Keeping a neat farmstead and connecting with the public helps this family promote pork production.
You may remember a television commercial years ago that promoted pork for the holiday season. A young family was out doing chores in the snow, then came back to the house to admire a well-trimmed Christmas tree and sit down to a holiday meal, carving a steaming Farmland ham.
Those were no actors. You were meeting Loren Keppy, who farms with his father, Ralph, near Durant, IA. Also starring in the commercial were Loren's wife, Jeantee, and their two children, Kaylee and Jake. The kids, who were not much older than preschoolers when the commercial was filmed, have grown up. Kaylee is in her first year of college; Jake is in high school.
Promoting pork's image has been a part of farming for the Keppy family from the start. They live just a couple of miles north of Durant, where the kids have been involved in activities such as sports, 4-H and FFA. The Keppy family also is involved in a venture that sells corn-burning stoves. They clean and sell corn to burn in the units, which draws a steady flow of non-farm visitors.
“We think it's important to have a nice-looking place, and we try to help educate the community about pork production whenever we can,” Loren says. “If someone comes out to pick up corn for their stove and has a question, we try to take the time to explain our operation. We try to help them understand our cycle of production using corn to feed hogs and the manure nutrients to feed our crops.”
The Keppy farm is just what Hollywood would order if they were looking for an Iowa farm. Tall corn and an expansive shaded yard surround the white farmhouse. There's also a pair of 960-head, tunnel-ventilated finishers just east of the homestead.
The barns were built in 1995 and 2005, when the Keppys began raising hogs under contract with The Maschhoffs based in Illinois. The Keppys raise about 6,000 head/year, which supplies 800,000 gallons of manure for their crops. The farm grows corn, soybeans and hay on its more than 900 crop acres. Some acres are devoted to growing seed corn and soybeans for Pioneer.
Manure nutrients are managed carefully to get maximum value. Every four years, soil samples are taken on 2½-acre grids in order to identify areas where manure can best be utilized.
“We want to be sure that we're not overapplying or underapplying nutrients,” Keppy explains. “Any time we're not meeting the needs of the crop, it's money out of our pocket.”
Barns are equipped with pull-plug pits that are drained monthly into a clay-lined earthen basin. Manure is sampled from the top, middle, and bottom third of the storage each year, which helps determine application rates for the following year.
Typically, a biocover of chopped cornstalks or straw is blown on to cover the storage basins. This places a physical barrier between the liquid manure and the air, which helps reduce odor emissions. When applied in May, the biocover usually lasts until September, he says.
A manure management plan (or an update) is filed each year with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. It documents land available for application and agronomic application rates. The plan was recently updated to include the Iowa Phosphorus Index and Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation 2. These equations estimate the risk of phosphorus loss and soil erosion from individual fields.
Even pig mortalities return to the land as nutrients. A covered 10×30-ft., three-bay composter with a concrete floor uses sawdust as a carbon source. Finished compost product is spread on fields as a fertilizer source.
Grass Strips and No-Till
Big Elkhorn Creek runs through the Keppy farm, so the family has added a number of efforts to keep it pristine. Grass buffers were planted in the gently rolling fields that border the creek, and grass headlands have been established on their highly erodible land. The buffer strips also boost the wildlife population, as they create a corridor that helps connect fragmented habitat used by pheasant, deer and other wildlife.
Soybeans are no-tilled following corn. Other ground receives minimum tillage. Herbicide-resistant varieties help reduce the need for soil-disturbing tillage to control weeds. “We try to keep our resources on the farm,” Keppy says. “We want to protect our neighbors downstream, which includes the town of Durant.”
Manure application is handled with care as well. Loren is a certified Confinement Site Manure Applicator in Iowa, and attends two hours of training each year. He uses his own manure tanks as well as help from a custom applicator to apply the manure each fall. Tankers use disk applicators to immediately incorporate manure, reducing risk of odor and loss of nitrogen.
The Keppys switched to wet-dry feeders in the barns to cut the amount of water going into the pits, thereby reducing the amount of manure to pump. Phytase in the feed helps reduce the amount of phosphorus in the manure, and a microbial feed additive (Micro-Source S) helps reduce ammonia loss from manure storage.
The Keppy family backyard is a gathering place for friends of Kaylee and Jake, as they gather around a fire ring to socialize — despite being only a few hundred feet from the hog buildings.
“It's a chance for kids who aren't from a farm to see what it's really like out here,” Loren says. “They don't seem to mind spending time here, so we must be doing something right.”
The Keppy kids enjoy a large circle of friends from involvement with local activities, as well as raise a few show pigs to exhibit at county fairs and the Iowa State Fair.
And the family's environmental stewardship is bearing fruit, literally. The Keppys have made it a habit to plant a fruit tree nearly every year. They've targeted the good black soil on the north slope around the finishers for their orchard.
“Grandfather always was known for raising fruit, bringing over bushels of peaches and apples,” Loren says. “We thought it would be neat to try to grow some fruit trees, and this was a good place.”
Now that the peach and apple trees are producing fruit, a snack is just a few steps away. “We can be working in the hog barn, and just step outside and pick a peach,” he says. “There aren't too many hog finishers where you can do that.”
Attention to aesthetics also can pay off for the pork industry, Keppy adds. “When you live close to town like we do, you can see the importance of maintaining a good image,” he says. “If we can help overcome some of the nuisance issues just by becoming better stewards of our farms, it would allow the pork industry to use more resources to tackle some of the other critical issues that lie ahead.”