When assessors for the On-Farm Odor/Environmental Assistance Program walk through a pork producer's barns, their eyes, ears and nose are focused on the little things.

The amount of dust accumulated on the top of a farrowing crate, a slow drip from a nipple waterer and feed spilled from a bulk bin are all little signs of how a producer manages his or her operation.

"Is this dust from one cycle through the farrowing barn or is it a build-up?" Don Peterson asks as he wipes the dust layer from the top of a crate in David Bentley's barn.

The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) used Bentley's 140-sow, farrow-to-finish operation near Marshall, MO, to show how the on-farm program works and how it can assist producers in their water quality and odor management.

Nationally, about 700 pork producers have completed the on-farm assessment, according to Dan Uthe, director of the program for NPPC. Missouri pork producers are leading the way with 175 assessments completed. In Iowa, 58 producers have completed the program and in North Carolina, 37 farms have been assessed.

The program, launched by NPPC last spring, offers producers a free assessment by private and public agency consultants who are trained and certified by NPPC. The $5 million in funding for the program comes as an Environmental Protection Agency grant from America's Clean Water Foundation, a not-for-profit foundation based in Washington, D.C.

The assessors begin with a "windshield tour" around the farm, explains Dennis Speichinger, a certified assessor who works for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Missouri. Driving around the section offers the assessors the same view of the farm that the neighbors have every day.

The team of assessors commonly spends from four to eight hours on a farm. They begin by interviewing the producer and then work their way through all of the barns, the manure storage and handling systems and fields where manure is applied. The team also looks at the general farm appearance and how the producer handles dead animals.

After the farm visit is complete, the assessors and the producer have an exit interview to discuss their recommendations. In addition, the producer receives a written report outlining the strengths and weaknesses of the operation.

The program doesn't tell producers what problems they have on the farm but instead identifies "challenges," Uthe says. The terminology is used for a reason.

"You'll step up to a challenge but you'll avoid a problem," he explains.

The assessors are finding many more strengths on the farm than challenges. Uthe explains that the program can identify potential problems before they become a regulatory concern. In addition, the program affirms what producers are doing right.

Doing Things Right "This is one thing that can make you feel good," Uthe says. "Producers are doing things right. That can be a good shot in the arm."

Bentley completed the program in July 1998. His farm is less than two miles outside of Marshall and is about a mile from the community's municipal golf course. There are 15 houses within one mile of his hog barns.

"Perception is very important to us," Bentley says. He admits that all of the recommendations haven't been implemented because of the cost.

After the assessment, Bentley had the freeboard checked on the 300,000-gal. lagoon to see if it could handle a 25-year rain event. He also added a measure to ensure the lagoon would not be pumped below its minimum treatment level.

Bentley keeps the assessment report and his nutrient management plan together with the annual manure application records. He reviews the documents often.

"There are things in there that I have literally marked 'done,' " he says.

Costs Limit Changes NPPC plans a follow-up program to check if producers have implemented suggested changes. From 50% to 60% of the recommendations are being implemented, Uthe says. Producers want to follow all of the recommendations but often can't because of costs.

"The producers are saying 'I'd like to do them,' but because of the times, they aren't," Uthe says.

America's Clean Water Foundation (ACWF) became involved with pork production issues and the environment in 1997 when it convened the National Environmental Dialogue on Pork Production.

Allan Stokes, chief operations officer for ACWF, says, "We are interested in the data that is going to be generated as a result of these on-farm assessments, as well as continuing dialogue with the National Pork Producers Council and others to focus a bit more on water quality issues."

The aggregated data from the program will document the real impacts and potential benefits of employing certain best management practices on farms.

"It is very interesting for us to know what are the common risks, what are the common strengths that are found within a particular state, possibly within a particular geographic area of the state, perhaps by size, type and nature of facility," he says. "If we can identify those, we can take that information and turn it into useful educational materials that can be used by production areas or by state or federal agencies."

Another goal of the ACWF is educating the general public about pork production and the environment.

"We are not here to put a pretty face on the swine production industry, we are here to honestly broker the information," Stokes says. As NPPC developed the assessment program, officials discovered the ACWF had similar research and education goals, but reached a different audience.

"The only way we are going to get understanding on both sides is by communicating, and the clean water foundation has provided an avenue into some places that we were not able to get into as directly as the National Pork Producers Council," Uthe says.

"We can coordinate our delivery programs and get the two groups together and come about to make some real effective and positive changes for the pork industry."

For more information about the On-Farm Odor/Environmental Assistance Program, contact your state pork producers association or call Dan Uthe at NPPC, (515) 223-2600 or (800) 456-7675 or go to www.nppc.org/PROD/ Environmental Section/OFO EAP.html.

Dan Uthe, director, On-Farm Odor/Environmental Assistance Program, National Pork Producers Council, says the most common challenges the program's assessors are finding as they conduct site visits are not costly problems to fix. The top five challenges include:

Lack Of Written Nutrient Management Plans - Uthe says producers either don't have a plan, or have a plan, but aren't familiar with what is in the plan. "The nutrient management plan needs to be written down," he says. "Everyone involved with the operation needs to be familiar with the plan. We need to see documentation in our industry today."

Inadequate Ventilation System Maintenance - Keep dust off of shutters and fan blades. Uthe says many producers forget about the importance of regular maintenance when it comes to keeping ventilation equipment in good working order.

Poor Drainage Around Site - Good drainage and grading can prevent puddles of water from forming, concentrating odor.

Proper Manure Containment Operation - Typically, producers may say they have a lagoon but what they really have is an earthen containment structure because it is not being operated as a lagoon, Uthe says. The reasons for that may vary but in many cases it is because a producer was never really taught how to operate a lagoon. "It is not that they don't want to," Uthe explains. "They may never have been told that there is a minimum treatment volume in a lagoon."

A lagoon should never be pumped down below a certain point because then bacteria doesn't have the opportunity to work properly. Along those same lines, if the lagoon is pumped down too low and the plugs are pulled on all the buildings at the same time (if it is a pull-plug situation) you "slug-load" the lagoon, according to Uthe. If the lagoon is loaded too fast at any given time there may not be enough dilution in the lagoon.

Uthe says assessors have gone to operations with a number of building and to increase efficiency all the plugs are pulled on Monday morning. "It would be better to pull one plug every morning until they were all pulled for that week, instead of pulling them all at once," Uthe explains. "It may seem minor but it can have a major impact from an odor standpoint."

Garbage In Manure Storage - Producers shouldn't be using the manure containment as a garbage can. Uthe says the assessors are finding too many AI pipettes, rubber gloves, etc. in the manure containment system.