Woodford County, IL, is one of the most productive places on earth. It is not known, however, for having a diversity of plant species. Corn and soybeans dominate the landscape as fields stretch to the horizon.
There is one pocket of diversity in the county, however. At Old Prairie Pork, near the small town of Roanoke, several species of trees are flourishing. Native grasses provide a nesting area for pheasants. A pristine lake supports several species of fish. Forbs and food plot plantings attract everything from butterflies to doves. There's even habitat intended to support a growing population of bats.
And, by the way, in the middle of all this sits wean-to-finish buildings housing 12,000 pigs.
Bruce Leman and his sons, Randy and Chris, are partners in Old Prairie Pork, which serves as the finishing site for pigs produced from the family's well-known Lone Willow genetics enterprise. Grandsons Jarod and Ryan are also involved in daily operations.
“I think we have always been conservation-minded and environmentally aware,” Bruce says. “It's not something that started when we built this facility. But I do think we can show that a pork-producing operation like this can be an asset to the community, both from an economic and an aesthetic viewpoint.”
Old Prairie Pork consists of six, double-wide, wean-to-finish buildings with deep-pit manure storage. Pigs come in at 17 to 21 days of age and are marketed about 165 days later.
More than 3,000 acres have been designated for manure applications from the facility, arranged under contract with neighbors who grow cash grain. It has not been hard to convince them that swine manure is an asset.
Bruce says corn yields have been boosted by up to 40 bu./acre compared to land receiving commercial fertilizer. “You are getting more than just the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium from manure,” Bruce points out. “There are also things like bacterial activity that improves tilth and stimulates earthworm activity. These things are hard to measure, but they can be a tremendous factor in producing crops.”
Applying manure to crop ground is a cooperative effort between Old Prairie Pork and neighboring farmers. The Lemans supply the labor and equipment to load semi tankers, and the landowners provide the equipment to apply the manure. A 6,500-gal. Balzer manure tanker with a robot arm controlled from the tractor cab sucks manure from the tanker and injects it into the field.
“By the time the manure has been applied to the field according to soil test, the next truck has pulled into the field to reload the tanker,” Bruce says. “The system has worked very well for us. It has virtually eliminated any spillage. We applied manure from the site last fall without a single complaint of any kind.”
Fields are soil tested and mapped using a global positioning system (GPS). Manure in the pits is tested so crop nutrient needs can be matched. Manure is applied according to a phosphorus standard, so some commercial nitrogen usually is required to provide enough fertility to meet corn yield goals.
One of the most striking features at Old Prairie Pork is the row of hybrid willows that line both the east and west boundaries of the building site. Despite being only 2 years old, these trees tower nearly 20 ft. high.
“We knew that trees could help control odor, since they filter dust and vertically disperse the air,” Bruce says. “We also knew pine trees can help on odor control, but they take a long time to grow.”
The Lemans contacted Trees Forever, and field coordinator Tom Miller suggested they look into a hybrid willow called Rocky Mountain Austree. “There's only one word for these trees,” Bruce says. “And that word is awesome.”
The trees not only have grown rapidly, but their dense, shrub-like growth is a living dust filter that also forces ventilation air to be dispersed vertically. The trees also serve to screen off the buildings from view of traffic coming from the east or west down the county road.
The Austrees have now been joined by many other sizes and shapes of trees. Under the direction of Bruce's grandson Jarod, 182 trees of 10 different varieties were planted on a 2.5-acre plot at the south end of the buildings near the site's freshwater lake. And, the north end of the site, which faces the public road, was landscaped with a row of spruce trees along with a second row of specialty trees picked for beauty and fast growth. These Golden Panner and Rapid Merlot trees will add aesthetic value to the site and screen the buildings from view even more as they mature.
“It's been a wonderful experience working with the Leman family on this project,” Miller says. “They went from having no trees on the site to delving into a study of which trees they should select, and understanding the value of trees as a best management practice.”
A white vinyl fence spanning the north side of the site offers another landscaping feature. A premise sign identifies Old Prairie Pork and promotes its relationship with Trees Forever. Thirty planks along this three-rail fence were sold to suppliers for advertising, listing their company name and contact information. “This helped us raise money to help pay for the landscaping,” Bruce says. “The ads show the involvement of various agribusinesses in a facility like Old Prairie Pork. It's an excellent advertising medium.”
Additional effort went into controlling the flow of water away from the buildings. With help of the engineering firm Feldmann & Associates, along with the Illinois Buffer Partnership, a series of bluegrass water retention basins were incorporated. These buffer basins slow the flow of water from the site and control soil erosion.
Drainage tiles surrounding the deep pits also carry water away from the site. Ports in these drain lines allow the Lemans to sample water periodically to make sure there is no leakage from the pits.
Topping off the building project is a 2.5-acre lake along the south edge of the site. The 24-ft. deep lake is stocked with bass, catfish and various sunfish. It also serves as an erosion control structure, preventing runoff from flooding a neighbor's field during heavy rains. The lake also serves as a refuge for ducks and geese.
Jarod, the farm's wildlife coordinator, has provided habitat for a number of birds and wildlife. Housing has been provided on the site for barn swallows, purple martins, wood ducks, Canada geese and even bats. The little brown bat can help control insect and fly populations, so the farm has set up housing to potentially serve several hundred bats.
“We want people to know that we're doing everything we can to protect every aspect of the environment,” Bruce says. “Our environment is one of the most precious things we have. That's why we want to leave it in better shape than when we got here.”