Manure Manager

Features Applications Swine
Mapping for manure management

April 3, 2008  by Diane Mettler

employing new manure mapping technologies and through their own
progressive initiatives, Iowa’s Van Gilst brothers are keeping their
hog farm ahead of the curve on the manure management front.

    By employing new manure mapping technologies and through their own progressive initiatives, Iowa’s Van Gilst brothers are keeping their hog farm ahead of the curve on the manure management front.

    When it comes to managing the family’s 1,500 sow farrow-to-finish hog farm, brothers Joel and Bryce Van Gilst embrace new technology, ideas and methods. Joel and Bryce are the third generation of Van Gilsts to manage the 1,500-acre farm in Oskaloosa, Iowa. Their father, Ken, is somewhat retired, and Joel and Bryce pretty much run the show now.

vangilst 1Joel Van Gilst (left) with father, Ken, and brother, Bryce. The brothers’ strengths—Joel on the business side and Bryce on the mechanical side—complement each other. “But we both get dirty every day with the hogs,” says Joel.

    The brothers make a good team. “Our personalities and our strengths are different enough that we complement each other pretty well,” says Joel. “Bryce’s strengths are more mechanical and technical. He handles the feed mill—we grind most of our feed for our pigs—and he also handles things like the agricultural software. My strengths are more business related, so I take care of the financial and production records on the computer and things like that. But we both get dirty every day with the hogs.”


    The hog farm, which is spread out over a four-mile radius, has expanded significantly since the 1960s. “In 1962, Dad was the first farmer to build a fully slatted building in the county,” says Joel.

    The farm was incorporated in 1973 and the last barns were built in the late
1990s. Today, Joel and Bryce employ six full-time workers, in addition to themselves, to handle the 28,000 pigs they finish each year. As the farm expanded and evolved, the Van Gilsts have made a dedicated effort to stay current, understand what new technologies and ideas are out there, and incorporate them when possible.

    Today their first barns have been converted and function solely as gestation barns. “We have three barns that are gestation, and there are five finishers,” explains Joel. “The gestation barns range from 450 to 600 pigs per barn. The
finishing barns range from 1,200 head to 2,400.”

vangilst 2The barns at the Van Gilst operation are all slatted, with eight-foot cement pits under each. The pits can hold enough manure for up to a year, though they try to pump the barns in both the spring and fall, depending on weather conditions.

    The barns are all slatted, with eight-foot cement pits under each. The pits
can hold enough manure for up to a year, but depending on weather conditions, Joel and Bryce try to pump the barns in both the spring and fall, especially the gestation barns, which use more water and require more frequent pumping.

    Joel and Bryce have been using a Houle pump and a Better Built pump to pump the manure into two 4,800-gallon Balzer tanks, then inject the manure into the fields. This equipment set-up was working fine, but they needed something a little bigger. With 1,500 acres and a rotation of 50 percent soybean/50 percent corn, injecting 750 acres each year was time consuming.

    “A 2,000-head finisher barn in a year’s time will produce around 800,000 gallons of manure,” says Joel. It takes times to not only handle the sheer volume coming from the barns, but to figure in travel time. Some of the fields are up to two and half miles away.

    This past fall Joel and Bryce purchased a 7,300-gallon Houle tank to help cut down on both time and labor, and also improve efficiency. “The tank has a flow meter, which we didn’t have in the past, and it should help us regulate a little better what rate we’re applying the manure at,” says Joel.

    The brothers also wanted to incorporate software to improve manure management. They were familiar with Ag Leader’s mapping software. “Ag Leader is used for things like monitoring yields, so we knew what it could do,” says Joel.

     “We asked the company if the software could be used to map manure application. Could we have a printout made of where we hauled manure, the date that it was hauled and the gallons per acres that were put on? That’s what the DNR would really like for the manure management plan.”

    They talked to the company, and Ag Leader saw no reason why its system wouldn’t work for monitoring manure injections. The high-tech system is fairly straightforward. “There is a GPS on the tractor and it’s hooked up to the computer in the tractor. That computer is also hooked up to the flow meter so the computer is recording the flow rate. The software should ideally map as we inject,” says Joel.

     “And it’s beneficial to us, not just the DNR, because we will be able to easily tell what areas of the field have been covered.”

    They weren’t able to get the mapping system up and running by the time they needed to spread in the fall, but are working to have it ready to go for the spring spreading. Until then Joel will be manually creating the maps for the manure management.

    Technically the farm has only two facilities that are large enough to require manure management plans.  “We’ve got a 2,000-head finisher and a 2,400-head finisher that qualify,” says Joel. “We have some gestation facilities that are probably big enough, but they’ve been around long enough that they’ve been grandfathered in.”

    But even though they could legally spread the manure from the smaller barns without any plans, they self regulate those barns much like the ones under the plans. They find it’s cost effective and good business.

    “When you consider the price of commercial fertilizer, we want to put on the crops what they can utilize and not any more,” says Joel. “If we do it right, we have to buy very little commercial nitrogen.”

    So whether it’s facilities that require a manure management plan or not, the Van Gilsts take a manure sample, determine the nutrient value and apply the manure according to the crop updates.

    Currently, it’s working out that the barns are producing almost exactly the amount of nutrients required for the 750 acres of corn. The biggest challenge for the Van Gilsts is not determining nutrient values but “getting the manure down before the ground freezes,” says Joel.

vangilst 3The Van Gilst brothers are working to incorporate technology—in the form of mapping software that would record manure hauls—into their operation, which will tell them easily and quickly what areas of the fields have been covered.

    Both Bryce and Joel believe being good farmers and good businessmen means being proactive. They are both Pork Quality Assurance certified. They are members of the Mahaska County Pork Producers and both are active in the pork industry at the county, state and national level. In 1995, they received the Iowa Pork Producers  “Master Pork Producer” award.

    When asked why they were chosen, Joel says there were probably a few reasons: “We try to be innovative. We’re not afraid to use new technology. And we’re rather progressive.”

    They were one of the first to be Pork Quality Assured Level 3, which required a course of a wide range of items, from feed additives to how to handle sick animals. They put tunnel ventilation into some of the buildings, which was rather new to the area. “It’s just like it sounds,” says Joel.

     “There are 48-inch fans on one end and a curtain on the other end, and in the summer all those fans will run on the one end and the curtain will drop on the other, and you’ll have a tunnel created and the air flows through.”

    The newer barns use infrared heat versus forced air. “Infra-red doesn’t heat the air, it heats objects,” says Joel. “It’s a lot more efficient than forced air. And it’s better with the wean-to-finish barns. A 12-pound pig is a pretty small pig that you’re putting into that building, and infrared heaters will do a better job of keeping that small pig warm.”

    However, they still use forced air in the gestation building. “They don’t need as much heat. The sow’s a big animal and gives off quite a bit of heat herself.  So we use just a little forced air in there.”

    In addition, they run their own feed mill on the property, where they produce 8,400 tons annually to feed their pigs. It may be a family farm, but the Van Gilsts have set a high standard that makes them a progressive and technically savvy operation, prepared to handle today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.


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