Randy and Tom Brown made sure their 600-sow, farrow-to-finish operation was environmentally friendly from the beginning.
In checkerboard corn/soybean country near Marion, OH, the Browns reduce costs on their 1,200 crop acres by using nutrients from the hog barns.
“We learned to apply effluent in the most environmentally friendly method possible,” Randy says.
The Brown family has lived here and farmed the land beginning with great-grandfather Abraham Lincoln Brown. They see their role as protectors of the land. In 1997, they were selected as a training site for assessors for the National Pork Producers Council's On-Farm Assessment and Environmental Review Program.
The farm's evolution didn't exactly follow a straight line to today's modern facilities, however. Their father ran hogs on grass lots. In 1962, when the breeding herd had grown to about 100 sows, the family built a 30-crate farrowing house. After a while, the herd grew to about 200 sows, where it held until the late 1970's, when they pushed it to 300. By then, Tom and Randy were farming together.
In 1995, the sow herd reached the 600 mark. In 1998, they built a 1,200-head finishing unit. Their latest building expansion, a 504-crate gestation barn, went up in 2002.
Randy is past president of the Ohio Pork Producers Council board and current Wyandot County Farm Bureau president. Tom serves on the United Soybean Board and Ohio Soybean Board.
“My brother and I were brought up to be keepers of the land. We both live on the farm and plan on living here for many years to come. We want the farm to prosper, and one way to do this is to make sure we are environmentalists,” Randy says.
They have a lagoon, but much of the manure is stored in pits under the barns. Manure is tested annually with applications logged in detail. Soil samples are collected in each field every three years.
“This helps us make sure the nutrients that are applied match the agronomic needs of the crops,” Tom says.
With the lagoon's 18-month holding capacity and 6 to 12 months storage in the pits, the Browns have plenty of manure storage.
“That's great for the environment because it lets us be choosy about when we put it on the fields,” explains Randy. “We don't get in a situation where we're forced to go with it even though the weather conditions aren't right. If the weather is wet, we hold it. When it's fit to pump, we hit it pretty hard.”
They're very careful to keep all effluent away from water. They are so attuned with the environment that they even note the worm activity in the soil. Though most cropland is no-till, they do till fields before applying effluent through a soft hose injection system.
“In no-till fields, the worms tunnel right to the tiles. We think we should disturb those worm tunnels that might let effluent seep into the water supply,” Randy says.
“I guess you can say my personal crusade is to remind anybody and everybody applying manure here to stay away from waterways. I remind them every time they go out. We have to protect water quality,” he adds.
At one time, they were nearly 100% no-till, saving an average of $11/acre compared to conventional tillage, so they were a bit reluctant to back off on fields where effluent was applied.
“We used to spread manure on top of the ground and work it in. That's a challenge on frozen ground or before or after a rain,” says Tom. So, although it contradicts the no-till philosophy, they now chisel or disk the soil to slow down the manure if it's moving. “Our dad always said, ‘Don't assume anything’, and that's what we believe, too,” he adds.
“We also think we've got to work that odor into the ground and get the best bang for our buck for the nutrients,” Randy says.
Manure is injected annually on about 160 acres of land that receives no additional nitrogen. With 800 acres of cropland, it's been 15 years since phosphorus and potash have been applied. The Browns figure they're saving at least $7,000/year on nitrogen, plus the application costs.
Although it's not cheap to haul manure, their calculations show it pays. “We've got to haul it anyway, so we might as well haul it and utilize the nutrients,” Tom philosophizes.
Water is important everywhere on the farm and should be conserved, where possible, the brothers agree.
As a test, they installed cup waterers in half the finishing barn and nipple waterers in the other half. Cup waterers won out.
Now, as watering equipment needs to be replaced, cups are installed “because they are less wasteful,” Randy says.
They also tested a gallon meter against a timer for providing water to gestating sows. They found that by adjusting the meter, they reduced water usage and, in turn, cut the volume of effluent. “There's a financial benefit to conserving water,” Randy assures.
Through Others' Eyes
Aiming to keep neighbors happy, they also work hard to reduce odor. They built their 1,200-head finishing unit a quarter mile off the road, hidden by a grove of trees, which helps mix air from exhaust fans. They also planted trees on the east side of the lagoon to propel dust and odor upward and away from neighbors' homes.
“We believe odor is closely related to appearance. That's one reason we keep things groomed and well maintained. We do other things like keeping the cobwebs down in buildings and removing weeds along the structures, and we now do a much better job of mowing than we used to do. Things you don't even think about hold odor,” Tom says.
Many of the ideas that surfaced during on-farm assessor training have been incorporated in their daily management plans. Each assessor's report was compiled into one.
“It was good to see our place through other peoples' eyes. When you work at a place, you tend to just see the same things over and over. They noticed things we didn't think about,” notes Randy.
“They found the worst-smelling spot, which was a couple of small, portable buildings we housed feeder pigs in,” he continues. “They had the worst odor on the farm and really added very little financially, so we removed them and, they told us to keep gravel around the barns. We also learned just how clean the fan louvers needed to be.”
Adds Tom: “Some of the recommendations we already knew but just hadn't done. Other things we hadn't even thought of.”
It's more important than ever to keep environmental issues in mind when working on the hog farm, the brothers emphasize.
“Our goal is to be proactive, to eliminate issues before they really become problems. We try to keep our neighbors in mind as we do things. We don't haul manure on weekends or holidays or during special events, like high school graduation or a wedding,” Randy says. “That's part of our responsibility. It's public relations, but it's really more than that because we're part of this community and we want to do what we can to improve the quality of life here.”
That's why, in winter, they plow neighbors' driveways without being asked. It's why each month they contribute sausage to a local church's breakfast meeting. And, it's why school concession stands get their bratwurst free of charge.
You'll also find the brothers in the local schools, carrying pigs as they talk about the pork industry, and discussing the business at career days.
To the Browns, it's all just part of being neighborly. “We just feel there are some things we need to do as members of this community and as members of the pork industry,” Randy says.