Hog Heaven

Combining some old-fashioned animal husbandry with new, low-tech facility design and sophisticated ideas about the relationships between livestock and the land.
Nick Karvounis hos.jpg

Image by Nick Karvounis / Unslpash

Dawn is just breaking on a summer morning in northeast Iowa, Chickasaw County, and Tom Frantzen is already hustling. The 47-year-old farmer wants to wrap up hog chores before going to the field to make hay.

But between scooping feed and hauling straw bedding, he takes a moment to point out to a visitor a tangled pile of metal and concrete heaped behind a shed. This is all that's left of a system of confinement hog production he and his wife, Irene, used for 14 years.

“Those days are gone,” says Frantzen without a hint of regret.

Those days consisted of raising hogs in closed buildings with concrete floors. The floors had special slots in them so that urine and feces could drain down into a pit below. All this liquid manure had to be pumped out and disposed of. Such a system was bad for the stressed-out animals (they fought each other and required lots of antibiotics) and the environment (liquid manure often finds its way into waterways), as well as members of the Frantzen family (they had to work in facilities full of dust and toxic gases). In short, says Frantzen, this system treated animals as machines, manure as waste, and farmers as barnyard janitors.


Art and Suzy Biggert from Ocean Sky farm, Bainbridge Island, WA.  Photo by Joel Sackett.

But three years ago the Frantzens junked the trappings of confinement and started raising hogs in deep-straw bedding in open-ended, Quonset-hut like structures called hoop houses. The family was already raising hogs on carefully managed pastures in the summer, but producing pork during harsh midwestern winters meant the hogs had to be confined – or so the Frantzens thought until they visited Sweden. There they saw pigs being raised under natural conditions using deep straw bedding.

The family was sold on the system from the start. For one thing, it could be set up for about a third of the cost of a confinement facility. In addition, the pigs were healthier because they were allowed to follow their natural instincts to socialize and nest. Finally, when the manure mixed with the straw, it created a composting “pack” that kept the animals warm and served as a valuable fertilizer for crops.

Still, Tom was apprehensive about making such a significant switch from a system that had the agri-science seal of approval. His concerns were put to rest when he turned those first pigs loose in a just-completed hoop house one day in September 1997.

“They ran around all day long, and they must have run around all night long, too, because when I went out to the building the next morning I will never forget what I found,” he recalls. “I peeked into the hoop house to see 180 pigs in one massive straw nest – snoring. I laughed until I cried. Their stress was gone, and so was mine. I know I'll never go back to confinement. Once you cross that road, there is no way you can go back.”

Against the grain

To factory farming's boosters, people like Tom Frantzen have done more than cross a road – they've traveled to a galaxy far, far away and landed on Planet Goofball. The current megatrend in American livestock production is an industrialized system that packs tens of thousands of animals into hard, low-slung buildings run by computers and low-wage employees. This system looks good on paper to Wall Street investors, but on the farm level it's an economic and ecological barnyard bust. Manure spills and shuttered Main Streets are the only bumper crops such facilities are producing these days.

So many are taking a different route: combining some old-fashioned animal husbandry with new, low-tech facility design and sophisticated ideas about the relationships between livestock and the land.

In dairy, beef, and poultry production, this new ecologically based farming has taken the form of management-intensive rotational grazing, a system where animals move frequently through a series of grass-filled paddocks.

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But it's the sustainable trends in hog farming that have caught the most attention recently. Hundreds of hoop houses have been erected in the Midwest in the past half-dozen years by small farmers like the Frantzens, who market about 1,200 pigs annually.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about sustainable hog production is that it has gained a hoofhold with virtually no support from the land grant university research system, that traditional purveyor of “progressive” farming techniques. Informal farmer-to-farmer information exchanges and research done in Sweden have been the main vectors for this system's spread. And now that a few land grant researchers are finally turning their attention to these methods, they're surprised to find them quite competitive economically, mostly because of low construction and operating expenses. In fact, a hoop structure with deep straw bedding can produce pigs for about $1.50 per hundred pounds cheaper, according to Iowa State University research and results from Canadian hog trials.

Tight nutrient cycle

But it's the ecological benefits of alternative hog production that are creating the biggest stir. An environmental audit done last year on the Frantzen farm by the University of Northern Iowa found the operation was producing between only 20 and 30 pounds of excess nitrogen per acre annually, a sign that it's extremely efficient at keeping wayward nutrients from becoming environmental pollutants. In comparison, nitrogen loss on factory operations is measured in the hundreds of pounds per acre. Environmental Protection Agency officials have expressed surprise at the lack of odor emanating from hoop houses they've visited in Minnesota, and tests for toxic gases like hydrogen sulfide have shown these facilities to be well within health standards.

Hoop buildings, or any other off-farm products for that matter, aren't environmental silver bullets. Rather, they just happen to lend themselves nicely to a system of farming that considers all of an operation's enterprises and resources as part of a larger whole. The compost produced by the hoop house system is a biologically rich fertilizer, which farmers like the Frantzens use on their crops. Those crops are then fed to the animals and cycled back to the land as manure, helping to produce more feed crops. In addition, the straw itself comes from small grains such as oats, a soil-conserving crop that can naturally break up weed and insect pest cycles. And pasture-farrowing hogs during the summer – along with grazing cattle – helps the Frantzens economically justify having a large portion of their farm in perennial grasses, which add biological diversity to the landscape. Striking such a balance between land, animals, and crops produces a closed nutrient cycle, rather than one that imports a lot of inputs and pumps out even more waste.

Farmers who use diversified, sustainable livestock methods say they help accomplish another important part of their whole farm's overall goal: maintaining a good quality of life.

“It's a fun way to raise pigs, a healthy way to raise pigs and it's profitable,” says Preston, Minnesota, farmer Dave Serfling, who, along with his wife, Diane, has participated in studies that show their small, sustainable enterprise is more efficient than much larger operations. “It's a size that I can raise my kids on, keep my bills paid, and have a good life.”

All of this is good news to people who are fighting factory operations. Organizers with the recently launched Factory Farm Grassroots Campaign of the Global Resource Action Center for the Environment (GRACE) work with communities threatened by giant livestock operations. Part of their effort involves providing information through visits, as well as the Internet, on how alternative livestock production is more economically and environmentally viable than the factory model. “To just get up and complain about the way hogs are being raised without offering alternatives can't work,” says Karen Hudson, an Illinois farmer who works as a grassroots organizer with a GRACE “SWAT” team.

Sustainable shopping

But all the low-cost sustainable livestock production in the world means little if farmers can't get paid a fair price. The good news is that several farmers, including the Frantzens, are now receiving a premium price for antibiotic-free, sustainably produced pork from places like Niman Ranch, a San Francisco-based company. And Organic Valley, a farmer-owned label that requires hogs to be raised in natural conditions, recently made its way into supermarket meat cases. Other farmers are taking their products directly to consumers via farmers' markets and the Internet. These alternatives are in their infancy, and the majority of family farmers are still being denied profits in a market controlled by corporate livestock operations. But Frantzen sees a glimmer of hope every time he delivers more pork to a local natural foods co-op and consumers use their pocketbooks to show him how much they appreciate his efforts to raise hogs sustainably.

“When people make a buying choice they are casting a ballot for the type of food system they want. That sends a tremendously powerful message back to rural America about what sort of farming is valued.”

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