When the Boettger folks gather around a table and talk about their family farm, you might think they were talking about a treasured family heirloom. And why not? Three Generation Pork and its surrounding 160 acres is located in south central Minnesota, on some of the flattest and richest soil in the world.
In addition to growing corn and soybeans, the region also provides sweet corn and peas for major food companies. “We're sitting in quite a garden spot,” says Sylvia Boettger, who has spent most of her 90 years watching bountiful harvests being gathered from the land.
Her son, Dan, and his wife, Midge, now handle day-to-day operations. Their daughter, Nicole, represents the third generation. She helps out when not tied up by her off-farm job.
Dan pursued careers as a teacher and commercial fisherman, but came back to the farm when his father passed away.
Dan is a big man, but his voice softens and his emotions rise to the surface as he describes his stewardship of the family farm. “My father provided me this farm, and I want to make sure it is passed on to the next generation,” he says. “As technology improves, we should be able to make the farm even better when it is time for us to pass it along.”
The Boettger family had previous experience with farrow-to-finish swine production, but built Three Generation Pork in 1996 to contract finish pigs for the Holden Farms' pork production system. Two, 2,000-head, curtain-sided finishing buildings feature total slats over deep pits. Supplemental heat is provided as needed in extreme cold weather.
The site is operated all-in, all-out, with pigs arriving at approximately 50 lb. After about 125 days on feed, finishers are taken out averaging around 285 lb. A short break between groups allows buildings to be pressure-washed and readied for the next group.
The deep pits have a 12-month capacity, but the Boettgers have a contract applicator remove manure twice a year as a hedge against unfavorable weather or soil conditions. The 150 tillable acres surrounding the site receive manure injections every other year, ahead of corn in a corn-soybean rotation.
Neighboring farms receive manure applications when it is not being used on the home place. Dan points out that there is a waiting list to receive these crop nutrients.
“The farmer pays for the pumping cost and the application cost to receive the manure,” he says. “It works out to about half the cost of commercial fertilizer, and many farmers believe the natural fertilizer, with its additional organic matter, gives crops a boost compared to commercial fertilizer.”
Prior to applying the manure, Dan takes a column sample of manure from the pits to test it for nutrient value. Those results are matched with soil samples and crop nutrient needs. Application rates are set according to nitrogen needs of the corn crop.
Since their finishing rations include phytase, there has been little or no buildup of phosphorus in the soil since they've been utilizing manure nutrients.
“There is a definite economic advantage when we use manure for our fertilizer source,” Dan says. “Other than a little starter fertilizer applied when we plant corn, there has been no commercial fertilizer used on the place since we built the hog farm in 1996.”
The spring application window is a bit wider than in many parts of the country due to the area's vegetable production. “Sweet corn is planted up to July,” Dan points out. Manure nutrients applied ahead of that crop are used efficiently, perhaps with less chance of nitrogen leaching losses than would be the case with early spring manure applications.
In order to save soil and avoid compaction, soybeans are no-till drilled after a corn rotation at Three Generation Pork. “This not only is good for the soil, it is good for wildlife,” Dan says. “The stalks and other crop residues provide a food source for deer and pheasants during the winter months.”
Little Cobb River borders the farm, and in an effort to protect it, the family participated in a program to establish filter strips. These grassy areas not only stop sediment from reaching the creek, but also provide habitat for wildlife.
Recently planted shelterbelts on the north and west sides of the facility also support and protect wildlife. On the north, conifers and green ash, along with other hardwoods, will help provide protection from wind and snow while also serving as a visual screen.
Dan says the trees may also help break up the odor plume. “Anything we can do to help the air move around or up will help settle out particles and prevent dust and odor from leaving the site.”
Three rows of conifers screen the west side of the facility and add aesthetic appeal. The ground around the buildings has been seeded, and the Boettgers keep it neatly mowed. Service roads are graveled and regularly maintained. “We have the attitude that if the place looks nice, it is less likely that someone driving by will perceive odor,” Dan says.
Mortalities are kept behind a screened holding area, where a rendering service provides quick removal within a few hours.
The family also took a proactive approach to neighbor relations right from the start. Before taking in the first group of pigs, the Boettgers invited their community, including local officials and regulators, to have a first-hand look at the new barns. “Because of biosecurity concerns, it is hard for people to get a look at how hogs are raised these days. This was a way for us to start discussions on how we plan to operate in the future,” Dan says. “We have all been through the Environmental Assurance Program, and strive to maintain open communication with neighbors.”
“Education is an important part of the equation,” Nicole adds. “Many people don't understand modern pork production. Anything we can do to educate the public should help.”
Another way Dan and Midge work with the public is through their passion for pheasant hunting. The family often raises and releases pheasants to help boost the local population. Dan works with youth hunts, helping young kids experience their first successful pheasant hunt.
Three Generation Pork always strives to do the right thing, which is not always the most economical choice. “We're proud of our operation, and we want to show people that we care about pigs and the environment,” Dan explains. “We feel it is our duty to consider the environment in all our decisions.”
Participating in various on-farm programs provided by the pork industry has helped the family learn, develop and improve its best management practices. “We have a high level of expectation for our farm,” he adds. “We can provide a great food product without harming the environment that we have been entrusted to protect. We must take the responsibility to protect it and leave it for future generations to enjoy.”