A new tool created by University of Arkansas researchers and their colleagues will help hog farmers increase productivity, decrease costs of production and minimize the environmental impact of swine production in the United States.

With a total of $5 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the multi-disciplinary team, which includes researchers at Purdue University and Virginia Tech, is developing an integrated management tool for swine production based on a comprehensive analysis of the many processes that comprise swine production – from crops used for feed – to various methods of managing waste.

“A primary purpose of this work is to evaluate and mitigate the environmental footprint of swine production facilities,” says Greg Thoma, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Arkansas. “What action can we take to limit greenhouse gas emissions from these facilities without making processes more expensive for the farmer? So we want to understand this impact and then come up with something that will enable farmers to make informed decisions about changes to production, such as breeding, feeding, waste management and other practices. To do this, we must understand the entire system – or full lifecycle – of swine production in this country.”

In line with global efforts to make agricultural processes more sustainable and to address climate change, the overall goal of the project is to experimentally evaluate and develop technologies that mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. These technologies will support the development of an accurate and robust life-cycle analysis that will serve as a model to demonstrate the environmental impact of various changes to production.

For example, in a project spearheaded by Charles Maxwell, University of Arkansas professor of animal science, the model will show how manipulating the diet of hogs will affect the amount and type of crops grown to feed the animals, as well as carbon emitted from the animals through burping and flatulence.

The model is flexible and allows for geographic customization. It will consider factors including weather patterns and annual rainfall, which affect decisions related to heating and cooling and the amount of manure that can be applied to land without affecting water quality.

An equally important goal is to make swine production cheaper and more efficient, so the project also will include a life-cycle cost analysis. Directed by Jennie Popp, professor of agricultural economics at the University of Arkansas, this analysis will measure the economic impact of process changes.

To use the example above, the amount or type of crops grown to livestock may increase or reduce the hog farmer’s feed costs, as well as impact the soybean or grain farmer, who, as Thoma emphasizes, is a critical part of the lifecycle of swine production. The cost-analysis model will demonstrate the effect of changes made to the system.

“The beauty of these models is that the algorithms behind them will show what will happen, both environmentally and economically, if a farmer decides to change the diet of his hogs – to substitute amino acids for vegetable proteins, for example,” Thoma said. “What impact will this have on emissions? Will it increase production? The models will provide these answers.”

The work includes an innovative project in which University of Arkansas researchers Marty Matlock and Tom Costello, professor and associate professor of biological and agricultural engineering, respectively – remove nitrogen and phosphorus from pig manure and then use these nutrients to grow algae as feedstock that can be converted into biofuel. Matlock will also manage research experiences for undergraduates to investigate how livestock production fits into the larger perspective of agricultural sustainability.

Each state – Arkansas, Indiana and Virginia ­– will have an Extension component to communicate findings and benefits of the model and help producers apply the knowledge to make their operations more efficient and sustainable. Karl VanDevender, professor and Extension engineer for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, leads coordination of Extension education efforts. To learn more about what this division will do to share the model with Arkansas producers, go to www.extension.org.

“Unlike most natural resources, agriculture is renewable,” Thoma says. “But current practices do not allow us to manage it as such. This is what we’re trying to accomplish, a system that is efficient, more productive and yet cheaper to produce, and less damaging to land, water and air.”

Funded over five years from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the project includes researchers from the University of Arkansas, the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, Purdue University, Virginia Tech and the private sector. As principal investigator, Thoma directs the overall project and also leads an interdisciplinary team at the University of Arkansas, which will receive approximately half of the total funding. The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture will receive $608,000, and the remainder will go to partner institutions.