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Spigtacular Stewardship on the Farm

Wessling Ag Inc., of Grand Junction, Iowa, and Stephens Farms of Malta Bend, Missouri, were recognized by the Pork Checkoff for their stewardship, and demonstrate how well operations can be run


 Bruce Wessling and his wife, Jenny, run the farm along with their daughters, Jolee and Taylor. Photo by Contributed

The Pork Checkoff, along with its co-sponsor, National Hog Farmer magazine, have again selected two pork farms to be honored at the 2014 Pork Industry Environmental Stewards. The award is now in its 20th year and recognizes producers who are dedicated to safeguarding the environment and contributing to their local communities.

This year, the Pork Checkoff chose Wessling Ag. Inc., of Grand Junction, Iowa, and Stephens Farms of Malta Bend, Mo., to receive the honors.

Wessling Ag. Inc.
Wessling Ag is the definition of a family operation. Bruce Wessling and his wife, Jenny, run the farm along with their daughters, Jolee and Taylor. And Bruce’s parents, Roger and Judy, although semi-retired are also still involved.

Wessling Ag, a contract finishing farm, raises 5,000 hogs on their home site, and 2,500 at the West site about five miles away. In the course of a year, they raise approximately 18,700 hogs and also grow corn and soybeans on 4,600 acres.

Bruce says you’ll find several different barn designs on the two sites because they were built at different times as he expanded.

“The barns I built in 1997, 2000 and 2004 were all roughly the same style. Then in 2009 we went with a little bit wider barn (71 feet x 278 feet), shorter and more power ventilated.”

The newer design, he says, works better, especially in the hot weather.

“It’s a tunnel model with fans running at the end. It creates a breeze through the barn and helps cool the pigs. On a calm day it’s definitely easier to keep the pigs comfortable.”

All of the barns have eight-foot deep pits, where Bruce says he can easily store a year’s worth of manure, and probably up to 15 to 16 months worth if necessary.

Bruce and Jenny believe their farm benefits by surrounding themselves with professionals and hiring the best. One of the companies they hire is custom applicator Neese Inc.

Bruce says in the fall Neese will bring in two or three pumps, primarily Nuhn brand, and can take care of their 5,000-head site in three days.

Just prior to pumping the manure, the pits are agitated for an hour or so.

“We apply straight from the pits to the farmland,” Bruce says. “We like to let the soil temperature cool down below 50 so it helps stabilize the nitrogen.”

The agitation and pumping can be done while the pigs are in the barn. However, Bruce says he adjusts the ventilation based on the size of the pigs and the weather.

“Often we have to have maximum ventilation on the building when we’re pumping, to keep the odor down and the pit gas down in the building.”

Another company the Wesslings rely on is Twin Lakes Environmental, a manure-consulting firm. Twin Lakes writes up the manure management plan and the Wesslings do the testing.

“We give them our soil test and our manure samples out of the pit and then they calculate the nutrients and they tell us how many gallons per acre we can apply to stay in the parameters of our manure plan,” Bruce explains.

Applying can be a bit odorous, but not for long, because the Wesslings inject the manure and till the end rows 24 to 48 hours following application.

Applying their own manure has cut down on the use of commercial fertilizer. Bruce estimates the pigs provide enough manure to cover 1,000 to 1,500 acres.

The family takes pride in this farm, and it shows.

“Keeping it looking nice is something that was instilled in me from my grandpa and dad,” Bruce says.

One attractive feature is the windbreak created by trees the Wesslings planted around their buildings in 2009. The trees have helped keep the wind flow down and reduce odors, but one of the big benefits has been decrease in snow loads up against the barn in the winter.

The Wesslings also incorporated 90-foot buffer strips of switch grass along their creeks, to help filter out any nutrients during rains. Bruce said it was something he said just made sense.

Overall though, Bruce says he’s most proud of the farm’s self-sufficiency. “We’re growing row crops of corn and soybeans for feed and ethanol and turning around and feeding that to livestock and then turning around and using the nutrients from the livestock to put back on the row crop, and fertilize for the next year’s crop. I just think it creates a complete and efficient system for us.”

Stephens Farms
The second farm to receive the Environmental Steward award was Stephens Farms, operated by David and Sharon Stephens, along with three of their children, who have been involved in the farm since they were toddlers. (Their fourth child went on to become a veterinarian.)

David says he’s been around hogs all his life, but began the operation he’s involved in now with another farmer in the 1980s.

“My wife’s been right in with it, the whole family has. We’ve grown with that site and brought it along to where it is.”

Today, the family works on a farrow-to-wean farm that produces about 190,000 pigs per year. They also raise 600 acres of corn and soybeans on the adjacent land.

Their tunnel-ventilated sow barns feature cool cells for animal comfort in hot weather, as well as shallow-pit manure storage and shower-in/shower-out facilities for enhanced biosecurity.

Although the award focused on one of the farm’s sites, and where the Stephens live, Stephens Farms operates 10 different sites, with one 80 miles from the house. They run two nurseries and the rest are sow units.

Each sow unit has its own manager and all labor is under that manager’s control.

“We are kind of a unique situation and it’s been evolving that way ever since ‘83 when I started the operation,” David says.

Manure is handled differently at different barns because the barns differ in ages, some going back as far as 1982.

“Most of them are more of a shallow pit that drains to the lagoon, and some of them recycle from the lagoon. We’ve got a little of everything,” David says.

Stephens Farms houses approximately 20,000 sows at various locations at any one time. To handle the manure, they rely exclusively on Puck Custom Enterprises (PCE) equipment.

“We’ve been with them since 2010,” David says. “We’ve got their agitation boat for agitating all 10 lagoons. In fact, we bought the first production model they sold in 2010 and have been working with them ever since.”

David says that by going to self-priming equipment the farm has gone from being able to pump 1,400 gallons to 2,200 gallon a minute.

“And we use the Internet to control it all.”

The big change happened when Jeremy of Puck came down to demonstrate some equipment.

“I went to their open house and we purchased that boat off of them that year to kind of learn how that equipment worked – between it and their booster pump – we’ve just been progressing every year since with it.

David has nothing but accolades for PCE.

“They’ve been excellent in every way – the support, the knowledge, the credibility, what they’re trying to make happen, and the performance of the equipment. We’ve never had the performance we got until we got into their equipment. I’m doing things [that] four or five years ago [I] never dreamt of.”

And, for anyone interested in the company’s system, David suggests checking out PCE’s pump schools.

“I’ve gone to a good many of them. They’re open for people looking into buying equipment and all different aspects. There’s a lot of knowledge there to be found.”

David takes the agitation boat from lagoon to lagoon.

“You just pack it all up, put it on trailers and pull it to the next farm and set it up again. In about 30 minutes we have it off the trailer and floating in the lagoon.”

Application happens primarily in the fall, mostly because it’s harder to predict the weather in the spring.

“Typically, as soon as they start harvesting, we’ll start running it,” David says.

The farm uses a drag hose system.

“We use one of Puck’s booster pumps to help boost an arm out,” David says. “And last year we went from six-inch to seven-inch hoses and a 13.5 L 550 HP lead pump motor, which helped.”

Depending on rainfall, David says they have pumped as much at 70 million gallons in one year. But generally they pump 30 to 50 million gallons.

“And now with the better equipment, the last couple of years we’ve been able to really make good gains on things. With the boat agitating, we’ve been able to pump the lagoons down better.”

David says when the Pork Checkoff folks came out, they seemed most impressed with the high-tech factor on the farm – like the solar panels that generate power on the farm.

“I think they were blown away, to be honest,” David says with a smile. “I’ve been in this operation 33 years and we’ve always tried staying on the higher tech end of it. It’s been a trademark of the operation – to try to stay on the cutting edge of everything.”

David says he’s proud of what his family has done on the farm.

“We’ve been able to work together all these years and bring [the children] up into it. To me, that’s justification right there if you’re able to come in and do that.”

And people nearby are happy to call Stephens Farms neighbors. In fact, some folks who once voiced concerns early on in the farm’s development, have come back to apologize. They have benefited over the years from the Stephens keeping the roads in better shape and open during the snow, as well as better telephone lines, and more.

“We’ve been pretty fortunate,” David says. “We try to take good care of things.”