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Finishers with a fresh touch

The little town of Lidderdale in rural Carroll County, IA, isn’t exactly on the beaten path. There are, however, a growing number of folks who are finding their way over to a swine production site called Ranch Creek Finishing, where Peter and Aaron Juergens are using a whole new set of technologies to improve their environmental footprint.

With the help of computerized controllers, the brothers periodically pipe one solution into the buildings’ airspace as a mist, while a different solution is delivered at regular intervals to the manure that is stored in deep pits under the concrete slats. A set of sensors measures the effect of these treatments. “Our goal is to treat the air quality concerns at the source,” Peter says.

Meanwhile, his brother, Aaron, uses grid soil sampling to determine the needs of the brothers’ 120 acres of corn and soybeans, and provide those nutrients by injecting manure from the deep pits. He also maintains the grounds around the building, which blend into a 20-acre buffer area around Ranch Creek that has been enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

Add up these environmentally friendly approaches, and it becomes obvious that this site is a showcase for modern pork production. More than 250 people have toured the facilities over the past two years, some from as far away as Brazil and Germany. In some cases, the brothers complete the tour by allowing guests to do some hunting on the adjacent CRP land where pheasant and deer like to hide.

“When they are able to hunt next to a 2,400-head swine operation without encountering odor concerns, it paints a very bright picture of Iowa pork production,” Peter notes.

Family pork production

The Ranch Creek site was built in 2001 as part of the Juergens family pork operation. Peter and Aaron’s parents, Ron and Elizabeth, have been raising hogs in west-central Iowa for more than 35 years. The family operation now farrows 5,500 sows — finishing 75,000 pigs themselves and selling another 75,000 to other producers annually.

In 2006, the brothers joined ownership of the family operation by purchasing the Ranch Creek farm as well as two other finisher sites. Ranch Creek features two, 48 pen, naturally ventilated confinement buildings that house 1,200 pigs each, growing pigs from 55 lb. to market weight. The Juergens brothers are dedicated to producing quality pork, as both have become Pork Quality Assurance (PQA) Plus certified. A PQA Plus site assessment has also been completed for the Ranch Creek finishers.

Maximizing manure’s value

Managing manure nutrients to get the maximum value has been a priority from the start. Manure collects in 8-ft.-deep pits beneath concrete slotted floors. As certified manure applicators, the Juergens haul the manure in tankers and inject nutrients to feed their surrounding 120 acres of corn and soybeans. Any remaining manure nutrients are delivered to neighbors through agreements outlined in the operation’s nutrient management plan.

The Juergens brothers’ fields are divided into 10- to 20-acre plots and grid-sampled to determine the exact nutrient needs. Slurry samples are taken during the land application process, where they are tested within 24 hours.

“We have GPS guidance systems, so we know how much manure is being put on the land, as well as where and when,” Aaron points out. “There has been a powerful economic payoff for using effluent from the site to provide nutrients for the crops.”

For example, during the 2008 growing season, the applied effluent provided nearly all the corn crop’s needs for nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. That added up to a savings of $132/acre as compared to purchasing the same nutrients in the form of commercial fertilizer.

Breathing easy

Peter Juergens specializes in air quality, studying a variety of air emissions mitigation strategies. He points out that virtually all gases inside a hog building come from the decomposition of manure. His idea is to treat the manure with compounds that help eliminate odors at the source.

The Juergens brothers’ parents toured a swine unit in Maryland a few years back that incorporated a sophisticated approach to odor control. The family invested in the technology, which they now call the Juergens Environmental Control System.

The Ranch Creek site has the system in place, and Peter uses the finishers to further study and refine his approach. The basic approach of the system is to control dust, odors and gases in and around the barns.

The first key part of the technology is the atomization system, which treats air from the ceiling to the slotted floors. In simple terms, it delivers a shot of air freshener every few hours to the air above the pigs.

A set of pipes are installed on the ceiling on 10-ft. centers, and nozzles every 10 ft. deliver a mist of a solution designed to neutralize ammonia and capture dust particles, causing them to settle out of the air. The Juergens family makes its own solution by blending vegetable oil into a water formulation that includes ethanol alcohol, citric acid, eucalyptus and vanilla.

The formulation is stored in a 275-gallon tote outside the finishers in a separate small shed called a “biosecurity unit.” The location outside the barns allows workers to replenish solutions without coming into contact with the pigs.

The building also houses a computerized controller that operates the system. The controller is set to deliver the atomized solution six times a day for only five seconds at a time. Also in the biosecurity shed is the main pump that agitates and mixes the solution for 10 minutes prior to each application, which gets it into full suspension. Then the pump pushes the solution through specially designed nozzles under high pressure to produce an aerosol mist with micron-sized particles.

“The particulate matter is removed through electrostatic attraction and coagulation,” Peter says. The dust particles become heavy and settle out of the airspace.

The brothers have also installed filters on air inlets, which also receive an atomization treatment so the incoming air is pure and clean.

The second main part of the environmental control system is aimed at controlling odors and gases from the deep pit storage. The Juergens brothers call this their “neutralizer system.”

Their aerobic pit neutralizer works to combat sources of odor from the surface of the deep-pit storage. Every four hours, a water-based solution is sprayed onto the pit surface.

The anaerobic pit neutralizer attacks odors and gases generated at the bottom of the pit. A proprietary solution is stored in a large poly tank outside the barns, with the solution carried through a network of PVC pipes along the outside of the facilities. The controller in the biosecurity unit is programmed to deliver this solution through injectors that place it uniformly in the pit, sending a burst of solution six times a day for two seconds.

This neutralizer approach helps convert nitrogen from the ammonia form to the ammonium form, which is more available to plants and safer for the environment, Peter notes. “It also helps eliminate crust on the surface of the pit, and you no longer see those gas bubbles bursting on the surface,” he adds. “That also helps mitigate any odors.”

The finishers also have a set of sensors that allow the brothers to monitor and record the levels of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide inside the barns. It offers documented proof of how well the system works, while pig performance offers supporting evidence. “Our mortality rate in the buildings averages less than 2%, and our morbidity rates are less than 1%,” Peter says.

“We think our environmental system allows the finishers to be healthier for both workers and animals, and ultimately produces a better pork product for consumers,” he adds.

Spread the word

In addition to making their farm available for tours, the Jurgens brothers help spread the word about environmentally friendly pork production in their community. Aaron serves as an Operation Main Street speaker and is active in the Carroll Chamber of Commerce. “We try to put the good word out for Carroll County and for pork producers,” he says.

Practicing environmental stewardship has been a part of the Juergens family’s values for generations, and now Peter sees a chance to pass along those values to his 2-year-old son, Emmett. “We try our best to manage our operation to protect the air, water and land for future generations,” Peter says. “Maybe Emmett can become a part of the operation someday and be a steward of the land as well.”