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Software Savvy

One of the country's largest swine integrators joined forces with a software company to develop swine-specific modules for environmental management. That system is now available to others

One of the country's largest swine integrators joined forces with a software company to develop swine-specific modules for environmental management. That system is now available to others.

When Tim Laatsch began work as director of Environmental Services for The Maschhoffs back in June 2003, administrative staff at company headquarters in Carlyle, IL, was wrestling with management of environmental issues for company-owned and contract farms.

“The struggle to manage outsourced services prompted us to bring those services in-house, at which time we surveyed the marketplace and came to the realization that a fully integrated software solution for nutrient planning did not exist,” Laatsch explains. The company needed a customized product to address their growing demands for nutrient management plans and management of environmental records associated specifically with pork production.

In 2004, The Maschhoffs began their long journey to define and refine a comprehensive software product that would meet all those needs, working with what Laatsch calls “one of the nation's premiere agricultural software developers,” Synergiance, Inc. of De Witt, IA.

Three years later, the 120,000-sow Maschhoff system and the software developer have fine-tuned a program that provides site-specific plans for all of the company's grower farms. “It meets our goals to get the right manure application rates to the right fields at the right times,” says Nathan Hasheider, nutrient management specialist for The Maschhoffs.

In doing so, Laatsch assures that the family-owned hog business will easily accomplish a second major goal — having all of their farms complete a comprehensive nutrient management plan (CNMP) that will adhere to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) extended deadline of February 2009.

Software Program

“We now have a product that we think might have universal application,” adds Laatsch. The enterprise-level software is geared toward swine integrators, consultants and cooperatives that need to manage environmental information for multiple farms and clients.

He points out that unlike other software programs on the market, the Synergiance program is aimed at addressing the needs of multiple clients, “basically enabling you to track data on multiple farms in one system.”

The SQL database program is built in Microsoft format and is constructed in a very modular architecture, meaning it retains flexibility to integrate with other Microsoft products. Its seamless characteristics will enable The Maschhoffs to eventually integrate the software into all of the company's production and accounting data systems across the United States, Laatsch notes.

He stresses that while the platform for the computer program was designed for The Maschhoffs, it is now being made available commercially. Company staff may play a role in agronomic technical consultation and training, but will not be involved in actually selling the product. Laatsch is a USDA-certified Technical Service Provider (TSP) for development of nutrient management plans.

Synergiance has launched a new Web site to take the swine software product to the marketplace: The product will be sold as Geo-NMP Enterprise Edition.

Software Application

Laatsch says one of the key elements of the software is its relationship to spatial information. Its embedded spatial editor, spatial data storage system and automated map report engine are able to store sensitive elements such as waterlines, utility lines, pipelines and field boundaries. The spatial information can be migrated to computers' on-board manure application equipment to avoid any sensitive areas and meet state setback regulations. The software simplifies storing thousands of files on grower farms to connect the right data to the right farm.

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Patrick Maschhoff, company nutrient management specialist, explains that the software provides detailed cropping information along with visual images of barn layouts on everything from feed bins and pit fans to the location of nearby neighbors who might be impacted by the operation.

The software program also provides features such as roads and rivers, then allows the user to create customized buffers of sensitive environmental features. Illinois, for example, requires a minimum 200-ft. setback for any agricultural land application from any waters of the state.

Every CNMP on a farm includes an overview of information on crop and manure production, livestock production and mortality rates. Producers submit annual crop yield reports and three-year plans for crop rotations.

When all of the features of a farm site are layered in, they can be loaded onto software in the tractor cab's computer tablet. This enables a manure application crew to know the exact location of buffers, setbacks and property lines. “Then, the farmer can come back and supplement those sensitive areas that didn't receive any nutrients with commercial fertilizer as needed,” says Maschhoff.

Part of a grower's plan are best management practices and conservation practices they have been advised to follow, adds Maschhoff.

The grower farm profile also features an emergency response plan, which includes a calling tree to farm personnel, and state and federal officials to be contacted in case of calamities such as a barn ventilation outage or a manure spill.

CNMP Development

Synergiance, one of three USDA-approved transaction handlers in the United States, is quickly migrating toward the ability to download and modify nutrient management plans. As a TSP, Laatsch would then be able to work with company and contract growers to edit and submit CNMPs.

The entire platform is fully implemented and used extensively in The Maschhoff operations in Illinois. Calculations and reporting modules are just now being tested for Iowa. Other states will be added as needed.

Laatsch says he frequently gets questioned as to why growers need a CNMP. In short, CNMPs meet virtually all of the requirements for a federally sanctioned, confined-animal feeding operation, without a lot of extra baggage.

“The perception is that there are all of these extra things that go into a CNMP, and the reality is that there are only a couple of bells and whistles on top of the EPA, CAFO-mandated nutrient management plans,” Laatsch says. The features that are not mandated by EPA include feed management and emergency response plans.

“The other attractive aspect of doing a CNMP is that there is federal cost-share funding available to the producer to support development of those plans,” he says. Obtaining environmental quality incentive program (EQIP) funds can sometimes be a long and arduous task, but Laatsch says The Maschhoffs have been urging growers to seek funding early to help complete conservation programs by the time of the EPA deadline.

For growers doing a good job environmentally, The Maschhoffs offer them heavily discounted consulting services, which include an annual environmental checkup, says Laatsch.

Consider Consulting Service

Individual pork producers really need to make use of a consultant as they formulate CNMPs, in order to successfully fine-tune manure nutrient resources to fit their farms and management styles, Laatsch urges.

Those efforts will pay dividends, too, he says.

“There are dollars lying on the table. Those pounds of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are directly translatable to commercial fertilizer dollars,” says Laatsch. “On a modern hog farm with deep-pitted manure storage, we are talking about a value of $100-125/acre.

“A consultant can really help you optimize many of those dollars, while also helping to keep your operation legal,” he observes.

Laatsch finds that one often follows the others. When producers meet nutrient management regulations, that compliance results in financial gain.

This year's large switchover to corn plantings offers a prime example of how a consultant can help your cropping operation. “I think the main message is if you think you can apply manure every year to corn in a continuous-corn rotation, you just need to be very mindful of the potential for soil buildup of phosphorus and potassium. Again, this calls for the intervention of a consultant or professional,” he comments.

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