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Mountain Magic: In the shadows of Blue Mountain, this Utah finisher demonstrates stewardship on a grand scale.
September 19, 2013
Back in 1875, the discovery of silver in the San Francisco Mountains of Utah’s Beaver County set off one of the largest mining booms in U.S. history. Today, what’s booming in southern Beaver County is the pork industry.
A real gem of the pork industry sits in the shadow of Blue Mountain, just a stone’s throw from the famous Horn Silver Mine.
It’s Circle Four Farms’ Blue Mountain site 42304, a finishing farm that cares for 55,000 market hogs each year as they grow from 60 lb. to 270 lb. It’s a large, modern commercial farm that uses state-of-the-art technology to reduce its carbon footprint and protect the environment.
As the sun sets in the western sky behind Blue Mountain, both the mountain and the finishing barns are bathed in blue evening light. It’s a truly Western vista, and it looks unlike any setup you’ll see in the Corn Belt.
There’s more than just the quality of light that makes this location unique. Milford, UT, the town where Circle Four is headquartered, sits at about 5,500 feet above sea level.
“We’re in the high desert of southern Utah,” says Jim Webb, the environmental safety and public affairs manager at Circle Four Farms. “This is an arid climate, and it is sparsely populated. The Blue Mountain finishers are 20 miles from the nearest home in Beaver County.”
The remote location and favorable climate, along with encouragement from local officials, provided the impetus for Circle Four Farms to build a system that produces about 1.2 million hogs a year.
The majority of the market animals are shipped to West Coast packers, primarily Farmer John in Los Angeles. Circle Four is a subsidiary of Murphy-Brown LLC, the production arm for Smithfield Foods.
Blue Mountain 42304 was built in March 1999, with 10 separate barns providing a total capacity of 21,000 finishing spaces. The buildings are naturally ventilated, with curtain drops and fans to provide minimum ventilation in the winter. An electronically controlled ventilation system operates a combination of fans, heaters and water misters that provide an optimum environment in the barns under various weather conditions.
Summer high temperatures reach well into the 90° F range, but the desert air cools rapidly after the sun sets. Winter low temperatures rival those of central Iowa, but the desert air tends to warm rapidly when the sun shines, often pushing temperatures above the freezing mark.
The site originally was designed as a pit recharge system flowing to a total evaporative anaerobic lagoon, with an evaporative basin for storage. “The original design had a 20-year sludge storage volume and a volatile solids loading rate that was better than the Natural Resources Conservation Service [NRCS] recommended values,” Webb points out. “In the past year, we have signed a manure supply agreement with Alpental Energy Partners [AEP] to supply all of the manure from these farms for anaerobic digesters.”
Manure from Blue Mountain 42304 now is directed, along with manure from other Circle Four finishers, to a pair of 10-million-gallon anaerobic digesters. AEP collects and scrubs the gas produced by the anaerobic digesters to power a pair of engine-generator sets that produce electricity.
“This electricity is then sold to a local municipality,” Webb points out. “The AEP project is sized to generate 3.2 megawatts of electricity, enough to power approximately 3,000 homes.” By burning methane gas produced by the manure, scientists estimate that the farms will see a reduction of at least 107,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent each year. “That really reduces our carbon footprint,” Webb says.
The process of digesting the manure and capturing the gases helps to reduce odors. When effluent leaves the digester, it moves to lagoons, where solids are pumped out and reclaimed. “Because we are in an arid climate, we can evaporate a lot of water,” Webb says. “We pump out and dry the solids, and then take them to agricultural fields to be applied at agronomic rates.”
Another way that this large finishing operation maintains air quality is through attention to even the smallest housekeeping details in the buildings. “We scrape our alleyways every day,” says Greg Myers, farm leader at Blue Mountain 42304. “We drain and recharge pits weekly, and when pigs are shipped, we go in and power-wash and sanitize before new pigs arrive.”
The team at Blue Mountain also checks feeders, waterers and pigs each day. “We check every pen to check every pig each day,” Myers points out. “We physically check each feeder and waterer by hand to make sure they’re working properly.” Farmworkers also mow vegetation around the farms, and maintain a 20-ft.-wide strip around the buildings, not only to reduce rodent habitat, but also to serve as a firebreak to protect against the region’s wildfires. The farms also have a comprehensive rodent control system that includes bait stations.
Since the farm is located in a desert climate, it’s no surprise that protecting water resources is a high priority. “Utah operates on a water rights system, with only a certain amount of water that is available in each aquifer,” Webb says. “Circle Four has purchased enough water rights for its entire operation.”
Each barn at the Blue Mountain site has water meters and a water budget. The water budget is distributed monthly, and takes into account evaporation, animal needs and lagoon levels. Water used for flushing the manure from the barns is recycled from the lagoon. Animals have free access to swinging nipple waterers, which supply all of the water the pigs need, while conserving water at the same time.
All lagoons are lined with a high-density polyethylene 40-mil liner that protects the groundwater. “We oversee groundwater quality with three monitoring wells at this site,” Webb says. “These wells are monitored twice a year and have compliance limits that exceed drinking water standards.”
The wells monitor the first unconfined aquifer, rather than the drinking water aquifer, so that any contamination would be detected well before the drinking water aquifer would be impacted. “We also monitor the lagoons to make sure the integrity of the liner is being maintained,” he adds. “The farm manager inspects lagoons daily, and environmental technicians monitor lagoons on a monthly basis.”
Webb adds that, when it comes to environmental protection, Circle Four’s philosophy is to meet and, in most cases, exceed environmental regulations. “One example of this is our lagoon liners,” he says. “The state regulation requires a liner. We could use a clay liner, but have chosen to use the flexible membrane liner that is more impermeable than the clay liners.
“Another way in which we exceed the requirements is our implementation of an ISO 14001 system,” Webb continues. That’s a rigorous, third-party-certified environmental management system.
Circle Four also is the only livestock company in Utah that is involved at the partner level in the Clean Utah program, a statewide environmental leadership and recognition program administered by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s Pollution Prevention Program. Through this relationship, Circle Four recycles hundreds of tons of metal each year.
Circle Four also is a leader in green energy, not only from its digester program, but also its involvement in Utah’s largest wind energy farm. There are 62 wind turbines on land leased from Circle Four, that are capable of producing 130 megawatts of power. Circle Four also has installed compact fluorescent lightbulbs in all production areas, made improvements in its ventilation systems in order to reduce power usage and switched to vehicles that get better gas mileage in its fleet.
Patty Goff, communications and sustainability manager for Circle Four Farms, points out that the company holds a “Super Sustainability Season” each year. “This is a four-week program in which we focus on one of the tenants of the ‘We Care’ initiative each week,” she says. During the week of environmental focus, employees clean roadsides, plant trees and participate in a variety of cleanup and water monitoring projects.
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