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There are a set of trails that wind through the 300 acres of the L&M Daughtry hog farm, and Mark Daughtry uses them as a kind of therapy. Whether he’s driving the paths alone in his pickup or enjoying an evening walk with his family, he can get his mind off of the pressures of the day and replace them with images of wildlife visiting food plots or fish jumping in pristine farm ponds that lie near the swine unit.

“Sometimes I just have to get out here for awhile and clear my mind,” he says. “It’s a chance for me to refocus on what’s really important.”

What’s important on this family farm is fitting a modern, efficient swine unit into a landscape that has become a part of the Daughtry family DNA. The farm is located in Sampson County, NC, in about as remote a location as you can find in this big livestock-producing area. The official address is Clinton, NC, but everyone knows this part of the county as Daughtry Town, since an entire community of Mark’s ancestors has been farming this land for the last 200 years or so.

There’s a heavily wooded swamp that lines the back of the farm, with a creek flowing through it that makes up part of the Cape Fear watershed, the largest river basin in the state. An adventurer could float down that creek and join up with larger streams, eventually reaching the mouth of the Cape Fear River as it joins the Atlantic Ocean at Wilmington.

Mark and his wife, Lynn, began the swine farm in 1989 with the construction of two swine finishers on contract with Prestage Farms. They also built their house on this site, and with their daughter, Meagan, have continued to add to the swine unit while protecting the farm’s unique soil and water resources. Today, the swine unit consists of an 800-sow, farrow-to-wean setup along with nine finishing barns that hold 6,385 pig spaces.

Preserving soil and water

“We have a combination of wetlands, high ground and crop ground,” Daughtry points out. “The ground is not as good for crop farming, so we have worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to establish coastal bermuda pastures and hayfields, and we also grow a variety of summer and winter annual crops, such as millet, sudan, rye and oats. This helps stop wind erosion as well as sheet and rill water erosion.” A 50-cow herd, operated in partnership with a neighbor, harvests the pasture paddocks.

The family’s approach to holding soil and protecting water also fits into the puzzle for managing manure nutrients from the site. Manure from the sow unit and finishers is flushed from barns and treated in an anaerobic lagoon system. Effluent is applied through reels or solid-set systems, with nutrients feeding the various crops according to a certified nutrient management plan that is incorporated into the swine operation’s state regulatory permit.

Lagoon samples are tested every 60 days to determine the nitrogen content, and that figure is used to calculate the rate at which effluent is applied to crops. Soil samples are also taken annually.

Nutrient removal rates are figured from the amount of hay or small grain that is harvested from each field. This allows the cycle of nutrients to remain in balance.

“We haven’t used any commercial fertilizer on our fields in the past 10 years,” Mark points out. “Our needs for liming are low due to the pH of the lagoon effluent, as well. So from a nutrient perspective, we have a self-sufficient farming operation with very little need for outside soil amendments because of the nutrients we capture from our lagoon effluent.”

Forced-air composting

Another source of nutrients for the land comes from an innovative forced-air composter that, with design help from NRCS, the family added in 2008. The five-bay system, contained in a separate building near the center of the swine unit, handles all of the mortalities from the sow farm and the finishers.

The commercial unit (purchased from Advanced Composting Technologies) uses a proprietary forced-aeration floor system. The design allows the timely replenishment of oxygen in the mixture so that composting takes place with maximum efficiency.

A control system allows the distribution of fresh air into the compost bins according to the volume, porosity and moisture content of the material. This timed interval of airflow speeds up decomposition and eliminates the need to turn the pile.

The forced-air system also keeps the pile at a high temperature during the composting process. “We typically see the pile staying at around 150° F for two weeks,” Mark says. The prolonged high temperature helps ensure that pathogens are killed during composting.

A compost pile also needs the right amount of moisture, and this system captures and controls any escaping liquid in a closed-loop system. Leachate is collected and brought back into the compost as needed to bring moisture levels to optimum levels. Capturing leachate also eliminates any mess from the composter system and virtually eliminates odor.

The resulting compost is a dark, rich material that Mark and his neighbors like to use in their gardens. It’s also applied to fields where lagoon effluent doesn’t reach.

Even the wildlife population gets a boost from the material. “We use it to fertilize our wildlife food plots,” Mark says. “They grow better, and provide more food and cover for the wildlife.”

Wildlife haven

The wooded swamp behind the Daughtry farm is so thick that people have actually gotten lost in it and had to be rescued. Within that habitat is a variety of birds and beasts ranging from ducks and geese to deer and bears.

The swine farm caters to these critters with a number of food plots that are established in nearly every unused corner of farm fields. The plots contain a mixture of plants, such as millets, milo and buckwheat, that provide a buffet for wildlife. Grassed waterways, buffer zones and windbreaks also provide habitat in addition to protecting soil from erosion and preventing sediment from entering streams.

Friends and neighbors are welcome to hunt and fish on the farm. The Daughtry family also hosts school tours, Boy Scout troops and community agriculture tours.

“By maintaining an abundant wildlife population, the area attracts many visitors,” Daughtry says. “It demonstrates how a swine farm can be a good fit into a natural environment. When we host visitors who are not familiar with pork production, we can demonstrate that wildlife and modern hog farms can coexist.”

Mark says that growing up on the land helped fuel a desire to fit the farm into the existing environment. “Growing up and having a love for the outdoors, it was just instinctive to see how nature balances itself,” he says. “You try not to interrupt that balance. You may help it along. The fertilizer nutrients help us grow better food plots, and we have more residue from our crops, which also helps provide habitat.”

Preserving the future

Being a steward of the land, Mark hopes to maintain the remote feel of the farm well into the future. “When we built the sow farm, it was really nice to be so remote from a biosecurity standpoint,” he says. “And there is increasing urbanization coming from the Research Triangle area to the north. So it is more important than ever to protect the resources we have and put safeguards in place that preserve the land for future generations.”

Watching wildlife habitat improve and seeing the effects of best management practices on water quality, Daughtry says he is often stimulated to try something new to improve his stewardship.

“The more you do, the more you want to do,” he says. “The rewards for being a good environmental steward are always greater than your efforts.”

His goal is to balance nature, science and modern agriculture without disrupting the natural balance. “Minimizing your environmental footprint and leaving the land better than you found it is the ultimate goal,” he concludes. “The added benefits come in enjoying the interaction between the environment and yourself, and knowing that you are doing the right thing for your family, the community and future generations.”

A Message from National Hog Farmer

The Environmental Stewardship recognition program is co-sponsored by National Hog Farmer and Pork Checkoff. The program is for pork producers with all types and sizes of production systems who demonstrate a positive contribution to our natural environment.

A national selection committee of experts from various pork industry and natural resources disciplines selected this year’s winners. Nominations were scored in eight key areas: general production, manure/nutrient management, soil and water conservation, air quality and odor control strategies, wildlife management, environmental management innovations and a short essay on the meaning of environmental stewardship.

National Hog Farmer is proud to partner with Phibro Animal Health and Pork Checkoff to deliver the positive environmental management stories contained in these pages. It is our hope that this recognition of the 2010 class of Environmental Stewards will serve to inspire the nation’s pork producers as they work hard to be environmentally conscious citizens.

Photos and text by Dean Houghton

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