On the high and dry plains of northwest Oklahoma, one cutting of hay is about all anyone can expect in a growing season. But that's not the case on the quarter section surrounding Luthi Family Farm, a 3,650-sow, farrow-to-wean operation in Ellis County, OK. This oasis is sprinkled by a center-pivot irrigation system supplied by effluent pumped from the second stage of the farm's lagoon.
Chuck Luthi directs the application of effluent, while his wife, Wathina, manages the sow herd.
“What I receive from the lagoon is a balanced and readily available nutrient source, along with water,” Chuck says. “When we apply effluent, we have been able to get two hay crops plus a seed crop each year, plus some winter grazing for beef cattle. We have quadrupled the amount of forage produced on some of these fields.”
Home on the range
Chuck and Wathina both are natives of these windy and wide-open spaces. Chuck's great-grandfather, Adolph Luthi, left Switzerland in 1920 and began raising hogs on a farm just three miles from the family's present-day facility. Wathina grew up as part of a pork-producing family in Oklahoma's Panhandle.
After raising hogs in a conventional farrow-to-finish operation for many years, the Luthis decided to build the new sow farm in 1997, producing weaned pigs on contract with Murphy Family Farms.
Breeding and gestation barns feature evaporative cooling cells to fight the High Plains heat. The farrowing unit is a curtain-sided, naturally ventilated barn.
All sows are artificially inseminated with semen from a nearby boar stud.
Weaned pigs are shipped out at approximately 17 to 21 days of age, picked up three times a week to supply area nurseries.
Some select sows are bred to produce maternal line females. These replacement candidates are housed in a 400-head nursery and a 600-head finisher also located on-site.
Barns are equipped with pull-plug manure handling systems, with pits emptied weekly into the first stage of the two-stage lagoon. Pits are recharged from the second lagoon cell.
“From the beginning, we chose the site for the farm with environmental stewardship in mind,” Wathina says. Not only is the site remote, but it also has a substrate of clay, which was used to form an impermeable layer in constructing the lagoons. For additional safety, a synthetic liner was added to each cell.
“With the depth to groundwater of 320 ft., having a clay liner and a synthetic liner means the chance of polluting the groundwater is negligible,” she says. Three monitoring wells are checked annually to give early warning of any possible lagoon leaks.
A fence surrounds the lagoon, both for safety and to prevent wildlife from damaging the synthetic liner. A chain-link fence also surrounds the buildings to prevent contact between swine and wildlife.
Check the net
Despite having only a few neighbors, Chuck and Wathina take extra precautions before applying effluent through the center-pivot system. They log on to Oklahoma's statewide Mesonetwork environmental monitoring system. This Internet network of 114 automated weather stations reports parameters such as air and soil temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and direction, barometric pressure, soil moisture levels and more.
“We check the 60-hour Mesonet forecast for such things as wind and temperature to help us with our decision to apply effluent,” Wathina says. Detailed records of dispersion conditions, amount of effluent pumped, time applied, and production taken from fields are kept up-to-date.
Chuck's passion is raising a variety of forages such as Red River crabgrass, Old World Bluestem, Big Bluestem, Sand Love and many other native grasses. Seed is harvested and marketed from some of the varieties. All areas receiving effluent provide hay or pasture for beef cattle as well.
Putting an exact dollar value on the benefits of the effluent has been difficult, but Chuck is convinced that they are significant. “We know that we had been spending up to $7,000 a year on commercial fertilizer,” he says. “Using effluent has eliminated that cost. And we are growing some varieties of grass that we would not have been able to grow before.”
Attention to detail is a big part of the farm's efforts to reduce odors and improve air quality. A regular schedule of washing rooms and cleaning fans helps keep dust levels low. A well-stocked maintenance shop located near the facility's office makes it handy for employees to keep up repairs in and around the buildings.
The operation also uses a commercial pit additive (Hog Wash), which is a combination of carbon and beneficial bacteria. The product was found to reduce odors and hydrogen sulfide emissions by 97% in university studies. Chuck says the product helps break down manure solids, helping to assure easy distribution of effluent through the irrigation system. “It also has helped reduce ammonia levels in the barns,” Wathina adds.
Feed spills on the concrete pads under bulk bins are swept up daily. Cleaning up feed avoids odors associated with decaying feed, and eliminates a feed source for rodents. But the Luthi family also use the feed to improve the area's wildlife by distributing it in a nearby shelterbelt that attracts deer, turkey and quail.
An off-site refrigerated trailer, about a mile from the hog unit, is used to store mortalities until a rendering truck picks them up. A separate, secure entrance is provided exclusively for use by the rendering truck.
Luthi Family Farm works with the community in a number of ways, but perhaps the most unique has been a project with the Fargo, OK, fire department. “Being 11 miles from town, there was a need for an emergency water supply in the area,” says Mickey Thomas, Fargo's fire chief. “The Luthis agreed to let the fire department install a fire hydrant on their property to take care of this need.” The hydrant saves the department from having to make a 20-mile round trip to fill up with water when fighting grass fires in this part of the county.
Fitting in naturally is the definition of environmental stewardship at Luthi Family Farm. “Environmental stewardship is more than a public relations issue,” Wathina says. “It goes beyond just being accountable for the product we produce. It is an important part of our lifestyle.”
For example, the land that receives effluent was once wind-blown and nonproductive, but now supports a sea of prairie grasses. These forages, along with the tree-lined shelterbelt, support an abundant wildlife population. “Being stewards of the land means balancing economics with the environment in order to be viable for years to come,” Wathina adds. “I love the swine industry, and I want to be producing pork as a lifelong pursuit.”
These wide-open spaces are part of the family's heritage, Chuck points out, and protecting them is just part of the Luthi lifestyle. “When we sit on our porch at night, we can look up and see a billion stars,” he says. “There's no place I would rather be than right here.”