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Pigs play a key role in a sustainable approach on this picturesque Pennsylvania farm.
Since the earliest history of the United States, Columbia County in northeast Pennsylvania has depended on coal mining to drive its economy. Cleveland Pork, named for Columbia County’s Cleveland Township, is hoping to provide a new direction for the county’s economy by taking a very different view of carbon.
Instead of removing carbon in the form of coal, Joel Knoebel and his wife, Sarah, are sequestering carbon back into the ground. Their innovative approach includes cover crops and no-till to help boost organic matter, the soil’s carbon source, on soils that receive manure nutrients from their 4,400-head finishing building.
“We use manure, not as a burden, but to help lower our cost of production on the row-crop operation and to help keep us sustainable,” Joel points out. “We try to match up our manure nutrients with our strip cropping and cover crops in order to provide the best possible environmental stewardship.”
Caring for land and water resources is an everyday concern for Cleveland Pork. The farm, perched on the picturesque Appalachian Ridge, is only a stone’s throw from the mighty Susquehanna River. The river, in turn, feeds into the Chesapeake Bay, a watershed that is the target of increasing regulation due to its continued problems with excess nutrients. “Agriculture is definitely under a lot of scrutiny in the Chesapeake Bay watershed,” Joel says.
“Producing pork is a passion I’ve had since I was 8 or 9 years old,” Joel says. “With experience from 4-H and various internships while attending Pennsylvania State University, I’ve been able to turn that passion into a career. I am doing what I love to do.”
After his graduation from Penn State with an animal science degree in 2006, Joel returned to the family farm near Elysburg. He and Sarah began to explore ways in which the small cash-grain farm could support another family. In the spring of 2008, they bought some land from Joel’s parents and began construction on a finishing building, contracted with Country View Family Farms.
The barn has four rooms with 40 pens each, which are stocked over a two-week period with single-source pigs. “This gives us a weatherproof source of income,” he points out. “Using hog manure instead of commercial fertilizer has also drastically reduced costs for our row-crop production. That should keep our farming operation viable for years to come.”
In addition to managing Cleveland Pork, Joel farms with his father, Dan, and brother, Justin, who is enrolled in animal science at Penn State. The family grew crops on only about 180 acres before Joel came back to the farm, but they now have expanded the operation to approximately 600 acres. The land grows a mix of corn and soybeans, typically two years of corn followed by a year of soybeans.
The lay of the land provides some challenges. “We’re not blessed with large, flat fields like you see in the Midwest,” Joel says. “A lot of our fields are on slopes, some fairly steep. So we have to keep that in mind and have a plan to control erosion when we apply manure and grow crops.”
The solution involves strip cropping (alternating rows of corn and soybeans), as well as the use of cover crops to help lock in nutrients from the manure. A few years back, Cleveland Pork took advantage of an incentive program offered by the county to give cover crops a try, and those crops are now a regular part of the farm’s manure management approach.
A cover crop, such as cereal rye, is sowed on soybean stubble in the fall. A fall application of manure is sometimes used to get the cover crop off to a good start, but the primary application goes on in early spring, when the cereal rye is actively growing. Manure from the barn’s deep pit is surface applied, since most ground is managed as no-till or with minimum tillage.
Custom-hired tanker trucks or the farm’s 4,100-gallon Jamesway tandem-axle tanker, which uses low-compaction tires, haul manure to the fields, usually in March. After a couple of weeks, when the cover crop has taken up the nutrients, the Knoebel family sprays the field with glyphosate to kill the cover crop in preparation for subsequent no-till planting of the corn crop.
“With this approach, we’re preserving valuable nutrients until the spring application, so they can be more readily used by the new crop,” Joel says. “This strategy, coupled with nitrogen banking by cover crops on all our fall-applied acres, reduces winter nitrogen loss from leaching.”
The farm’s soil types are also challenging. They’re described as “stony,” but the fact of the matter is that many fields show a surface littered with more gravel than you’ll find on many Midwestern roads. “Our no-till coulters have a pretty short life span,” Joel quips.
But with nutrients from manure, along with the area’s favorable climate, both corn and soybean crops produce good yields. All farm acreage is included in Cleveland Pork’s state-approved nutrient management plan. The plan and all associated manure application records are reviewed annually by the local conservation district, and are subject to regular inspection by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
“The plan assures that a balance between conservation and production is achieved by allowing optimal crop growth with application rates that minimize environmental risk,” Joel says.
Cleveland Pork hires an outside firm to take soil samples annually, instead of every three years as required by state regulation. Nitrogen excretion is controlled by using phase feeding and low-protein diets supplemented with amino acids. Feeding phytase and monitoring the annual soil test results allows the farm to avoid phosphorus buildup in the soil. Managing manure nutrients to meet the crop’s needs has also allowed the Knoebel family to reduce fertilizer costs by more than $100/acre for its row-crop enterprise.
Groundwater is limited in this area. The Knoebels drilled several dry holes more than 500 ft. deep before they hit veins that would supply enough water for the finisher. That’s why Cleveland Pork is equipped with water monitors and water-saving swinging nipple waterers as part of its plan to reduce water consumption. Water-use monitoring found that the swinging waterers saved 22% when compared to a conventional watering system.
The facility, as well as the farming operation, also goes the extra mile to protect groundwater from contamination. The engineered, reinforced deep pit under the building was constructed with leak-detection tile designed to collect any liquid that might escape. The outlet for this drainage tile is checked every day for any sign of a leak. Observations are kept in a daily log along with the manure depth in the pit.
Surface water is protected by vegetative buffers along streams and woodland areas. Buffers slow the speed of storm water runoff, allowing sediment to settle out and be taken up by roots of the vegetation within the buffer.
Mortalities are composted in an engineered, covered facility located west of the hog barn. Finished compost is land-applied according to the farm’s nutrient management plan. The composter also has another unique aspect: It is located in one of Joel’s favorite hunting spots, so a deer stand was incorporated into the design.
The entire Knoebel family enjoys hunting, so they are always looking for ways to help improve wildlife habitat. The grass buffers along streams, as well as grassed waterways in fields, provide protective corridors for wildlife and nesting areas for songbirds and wild turkeys. The buffers are not mowed until the nesting seasons have ended. Electronic wildlife feeders supplement the winter nutritional needs of deer and other wildlife.
From the beginning, Cleveland Pork was designed to be a good fit for Columbia County. The Knoebels used a Penn State Extension computer program to help locate the finisher at a site where any odor would have a minimal impact on neighbors. The site also maximizes setback distance from downwind homes, and uses existing windbreak shelters to the south as a living odor filter. Tall conifers screen homes to the east.
The barn uses extended drop tubes to help minimize dust coming from the barns, and the building was designed without pit fans, eliminating a possible odor source. Detailed housecleaning and thorough power washing between groups also helps keep dust and odor to a minimum.
Joel and Sarah reach out to the public, from working with 4-Hers to hosting an ecology class from a local high school. “Cleveland Pork believes that part of being good environmental stewards is our obligation to educate people in our community to modern farming practices,” Joel says. “We try to explain why we do the things we do, and how large-scale swine production aids our farming operation’s long-term sustainability.”