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Renewal on Rolling Hills

Livestock bring about a renaissance in lovely Pennsylvania Dutch country. Lancaster County, PA, is known for its small and scenic farms woven like a quilt upon rolling green hills. Lowell and Janet Sensenig operate one of those patches, located in the northeastern part of the county near Mohnton, and it offers one of the most lush and colorful parts of the fabric. But the land wasn't always this way.

Click here to view video from the Sensenig Farm.

Lancaster County, PA, is known for its small and scenic farms woven like a quilt upon rolling green hills. Lowell and Janet Sensenig operate one of those patches, located in the northeastern part of the county near Mohnton, and it offers one of the most lush and colorful parts of the fabric. But the land wasn't always this way.

“When we first got here in 1977, the place was a mess,” Lowell says. The farm, operated by tenants for more than 25 years before it was purchased by the Sensenig family, had eroded to the point that tractors couldn't even use the field lanes because of the deep gullies that had been cut. “We had to fill ditches and reroute water just to set up the farm so we could operate our equipment,” he adds.

The Sensenigs began to build the farm around livestock, which are economically woven into the fabric of Pennsylvania Dutch country. The Sensenigs operate 40 acres of their own plus 60 acres of rented ground, but don't get the idea that this is a hobby farm. They market about 1,200 antibiotic-free hogs each year from their 400-head contract finishing facility, delivered to Leidy's, a regional packer.

They also send more than a quarter-million broilers to market each year under contract with Tyson Foods, grown in a pair of barns that are wedged diagonally into their farmstead. And there are commonly 70 dairy heifers on the farm, delivered from area dairies when the calves are 6-8 months old. The Sensenigs grow the calves through breeding age, breed the heifers by artificial insemination, then return them to the dairies just ahead of their due date.

“You find that farmers try to get the most out of their land in this county,” Sensenig says. “Land is extremely expensive here, often running $20,000 or more per acre. We have been fortunate to fill some local needs through our livestock production, and make a living doing so.”

Conservation concerns

Soon after they took over the farm, the Sensenigs set out on a plan to save the soil from erosion, protect water quality in the stream running through the farm and build up the soil to help reclaim its productivity. A combination of soil-saving structures and judicious use of nutrients from livestock manure has allowed the farm to flourish.

Like the livestock operation, the crop rotation also is intensive. “Our goal is to have something on every acre throughout the year,” Sensenig says. “For example, we no-till rye after corn silage to produce a cover crop. The rye is about ready to green up and really start growing in early spring, so we apply manure from the pit of the finisher on this land in February. The 4,000 gallons of manure applied per acre provide a good balance of nutrients for the rye, which is readily taken up. When we fertilize this way, we can harvest six to seven tons an acre of rye as haylage, which provides feed to the heifers.”

Nutrients from swine manure are applied in the spring ahead of fields that will be planted to corn for silage, as well as applied in the fall to cornfields that have been harvested.

“Manure nutrients supply all our needs for corn and hay ground,” he says. “At today's fertilizer prices, the value of those nutrients is about $60/acre. There is an abundance of manure in Lancaster County, so it is important to keep your crop yields up and use your nutrients on your farm.”

The Sensenigs keep a close eye on phosphorus levels. In 2008, they completed a Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan based on phosphorus as part of their Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) contract.

Phytase in their swine diets helped cut phosphorus levels in the swine manure by 50%. “That made the nitrogen worth twice as much to us,” Sensenig says. “It was quite an economic benefit. We run soil tests every two years, so we can monitor field-by-field to make sure we are not getting into the excess category on any particular field.” The state requires strict nutrient management plans, documenting each gallon of livestock manure applied.

Boosting water quality

Despite all the work the family had done to control erosion on the farm, they decided to go a step further in 2006. “I still was not satisfied with the environmental state of our farm,” Sensenig says. “We reviewed the farm with the Lancaster County Conservation District, and they encouraged us to apply through EQIP for a number of practices.”

The contract was granted, and a number of soil and water improvements went into place. A 180-ft.-long windbreak was planted, the heifer barnyard and manure storage areas were put under a roof, and a number of water-control and stream-improvement structures went into place.

More than 2,000 ft. of stream bank fencing was completed in 2008, keeping heifers away from the stream except where crossings have been designed. “Just fencing cattle out of the stream has done wonders for healing up the stream banks,” he adds.

Some old gang slats salvaged from a hog building helped heal up a big erosion problem. Heavy rains would cause runoff from a large hill on the farm. It has now been corralled by a retention basin lined with the 4 × 10-ft. slats and equipped with an underground drainage tile and a 300-ft. grassed waterway.

Next Page: Good neighbors

“The slats allow us to go in and clean out the sediment with our skid-steer loader. In three years, this structure has withstood several heavy rains,” Sensenig says.

A 60 × 400-ft. grass buffer strip was planted by the stream. “This has all but stopped sheet erosion on land that was once growing row crops,” he adds.

Maintaining water quality is a priority for the operation. The family regularly tests its two livestock wells for any evidence of contaminants. Gate-mounted nipple waterers in the finisher were replaced with swinging nipple waterers, which helped cut water use by about 15%. When those gates rusted, those sections were simply cut out. The barn is now operated as two large pens on either side of the main aisle, leaving pigs free to mingle. The barn has received a certificate of approval from the American Humane Association Free Farmed Certification program.

Surface water also is a concern. While the stream flowing through the farm isn't much more than a trickle, it does eventually flow into Muddy Creek and then the Susquehanna River, finally ending up in the Chesapeake Bay.

“The Chesapeake Bay is sick and it needs all our help,” Sensenig says. “If farmers in Pennsylvania, as well as other states in the watershed, can do our part to hold our soil in place and eliminate nutrient runoff, we can each be one small part of the solution.”

Good neighbors

Another aspect of farming in Lancaster County is that there are always close neighbors. There are four neighbors within a thousand feet of the Sensenig operation. Not to mention the 20 million people who live within a 100-mile radius of the farm, including major East Coast metroplexes such as New York City and Philadelphia.

The Sensenig farm is blanketed with color, as more than 3,000 sq. ft. of landscaped flower beds highlight the farmstead. The family has long operated a produce stand on the farm, which not only invites the public to their front door but also offers an opportunity to help educate the neighbors, many of whom come from the nearby city of Reading.

Many of the techniques for good neighbor relations are not new. For example, the Sensenigs maintain their buildings and keep them freshly painted, and mow grass and trim weeds. They also try to keep from hauling manure on holidays or weekends, and try to operate machines late at night only in fields that are farthest away from neighboring homes.

“We also try to help with snow removal, landscape projects or any other projects that might require some tools or equipment that we can offer,” he says. “We also offer some of our garden produce when we have an abundance, or supply some poultry litter for the neighbor's garden. It's just being a good neighbor and helping build our community. Keeping good communications going is half the battle.”

Selecting the site for the hog unit was important, as prevailing winds carry air from the building into the farm's woodlands, away from neighbors. A composting barn also is located in the edge of the woodlands, hidden from view and isolated from the farmstead. Salvaged hog slats were used to form the bins in the compost facility.

“The compost facility has been a great asset,” Sensenig says. “It also eliminates the trip to the rendering plant, which is a biosecurity risk. The composter has very little odor, and any odor there might be is directed into the woodlands, so it doesn't affect any neighbors.”

Being a good neighbor is just part of fitting into the quilt that ties together the various forms of agriculture in Lancaster County. “We may own only 40 acres out of the entire world,” Lowell summarizes, “But it's 40 acres that is not going to be contributing to soil erosion or water quality problems. There's peace of mind that we're doing all we can, not only to comply with all the regulations, but to be good neighbors and good citizens.”