Quail Run Farms • Vic Little Family • Rosston, OK

Wandering for about 12 miles through Harper County, OK, Old Settler's Ditch delivers the lifeblood of agriculture — irrigation water — to the community known as Ditch Valley.

In the late 1800's, settlers worked shoulder-to-shoulder with horse-drawn equipment to bring water from the Cimarron River into their valley. Working together was a key to survival, and for more than 100 years, their descendants have kept up that spirit of cooperation to maintain what they call simply “The Ditch.”

Irrigation water from this narrow furrow supports high-quality alfalfa and other crops in the valley. The Ditch eventually dumps back into the Cimarron, which supplies downstream communities with drinking water. And the Old Settler's Ditch is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Vic Little's Quail Run hog operation sits only a stone's throw from The Ditch. So, as you might imagine, Little places a great deal of emphasis on making sure his hog farm does not impact water quality in The Ditch.

“Water is a valuable commodity, and it is getting more precious all the time,” he says. “I have designed my hog farm to protect the surrounding water table. There is no way that I am going to pollute the water that my family and I depend on for our livelihood and health.”

Coming Home

The opportunity to raise hogs is the reason that Little is back in the Ditch Valley neighborhood. He grew up here on a farm that has been in the family for nearly a hundred years. He left the area to work in the natural gas industry, and his wife, Melva, taught school.

In July 1998, the Little family decided to come back to Vic's home near Rosston, OK, and build a 3,400-head nursery on contract with Murphy Farms. (Melva now serves as human resource training manager for Murphy Farms, headquartered in nearby Laverne.)

“It was always a dream of ours to bring the family back to the farm,” Melva says. “But it would have been hard to support our family on traditional farming. The hog farm offered us the opportunity to come back here, and our dream came true.”

The Littles' son, Kirby, has been doing hog chores since he was a third grader and has picked up more responsibility through his junior high years. He remains actively involved in managing the nursery and, at 13 years old, he's looking forward to joining the National FFA Organization this fall. The Littles also have two grown daughters, Andrea and Ashley.

By establishing his hog operation on the High Plains, Vic Little wanted to locate and construct the buildings to “cause the least disruption of the land's natural geography.” After construction, Little planted a cover crop of native grass to prevent erosion, and he left some areas as natural cover to attract wildlife.

The lagoon is lined with clay, and the Littles added rock to the berms to further protect the lagoon's integrity. A 300-ft.- long planting of trees along the north side of lagoon is intended to become a shelterbelt that will protect the lagoon from wind erosion while also attracting wildlife.

Wave Stoppers

In addition to the rock, Little also came up with an innovative way to cut down on wave action caused by strong Oklahoma winds. “I walked out behind the nursery one day, and the wind was blowing so hard that the waves on the lagoon had whitecaps,” he says. “I figured a wave-leveling system of some kind could reduce water movement and further protect the lagoon.”

He came up with the idea of using 2-in. pipe unrolled across the lagoons and anchored to the bank. These pipes are placed about one-third of the way from either end of the lagoon. “I doubt that we have $100 invested in materials to do this,” Little says.

“All that wave action really adds to the surface area of the lagoon, and you're also getting the effects of agitation,” he says. “We felt that another advantage to wave levelers is that they might cut down on any odors coming from the lagoon.”

Little says he's observed the wave levelers in action, and they seem to do the job of calming the lagoon. Waves begin to form, but are knocked down by the pipe barrier. “I've also called my neighbors, and they feel it has helped us minimize odors,” he says. “Just that benefit alone is worth the minimal investment we have in the system.”

The nursery is a double-curtain, naturally ventilated structure with radiant heaters. A computerized controller (Ventium) monitors six sensors that measure humidity, air movement and temperature. The device automatically adjusts curtains and heaters. An alarm system warns of electrical, water or feed system problems.

Pit plugs are pulled on a weekly schedule, draining manure into the lagoon. The system operates as an evaporative lagoon due to the area's low humidity, but adequate land on this 100-acre site is available for application when needed. Since a neighbor lives just a mile northeast of the nursery, Little doesn't pull plugs when winds favor the southwest.

Studying Ammonia

The Little family has been involved in a number of industry projects. One was a field trial, in cooperation with Bill Luce from the Oklahoma Pork Council, to study ammonia levels in buildings. The research looked at whether a commercial biocatalyst added to confinement building pits could enhance the activity of naturally occurring microbes.

The bottom line of the study was that the treatment may have helped lower ammonia, but also found that ammonia levels in the barn were low to begin with. “The study showed that our barn, where we use recycled lagoon water to recharge pits, had just as low an ammonia level as buildings where they used fresh water,” Little says. “Using recycled recharge water is another way for us to save on the amount of water we use.”

Not only have the Littles participated in the On-Farm Assessment and Environmental Review (OFAER) program, but Vic also participated in training to become a certified OFAER assessor. “My desire was not to become an assessor, but to learn how to be a better environmental steward in my own operation,” he says.

Quail Run also participated in a study that involved 31 farms in five states, conducted by the University of Missouri and sponsored by the National Pork Board. This research studied environmental management practices on the farms to see if the proposed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permit Regulation Guidelines were feasible. The farm also has received an EPA Seal of Approval.

Good Neighbors

The Little family has welcomed dialog with neighbors in Ditch Valley. “I had mixed feelings when I heard about Vic Little coming back to Ditch Valley and building a pig nursery,” says neighbor D.A. Mundell. “I live only a mile northeast of the lagoon. At first, I did get a fair amount of odor.”

Vic regularly called his neighbors to see if they could detect odor, and encouraged them to call when they detected odor so he could make changes. “Vic has used a variety of methods to control the lagoon odor,” Mundell adds. “I am confident someday I can say, ‘No, I can't smell a thing,’ when Vic calls. My skepticism is gone.”

The Littles continue to look for new ways to expand their environmental stewardship. “I take the responsibility as a landowner and caretaker of related resources very seriously,” Vic says. “The Ditch Valley community is unique in that the only way farm families have survived here is by working together. The Ditch is a community project, and all of us in the Valley need to continue to cooperate and help maintain it for the future,” he continues. “I hope to make Quail Run appealing enough so that my children will want to continue that tradition.”