Move up high, get down low, go down the road a ways, and it's all the same. The 4,000-acre Lake Shetek dominates Scott Schwartz's farm outside Garvin in southwest Minnesota.
The lake pretty much dictates everything for the 370-sow, breeding-gestation-farrowing facility located up the hill from the water's edge. Schwartz turns out about 8,000 pigs a year in his one building, selling 11-pounders, on average, to four finishers in the area.
Environmental protection stays foremost in his mind. "This is a 7-mile-long lake that is the headwaters of the Des Moines River. There's a state park on it, a Boy Scout camp, a Lutheran camp, a Baptist camp and about 800 homes. Much of the shoreline is developed. We're the only hog farm on the lake, as such. Others are real close, but we're the only one actually on the lake. So you'd better believe people are watching us," he says.
"It's a constant push-and-pull here between the lake and farming. It's kind of a NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) attitude that some people have. There's no other major industry in the county other than farming. People understand farming has certain needs, but some still don't want it. So we feel we have to do a lot of promoting," says Shelley Schwartz, Scott's wife.
All that attention brought radical change to the original Schwartz family farm Scott and Shelley purchased in 1991. Since 1987, he'd been farming mostly as his father had. They increased the herd to 150 sows, farrowing in a converted dairy barn near the lake. Hogs were finished on outside lots. The system required lots of labor, cleaning floors and crates by hand, hauling with a skid-steer loader.
In 1997, Schwartz switched to a farrow-to-wean operation and moved the facilities further from the lake. That got the hogs off the outside lots.
One of the old finishing floors was converted to a composter for dead pigs. "Composting was a great biosecurity move because it keeps the rendering trucks off our site completely," he says.
The old dairy barn, turned farrowing facility, became an isolation barn.
Focusing on farrowing when so many others in the industry were choosing to only finish hogs was a much-discussed decision in the neighborhood. "It was a difficult thing. Mom and Dad had been partners in this farrow-to-finish farm. Now this would be my enterprise, and Dad would work for me. Just about everybody said I was crazy to build a farrowing barn. But, I always enjoyed the challenge of farrowing and trying to get more pigs out of sows. I want to see if I can hit that 25 pigs/sow/year level," he says.
"To go farrow-to-finish at once was cost-prohibitive and would have taken more labor than I had. Right now this farm is sized where one full-time guy can take care of it."
The new building also gave him the ability to better control how the hogs affected the local environment. It has shallow, 2-ft. flush pits under each farrowing room and the boar/breeding room. The shallow pits are emptied after each farrowing, then recharged with water to form a seal for the next farrowing.
An 8-ft. deep pit runs under the gestation room, reinforced with rebar on a 12-in. grid offering nearly twice the strength for an additional $1,200. "The county only required a 24 x 16-inch grid at the time, but I felt reinforcing the pit walls this way was well worth the extra cost," he says.
A local bank helped the Schwartz family get a low interest rate loan for manure storage pit construction through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). "They allow you $50,000 on a five- to 10-year loan. The interest is fixed. That's strictly for manure pits, handling equipment and conservation tillage equipment. It's kind of a revolving loan fund," he says.
Between the time their permit was approved and actual construction began, the county changed its zoning ordinance regarding perimeter tile. Even though the new facility could have been grandfathered in under the old regulation, Schwartz chose to meet the new rules. That required the perimeter tile to be discharged over the ground surface for at least 100 ft. before entering a field tile.
He likes it that way. "It runs right beside our farm driveway. If there's any leakage, it'll come to the surface at the driveway. It's a great peace of mind when we can see it discharging crystal clear water," he says.
With nearby neighbors sniffing the air as they enjoy Lake Shetek, Schwartz pays particularly close attention to reducing odor. Living right next door to the barn provides even more incentive. A pit additive applied weekly helps, he says.
"People go up our driveway within 50 ft. of our barn and say they hardly notice we have pigs there. That's what I want to hear," he says.
During the winter months, Schwartz runs his minimum exhaust fans at a higher speed than most. While many set their minimum ventilation fans at 30% operating capacity, he runs his at 50%. "This may require more heating fuel in winter months, but it also gives us better air quality inside the barn. We feel if we exhaust the air at a higher rate, it will give it a better dispersal into the outdoor air, reducing the odor levels."
The manure itself gets handled carefully and quickly. John Moline, Schwartz's cousin, applies it on his cropland. A crop consultant first tests the soil to pinpoint nutrient needs. The manure is then tested prior to pumping.
"That way we know how many thousand gallons we need to apply. This year we applied 5,000 gal./acre. We don't want to over-apply. If it's necessary to use 100 lb. of N (nitrogen) per acre, don't use 140 because that extra 40 is wasted," Schwartz says.
"John has eliminated using commercial fertilizer on the cropland where he applies manure. He gets the fertilizer value out of the manure, and I don't have the expense of pumping it."
About 250,000 gal. are incorporated into the soil in a fall application. Another 75,000 goes on in the spring. "Even though our pit was designed to have at least 12 months of capacity, we will do a spring pumping to ensure that we will not run into an emergency situation," he says.
They pump manure early in the week - never later than Thursday. This clears the air by the weekend, Schwartz says.
The farm has been enrolled in just about every odor and environmental program available in the area, among them the environmental odor assessment and environmental assurance programs available through the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC). It received the Compliance Audit Program Seal offered through a cooperative effort of the Environmental Protection Agency and NPPC.
Schwartz hosted a nutrient management demonstration plot with the Lake Shetek Area Clean Water Partnership. The University of Minnesota Southwest Research and Outreach Center recently began monitoring phosphorus movement in a filter strip near the lake. Additionally, he participated in one of seven governor's environmental forums held across the state.
Image may not be everything, but a positive image helps. The Schwartz family began improving the looks of their place soon after buying it, and they intensified their efforts as the new hog barn went up. They planted ash and red dogwood trees along the lake shoreline, and they are removing the obsolete hog buildings one by one.
"We also planted trees north of our facility between the barn and our lake neighbors. As the trees grow we will have a visual barrier as well as a living biofilter, and with the wind, this will help with odor dispersal."
They added a row of fast-growing Austrees in early 1999. Land along the lake shore, including an adjoining drainage ditch, is enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program for buffer strips.
Schwartz, now 35 years old, and Shelley somehow managed all this despite losing 185 sows in a gas-poisoning incident in the fall of 1999. A fan shut down just when they were aggressively agitating pits. Sows died in a matter of minutes, and gases put Schwartz's life in danger as he rushed to fix the problem. The total financial hit, counting lost production, amounted to about $230,000. At his lender's urging, Schwartz then got out of crop production to concentrate on hogs.
Leaving the hog business was never considered. "Scott felt committed to the people who helped us get started and to the people who get our pigs. If he chose not to continue, lots of people would have been hurt," Shelley says.
"This is our lifestyle. When things go bad, you tend to ask, `why me?' But when things go good, we should also ask, `why me?' How many of us do that?" she asks.
The hogs keep Schwartz so busy he's short on time for hunting and fishing, but he remains enthused about making it a good area for wildlife and a safe playground for the six Schwartz children, ages 9 and younger. "It's a beautiful area, and it's our place in the world. I want to be able to pass all this on to the kids so they can enjoy it someday," he says.