This High Plains hog operation uses an elaborate manure handling system to minimize environmental impact.
As dawn breaks in the Oklahoma panhandle, the sky turns a lighter shade of purple. A lone owl glides home from a night of hunting. The scent of sagebrush fills the air while the thump-thump-thump of an oil well serves as background noise.
And, as the light of the morning gathers, it reveals another inhabitant of the High Plains. Just to the left are 13,250 sows. A stone's throw to the right are 13,250 more.
The two sow units make up Seaboard Foods' Wakefield Farm near Turpin, OK, sharing a state-of-the-art environmental management system.
In fact, until the light is full and employees start the feeding chores, neither sound nor smell would tip off the presence of pork production here.
“Like I said, there really are pigs in those barns,” says Don Owens, as sounds of sows drift from gestation facilities. Owens serves as Seaboard Foods' director of environmental, maintenance and construction operations. Sometimes he has to convince visitors that he's not pulling off a bit of magic. It can be hard for anyone to understand how an operation of this size has so little impact on the nearby prairie.
Oklahoma Pork Council Executive Director Roy Lee Lindsey, Jr. has brought a number of legislators to the facility to give them a look at modern pork production. “Some of them have started to question where the hogs are, or whether we have taken them to a bunch of empty buildings,” he says. “Once we have convinced them that this really is the way pork can be produced today, it seems to have quite an impact on their perspective.”
Wakefield Farm is the sow complex that almost wasn't. Planning began in the late 1990s, but the operation was caught up in Oklahoma's turmoil involving rules for large pork production units. Construction on this Beaver County site began again and the operation went into production in 2002 with an elaborate environmental and nutrient management system.
There are seven components to the manure management system: 1. microbial treatment added weekly to barn pits; 2. HDPE-lined and covered (high-density polyetheylene) solids-settling basins; 3. an HDPE-lined psychrophilic (no heat added) anaerobic digester, with permeable cover; 4. mechanical solids separator; 5. HDPE-lined aeration lagoon for the nitrification/denitrification process; 6. HDPE-lined primary storage lagoon; and 7. HDPE-lined secondary storage lagoon, with sufficient retention time for significant denitrification prior to land application.
“There are other operations that use some of these technologies,” Owens says. “But as far as I know, this is the only farm that uses all the components as one system.”
Here's how it works. Flow begins from pull-plug pits in the barns and goes into the covered solids-settling basins near the first lift station. Liquid effluent from the settling basins flows into the digester, where the cover helps trap and reduce gaseous emissions. Settled solids are pumped to a mechanical solids separator, which produces a dark, black solid component that is trucked to the nearby Dorman sow farm to be composted on a 4-acre concrete composting pad. More than 700 tons of stable, composted product is generated each year, finding use as a source of natural fertilizer and organic matter.
Effluent from the digester flows to the aerated lagoon, which treats the liquid with both coarse- and fine-bubble aeration to further stabilize organic material while also providing additional nitrification/denitrification. Some effluent is used to recharge pits in barns, while the remaining effluent flows to the primary storage lagoon. From there, effluent is pumped to the secondary lagoon for further denitrification, and application to crops through one of three center pivot irrigation systems.
Not to be lost in the elaborate nutrient management scheme is the fact that Wakefield Farm takes good care of another valuable component — water.
“Water is a precious commodity here on the High Plains,” Owens says. “When you look at the effluent leaving the barn vs. the effluent we're pumping from the secondary storage lagoon, we've been able to remove about 75% of the nitrogen. By reducing the amount of nitrogen in the effluent, we're able to get the most value from it, micro-managing the crop, providing the nutrients to match the various stages of growth along with the water.”
It's the job of Roberto Maisonnave, a Seaboard Foods environmental scientist, to make sure the nutrients in the effluent match the agronomic need. “We sample soils and effluent, and make sure we are calculating the correct rate for the application,” he says. Before any farm can apply nutrients, he provides a pumping sheet that specifies the amount to be delivered in accordance with the land application plan.
Operators receive land application maps that show seasonal wetland areas within each field, so that these areas can be protected from effluent application. These areas of the field are also marked with permanent stakes that are clearly visible.
Fresh water is carefully monitored, too. The farm reports its water use weekly in order to make sure conservation techniques are being followed. Seaboard Foods also regularly audits and inspects various components of the water system.
Visitors are most impressed at the near absence of odor at the site. Seaboard officials credit the covers on the holding areas and solids separation at the initial stages of manure handling for the reduced odor and emissions. The digester also is designed to trap and reduce emissions, with the gases flowing through a hydrogen sulfide scrubber before being released into the air.
Weekly applications of a granulated, live microbial product into barn pits helps break down solids and aids in reducing odors prior to and during subsequent treatment. Barn pit plugs are pulled on a schedule to help avoid solids build up.
Bio-curtain structures are installed at each end of the breeding-gestation barns to filter particulates and redirect exhaust air upward. And the company audits management practices for housekeeping inside the barns, helping to make sure that the little things are done daily to improve air quality.
The farm not only blends in with its surroundings, it also seems to provide a boost for the native wildlife population. Since these are dry, moderately sandy Pratt soils, it's not easy to support grassy vegetation, and they are prone to wind erosion. The area around the enhanced waste treatment system receives the annual sowing of a grass mix as well as an extensive weed-control effort. Slopes help direct rainfall to the grassy areas. This helps boost long-term soil quality by increasing the soil organic matter while reducing the chances that soil will blow away.
On an early summer morning, the payoff is obvious as a pair of jackrabbits play tag on a carpet of grass near the secondary storage lagoon.
Owens is all business as he describes the Seaboard Foods environmental management system based on the ISO 14001 standard. Each of the company's 250 farms is inspected on an environmental audit based on about 75 items, twice a year, with a team of employees dedicated to conducting and following up the audits.
But he's obviously just as proud of the trees, some planted and some protected during construction, which provide wildlife habitat around the farm. Bobwhite and blue quail make the farm their home, as well as pheasant and deer. “You might not expect to see that around a farm like this,” he says. “But they are right here, next to all these sows.”