Farrowing near the forest

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Secluded and secure, this farrow-to-wean operation also shares a symbiotic tie with wildlife.

Every innovative swine unit can expect to have some visitors, but Pembroke Oaks takes it to an extreme. This farrow-to-wean operation hosts about 40,000 of them each fall, then hosts thousands more each spring.

These visitors are of the feathered kind; eastern sandhill cranes, actually. Pembroke Farm, which sits next to 8,000 acres of wilderness known as the Jasper-Pulaski State Fish and Wildlife Area, operated by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR), is a favorite stopover.

Located on the birds’ migratory flyway, this area is a key regional habitat and feeding grounds. “When they are migrating through here, it’s not unusual to drive up to the sow unit and see a thousand sandhill cranes picking through the corn and soybean stubble around the farm,” says Malcolm DeKryger, vice president of Belstra Milling. The company pulled together local investors to form the Pembroke Oaks Farm LLC, and build a modern, 2,470-sow site literally across the fence from a heavily forested part of the wildlife area in northwest Indiana.

For the birds

A modern confinement hog unit and a wildlife area may seem to be an odd couple, but in this case, there’s a symbiosis that works to the benefit of both.

The farm is located only about 70 miles south of Chicago, and the southern edge of the city’s urbanization is creeping ever closer to Jasper County. A farrowing unit surrounded by more than 500 acres of cropland is much friendlier to wildlife than a suburban development, DeKryger points out. “We actually were supported by DNR as we went through the permitting process,” he says. “There was a feeling that our presence might slow down the trend toward development of residential homes and subdivisions around the preserve.”

The seclusion offered by its forested neighbor offers biosecurity that Pembroke Oaks was looking for, as it is a gilt multiplier farm that sells C-29 replacement gilts to PIC. Pigs from this farm populate a Belstra Milling nursery-finisher site in northeastern Illinois.

The 120 x 400-ft., breeding-gestation barn is tunnel ventilated with evaporative cooling cells on the south end and a row of 52-in. exhaust fans on the north end. These fans aim their exhaust into a thick stand of trees in the adjacent forest. “It’s an ideal buffer,” DeKryger points out.

The farrowing building, 72 x 419 ft., features nine rooms with 48 stalls, plus an additional room with 24 stalls. This barn is cross-ventilated, with cool cell pads on the west side. A number of 24-in. fans on the east side of the building also aim into a row of trees, helping to filter the exhaust air.

Completed in 2006, the farm was designed by consulting agricultural engineer Mike Veenhuizen, and is built to meet or exceed state and federal standards. Deep-pit manure storage under the gestation barn is designed to prevent any tank defects and seepage. Perimeter tiles not only prevent exterior hydraulic pressure, but also have been fitted with a water quality monitoring sump.

“Random testing can be done if there is ever a concern about seepage,” DeKryger notes. “Pembroke Oaks has been designed to protect the environment right from the start.”

Team approach

Managing the manure nutrients at this sow site truly is a team effort. Kurt Nagel, Belstra Milling’s “team captain,” is responsible for managing Pembroke Farm’s manure nutrients as well as making sure that the operation stays in compliance with all environmental regulations.

“I coordinate with Harper Brothers Grain, an area family farm,” Nagel explains. “The Harper family owns a number of crop acres adjacent to Pembroke Oaks, so nutrients from our site can be placed on about 510 acres that surround our unit, and we can apply on some additional acres that bring the total closer to 700 acres.”

Nagel meets with the Harper grain operation staff several months prior to manure application to work out a plan for fields to receive applications and to review soil tests to determine application rates that meet the agronomic needs of the subsequent crop.

An independent manure application company, Heartland Farm Services, delivers the nutrients through a drag­line system. The system can apply nutrients within a two-mile radius of the sow farm.

There’s also a team effort at the sow unit that keeps the inside and outside of the Pembroke Oaks facility looking good all year ’round. Lourdes Rodriguez and Doug Mulder manage the sow unit. They and their staff are strict housekeepers. For example, the intensive care boxes for small pigs in the farrowing rooms are kept as spotless as a hospital.

On the office wall at Pembroke Oaks, certificates show that all employees have been qualified for PQA Plus. “It’s a standard practice for all of our employees to receive their PQA Plus certificate within their first three months,” DeKryger says.

Even the nutrients from mortalities are composted and recycled back to the crop ground. There are a number of large commercial dairy operations in Jasper County, and Pembroke Oaks acquires byproducts from one dairy’s methane digester to use as a carbon source for its composter. “Microbes are already active in the material,” Nagel points out. “It really goes to work quickly in the composter.”

Proactive with the public

Public relations have been a top priority at Pembroke Oaks Farm from the start. “We started by visiting each neighbor and sharing our plans, even before we had submitted our application for permits,” DeKryger recalls. “Once we had the barns constructed, we hosted an open house before any pigs had arrived so there would be no mystery about how we were doing things on the farm.”

The staff at Pembroke Oaks continues to stay in touch with neighbors, visiting each of them during the Christmas season to discuss the farm’s “neighbor report card” and giving them a chance to bring up any issues.

“They might mention a day that they noticed us,” DeKryger says, “but they give us high marks. We also bring them loins and bacon as a Christmas gift. After a few years of doing this, the neighbors now expect to see us each year.”

The farm also stepped forward during an ice storm a few years ago, when ice downed power lines to the area and power was not restored for four days. The sow farm’s standby generator ran the entire facility with ease, so the neighbors were invited in to shower, wash clothes and cook meals during the crisis.

“They were astounded by the invitation,” he says. “They also were impressed with the advanced technology we used to prevent disruptions for our pigs.”

DeKryger admits that neighbors at first were skeptical about having a hog farm for a neighbor. “But once it was built and neighbors saw how it operated and how manure nutrients were applied, our relationship with them has been outstanding,” he says. “They tell us our impact on the neighborhood has been negligible.”

Keeping neighbors in mind even extends to the facility’s use of water. “We try to be frugal with water,” Nagel points out. “We use water meters to turn off water to gestating sows for a few hours in the middle of the night to prevent them from playing with their waterers and wasting water. We also use cool cells instead of drippers or misters, which conserves water because it is a contained system. Ground water in our area can be seasonally limited in the driest years, so we spread out our wells. This also helps prevent any impact on neighbors, since no one well has a high demand.”

DeKryger points out that Pembroke Oaks has always tried to be the best when it comes to environmental stewardship. “Our farm is in the right place,” he points out. “It was built to stringent standards. It offers flexibility in the timing of nutrient application. And we have enough acres of crop ground to do a great job of distributing nutrients efficiently.”

It all adds up to a team effort that provides a win-win situation for pigs, people and wildlife. “Most importantly, we have the staff, management and suppliers who care deeply about our responsibilities,” DeKryger summarizes. “They want to do the right thing for the environment and the neighborhood.”

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