When Hillcrest Pork decided to expand and modernize its production operations back in 1998, the Hirschman family made a decision: This new facility would tread lightly on the environment surrounding its Plymouth County, IA, location.

“We live in a small community where our neighbors are also close friends,” says Frank Hirschman. “Our first and foremost thought when we considered expanding our swine enterprise was the perceptions of our neighbors and our local community. We didn't want anyone to feel they had to move away because we were putting up a 2,500-sow operation.”

The initial consensus of the community was favorable. The Hirschmans received even more support when they announced plans to include aeration of the manure storage system.

“We wanted to design an environmentally benign and economically sustainable manure storage and handling system,” Frank explains. The nearby community of Kingsley employed an aeration system in its city lagoons, so the Hirschmans started planning with that concept as its first choice for treating swine effluent.

Bubbling away in a two-cell earthen storage basin system, the aerators have delivered the kind of performance the family and neighbors expected. Aeration is the heart of the new operation's environmentally friendly design, but it is only one of many comprehensive management practices the Hirschmans employ.

Family Heritage

Hillcrest Pork is the very definition of family pork production. It is owned and operated by Frank and Jenny Hirschman, along with their son, Don, and his wife, Bobbi. Don and Bobbi's daughter, Addison, represents the family's fourth generation to call these northwest Iowa hills home.

The Hirschman farm historically was a corn-soybean row crop operation paired with a 200-sow, farrow-to-finish hog operation. Don and his wife came back to the farm in 1997, so the family decided to upgrade to a 2,500-sow, farrow-to-wean unit with all confined housing, on contract with Farmland Foods.

“We now have all of the animals in environmentally controlled, comfortable, clean and easy-to-manage housing,” Frank says. “Gone are the bitter, cold nights of hogs piling in the bedding to keep warm; no more fighting to get a mouthful of feed; no more vaccinations on the run; no more ‘ornery’ boars that were dangerous to move in large, outdoor pens. No more mud, snow, rain or ice to challenge our dedication to pork production.”

The new operation, constructed and populated in 1998, features four buildings: two breeding-gestation barns, a farrowing barn and an isolation unit. The manure storage is a two-cell aerated earthen storage basin.

Manure management involves shallow (2-ft.) flush pits under each building. The pits have 8-in. pull-plugs that are pulled according to a schedule. The breeding and gestation barns are flushed once or twice per week. Farrowing rooms are flushed twice per turn.

The manure flows to the first stage of the earthen basin, where the aerators help break down solids and keep them in suspension. The injected air also helps reduce odors.

The two-cell system provides storage for at least a full year's production. Cell 1 holds about a 90-day storage. Top water flows by gravity from Cell 1 to Cell 2, which can hold about 420 days worth of storage.

Cell 2 provides recycled water for flushing and recharging the shallow pits in each building, except for the isolation unit, where fresh water is used.

Aeration Helps

Each cell has a floating aerator (Aqua-Vac), which pushes air into the effluent. Cell 1 has a 3.5 hp unit, and Cell 2 has a 10.5 hp unit.

The aerators are operated continuously for about nine months of the year. When water temperature in the cells drops below 40° F., bacterial action slows to the point where shutting down the aeration system is recommended. It typically stays off from mid-December through mid-March.

Running an aeration system does add costs, but Don points out that on a per-pig basis, the additional amount is very small. Total operating cost for the system runs less than $4,000/year, or roughly 7¢/pig.

“I want to live here and raise my family here,” he says. “We want to do those extra little things that will help make our environment better. It's hard to put a monetary value on that.”

Settled solids from Cell 1 are recycled to crop ground, usually each fall, using an umbilical cord with an injector system. These nutrients usually fertilize a subsequent corn crop.

Effluent from Cell 2 is more dilute and is typically used to irrigate an alfalfa crop throughout the spring, summer and fall. The Hirschmans wait for calm wind conditions to apply the effluent through a traveling gun.

Both Frank and Don have been certified for confinement site manure application through the state's regulatory system.

GPS grid sampling of soils and testing of effluent keeps application rates in line with agronomic needs. Yields are high without use of additional commercial fertilizer. When extra manure is available, it is applied on neighbors' fields. “Our neighbors tell us they would take all the extra manure we can give them,” Frank says.

Hillcrest Pork also uses composting of baby pig mortalities to handle losses in an environmentally friendly, as well as cost-effective, manner. An existing hoop structure houses the composting site, and sawdust is acquired locally for use as the carbon source.

Farmland's environmental/natural resources staff help keep the Hirschmans up to date on the latest environmental regulations and has assisted them in writing an emergency action plan.

Aesthetics Play Role

Extra attention is given to the landscaping around buildings. The family has planted shelterbelts of trees and shrubs on the north, west and south sides of the site. A grove of trees already existed on the east side.

The trees not only enhance the appearance of the site, they also provide a windbreak and may reduce odor by collecting dust from the exhaust fans and by breaking up the odor plume, they say.

Grass is kept neatly mowed, and a farm sign and rock garden serve as a friendly welcome for visitors. The shelterbelts and the grass-backed terraces that help control erosion also host a variety of wildlife. The family has spotted pheasants, songbirds, coyotes, deer and rabbits in the shelterbelt.

Jenny points out that the extra effort to manage these environmentally friendly details pays off not just in better neighbor relations, but also for the family and employees who work in the buildings.

“Our farmhouse is the closest dwelling to the site,” she points out. “The way the place looks, and the efforts to keep odors down, makes it a nice place for us to work and also a fun place for me to take my granddaughter to look at the pigs. For the most part, this new operation has far less odor than when we were raising hogs outdoors.”

The farm hires three local persons to help in the breeding operations and three to work in farrowing. Five students from the local high school help with weekend chores. Neighbors are hired to haul animals to market.

Being good environmental stewards, the Hirschmans say, begins with being good neighbors and being involved with the local community. The family remains active in the local church and the pork producers association.

“Environmental stewardship isn't just a concept around here,” Frank says. “It is a way of life. We hope to preserve our natural resources for many generations to come.”