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This Iowa farm balances pigs, corn and
natural nutrients while building better soils.
Golden Circle Pork is more than just the name of Rod and Missy Bice’s family operation. It is also the philosophy that serves as the cornerstone for the way this farm does business, and is the foundation upon which the family is building for the future.
“It’s a natural cycle,” Rod says. “We grow the corn that feeds the pigs. They produce protein for people. And, in turn, the pigs produce manure that provides nutrients that we use to grow the corn. It’s a natural source of fertilizer, and we’ll never run out of it as long as we are producing pigs.”
Sustainability has long been a theme on this central Iowa land, located in Boone County near Woodward. “Farming has been important for both sides of our family,” Missy adds. “Our farmhouse is located on land that is part of Rod’s family.” It has been named a Century Farm, a designation bestowed by the state of Iowa for farms owned by the same family for more than 100 years.
“Our hog buildings are located on a family farm that my grandmother owns,” she continues. “It has been in the family for many years as well. The land was here long before us, and it will be here long after we’re gone. We consider it a very important job to be good stewards.”
The swine operation consists of three, 1,100-head, partially slotted, wean-to-finish buildings. These naturally ventilated barns were originally built as finishers on a contract feeding agreement with Murphy Family Farms in 1996, then were converted to the wean-to-finish configuration in 2002, which are currently contracted to Murphy-Brown, LLC.
A stainless-steel scraper system operates in a shallow pit under the slats, with manure flowing by gravity through an 8-in. main to a concrete basin that holds approximately 1.3 million gal. Rod, a certified custom manure applicator, typically applies about a million gallons of manure each fall to soybean stubble, injecting approximately 5,000 gal./acre on ground that will be planted to corn the following spring. He also draws down the level of manure in the concrete basin by applying some nutrients during the spring season.
A pair of agitators stirs the stored liquid manure for about four hours prior to hauling. Rod injects the manure about 8 in. deep behind a 7,300-gal. tanker. He cut back the wings on the injector knives so they would disturb less soil, and added a pair of disk hillers to pull dirt back over the injection slot to make sure the nutrients are sealed in.
The ability to apply manure in perfectly straight, GPS-guided swaths helps boost Golden Circle’s efficiency in using manure nutrients. The family invested in an automatic guidance system for the tractor used to pull the tanker, which has paid off in application accuracy.
“You can’t just turn a manure tanker around and apply right next to your previous pass,” Rod says. “With automatic steering, the GPS allows us to move over four or five widths of the equipment and guides us right back to the other end. Now that we have the guidance system, when we go out to apply manure to 40 acres, that’s the amount of ground we cover, with no gaps and no overlaps.”
The Bices added flow-control meters to the tanker, adding another level of efficiency. Driven by a radar speed-sensing interface tied in with a Raven controller, these valves make sure that the desired volume of liquid manure is delivered to the injectors, despite any changes in speed, as the tanker moves across the field.
“We know we’re always getting on the amount we’re targeting,” Rod says. “It allows us to get a more uniform placement of nutrients, so crops respond with very even growth and good color that is consistent across the field.”
Samples of the liquid manure are taken each time manure is hauled to fields. Typically, the manure contains 35 lb. of nitrogen/1,000 gal., with 20-25 lb. of phosphorus, 20-25 lb. of potassium as well as micronutrients. That’s plenty of fertility to grow 200-bu./acre (or more) of corn on these central Iowa fields.
Organic matter buildup
There’s another payoff to adding manure that is not so visible. Organic matter may not be golden, but it certainly is money in the bank when it comes to building soils, Rod explains, noting the acres that receive manure are showing significant increases in organic matter levels.
“We’ve moved some of our fields from about 2.5% organic matter to the 5% range. The more organic matter, the more moisture that soils hold,” Rod explains. “That can be critical in making a corn crop during July and August. We think using manure nutrients has added 15 to 20 bu./acre to our corn yields.”
One figure that is not in doubt is the economic payoff from using manure nutrients. “We use no commercial fertilizer to grow a corn crop on the acres that receive swine manure nutrients,” Rod continues. “That’s worth $150 an acre, and we typically cover up to 275 acres. When fertilizer prices spiked in 2008, we figured our manure replaced $60,000 worth of commercial fertilizer.”
Green and growing
Golden Circle Pork is located in the middle of a 640-acre section, requiring a half-mile drive up a lane to get to the site. That helps the Bice family keep a top level of biosecurity, and provides ample setback distances from neighbors.
Visitors to the site first come to the office building, where a shower and boot-wash area are located. The office is the gateway to the site, which features expansive and well-manicured grass lawns, as well as lush windbreaks. Golden Circle Pork, which currently holds a Tier 1 status, the highest rating assigned to swine production facilities by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, is protected by a 40 x 400-ft. evergreen windbreak on the north side of the unit.
A row of shrubs provides additional shelter for birds and wildlife, and a 10 x 250-ft. planting of fast-growing Austrees wraps around the concrete manure basin. This windbreak helps dissipate odor and trap particulate matter before it can leave the farm.
“When people come to visit the farm, one thing they often comment on is the yard,” Missy says. “They’re amazed at how much grass is up there, and they see that it is always mowed and kept up well.”
One reason the site is well maintained is that all four of the Bice children — Jacoby, Savannah, Dalaney and Brylee Jo — pitch in to help with lawn chores. “Everyone seems to like to run the mower,” Missy says. Each of the kids has also been involved with farm work growing up. In addition to the hogs and crops, the Bice family feeds out cattle at the home place and runs a small cow-calf herd.
While the windbreaks help boost air quality outside, a computerized controller helps keep indoor air quality at its best. Golden Circle Pork was the first operation in the Murphy Brown system to install a Ventium controller for the natural ventilation system.
This controller responds to readings from four microsensors located in each building, gathering information on temperature, wind speed and humidity. The controller then adjusts the chimney ridge vents and curtains to provide the ideal environment for pigs at each stage of growth.
The buildings have also been fitted with extra insulation, insulated curtains on the north wall and high R-value curtains on the south wall. Zone heating is matched to meet the needs of the pigs. The combination of energy-saving steps allows the Bice family to provide maximum pig comfort with a minimum amount of energy. This not only helps the environment, it also increases pig performance and saves money on production costs.
Golden Circle Pork is located in the Des Moines River watershed. The Bice family takes a number of steps to protect the watershed, which feeds Saylorville Lake, a popular recreational area located just north of Des Moines.
The family worked with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Ser-
vice to install grass waterways, terraces and filter strips. That included planting grass filter strips that extend about 20 ft. from each field intake for the farm’s tile drainage system. That conserves topsoil and limits any potential runoff of manure nutrients.
Soil sampling on 2.5-acre grids, guided by a GPS unit, allows the Bice family to match nutrient needs with the demands of the growing crop. About 500 acres of the farm are enrolled in an Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) nutrient management plan.
Protecting the land, air and water are all part of keeping the circle unbroken as the Bice family plans for the next 100 years.
“We believe that innovative management, preservation of natural resources and working together as a family are what will keep this farm in the Bice family for another 100 years,” Rod says. “The land we are using today is just borrowed from our kids. We want to take care of it, so they can look forward to working on the farm in the future.”
“We chose the name Golden Circle Pork because we always had the vision of feeding families in a sustainable, economic and environmentally conscious manner,” Missy adds. “We are able to balance and maximize the use of natural nutrients through our golden circle. We believe this outlook benefits our family, our neighbors and our consumers, and will keep the Bice Century Farm sustainable for another 100 years.”