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This North Carolina finishing unit is positive and proactive about pork production.
Just because you may have seen one North Carolina hog operation does not mean you have seen them all. John Langdon emphasizes that point as he asks a visitor to hang on while he drives a utility vehicle up a steep path through a cattle pasture near his family’s seven, curtain-sided finishing buildings. “This is not Sampson County,” he points out, as the vehicle bounces to a stop on top of a ridge.
Much of North Carolina’s pork production takes place on the coastal plain in rural counties such as No. 1-ranked Duplin County and No. 2-ranked Sampson County, where the land lays flat and soils are rich. But this is Johnston County, and the Langdon farm is on the state’s Piedmont plateau, which features rolling — you might even say steep — countryside. The soils are thin and prone to erosion. And this is where the people are, in the fastest-growing region in North Carolina, which happens to be the fastest-growing state east of the Mississippi River.
Located near Benson, just south of Raleigh, the Langdon farm has been growing tobacco, cattle and hogs on this land since John’s grandfather moved here in the 1930s.
A lot has changed over the years. An interstate highway now borders one side of the farm, and lots of new neighbors have moved in. And, the farm is located in the Neuse River Basin, a high-profile watershed. “We have to keep our game face on,” John says. “It just puts more pressure on us to do things right.”
The entire Langdon family is involved in daily operations on this diversified farm. John’s wife, Eileen, also works off the farm as a veterinarian; the three children, John Michael, Hunter and Megan, work on the farm while also tending to their high school and college studies. “This is a working family farm,” Eileen says. “It takes all of us to make it work.”
The farm is permitted for approximately 8,000 finishing spaces, contracted with Murphy-Brown, LLC. The Langdon’s 205 acres of farmland are devoted to a wide variety of crops, including hybrid Bermuda grass for hay and pasture, corn, small grains for winter grazing, and pearl millet for summer grazing.
“We try to keep things sowed down to grass,” John says. “We also use no-till to help keep wind and water erosion under control. Our goal is to use the effluent from our lagoon to provide nutrients for crops, and to get those nutrients into the root zone where they can be taken up by the plants.”
The forages and grain produced on the farm feed the Langdon’s cattle herd. They run about 65 brood cows, split into three sub-herds — a purebred Red Angus herd, a purebred Simmental herd, and a commercial herd of SimAngus crossbred cows.
The cattle also serve as a way for the Langdons to interact with their neighbors. Many of the calves not sold as breeding stock are fed out on the farm and are sold through the family’s growing freezer-beef business. “When they come to the farm to make a purchase of freezer beef, it gives us a chance to educate people about what we do here,” Eileen says. “They can see how seriously we take our job and that we are trying to do it right and with excellence.”
Much of the Langdon family’s efforts to do a better job with effluent are hidden from view. They have buried nearly four miles of irrigation lines to carry the lagoon liquid to various fields and paddocks. “The underground transfer lines prevent the possibility of a line breaking and creating a direct discharge of wastewater to the streams and ponds that we have on the farm,” John points out. The effluent is delivered through a combination of solid-set and traveling gun irrigators.
The buildings are set up as flush-under-slat, with manure collected in shallow pits and flushed daily to anaerobic lagoons constructed to meet Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) standards. Application of nutrients from the lagoon is based on the farm’s comprehensive nutrient management plan (CNMP) written by a technical specialist with the Johnston Soil and Water Conservation District.
Lagoon effluent samples are taken quarterly, and soil tests are pulled annually, in order to match up the nutrients required by crops with those supplied by the irrigation of lagoon effluent. “I think we’re doing a better job than ever of spoon-feeding our crops,” John observes. “The effluent provides our farm’s total fertility needs. We pump effluent until we meet the nitrogen needs, and then we can switch over to fresh water from our ponds if we need to further provide water to the crop. We no longer have to buy commercial fertilizer.”
The results show up in the farm’s yields. For example, even though 2010 was a particularly dry year, the Langdons produced a 214-bu./acre corn yield.
The Langdon family takes a number of extra steps to protect the water and soil. For example, they have fitted their irrigation pump with a sensor that detects rainfall and shuts down the pump so there’s no effluent being applied during a rain event.
The farm also has a number of soil conservation features, preventing damage to the rolling and sensitive soils where something as simple as a wheel track can quickly turn into gully erosion. A number of paved, heavy-use areas and stabilized stock trails have been installed around the barns and where cattle congregate for winter feeding. Technical specialists designed three grade-control structures that were installed to prevent gully erosion on steep grades in cattle paddocks behind the hog barns.
The Langdon family installed livestock-exclusion fencing around all surface waters on the farm to keep cattle out of the water and help stabilize the stream banks. At the same time, an automatic watering system was installed to distribute water to various paddocks used for rotational grazing.
Caring for forested areas is a priority for the farm as well. Timber has been harvested twice on the farm since the 1970s. Following each harvest, a registered forester puts together a comprehensive woodland management plan for replanting tree species. Replanting has included loblolly and longleaf pines, as well as bald cypress for wetter areas. “Our forested area helps maintain a buffer between us and the interstate highway,” John says. “It also provides shade for the cattle as well as marketable timber.”
The woodland areas are also a boost to wildlife. Thinning the forest stands provides successional habitat for wildlife. Environmentally sensitive areas that have been excluded from use by the cattle are left unmowed during the nesting season for ground-nesting birds.
The Langdon family has also installed a number of bluebird houses and duck nest boxes. “We also try not to mow around our lagoons during the duck nesting season,” John adds. “Mallard ducks like to nest on the inside walls of our lagoons. We try to leave them alone until they’ve completed their nesting before we mow those areas.”
Residue from corn and millet crops serves as a food source to help birds survive the winter.
Natural forest buffers on the north, south and west sides of the farm also help the Langdons fit in with their neighbors. Attention to detail in keeping the buildings and surrounding grounds clean helps prevent any odor or dust problems. Buildings are equipped with computerized controllers that automatically set curtains and chimney vents to provide the best comfort for pigs as well as improved air quality.
Irrigation is scheduled for early morning to early afternoon, when air is warm and rising. The Langdons avoid irrigating on weekends or when neighbors have outdoor events scheduled.
The family also works to save water. Not only is water recycled from lagoons, but the farm also signed up for the NRCS Ground and Surface Water Conservation program. The Langdons replaced their nipple waterers with more efficient cup waterers. Water meters showed that the cups cut water use in buildings by at least 40%.
John and Eileen not only hope to fit in well with all their neighbors, but hope to keep the farm viable for future generations. “It’s important for us to be good stewards,” Eileen says. “Living on a farm is a blessing and a privilege. I want my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren to have the opportunity to run and play on this farm.”
It’s a legacy of stewardship that’s almost a part of the Langdon family DNA. John’s father was recognized for his soil conservation efforts. Today, the Langdon family offers an open door for groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Duke University’s Nicholas School for the Environmental and Earth Sciences, to get a first-hand look at modern farming practices.
“We plan to be here awhile,” John says. “We’re going to walk the walk, and leave this farm a little better than when we got here.”