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Nursery surrounded by Nature

It’s a part of the regular routine on Pleasant Hill Farm for Charlie and Nancy Long to enjoy a cup of morning coffee on the front porch of their log home in the Ozarks, watching deer, turkey and other wildlife at play on their lawn and in nearby fields. Their porch feels like a private resort, fitting into a hillside setting located just a dozen miles from the northernmost shores of the Lake of the Ozarks.

But this is much more than a rural retreat. It’s a diversified farm, featuring four nursery buildings that house about 6,500 pigs along with cropland, pasture and a cow-calf herd. “I used to work as a park ranger with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources,” Nancy says. “I have a strong background in taking care of the environment and enjoying nature. My love of nature and caring for it is just a part of who I am, and it is a part of Charlie as well. We want to take care of the things we love.”

One thing the Longs enjoy most is working together. They left behind their town jobs and bought the farm in 2003. The farm already had four hog barns and a cow-calf operation, so the new endeavor offered them a chance to farm together full time.

“We raise nursery pigs on contract with Cargill,” Nancy says. “The nursery phase fit well with what we wanted to do. We wanted an operation that either of us could operate on our own. If one of us is sick, the other person can make sure that everything gets done. The pigs are not too big for either of us to handle.”

Pigs arrive at Pleasant Hill Farm at about 17 to 19 days of age, and the Longs raise them to about 50 lb. The pigs are part of Cargill’s antibiotic- and feed-additive free (ABF) program, so the only antibiotics used are injectables given to pigs that appear to be sick.

Frequent flush

Keeping the facility clean is a big part of caring for so many small pigs. The barns are set up to flush a shallow, 6-inch-deep pit every hour. The flush flows to a lagoon, and recycled lagoon water recharges overhead reservoirs in the ceiling of each barn to use in the next flush cycle.

The Longs check and perform any required maintenance on the flushing system every day to make sure there is no buildup of ammonia in barns. Each barn is washed and disinfected between turns, and exhaust fans are cleaned regularly to remove dust particles or contaminants that might affect air quality.

“We use the lagoon effluent as nutrients for our pastures and crops,” Charlie says. “We have a traveling (irrigation) gun that reaches about 125 acres of land. And we recently added a manure tanker to apply nutrients to the places that our gun doesn’t reach.”

Before buying the manure tanker, the Longs bought poultry litter to fertilize additional cropland on their 360-acre farm, applying about 2 tons/acre at a cost of $27/ton. “That was costing us more than $8,000 a year,” Charlie points out. “Not only does the tanker save us that money, but it also allows us to spread nutrients from our lagoon to additional acres on the farm where we need the nutrients.”

Pumping through the traveling gun is done mostly in spring, but with availability of hay and pasture acres, the Longs can be flexible in their timing of applications. When they do pump, Charlie monitors the process continuously to be sure there are no problems in the system. The operation complies with all Missouri Department of Natural Resources annual reporting requirements, which include daily rainfall records and the amount of lagoon effluent pumped on each field. Both the effluent and soil samples are tested annually so the Longs can make informed decisions about application rates and whether additional fertilizer may be needed to balance the crop nutrients.

The Longs converted about 150 acres into cropland to help turn some manure nutrients into cash crops. They maintained existing terraces and left grass buffers along fences, draws and streams to help protect a nearby creek. No-till planting also helps hold the hilly soil in place, while the manure nutrients help boost the yields of the corn-soybean rotation.

“We think the nutrients from the pigs really help our farm,” Charlie says. The cornfields are tall and deep green, looking more like the fields one would expect to see in Iowa, not in the Ozark hills.

Integrated approach

As part of the farm’s integrated approach to fitting in with nature, the Longs built cross-fences for rotational grazing to help ensure that cattle don’t overgraze the fields. They also fence cattle away from some of the wooded areas and sensitive areas around streams.

The Longs have placed five acres surrounding a stream behind their lagoon into the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) planted trees to make a riparian buffer strip.

Water quality is a big issue in the Ozarks, and Pleasant Hill Farm takes extra steps to protect this resource. A well by the house, along with the one that serves the barns, is tested annually to check for any contaminants. In 2009, the state’s DNR tested the creek running through the farm and found no contaminants.

Several ponds on the farm are used for watering the cattle, and a spring has been developed to provide a water source for both the Longs and a neighbor. “We don’t do any pumping in the area of the spring, in order to protect water quality,” Charlie says. “We have a healthy fish and bullfrog population in our ponds, and we think that is testimony to the fact that our nutrient applications are done judiciously.”

The amount of water used also is important to the family. As part of their daily chore routine, the Longs check a water meter to detect any unusually high water usage. If the reading indicates a spike in use, they check the barns’ plumbing and nipple waterers for any possible leaks.

Pleasant hillSpread the word

The Longs live in a mixed-population area ranging from traditional farmers to tourists, as well as retirees who want to build a home in a rural area and enjoy the good life that the Ozarks offer. The family sees it as a chance to reach out and educate the public on how modern pork production can be a good fit for the area.

In 2008, Pleasant Hill Farm hosted a Lunch-and-Learn farm tour, sponsored by the Missouri Pork Association, the Missouri Department of Agriculture and a dozen other commodity and business groups. More than 60 people attended the event, including state and local officials, as well as the director of the state’s department of agriculture. After serving lunch in tents near the barn, Nancy told visitors about the operation, and they were invited to enter one of the barns to see how pigs are raised in a modern nursery facility.

“A lot of people commented about how close we were to the barns, but they couldn’t smell the pigs,” Nancy recalls. “When I worked as a park ranger, I was an educator. I gave campground programs and nature hikes, trying to educate people about the environment and helping them learn to appreciate and enjoy the outdoors and nature. Now, even though I’m involved in pig farming, I think I’m still an educator. We still need to do things that show people that we care about the environment.”

Charlie agrees. “We like to do the right thing for the environment. We like to watch wildlife, and we are avid hunters as well. If we don’t do the things necessary to keep the air, soil and water pristine, we can’t enjoy the things we love, and neither can anyone else,” he adds.

Charlie says that conserving and replenishing the soil with nutrients helps the farm be sustainable, plus the row crops act as a magnet for wildlife, particularly deer. Charlie says he’s willing to share a little ground with nature in order to boost wildlife populations.

“We don’t farm every last inch of the land we have,” he continues. “Waterways, fencerows and wooded lots are habitat for the critters we share the land with. We wouldn’t be happy doing what we do if it wasn’t for the critters and the beauty that surrounds us. We hope we do everything necessary to keep our land healthy, so those who come after us will be able to enjoy it as much as we do.”