonite strip between each floor and wall joint to provide additional sealing. The floor also slopes toward the back wall to keep seepage in place. A 20 × 70-ft. concrete pad makes for tidy access to the compost bays when using a front-end loader to turn the compost material. A built-in sprinkler system provides an easy way to maintain the ideal 65% moisture level in the compost.

Each bay is 10 × 20 ft. and can handle up to 4,500 lb. of mortalities. Wood chips are used as the carbon source. Piles are turned and moved regularly until they are applied to land as crop nutrients.

“This is a great way to handle and recycle mortalities,” Nath says. “We're saving $1,000 a year on rendering costs, in addition to having improved biosecurity. And everyone who visits is impressed by the lack of flies and absence of odor.”

Next Page: Innovations abound

Innovations abound

Another step that JAC Pork takes in reducing odor is applying a biocover — a layer of chopped straw — to the earthen basin each spring. “There are advantages to having a larger storage basin, but when it comes to holding the biocover in place, there can be challenges,” Nath says.

To fight the action of wind and waves, he installed a series of lines, three running east-west and three running north-south, that divide the basin into smaller grids. Nath experimented with a number of different types of lines and nets to hold the straw. He is currently using nylon ropes with flotation devices attached.

Once the biocover, which measures 6 to 10 in. deep, gets stabilized, it is effective in cutting odors. “It has a noticeable effect, probably cutting 95% of the odor being emitted from the basin,” Nath says.

Air quality in the barns is kept high through strict sanitation and some innovative twists. Site manager Dale Tripp came up with the idea of “manure stops,” which are treated 1 × 6-in. boards held in the slats by stakes. The boards are strategically placed to keep manure from being pushed out of pens and into an unoccupied area near the outer walls where the scraper system is housed. The boards keep solid manure in the pens where pigs work it down into the pits, rather than piling up in walkways and behind the scrapers.

Other innovations include ceilings with an R-20 insulation value vs. the more typical finisher with open rafters, providing less space to heat and cool, thus keeping the pig space comfortable.

The unit also has an enclosed load-out adjoining the office space. No incline is needed and no loading chutes are used.

A computerized ventilation controller manages the buildings for desired temperatures, allowing them to be ventilated naturally in mild weather, but power ventilated in extreme heat or cold. In addition, all standard light bulbs were replaced with EnergySmart fluorescent bulbs that use about 23% less energy, Nath explains.

Water watch

Water use is monitored by a set of meters in the hallway, and usage in each room is recorded. “Changes in water consumption are often the first clue that something is affecting the pigs in that room,” observes site manager Tripp.

Easily adjusted swinging waterers help minimize water wastage. Any water that makes it into the shallow gutter is sent to the earthen basin, where the biocover protects it from evaporation.

“When we're applying 10,000 gal./acre, that's equivalent to one-third of an inch of rain,” Nath observes. “We are recycling water a number of times in our operation.”

Nath also has taken steps to protect surface water on his cropland. Grass filter strips protect the Ocheyden River from runoff. All soybeans are planted with a no-till drill, and he uses only minimum tillage practices on corn.

“As a result of these practices, our lighter soils have better water retention,” Nath says. “A high percentage of residue on the surface helps keep soil moisture in place and gives young soybeans a chance to germinate quickly and canopy to continue shading the soil.”

Setting roots

Roger and Renee were married in 2000, and Renee's creative gardening touch is in full evidence around the farmstead. She gave Roger a tree for Father's Day, and that led to a tradition of planting trees on the farmstead on special occasions, holidays or to celebrate a birth in the family, or as a memorial to a lost loved one.

“Our vegetable gardens, flower gardens, bird feeders and bird baths are a sight to behold,” Roger says. “We're just trying to give a little back to the environment during our short time here. We want to sustain the land and give the grandchildren a chance to experience the farm life that we have enjoyed.”