Yuma County, CO, bills itself as the place “where production agriculture lives.” Bordering Kansas on the east and the Front Range area on the west, this county features 3,000 sq. mi. of wide-open spaces.

Fed by irrigation from the Ogallala Aquifer, concentric circles of center-pivot corn stretch from horizon to horizon, boosting Yuma to its annual ranking as one of the top five corn-producing counties in the nation.

While agriculture takes place on a giant scale here, Alliance Farms attends to the smallest details of its environmental management plan to make sure that pork production fits the farming picture for this arid, High Plains territory.

Co-op Concept

Alliance Farms Cooperative Association began operations near Yuma with one 2,500-sow, farrow-to-feeder pig unit in 1992. The cooperative was established to allow Midwest farm family operations to capture some of the efficiencies of vertical integration.

A share in Alliance assures producers deliveries of large, uniform shipments of pigs on a regular basis. Hogs are typically fed homegrown grain, allowing the shareholder to add some value to a farm's crop operation. Shareholders typically arrange their own marketing contract with a packer.

The concept proved successful. Alliance expanded operations in Colorado, established an operation in Illinois and now offers either weaned pigs or feeder pigs to shareholders. Shares in Alliance are held by pork producers in nine Midwestern states.

Colorado Farms Recognized

A pair of 2,500-sow, farrow-to-wean units (#102 and #103), sharing a quarter-section of land in Yuma County, has been recognized with a 2002 Pork Industry Environmental Stewardship Award. These units not only have proven their ability to manage the environmental aspects of pork production, but also have worked with state officials to test the leading edge of environmental management.

The emphasis on good stewardship at Alliance Farms is a reflection of the values of its owners, says Jim Ensz, chairman of the Alliance Farms board of directors. “The farmers who own this company are environmental stewards themselves,” he says. “They understand that, if you are going to set things up for the next generation and the one after that, you need to take responsibility. The owners of Alliance Farms have charged management with taking a proactive approach.”

That includes acting as a source of information for the makers of the state's rules and regulations. Alliance Farms has worked closely with state officials through the process of writing and implementing Colorado Amendment 14, put in place four years ago to regulate the industry. The rules are considered some of the most stringent in the nation.

“Our working relationship with state officials has been very good,” says Ron Swehla, operations manager for Alliance Farms. “We try to sit down and talk about the issues, and come to a centerline position that will protect the environment but also allow producers to survive.”

The state's regulatory departments have an open invitation to visit Alliance Farms. “Sitting in Denver, they are a long way from the situation, and are bombarded with all kinds of opinions,” Ensz says.

“We will show them whatever they want to see,” adds Brian Larson, the area production manager for Colorado. “We work hard at what we do, and we are proud of the job that we do.” Larson is an employee of Hostetter Management Co., a firm that provides management on a contract basis for Alliance Farms.

Pilot Composting Project

Alliance Farms recently worked with the Governor's Office of Energy on a pilot composting project.

Conducted from February through April 2001, the project involved composting of placentas and pig mortalities from birth to 21 days of age. These items were blended with a wood byproduct from a forest restoration project and composted to make a nutrient-rich, environmentally safe soil amendment and fertilizer. Alliance also worked with the Colorado School of Mines to evaluate recycled, baled tires used as partitions for the composter bays.

The site, located between units #102 and #103, demonstrated that composting could be used to handle mortalities with no runoff or leaching, and without emitting odor. Success of the project has increased interest in composting. Results are being evaluated to determine if a regional composting site could be established, Larson says.

Capturing Manure's Value

Nutrient management at Alliance Farms is a straightforward commitment to a circular flow of nutrients. A two-stage lagoon system processes nutrients so they can be delivered via center pivot to a thirsty corn crop growing adjacent to units #102 and #103.

Buildings feature shallow, pull-plug pits. The plugs are pulled on a strict schedule to make sure bacteria in the first-stage lagoon are fed regularly.

The second-stage lagoon is typically pumped three times during a growing season. Nutrients are carefully monitored through regular soil and effluent testing to make sure application rates match agronomic needs. Effluent is transferred via buried lines to the sprinkler and typically is applied without dilution.

The effluent is contracted to local corn growers who own the irrigation equipment. Alliance Farms works with the grower's crop consultant and comprehensive records maintained for each field. Each production site documents water use, lagoon depth and volume, soil testing of effluent nutrient content, heavy metal concentration, field locations, dates of application, amount per application and amount of nutrients delivered to the field.

Even though Alliance Farms is located on the lonely prairie, it maintains a comprehensive odor control effort. “Alliance Farms has been persistent about saying that a well-managed lagoon treatment system abates odor,” says Jim Reitz, Farmland Foods. Farmland is the largest shareholder in Alliance, and Reitz worked closely with the state as it developed requirements for covered lagoon systems.

Alliance Farms pointed out that a correctly operating lagoon system has three zones of activity — an anaerobic layer at the bottom, a facultative layer in the middle and an aerobic layer at the top.

At sow farms #102 and #103, the aerobic layer at the top of the lagoon is an approved alternative cover. Regular measurement and monitoring of the lagoons, using a standardized collection hood and olfactometry measurement techniques, have proven the effectiveness of this alternative. Air samples are drawn from above the lagoon and the odor level is measured in a laboratory.

“I've been working with Alliance Farms since 1997. Its commitment to odor management and practices to abate odor is very obvious,” says Mike Veenhuizen, an environmental consultant with Livestock Engineering Solutions. “Alliance has taken proven technology and put the package together in an environmentally sound system.”

Careful attention to keeping buildings clean helps reduce odors, too. A biological pit and lagoon additive (PitRemedy) is used to enhance the biological breakdown of solids and decrease odors.

Reducing the burden on the Ogallala Aquifer is of critical importance in the area. Alliance Farms figures the use of recycled effluent from the second stage of the lagoon saves more than 86 million gal. of freshwater each year. Managers keep a close eye on water usage at each site by recording water meter readings and lagoon levels every other week. They also check daily for any indication of a freshwater leak.

Community Involvement

Alliance Farms also works beyond its property lines to keep communications open. “As one of the largest employers in Yuma County, we would like to be a leader, a good neighbor,” Larson says. The farm donates to the local library and hospital, contributes to local 4-H and FFA chapters, and remains involved in the county fair, the Yuma County Economic Development Corporation, the Colorado Livestock Association and the Colorado Pork Producers Council.

Alliance Farms has worked with USDA officials to establish windbreaks and tree lines, and has about 180 acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. As a result, pheasant populations are on the increase, and wild turkey, deer, waterfowl and birds of prey also are abundant.

“The team of Alliance Farms management and employees are serious about their role as environmental stewards,” says Larson. “Environmental stewardship is a continual process of monitoring current practices, and evaluating and implementing any new technology that can enhance our relationship with the natural resources that surround us. We want the local community to know that Alliance Farms exceeds expectations as environmental stewards.”