`No Surprises' Philosophy

Three-years-old and time for a checkup. Jeff Danielson rows the boat while Andy Miller handles the sonar equipment as they measure lagoon sludge levels.At Land O' Lakes Trahern Farm several miles outside Beaver, OK, things get done according to a timetable and a checklist."This is a team effort," says Miller, Land O' Lakes' environmental development manager based in Fort Dodge, IA. "Each person involved

Three-years-old and time for a checkup. Jeff Danielson rows the boat while Andy Miller handles the sonar equipment as they measure lagoon sludge levels.

At Land O' Lakes Trahern Farm several miles outside Beaver, OK, things get done according to a timetable and a checklist.

"This is a team effort," says Miller, Land O' Lakes' environmental development manager based in Fort Dodge, IA. "Each person involved is responsible for working with a specific area, and that information is funneled back to Fort Dodge for tracking and entered into our data base."

The goal: No surprises.

"We're very big on processes. There's a process for pumping, a process for checking lines, pressure gauges and switches. If the process is followed, everything should be all right," Miller says.

The process for lagoon inspection, for example, is specific. Danielson, the local operations manager, inspects each lagoon weekly. Miller comes down for more detailed inspections quarterly. A corporate environmental engineer checks lagoons annually, as do a licensed engineer and an inspector from the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture. Lagoon sludge levels are carefully charted on a grid and recorded every three years.

"If there's a problem, it's going to be found," Miller says. "If there are holes in the lines - or trees causing difficulties, or breakdowns in the rodent protection, or erosion - we're going to see it."

Taking care of the details fits Land O' Lakes' business philosophy, Miller says. "We have a certain standardization across the system, with forms to fill out, that we've grown into over time. It works whether it's on one of our farms in Illinois, Missouri or Oklahoma."

Key employees receive extra company training and are state-certified as well. "They're taught how to spot check, to do a spray field inspection and fill out a report, to look for ponding, to know the pressure stages, to operate the Murphy switch (irrigation motor safety switch). They can pressure test the line so that a certain set of standards must be met. We pressure test our lines prior to start up."

Employees are also trained for environmental emergencies. "There's a process for what to do in case of emergency spills and for what plan of action to take if a pipe breaks. There's an emergency kit for those situations and a phone tree for calling," Miller says.

Finishers, mostly located in Minnesota and Iowa, rely on Trahern Farm for a reliable supply of pigs. "If we're not good stewards, we not only have a problem here and create problems for Land O' Lakes, we jeopardize the livelihoods of all those family farmers and local cooperatives who depend on our pigs," Danielson says.

With 5,200 sows producing 104,000 pigs annually in the sparsely-populated Oklahoma Panhandle, Trahern Farm is highly visible. Its four, single-cell, anaerobic lagoons tie in with an irrigation pipeline system, applying wastewater to fields rented by a local farmer. Each lagoon has a 2-ft.-thick compacted clay liner and a 40-ml. thick, flexible membrane liner. The liner covers the side walls to a depth 2 ft. below the minimum treatment volume level and is designed to keep the clay liner from eroding.

Safety ropes on the sides of the lagoons protect the staff on their lagoon inspections. Each lagoon and building is fenced.

The farm's manure management plan includes careful recordkeeping for land-applying the effluent to match crop nutrient needs, avoiding runoff into any water sources.

Detailed spreadsheets, which help determine the percent of capacity remaining and number of gallons that need to be pumped, are kept on each lagoon. Gauge poles in each lagoon measure liquid depth.

Effluent tests prior to application pinpoint nutrient values. These values are matched with annual soil test data and crop nutrient usage data for each field. Application date and time, volume pumped and wind speed and direction are logged for each application. Effluent is applied on 554 acres of cropland through five center pivot sprinklers.

In addition to mandating no runoff, Land O' Lakes holds to several other effluent standards:

- Application rates are based on nitrogen;

- No irrigation is allowed when soil is frozen or saturated;

- Ponding or puddling should be minimized; and,

- Irrigation should not affect any endangered species.

In 1999, Trahern applied 17.3 million gallons of effluent on the fields, the equivalent of 36,177 lb. of nitrogen made available to crops, equaling about $4,300 of anhydrous ammonia. Crops include wheat, oats, rye, milo, alfalfa and millet.

"Alfalfa is a great crop for us. We try to tailor things to specific renters so our requirements for nitrogen production and use match his crop goals," Danielson says.

Water is precious in this semi-arid region where rainfall averages 19 in. annually, but evaporation sucks out more than 60 in. A water conservation plan logs use on the farm. The farm's water use practices were evaluated and changed to improve efficiency. Dams in the water trough system combined with nipple waterers in just one of the breeding-gestation-farrowing units reduced water usage more than 100,000 gal./week.

Trahern Farm has been environmentally assessed just about every way possible. It was an early cooperator in the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) Odor/Environmental Assess Program, and it trained a manager in the NPPC Environmental Assurance Program. The farm also participated in the Compliance Audit Program (CAP), and it now proudly displays the CAP seal at its entrance.

Danielson and the other employees like watching wildlife on the surrounding acreage in the early mornings and late afternoons. In addition to deer, they see wild turkey, quail and pheasant, migrating ducks and geese.

Prior to construction, Land O' Lakes hired a private company to make absolutely certain no endangered or threatened species would be harmed by the hog farm. Surprisingly for such a dry climate, the Trahern Farm has about 100 acres of wetlands and intermittent streams. These areas were undisturbed during construction and are not located in areas receiving effluent through the irrigation systems.

Neighbors are important, too. The Trahern Farm buildings are 31/44 mile from the nearest neighbor. "Barn maintenance and cleanliness and good lagoon management are key to ensuring the farm produces as little odor as possible," Miller says.

As Beaver County's second-largest employer, Land O' Lakes takes part in many community activities, including hosting an open house and providing separate tours for Oklahoma legislators. Land O' Lakes donates pigs for the county fair barbecue and the greased pig contest. They donated lights for the local softball field, an outdoor basketball court and trophies for the Boy Scouts. And, they help fund numerous activities, including an after-prom party for high school students.

"We live here. This area is important to us. These people are our friends and often our fellow employees, so it's natural for us to help out where we can," Danielson says.

"We have a very high consumer profile, and being part of a farm cooperative system makes stewardship even more important. The true test of stewardship is the commitment to apply the necessary resources to achieve environmental excellence each day," Miller says.