Oetting Hog Farms, Concordia, MO

Partnering with nature is a way of life on this Missouri farrow-to-finish farm.

When Steve and Sharon Oetting want to capture the attention of visitors to their hog farm, they head to a 2.8-acre freshwater lake that shares a dam with the lagoons for their hog operation. The Oettings toss a 5-gallon bucket of fish food into the water and then step back to behold the frenzy. The lake, stocked with bluegill, catfish and bass, boils with action as the fish clean up the pellets in only a few minutes.

“We use the fish to prove we are doing an environmentally sound job of raising hogs and managing our effluent,” Steve says. “We have a dock there, and we feed the fish every night or two. It's a way for us to relax without having to leave home.”

Oetting Hog Farms, Inc., is truly a family farm. Steve's great-great grandfather homesteaded the 40 acres where the hog buildings are located back in 1839. Steve and Sharon's oldest son, Sean, came back to the farm in 2002. His twin sons, Lukas and Logan, were born 162 years to the day after Christian Oetting homesteaded the place. They now represent the seventh generation on the land.

Located in the rolling hills of central Missouri, the farm sits only a couple of miles from the town of Concordia, and only about a mile from traffic-laden Interstate 70. So keeping a good environmental profile is a high priority for the Oettings, but it's not their only priority. Farming is their only source of income, so the economic success of their modest 125-sow, farrow-to-finish operation is critical.

The family operates about 700 acres of cropland in addition to managing the two farrowing units, a 480-head nursery and two curtain-sided finishers that hold 480 head each. Their annual production of 2,400 market hogs is marketed through an MFA, Inc. (formerly Missouri Farmers Association) network marketing group.

Going to the dogwoods

The Oettings have worked with a number of state and federal agencies to help conserve soil and boost wildlife habitat on the farm. Working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) on an experimental project in 1999, the family planted a row of dogwoods — the Missouri state tree — as part of a windbreak around the finisher site. That windbreak also includes about 300 oak, ash and cedar trees.

“The dogwoods turn into a solid row of vegetation,” Steve says. “They're about 8 ft. tall and very dense. Wildlife like the dogwoods.”

NRCS personnel also helped the Oettings plan Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) tracts that help reduce erosion in problem areas. In 1999, the family planted 9,675 trees in riparian buffer strips. Filter strips are used along streams in other areas. And there's also an emphasis on getting field edges approved for USDA's CP-33 practice, designed to improve habitat for upland birds.

It's no coincidence that bird hunting just happens to be one of Steve's passions. “My hobby is putting out bird habitat and following my four English Setter bird dogs in the fall,” he says. “Raising hogs and improving bird habitat are two passions that can complement each other.”

Capturing nutrients

After enrolling in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Oettings began to use a precision agricultural program through their local MFA cooperative. They grid-sample crop ground to which lagoon effluent is applied, and monitor nutrient levels and determine crop needs. All pumping of effluent through the traveling-gun irrigation system is documented through the GPS capabilities of the yield monitor system to map those hose pulls.

Lagoons are pumped from one of three cells based on the nutrient needs of the crop and the lagoon levels. Lagoon samples are taken prior to and during application to determine the nutrient content and quantity of lagoon water to be applied. Any commercial fertilizer needed is custom-applied using variable-rate application equipment.

The savings from the combination of 2.5-acre grid sampling, lagoon sampling and matching those nutrients to crop needs is showing some significant payback. “With today's fertilizer prices escalating, an inch of applied effluent has significant value on plots that need the nutrients,” Steve says. “It's not hard to see a $100-$125/acre benefit.”

EQIP opportunities for 2008 include installation of a new manure-transfer line, completion of the Oetting's Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan (CNMP), and the purchase of a hose reel with an additional 2,640 ft. of soft rubber pipe. This new setup will bring effluent to an additional 95 acres, 80 of which were purchased two years ago. Recent soil tests have shown this new ground to be low in phosphate levels, so hog effluent should be a perfect tool to help build that farm's soils.

Speaking out

Sharon Oetting speaks out for pork producers in a variety of roles. She's a participant in the National Pork Board's speaker bureau and has completed the 1.0 and 2.0 levels of its Operation Main Street outreach.

“The average person is three generations removed from the farm,” Sharon says. “They are surprised to see that agriculture has progressed, and uses the kind of technology that we have today. People have been very receptive and positive in their remarks.”

The Oetting farm also hosts a number of tours each year. In August 2007, a Lunch-and-Learn farm tour, sponsored by the Missouri Pork Producers Association, Missouri Department of Agriculture and 13 agricultural commodity and business groups, visited the operation. About 60 people enjoyed a pork chop dinner and a hayride tour of the farm to help them understand the pork industry and the importance of agriculture to the state.

There are many more visitors each year, many of them students. “We host a group of preschoolers and their parents each fall,” Sharon says. “It's quite a challenge to be able to present the right information during the attention span of a 3-year-old. But it's also a good chance to present information to the adults in the group.”

Recent visitors included a group of Japanese high school students who wanted to see a pork production facility. “It's not often you have a chance to talk about pork production with your No. 1 export customer,” Sharon adds.

Wildlife is priceless

Coexisting with wildlife is an important part of daily life for the family. The Oettings' yard is an example of the family's love of nature. There's a border of pine trees to the west, a wildflower plot to the south, and a food plot (in the yard) to the east. “Wildlife is a joy to see first-hand every day,” Sharon says.

Steve serves on the Missouri Department of Conservation Quail and Grassland Birds Leadership Council. During the 2007-08 quail season, he and a hunting buddy harvested six limits of quail, although not all came from the Oetting farm.

Those rewards from boosting wildlife may not be financial. “But they are real,” Sharon says. “The enjoyment we receive from this is priceless.”