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Shining Example - Jeff and Alan Wuebker

It is the height of irony that Wuebker Farms, LLC, is located in Darke County, Ohio. Everything on this operation, run by brothers Jeff and Alan Wuebker, reflects a certain brilliance—literally and figuratively.

Inside the hog barns on this 1,800-sow, farrow-to-wean operation, more than 300 energy-efficient, compact, fluorescent bulbs light up the rooms. The farm’s livestock trucks are washed, disinfected and dried after each trip to town in the on-site truck wash, leaving them gleaming like new before going back to work on the site.

The brothers and their families live side-by-side on the home farm, their houses only a few hundred feet from the production facilities. The lawns are neat, landscaping with flowers and shrubs add interest to their homesteads, and a creek with generous grass buffers winds its way through the farm and between the brothers’ houses.

This neat-as-a-pin approach reflects the pride that the Wuebker families have in their farming operation, but there’s also a practical payoff. “We believe people smell with their eyes,” Jeff says. “That’s another reason we put a high priority on keeping the entire property neatly mowed and landscaped.”

Diversified approach

It’s typical for farms in western Ohio to be fairly diverse, and Wuebker Farms, located near the town of Versailles, fits that picture. The family farm operates the farrowing site under contract with Rushwood Farms, Inc., a central Ohio family farm. Wuebker Farms also grows about 550 acres of corn to supply its feed needs. There are 450 acres of soybeans in the rotation, along with 40 acres of alfalfa and 130 acres of wheat. The Wuebker family also feeds out 50 dairy steers each year.

It’s those acres rotated to wheat that are targeted for the operation’s annual summer application of manure nutrients. Wuebker Farms takes some extra steps to make sure those nutrients are locked in place, and retained in the soil’s profile.

The farm is located in the Stillwater River watershed, an area that produces large numbers of livestock. “Environmental issues are always top-of-mind,” Jeff says, “not only with farmers, but with community members as well. We’re always cognizant of what we’re doing on the land and how it might affect rivers and streams.”

Manure goes on the land once the wheat has been harvested, and the straw has been baled and moved to the barn. The brothers are proponents of no-till, but when it comes time to apply manure, they pull out the disk.

That’s because these flat fields are tile-drained, and when the ground dries out in the summer heat, it forms cracks that allow what agronomists call “preferential flow” — gaps that allow surface-applied liquid manure to flow straight through the soil profile and into tile drains, where it could directly enter streams.

“We disk the ground twice to make sure we have 4 to 6 in. of loose dirt,” Alan explains. “That allows manure to absorb into the top few inches of soil, which not only keeps it out of the tile lines, but also reduces the amount of odor associated with the application.”

Liquid manure is applied by a custom-applicator operator who pumps from the farm’s deep-pit buildings and earthen manure storage basin. The manure nutrients are sent through drag lines to the application field. The applicator has disk openers as well as disk closing gangs that mix the liquid manure with the soil.

Wuebker Farms typically pumps 3.5 million to 4 million gallons of liquid manure during the summer application season. In order to prevent buildup of nutrients on the home farm, the Wuebkers have recently provided manure nutrients to neighboring farms.

“Our neighbors sow the wheat, and we purchase the straw,” Alan explains. “We provide the disk, and they prepare the ground for the nutrient application. We pay all the pumping expenses. We don’t charge the neighbors for the manure. They get the benefit of reducing their need for commercial fertilizer.”

Covered up

Wuebker Farms takes another step to protect soil and water. They’re now going to a cover-crop approach on the soils that receive manure nutrients, providing a green and growing crop through the fall, protecting the soil from erosion, and locking nutrients in place.

In 2010, the brothers seeded oats as a cover crop on about 100 acres. “We had good success with that approach,” Jeff says. “We also hosted a manure-and-cover-crop field day in September 2010, and planted 10 different cover-crop demonstration plots.”

For 2011, Wuebker Farms planted about 2 lb./acre of oilseed radish in addition to the oats for its cover-crop mix. The deep-rooted radishes help break up compaction. The brothers also plan to take a hay cutting from the oats, if weather permits. “Removing hay from these fields also helps prevent a buildup of nutrients in the soil,” Jeff points out.

The acres that receive manure are typically planted to corn. The manure supplies all of the phosphorus and potassium needs, and the brothers take a miserly approach to supplying additional nitrogen. They use a pre-side-dress nitrogen test after corn emerges on fields that have received manure. Results from this test determine how much, if any, nitrogen is supplied to the corn as part of a side-dress application.

Any nitrogen that is applied is put on at a variable rate, using an Ag Leader Insight controller that applies according to zone sampling. “Soil nitrogen testing has been in place on the farm since the late 1980s,” Jeff says. “With the expertise of a local independent crop consultant, we have significantly reduced nitrogen applications without sacrificing yields. We feel these practices allow us to produce corn as efficiently as any farmer who uses only commercial fertilizers.”

Cleaning up

Wuebker Farms puts a premium on cleanliness. The farm’s most recent addition, an enclosed wash bay with wastewater storage, not only keeps trucks and trailers tidy, but also boosts biosecurity.

“Previously, we washed our transport trailers outside on a large concrete pad that is part of our cattle feedlot,” Alan says. “The challenge came during cold months, when we could not warm and dry the trailer. The wash barn has been a major improvement.”

The operation washes an average of four trailers a week, with wastewater collected in a pit and land-applied as needed. The truck wash is sited near Alan’s house, since that is the farthest point from the hog buildings. Trailers are washed at the end of the day by personnel who do not reenter the facility that day.

“We bring the trailers in, scrape out the shavings, wash and disinfect, and then dry them out. They’re ready to use the next day. It has helped reduce the risk of bringing in disease,” Alan says.

Clean and bright also describes the interior of the operation’s hog buildings. The farm expanded in 2006, with an addition that includes 224 farrowing stalls in four rooms, plus a 1,200-head breeding-gestation barn. The gestating sows are watered in troughs, which are monitored by water meters. The farm feeds gestating sows by dropping the ration into about an inch of water, providing a slop feed. Any spilled feed is cleaned up by using a leafblower to direct it out of the walkways, helping to keep down dust and flies.

Interiors are bright in the gestation barn due to the installation of clear Palram panels that bring in natural light. There’s also ample lighting in both the gestation and farrowing facilities thanks to bright, white Green-lite compact fluorescent bulbs. These 23-watt units replace the typical 100-watt bulb, which provides savings that the Wuebkers estimate at approximately $4,500/year. Micro-Zone heat lamp controllers in farrowing rooms allow heat lamps to be dialed back as pigs grow, also saving electricity.

Neighbor friendly

Wuebker Farms pays attention to many other details in order to be good neighbors. They compost mortalities in a covered facility. A set of minimum-ventilation exhaust fans are turned on at 90° F. to direct any odor and noise away from neighbors. Around the farmstead the family keeps nearly 6 acres mowed neatly, including a mile of road frontage on a busy county highway.

With the public so close to their facility, the brothers are always aware of the need to provide a shining example of modern livestock production. “For Wuebker Farms, public relations start at the farm gate and never end,” Jeff says.

From an early age, the brothers were taught by their parents and grandparents to care for the land. The brothers are now raising six children between them, growing up side by side on the family farm. “We have already begun to teach those traditions to our children, so they can pass them on to their children,” Alan concludes.