Kids run along a row of red oaks. Butterflies flutter amongst purple coneflowers. Rabbits play hide-and-seek among the shrubs.

These aren't scenes from a park or a nature trail. They are snapshots from everyday life at Pig Oaks, a Carroll County, IA, hog operation, home to Brent and Janis Gehling and their four kids — Alyce, Paige, Cassie and Sam.

Pig Oaks is built on Brent's home place — a blend of a traditional Iowa farmstead with four modern, 960-head finishing buildings.

“This has been a process of balancing and blending it all to make it work,” explains Brent. “But above all, we have always focused on making this a good place to raise a family.”

Although the farm name reflects the family's favorite tree, a variety of other trees, shrubs and bushes literally surround the buildings. The biggest planting is on the west side.

The original idea, spurred by a hard winter in 1999, was to plant a “living snow fence” to help keep snow away from the buildings. However, after consulting with USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Gehlings ended up with a 2.9-acre shelterbelt, enrolled in the continuous Conservation Reserve Program.

The shelterbelt includes more than 400 trees and shrubs, plus a strip of native grasses and flowers. Located between the barns and a heavily traveled county road, the shelterbelt draws a lot of compliments. When trees grow large enough, they will block the view of the hog buildings from the road, explains Janis.

And, with help from the kids, the Gehlings also planted 239 willows, 103 low-spreading evergreens and four sumacs around the buildings, mostly to the north and east. Evergreens planted in the 1980s, now about 30 ft. tall, are a buffer to the south between the buildings and the home's backyard. And, of course, there are red oaks and pin oaks as well.

Modernizing Pork Production

The hog operation has undergone a major change since Brent began farming in 1980. The operation was mix of crops and livestock, with hogs finished outside.

The Gehlings began modernizing in 1993, when they built two, double curtain-sided finishers with stainless steel feeders and swinging waterers. A second set of finishers, with tunnel ventilation and wet/dry feeders, was built in 1997.

Both sets of buildings have shallow pits with pull plugs, which allow manure to flow to one of two, 8-ft. deep, open top, outside storage tanks. Each tank measures 110 ft. in diameter and holds 577,500 gal. with a 1-ft. freeboard. Plugs are pulled on each 2-ft. pit about every six weeks.

Finishing 10,000 pigs per year fits well with the farm's 477 crop acres, managed in a 50/50 corn-soybean crop rotation. “Our manure management objective is to gain the greatest economic advantage possible, and capture the nitrogen (N) for use in making a corn crop,” Brent says. “We try to do that while achieving sustainable solutions to environmental, food safety and community relations issues.”

Manure, Crop Management

Manure management is part of a continuous improvement process on the farm, as highlighted by the whole-farm Resource Management System plan.

The Gehlings recently purchased a manure tanker with injectors to apply the manure each fall on soybean stubble that will be planted to corn the next spring. Brent has been certified as a commercial manure applicator through a three-hour course held each year by Iowa State University and USDA-NRCS.

All fields receiving liquid manure have been GPS-mapped in 2.5-acre grids. Manure is tested each year for nutrient content and pH. Soil is tested regularly to see that manure applications are matching agronomic needs.

As another management step to help balance crop needs with manure nutrients, Pig Oaks now feeds phytase (Ronozyme P) in finishing diets. Phytase is an enzyme that helps release phosphorus from plant-based feedstuffs. It also helps reduce the need for dicalcium phosphate in the diet and the amount of phosphorus (P) excreted by pigs.

Early indications show that the amount of P in manure will be reduced by at least 30%. That means phosphorus will not be building up in soils.

Stewardship Mission

“Manure management is just one component of a much larger management vision on the farm,” Brent says. “We recognize that water utilization and conservation, watershed management, air emissions and quality and plant and animal health, as well as our own health, are all equally important in our long-term strategies.”

Pig Oaks also is demonstrating its commitment to environmental stewardship by joining the Western Iowa Livestock External Stewardship pilot project. The first such effort in the nation, this voluntary project demonstrates how effectively farmers can document, measure and chart progress of their environmental stewardship mission. The two-year project includes 19 cattle and hog operations on 23 sites.

A coalition of public and private institutions, the meat industry and trade association stakeholders are sponsoring the project, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Sector-based Environmental Program as the catalyst.

“Our primary goals for joining this project are to continue to learn new aspects of environmental stewardship from other participating producers, as well as our NRCS District Conservationist and our certified crop advisor,” Brent says. “It also helps us to begin the process of incorporating a Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan within our planning module.”

He admits that when they built the new units in 1993, “we had no idea of the value of the manure resource we were producing.” However, after attending Iowa State University workshops and others, the Gehlings decided to start knifing in the manure and eliminating use of commercial fertilizer.

“I remember how nervous we were that spring when we decided not to apply any anhydrous ammonia,” he says. “But it worked!”

Pig Oaks uses a late spring N test and a fall stalk test developed at Iowa State to verify that N levels have been adequate for the crop.

A quick calculation of manure value shows that the resource is adding significantly to the operation's bottom line. Analysis from 2001 found that manure contained 35-22-37 (N-P-K) per 1,000 gal. Gehling applies 4,000 gal./acre. Thus, the total N-P-K delivered to fields is 140-88-148.

At prices of 14.7¢/lb. for N, 22.7¢/lb. for P, and 12.8¢/lb. for K, the manure provides the equivalent of $59.50/acre of commercial fertilizer.

With fertilizer application costs at $9/acre, Brent figures the total cost to apply an equivalent amount of commercial fertilizer would be $68.50/ acre. The cost of applying 4,000 gal. of manure ($0.0085/gal.) is $34/acre, so the total savings is $34.50/acre.

Subtracting an additional $4/acre each year for the costs of the spring nitrate test, the fall stalk test, the manure sample analysis and the grid soil mapping, manure still has a $30.50/acre annual advantage when compared with commercial fertilizer.

“The farming economy of today pushes us to achieve the greatest advantage possible without sacrificing yields, production or environmental soundness,” Brent says. “The $30.50 per acre savings we have realized through the use of our manure instead of commercial fertilizer has been a real plus on our family farm.”

Good Neighbors

Even before the first Pig Oaks buildings were erected, more than 110 neighbors from their small community signed a petition opposing the family's plan to build modern hog units.

“This experience brought home the importance of farm aesthetics and neighbor relations,” Janis says. “We remained visible and active in our community, and it has all worked out well.”

She points out that consumers have higher expectations today for pork producers — from the way hogs are raised to assurances of quality. Pig Oaks grows hogs under contract for Farmland Foods' All Natural Program, which monitors the absence of antibiotics in feed, water and carcasses, and requires producers to follow strict guidelines concerning drug and growth promotant use.

“The public keeps raising its demands of the pork industry,” Janis says. “We continue to change our operation to reflect those demands.”

But at the end of the day, Pig Oaks is all about family. “We continue to work to maintain and upgrade our farm aesthetics, not only for the image of the pork industry and for the community, but for ourselves,” Janis says. “This is all part of raising a family.”