Pig barns, manure, and sustainability

Posted on December 1st, 2014

 "Sustainability" has become a frequently used word when talking about agriculture over the past 5 years.  Consumers are curious about how their food is produced, and we as farmers have done a poor job of being transparent about what we do.  I can assure you that the lack of transparency is not to hide what we do but because people just didn't seem that interested in what we were doing.  Farming in a sustainable manner is not some specific idea or plan that was implemented since it became a buzzword; it's how we have been acting in every day-to-day decision we've made for generations.  We don't get accused of taking the easy way.  We make choices that we hope will keep our farm humming along for several more generations.  Below is a summary of why we do what we do on some aspects of our farm.

All of our pigs were moved from outside to inside by the early 1990s.  Illinois is not a particularly nice place to live outside  for most of the winter or the summer.  We did our best with straw, windbreaks, and pitchforks, but when it's below zero outside, it is not a nice place for a pig.  Pigs feel wind-chill just like humans do, and it's simply too hard on them when it gets that cold.  In the summer time when the temperatures get in the 90s and 100s, the heat is difficult for them.  This isn't to say that pigs were dying right and left because it was too cold, but anyone with a heart could see that it was pretty miserable for them outdoors in those conditions.  Pig barns began to be built and the technology in them gets better all the time.  Pig barns today are heated in the winter and air conditioned in the summer to maintain a comfortable environment year around. 

Before pigs were moved indoors, there was no good way to contain their manure.  It was stored in open air with limited storage capacity and had straw in it from bedding.  The means it had to be spread frequently and on top of the ground.  The means more smell and more risk of run-off into streams since it had to be applied on top of frozen ground in the winter.  Today the manure is stored in concrete pits.  They can hold all of the manure produced in the pig barn for an entire year so that we can apply it to the field during the perfect time of year.  This also reduces odor because the pit is covered and the manure is "injected" under the soil so that it's not exposed to air.  We are required by the state to sample the groundwater around the pits every 90 days and submit them to the EPA for testing to make sure there are no leaks.  We also have an EPA certified Nutrient Management Plan that determines which fields can have manure put on them and when so that we don't apply excess nutrients that could end up in streams and rivers.  Below is a picture of us injecting  manure into the ground this fall.

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We grow the corn for our pigs on our fields, make all of the feed on our farm, and then apply the manure as fertilizer to grow more corn and soybeans.  The manure applied to the fields provides 80% of the nutrients needed to grow the crops.

We are currently working on a feasibility study for a biodigester which would be able to generate electricity from the manure before it's applied to the fields.  This process would remove virtually all of the odor from the manure without losing its nutrient value and provide clean energy in the process.  

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