Starting afresh tugs hard at the American subconscious. Who wouldn't welcome the chance to pull up roots and begin anew, this time doing it all right?
For the Brinker brothers — Kenny, Dale and Ronnie — the fresh start came disguised as a nuisance. Urban sprawl from St. Louis chewed at the diverse Washington, MO, farm where they grew up and farmed as young men.
In 1990, realizing they could either sell out and quit, or sell out and build the farm of their dreams, they began searching for another location.
The 1,600-plus acres Kenny and his wife, Susan, found and bought near Auxvasse, MO, in 1993 was no showplace, though. Long rented out by a distant investment group, soils were depleted and eroded. Some neighbors pronounced it beyond fixing.
No matter. The Brinkers saw potential.
“It looked like a good location to raise hogs,” explains Kenny. “We'd been working on neglected land where we'd farmed at Washington, so we realized it was possible to bring it back.”
A University of Missouri swine specialist who checked it out thoroughly says the hog farm site is practically perfect.
“The land mass, the distance to neighbors, the air flow — all of that made it ideal. We built it a mile off the road. We thought out of sight, out of mind would be best,” Kenny continues.
Building from Scratch
The Brinkers wanted to build the most modern, environmentally friendly facility possible, so they traveled to North Carolina, where they studied four state-of-the-art hog farms.
“The University of Missouri ag team was looking quite closely at North Carolina as a model. They suggested our least-cost method would be to go with a large lagoon like the North Carolina farms had,” says Kenny.
The soil hardpan at the new location was excellent building material, providing a natural clay base liner in the lagoon.
As step one, they settled on a 650-sow, farrow-to-finish unit, obtaining a permit allowing them to double the size within four years.
“Being able to start new was a real plus. It was all laid out in advance, which really helps in the use of the facility, the flowability of it,” Kenny says.
“We designed it to be the most efficient farm we could without the need to be added to later. In Washington, we farmed with what dad and his dad had built. Here, we were building from scratch. It was extremely exciting.”
The new farm, in its final incarnation, has several buildings connected by a single hallway for biosecurity purposes. In addition to the office and shop, there's a gilt receiving building, breeding building, farrowing house, nursery, four finishing buildings divided into four rooms holding 550 hogs each, and a smaller finishing building with two rooms.
The farm houses 1,300 sows, 3,600 nursery pigs and 10,000 finishing hogs. Two off-site finishing locations handle 3,300 head. The farm sells 32,000 hogs/year.
The Brinkers came to Auxvasse in what they call a “controlled move.” In 1994, the Harrison Creek Farm farrow-to-finish unit opened with 650 sows. Manager Shane Sorell, still with the farm, was hired as manager.
In 1998, they sold their original farm to the city of Washington, MO. Kenny and Ronnie moved to Auxvasse that year. Dale, busy wrapping up the final two years of a hog facility lease in New Haven, MO, arrived in 2000.
From the start, Harrison Creek Farm was contracted for breeding stock multiplication.
“We buy PIC breeding stock and use the semen they want. They have exclusive rights to buy breeding stock at any time,” explains Kenny. “Sometimes it's at weaning, but primarily they're 220 to 260 lb.”
Pigs are bought by PIC, then resold to approved customers. Non-selected pigs go to slaughter.
Soil Rebuilding Continues
The Brinkers knew rebuilding fertility levels on the farm would be a long process. They're still at it, no-tilling 3,400 acres of soybeans and corn this year. Soil organic matter and phosphate levels have steadily increased. Hogs help the effort.
Manure, held in 18-24-in. deep-pits, drains into a 7-acre, 15-ft.-deep lagoon. The lagoon supplies effluent to two center pivots. The first irrigates 120 acres, while the second, installed in 2005, covers 75 acres.
They usually pump in July and August, applying 1½ to 1¾ in. of effluent/acre. Systems are checked hourly. A kill switch can shut off the pivots in case of problems.
The Brinkers' lagoon remains under constant study. University researchers take monthly samples to determine how much nutrient values fluctuate during the year and how quickly sludge levels build.
A recharge pump in the lagoon sends water through a 4-in. pipe back into the pits in order to reduce odor. All the buildings discharge into the lagoon at a single location. The irrigation systems can pump the lagoon down to only 6½ ft. from full pool. That leaves 9 ft. of liquid, reducing odor in the lagoon.
A tour of area fields reveals 36 grassed waterways, five miles of terraces, several ponds and an 8-acre lake. Most waterways were cost-shared through Missouri's Continuous Conservation Reserve Program. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) helped put up their second irrigation system, and provided funding for many terraces, tile outlets and waterways.
EQIP also helps with a pest management-scouting program. A local agronomist helps scout for insects and weeds and recommends pesticide applications.
Variable rate fertilization helps maximize field efficiency. Non-irrigated fields are sampled on 2½-acre grids. Soil tests, analyzed and entered into a global positioning system, help applicators apply the right amount of phosphorous, potash and trace minerals for each grid in the field. That increases crop yield potential, Kenny says, and decreases the risk of over-application.
It's all part of maximizing profit on the cropland, which provides 20% of the farm's income, but it's also part of a mindset to make the farm an environmentally sound, healthy place.
Exercising a Wildlife Plan
“Wildlife is important to us, too. My family really likes deer hunting. When we first bought the farm, we worked with a state deer biologist to do an assessment of the deer population and develop a plan to enhance it. We're still following that plan today,” Kenny explains.
“We've enhanced the deer population with timber stand improvement around most fields. We've pushed the tree line back and planted switchgrass, clover, big bluestem and lespedeza, which makes excellent habitat for quail and rabbits and good browse area for deer. In some cases, we've added food plots, planting about 6 acres each year in wheat, clover or grain. In the corners of fields, we leave some crop standing for wildlife.”
In addition, the Brinkers restored a 6-acre wetland area, attracting muskrats, beaver, ducks and geese.
To the Brinkers, environmental stewardship means closely monitoring many areas and stopping potential problems before they develop.
“We grew up on a typical small farm for the time, with cattle, hogs, chickens, corn, wheat and hay. Our parents taught us, by example, the importance of taking care of the land. Our farm was the first in our county to install terraces and waterways on our hilly fields. We were one of the first to no-till crops,” Kenny says.
“We're looking to the future here. Some of our children say they want to farm, too, so we're teaching them what we've learned about taking care of the land and the environment. It's our duty to preserve and improve the land and resources.”
Many farmers do that, but many are also are shy about letting the community know what they're doing. In July 2006, the Brinkers hosted the local chamber of commerce's town and country event, with more than 200 people visiting the farm, eating dinner and getting a tour of the exterior of the facilities.
In addition, the Brinkers supply pork for FFA fund-raisers and school carnivals, and each year donate hogs to the Mid-Missouri Food Bank.
“If the story of what farmers are doing doesn't get out to our urban cousins, they're going to hear the other side of the story,” says Kenny. “It isn't something we're doing because we want publicity. But it's necessary to tell the story, or some radical group will do it for us.”