Driving past the 2,500-sow operation known as Alliance Farms #202, the average motorist might notice only a well-kept hog farm sitting a few hundred feet away from a country road. But fly over this same unit and the view is dramatic.
The sow farm sits at one end of a man-made 45-acre lake on gently rolling land in Wayne County, IL. The lake fills a natural series of draws and hollows to form a jagged, dragon-shaped structure. The lake is a magnet for southern Illinois' abundant and varied wildlife population.
“Alliance Farms has been proactive in keeping the area wildlife friendly,” says Paul Burriss, area production manager for the company's Illinois operations. The lake was expanded from five to 45 acres as the operations were constructed on this site. “The lake is not only a source of supplemental fresh water, but is used by our employees and others for fishing and hunting,” he says. “It's a favorite spot for duck hunting as well as a good lake for bluegill, catfish and bass.”
Various species of birds also gather at the lake, from pintails, coots and Canada geese to the rare Sand Hill crane.
Alliance Farms won an environmental stewardship award in 2002 for a farrowing operation located at its arid Yuma, CO site. This year, Alliance Farms #202 receives a nod for its environmental management in a moist and humid climate.
In 1996, Alliance Farms expanded operations into southern Illinois. Total production in Illinois now includes three sow sites and two nursery sites. Burriss oversees all Illinois production, and is an employee of Hostetter Management Co., a firm that provides management on a contract basis for Alliance Farms.
Alliance sow farm #202, built in 1997, produces approximately 1,050 weaned pigs each week that are shipped to one of the company's nearby 8,000-head nursery sites. From the nurseries, pigs are shipped out to shareholders for finishing.
Keeping the water in the lake as pure as possible is a driving force behind nutrient management at the sow farm. For example, filter strips around the lake help to slow runoff from area fields as well as trap sediment and enhance infiltration within the filter strip. These strips also trap fertilizers, pathogens, heavy metals and pesticides, helping keep water pure.
The farm uses global positioning system (GPS) technology to make sure that effluent gets placed where it can be used most effectively. All areas of the farm, including the buildings, lagoons and setback areas, have been mapped using GPS technology. Recordkeeping is GPS referenced. Alliance Farms has contracted with area farmers to utilize effluent from the sow farm. Fields receiving nutrients have been divided into 10-acre grids for soil sampling.
“We sample the lagoon prior to application,” says Andy Glover, who serves as environmental and agronomic consultant for Alliance Farms. His Independent Consulting Service based in Mt. Erie, IL, has set boundaries with GPS to find total tillable acres, allowing for setbacks, in each field.
“We pull our soil samples and mark those points with GPS,” he says. “We can go back to that same point for soil testing in the future so we can get a good comparison. We can compare apples with apples and get an idea of what's going on with the nutrients in that soil profile.”
Since the sow farm uses a two-stage lagoon system, effluent is not highly concentrated. Buildings use a shallow (2-ft. deep) pit system with pull plugs. The plug is pulled on a weekly schedule to properly feed the first-stage lagoon. Water from the second-stage lagoon is recycled to recharge the shallow pits. “The bacteria brought in with the recycled effluent begins breaking down manure in the pit, allowing the lagoon to work more effectively,” Burriss says. “The recycling process also allows us to use less fresh water.”
Nutrients are typically applied using an umbilical hose with injectors, but in some cases, a traveling gun can be used to irrigate fields. “We have been injecting enough nutrients to allow the farmer to totally eliminate commercial fertilizer,” Glover says. He keeps a close watch on both nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) levels, making sure N is high enough to suit crop needs while avoiding a buildup of P.
“People have told us we can't build potassium (K) levels on these clay soils, but we have been building levels of that nutrient in the soil as well,” he adds. He figures that effluent will replace $18,774 worth of commercial fertilizer this year, based on the current costs of commercial fertilizer nutrients.
With effluent applied spring and fall, some fields may receive as much as 40,000 gal./acre. More typically, rates run about 15,000 gal./acre. Effluent is usually applied ahead of corn in a corn-soybean rotation.
Extra effort in several key areas helps keep the sow unit attractive to both neighbors and employees.
Odor management began at planning stages, as engineers sited the buildings more than 400 ft. from the road, and oriented the tunnel-ventilated buildings so that ventilation fans point away from the road. “With that distance to the road, the air coming out of the buildings has time to mix with outside air and dilute the odor,” Burriss points out.
Buildings are given a thorough cleaning, including exhaust fans, equipment and feed lines, on a regular schedule. Pull-plugs are drained on a rotation to keep from overloading the lagoon. Employees flush out any remaining solids before recharging the pits.
The farm also uses odor control products to further polish air leaving the farm. A commercial pit additive (Pit Remedy) is added monthly to help reduce odor and promote breakdown of manure solids in the lagoon.
Alliance Farms #202 also has experimented with adding carbon to the lagoon to help reduce hydrogen sulfide emissions. Carbon has been shown to reduce hydrogen sulfide emissions in deep pit barns by absorbing the volatile fatty acids produced by bacteria as they break down protein. Burriss is continuing to evaluate the effectiveness of carbon for lagoons.
The farm carefully manages mortalities, moving losses to an off-site refrigerated trailer for pickup by a commercial renderer.
Alliance Farms also works to maintain good relations with the community. “We hope we are viewed as a contributor to the community,” Burriss says. “We donate annually to the Cisne High School after-prom party as well as many other groups throughout the year.” The farm has supplied metal for the local high school for use in welding classes and has donated money for the Mt. Erie Township's 150-year anniversary celebration.
But the best community ambassadors are employees of the unit, Burriss says. “Our employees have lived here their whole lives and are active in local churches, clubs and organizations. They have built relationships with people that take a lifetime to build.”
Trying to preserve those relationships as well as preserving nature is the challenge facing Alliance Farms. “We want to preserve what is here for future generations,” Burriss says. “Our employees really like this lake. We need to make sure that it is preserved for these folks and for many generations into the future.”