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2002 Environmental Stewards of the Pork Industry

When Hillcrest Pork decided to expand and modernize its production operations back in 1998, the Hirschman family made a decision: This new facility would tread lightly on the environment surrounding its Plymouth County, IA, location. We live in a small community where our neighbors are also close friends, says Frank Hirschman. Our first and foremost thought when we considered expanding our swine enterprise

When Hillcrest Pork decided to expand and modernize its production operations back in 1998, the Hirschman family made a decision: This new facility would tread lightly on the environment surrounding its Plymouth County, IA, location.

“We live in a small community where our neighbors are also close friends,” says Frank Hirschman. “Our first and foremost thought when we considered expanding our swine enterprise was the perceptions of our neighbors and our local community. We didn''''''''t want anyone to feel they had to move away because we were putting up a 2,500-sow operation.”

The initial consensus of the community was favorable. The Hirschmans received even more support when they announced plans to include aeration of the manure storage system.

“We wanted to design an environmentally benign and economically sustainable manure storage and handling system,” Frank explains. The nearby community of Kingsley employed an aeration system in its city lagoons, so the Hirschmans started planning with that concept as its first choice for treating swine effluent.

Bubbling away in a two-cell earthen storage basin system, the aerators have delivered the kind of performance the family and neighbors expected. Aeration is the heart of the new operation''''''''s environmentally friendly design, but it is only one of many comprehensive management practices the Hirschmans employ.

Family Heritage

Hillcrest Pork is the very definition of family pork production. It is owned and operated by Frank and Jenny Hirschman, along with their son, Don, and his wife, Bobbi. Don and Bobbi''''''''s daughter, Addison, represents the family''''''''s fourth generation to call these northwest Iowa hills home.

The Hirschman farm historically was a corn-soybean row crop operation paired with a 200-sow, farrow-to-finish hog operation. Don and his wife came back to the farm in 1997, so the family decided to upgrade to a 2,500-sow, farrow-to-wean unit with all confined housing, on contract with Farmland Foods.

“We now have all of the animals in environmentally controlled, comfortable, clean and easy-to-manage housing,” Frank says. “Gone are the bitter, cold nights of hogs piling in the bedding to keep warm; no more fighting to get a mouthful of feed; no more vaccinations on the run; no more ‘ornery’ boars that were dangerous to move in large, outdoor pens. No more mud, snow, rain or ice to challenge our dedication to pork production.”

The new operation, constructed and populated in 1998, features four buildings: two breeding-gestation barns, a farrowing barn and an isolation unit. The manure storage is a two-cell aerated earthen storage basin.

Manure management involves shallow (2-ft.) flush pits under each building. The pits have 8-in. pull-plugs that are pulled according to a schedule. The breeding and gestation barns are flushed once or twice per week. Farrowing rooms are flushed twice per turn.

The manure flows to the first stage of the earthen basin, where the aerators help break down solids and keep them in suspension. The injected air also helps reduce odors.

The two-cell system provides storage for at least a full year''''''''s production. Cell 1 holds about a 90-day storage. Top water flows by gravity from Cell 1 to Cell 2, which can hold about 420 days worth of storage.

Cell 2 provides recycled water for flushing and recharging the shallow pits in each building, except for the isolation unit, where fresh water is used.

Aeration Helps

Each cell has a floating aerator (Aqua-Vac), which pushes air into the effluent. Cell 1 has a 3.5 hp unit, and Cell 2 has a 10.5 hp unit.

The aerators are operated continuously for about nine months of the year. When water temperature in the cells drops below 40° F., bacterial action slows to the point where shutting down the aeration system is recommended. It typically stays off from mid-December through mid-March.

Running an aeration system does add costs, but Don points out that on a per-pig basis, the additional amount is very small. Total operating cost for the system runs less than $4,000/year, or roughly 7¢/pig.

“I want to live here and raise my family here,” he says. “We want to do those extra little things that will help make our environment better. It''''''''s hard to put a monetary value on that.”

Settled solids from Cell 1 are recycled to crop ground, usually each fall, using an umbilical cord with an injector system. These nutrients usually fertilize a subsequent corn crop.

Effluent from Cell 2 is more dilute and is typically used to irrigate an alfalfa crop throughout the spring, summer and fall. The Hirschmans wait for calm wind conditions to apply the effluent through a traveling gun.

Both Frank and Don have been certified for confinement site manure application through the state''''''''s regulatory system.

GPS grid sampling of soils and testing of effluent keeps application rates in line with agronomic needs. Yields are high without use of additional commercial fertilizer. When extra manure is available, it is applied on neighbors'''''''' fields. “Our neighbors tell us they would take all the extra manure we can give them,” Frank says.

Hillcrest Pork also uses composting of baby pig mortalities to handle losses in an environmentally friendly, as well as cost-effective, manner. An existing hoop structure houses the composting site, and sawdust is acquired locally for use as the carbon source.

Farmland''''''''s environmental/natural resources staff help keep the Hirschmans up to date on the latest environmental regulations and has assisted them in writing an emergency action plan.

Aesthetics Play Role

Extra attention is given to the landscaping around buildings. The family has planted shelterbelts of trees and shrubs on the north, west and south sides of the site. A grove of trees already existed on the east side.

The trees not only enhance the appearance of the site, they also provide a windbreak and may reduce odor by collecting dust from the exhaust fans and by breaking up the odor plume, they say.

Grass is kept neatly mowed, and a farm sign and rock garden serve as a friendly welcome for visitors. The shelterbelts and the grass-backed terraces that help control erosion also host a variety of wildlife. The family has spotted pheasants, songbirds, coyotes, deer and rabbits in the shelterbelt.

Jenny points out that the extra effort to manage these environmentally friendly details pays off not just in better neighbor relations, but also for the family and employees who work in the buildings.

“Our farmhouse is the closest dwelling to the site,” she points out. “The way the place looks, and the efforts to keep odors down, makes it a nice place for us to work and also a fun place for me to take my granddaughter to look at the pigs. For the most part, this new operation has far less odor than when we were raising hogs outdoors.”

The farm hires three local persons to help in the breeding operations and three to work in farrowing. Five students from the local high school help with weekend chores. Neighbors are hired to haul animals to market.

Being good environmental stewards, the Hirschmans say, begins with being good neighbors and being involved with the local community. The family remains active in the local church and the pork producers association.

“Environmental stewardship isn''''''''t just a concept around here,” Frank says. “It is a way of life. We hope to preserve our natural resources for many generations to come.”

Kids run along a row of red oaks. Butterflies flutter amongst purple coneflowers. Rabbits play hide-and-seek among the shrubs.

These aren''''t scenes from a park or a nature trail. They are snapshots from everyday life at Pig Oaks, a Carroll County, IA, hog operation, home to Brent and Janis Gehling and their four kids — Alyce, Paige, Cassie and Sam.

Pig Oaks is built on Brent''''s home place — a blend of a traditional Iowa farmstead with four modern, 960-head finishing buildings.

“This has been a process of balancing and blending it all to make it work,” explains Brent. “But above all, we have always focused on making this a good place to raise a family.”

Although the farm name reflects the family''''s favorite tree, a variety of other trees, shrubs and bushes literally surround the buildings. The biggest planting is on the west side.

The original idea, spurred by a hard winter in 1999, was to plant a “living snow fence” to help keep snow away from the buildings. However, after consulting with USDA''''s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Gehlings ended up with a 2.9-acre shelterbelt, enrolled in the continuous Conservation Reserve Program.

The shelterbelt includes more than 400 trees and shrubs, plus a strip of native grasses and flowers. Located between the barns and a heavily traveled county road, the shelterbelt draws a lot of compliments. When trees grow large enough, they will block the view of the hog buildings from the road, explains Janis.

And, with help from the kids, the Gehlings also planted 239 willows, 103 low-spreading evergreens and four sumacs around the buildings, mostly to the north and east. Evergreens planted in the 1980s, now about 30 ft. tall, are a buffer to the south between the buildings and the home''''s backyard. And, of course, there are red oaks and pin oaks as well.

Modernizing Pork Production

The hog operation has undergone a major change since Brent began farming in 1980. The operation was mix of crops and livestock, with hogs finished outside.

The Gehlings began modernizing in 1993, when they built two, double curtain-sided finishers with stainless steel feeders and swinging waterers. A second set of finishers, with tunnel ventilation and wet/dry feeders, was built in 1997.

Both sets of buildings have shallow pits with pull plugs, which allow manure to flow to one of two, 8-ft. deep, open top, outside storage tanks. Each tank measures 110 ft. in diameter and holds 577,500 gal. with a 1-ft. freeboard. Plugs are pulled on each 2-ft. pit about every six weeks.

Finishing 10,000 pigs per year fits well with the farm''''s 477 crop acres, managed in a 50/50 corn-soybean crop rotation. “Our manure management objective is to gain the greatest economic advantage possible, and capture the nitrogen (N) for use in making a corn crop,” Brent says. “We try to do that while achieving sustainable solutions to environmental, food safety and community relations issues.”

Manure, Crop Management

Manure management is part of a continuous improvement process on the farm, as highlighted by the whole-farm Resource Management System plan.

The Gehlings recently purchased a manure tanker with injectors to apply the manure each fall on soybean stubble that will be planted to corn the next spring. Brent has been certified as a commercial manure applicator through a three-hour course held each year by Iowa State University and USDA-NRCS.

All fields receiving liquid manure have been GPS-mapped in 2.5-acre grids. Manure is tested each year for nutrient content and pH. Soil is tested regularly to see that manure applications are matching agronomic needs.

As another management step to help balance crop needs with manure nutrients, Pig Oaks now feeds phytase (Ronozyme P) in finishing diets. Phytase is an enzyme that helps release phosphorus from plant-based feedstuffs. It also helps reduce the need for dicalcium phosphate in the diet and the amount of phosphorus (P) excreted by pigs.

Early indications show that the amount of P in manure will be reduced by at least 30%. That means phosphorus will not be building up in soils.

Stewardship Mission

“Manure management is just one component of a much larger management vision on the farm,” Brent says. “We recognize that water utilization and conservation, watershed management, air emissions and quality and plant and animal health, as well as our own health, are all equally important in our long-term strategies.”

Pig Oaks also is demonstrating its commitment to environmental stewardship by joining the Western Iowa Livestock External Stewardship pilot project. The first such effort in the nation, this voluntary project demonstrates how effectively farmers can document, measure and chart progress of their environmental stewardship mission. The two-year project includes 19 cattle and hog operations on 23 sites.

A coalition of public and private institutions, the meat industry and trade association stakeholders are sponsoring the project, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency''''s Sector-based Environmental Program as the catalyst.

“Our primary goals for joining this project are to continue to learn new aspects of environmental stewardship from other participating producers, as well as our NRCS District Conservationist and our certified crop advisor,” Brent says. “It also helps us to begin the process of incorporating a Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan within our planning module.”

He admits that when they built the new units in 1993, “we had no idea of the value of the manure resource we were producing.” However, after attending Iowa State University workshops and others, the Gehlings decided to start knifing in the manure and eliminating use of commercial fertilizer.

“I remember how nervous we were that spring when we decided not to apply any anhydrous ammonia,” he says. “But it worked!”

Pig Oaks uses a late spring N test and a fall stalk test developed at Iowa State to verify that N levels have been adequate for the crop.

A quick calculation of manure value shows that the resource is adding significantly to the operation''''s bottom line. Analysis from 2001 found that manure contained 35-22-37 (N-P-K) per 1,000 gal. Gehling applies 4,000 gal./acre. Thus, the total N-P-K delivered to fields is 140-88-148.

At prices of 14.7¢/lb. for N, 22.7¢/lb. for P, and 12.8¢/lb. for K, the manure provides the equivalent of $59.50/acre of commercial fertilizer.

With fertilizer application costs at $9/acre, Brent figures the total cost to apply an equivalent amount of commercial fertilizer would be $68.50/ acre. The cost of applying 4,000 gal. of manure ($0.0085/gal.) is $34/acre, so the total savings is $34.50/acre.

Subtracting an additional $4/acre each year for the costs of the spring nitrate test, the fall stalk test, the manure sample analysis and the grid soil mapping, manure still has a $30.50/acre annual advantage when compared with commercial fertilizer.

“The farming economy of today pushes us to achieve the greatest advantage possible without sacrificing yields, production or environmental soundness,” Brent says. “The $30.50 per acre savings we have realized through the use of our manure instead of commercial fertilizer has been a real plus on our family farm.”

Good Neighbors

Even before the first Pig Oaks buildings were erected, more than 110 neighbors from their small community signed a petition opposing the family''''s plan to build modern hog units.

“This experience brought home the importance of farm aesthetics and neighbor relations,” Janis says. “We remained visible and active in our community, and it has all worked out well.”

She points out that consumers have higher expectations today for pork producers — from the way hogs are raised to assurances of quality. Pig Oaks grows hogs under contract for Farmland Foods'''' All Natural Program, which monitors the absence of antibiotics in feed, water and carcasses, and requires producers to follow strict guidelines concerning drug and growth promotant use.

“The public keeps raising its demands of the pork industry,” Janis says. “We continue to change our operation to reflect those demands.”

But at the end of the day, Pig Oaks is all about family. “We continue to work to maintain and upgrade our farm aesthetics, not only for the image of the pork industry and for the community, but for ourselves,” Janis says. “This is all part of raising a family.”

Yuma County, CO, bills itself as the place “where production agriculture lives.” Bordering Kansas on the east and the Front Range area on the west, this county features 3,000 sq. mi. of wide-open spaces.

Fed by irrigation from the Ogallala Aquifer, concentric circles of center-pivot corn stretch from horizon to horizon, boosting Yuma to its annual ranking as one of the top five corn-producing counties in the nation.

While agriculture takes place on a giant scale here, Alliance Farms attends to the smallest details of its environmental management plan to make sure that pork production fits the farming picture for this arid, High Plains territory.

Co-op Concept

Alliance Farms Cooperative Association began operations near Yuma with one 2,500-sow, farrow-to-feeder pig unit in 1992. The cooperative was established to allow Midwest farm family operations to capture some of the efficiencies of vertical integration.

A share in Alliance assures producers deliveries of large, uniform shipments of pigs on a regular basis. Hogs are typically fed homegrown grain, allowing the shareholder to add some value to a farm''s crop operation. Shareholders typically arrange their own marketing contract with a packer.

The concept proved successful. Alliance expanded operations in Colorado, established an operation in Illinois and now offers either weaned pigs or feeder pigs to shareholders. Shares in Alliance are held by pork producers in nine Midwestern states.

Colorado Farms Recognized

A pair of 2,500-sow, farrow-to-wean units (#102 and #103), sharing a quarter-section of land in Yuma County, has been recognized with a 2002 Pork Industry Environmental Stewardship Award. These units not only have proven their ability to manage the environmental aspects of pork production, but also have worked with state officials to test the leading edge of environmental management.

The emphasis on good stewardship at Alliance Farms is a reflection of the values of its owners, says Jim Ensz, chairman of the Alliance Farms board of directors. “The farmers who own this company are environmental stewards themselves,” he says. “They understand that, if you are going to set things up for the next generation and the one after that, you need to take responsibility. The owners of Alliance Farms have charged management with taking a proactive approach.”

That includes acting as a source of information for the makers of the state''s rules and regulations. Alliance Farms has worked closely with state officials through the process of writing and implementing Colorado Amendment 14, put in place four years ago to regulate the industry. The rules are considered some of the most stringent in the nation.

“Our working relationship with state officials has been very good,” says Ron Swehla, operations manager for Alliance Farms. “We try to sit down and talk about the issues, and come to a centerline position that will protect the environment but also allow producers to survive.”

The state''s regulatory departments have an open invitation to visit Alliance Farms. “Sitting in Denver, they are a long way from the situation, and are bombarded with all kinds of opinions,” Ensz says.

“We will show them whatever they want to see,” adds Brian Larson, the area production manager for Colorado. “We work hard at what we do, and we are proud of the job that we do.” Larson is an employee of Hostetter Management Co., a firm that provides management on a contract basis for Alliance Farms.

Pilot Composting Project

Alliance Farms recently worked with the Governor''s Office of Energy on a pilot composting project.

Conducted from February through April 2001, the project involved composting of placentas and pig mortalities from birth to 21 days of age. These items were blended with a wood byproduct from a forest restoration project and composted to make a nutrient-rich, environmentally safe soil amendment and fertilizer. Alliance also worked with the Colorado School of Mines to evaluate recycled, baled tires used as partitions for the composter bays.

The site, located between units #102 and #103, demonstrated that composting could be used to handle mortalities with no runoff or leaching, and without emitting odor. Success of the project has increased interest in composting. Results are being evaluated to determine if a regional composting site could be established, Larson says.

Capturing Manure''s Value

Nutrient management at Alliance Farms is a straightforward commitment to a circular flow of nutrients. A two-stage lagoon system processes nutrients so they can be delivered via center pivot to a thirsty corn crop growing adjacent to units #102 and #103.

Buildings feature shallow, pull-plug pits. The plugs are pulled on a strict schedule to make sure bacteria in the first-stage lagoon are fed regularly.

The second-stage lagoon is typically pumped three times during a growing season. Nutrients are carefully monitored through regular soil and effluent testing to make sure application rates match agronomic needs. Effluent is transferred via buried lines to the sprinkler and typically is applied without dilution.

The effluent is contracted to local corn growers who own the irrigation equipment. Alliance Farms works with the grower''s crop consultant and comprehensive records maintained for each field. Each production site documents water use, lagoon depth and volume, soil testing of effluent nutrient content, heavy metal concentration, field locations, dates of application, amount per application and amount of nutrients delivered to the field.

Even though Alliance Farms is located on the lonely prairie, it maintains a comprehensive odor control effort. “Alliance Farms has been persistent about saying that a well-managed lagoon treatment system abates odor,” says Jim Reitz, Farmland Foods. Farmland is the largest shareholder in Alliance, and Reitz worked closely with the state as it developed requirements for covered lagoon systems.

Alliance Farms pointed out that a correctly operating lagoon system has three zones of activity — an anaerobic layer at the bottom, a facultative layer in the middle and an aerobic layer at the top.

At sow farms #102 and #103, the aerobic layer at the top of the lagoon is an approved alternative cover. Regular measurement and monitoring of the lagoons, using a standardized collection hood and olfactometry measurement techniques, have proven the effectiveness of this alternative. Air samples are drawn from above the lagoon and the odor level is measured in a laboratory.

“I''ve been working with Alliance Farms since 1997. Its commitment to odor management and practices to abate odor is very obvious,” says Mike Veenhuizen, an environmental consultant with Livestock Engineering Solutions. “Alliance has taken proven technology and put the package together in an environmentally sound system.”

Careful attention to keeping buildings clean helps reduce odors, too. A biological pit and lagoon additive (PitRemedy) is used to enhance the biological breakdown of solids and decrease odors.

Reducing the burden on the Ogallala Aquifer is of critical importance in the area. Alliance Farms figures the use of recycled effluent from the second stage of the lagoon saves more than 86 million gal. of freshwater each year. Managers keep a close eye on water usage at each site by recording water meter readings and lagoon levels every other week. They also check daily for any indication of a freshwater leak.

Community Involvement

Alliance Farms also works beyond its property lines to keep communications open. “As one of the largest employers in Yuma County, we would like to be a leader, a good neighbor,” Larson says. The farm donates to the local library and hospital, contributes to local 4-H and FFA chapters, and remains involved in the county fair, the Yuma County Economic Development Corporation, the Colorado Livestock Association and the Colorado Pork Producers Council.

Alliance Farms has worked with USDA officials to establish windbreaks and tree lines, and has about 180 acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. As a result, pheasant populations are on the increase, and wild turkey, deer, waterfowl and birds of prey also are abundant.

“The team of Alliance Farms management and employees are serious about their role as environmental stewards,” says Larson. “Environmental stewardship is a continual process of monitoring current practices, and evaluating and implementing any new technology that can enhance our relationship with the natural resources that surround us. We want the local community to know that Alliance Farms exceeds expectations as environmental stewards.”