“Manure Grows Crops: 15 Hogs Fertilize 1 Acre of Corn.”

In black lettering on white 4 x 8 panels, this message is showing up on roadside billboards at a growing number of Nicollet County hog farms. When it’s important to practice what you preach to a possibly “anti-livestock” traveling public, Warren and Rachael Krohn get an A+ for effort.

Farming along County Highway 5, and now into their third year of continuous corn production (zero soybeans), their 715 acres of corn in 2008 planted at 32,000 plants per acre averaged 223 bushels per acre. Good genetics and good soils are part of the reason for this production. So, too, is the fact that the Krohns switched back to moldboard plowing of every acre of corn.

Thanks to trait technologies, they now plant 36,000 plants per acre. Maybe the biggest reason for the bumper corn crop is the manure produced by the 4,200 hogs on site plus half share of manure produced at their partnership 1,700-head sow farm. The sow farm puts out about 40,000 hogs per year.

3,000 gallons of liquid gold

Every acre of cropland gets a fall injection of at least 3,000 gallons of liquid hog manure; sometimes more on certain fields, certain soils.

“That 3,000 gallons give us the equivalent of about 170 pounds of nitrogen, 90 pounds of phosphorous and about 70 pounds of potash,” Krohn said. Based on today’s fertilizer prices, that conservatively is about $180-per-acre value with some added bonuses from micro nutrients.

Four 1,050-head finishing barns erected in 1993 mean 15 years of liquid manure activity for their farmland, and virtually zero loses of nitrogen when knifed into the soils each fall. “We figure 90 percent of the N is used the next crop season, but the remaining 10 percent is still available for the following season. So we always have some residual values in the soil. The exception is our sow farm where the manure is not as concentrated. So we’ll sometimes inject 6,000 gallons per acre and if we’re still short of that 170-pound N level, we’ll do some starter fertilizer with the planter or as a side-dress application,” Krohn said.

Manure in the pits of the four finishing barns, the sow barn and the nursery gets tested each fall before injection. A commercial outfit pumps (50,000 gallon per hour capacity) and uses a drag hose to inject the manure (6 inches deep) with knives spaced 30 inches. That pretty much eliminates field compaction, muddy roads and other environmental issues.

“What used to take two weeks when hauling with tankers now takes only about 1 1/2 days to pump the 1.3 million gallons each fall from the four finishing barns. Manure tankers used to be running day and night. And messy roads plus some real odor issues used to be the norm.

“We’ve noted fertility value of the manure changes very little from barn to barn. So we know in advance if a particular field needs to get spiked just a bit with planter-applied nitrogen, or sprayed on post planting.”

As you might expect, no anhydrous ammonia for 15 years does wonders for earthworm activity. Krohn said, “we’ve got a lot of worms out there. Our humus content is almost double since we started in 1993. On most soils we’re now 5 percent organic content.”

Relating to his earlier farming days of 400 hogs and 150 cattle per year, “when we hauled manure it was basically picking a field and then when it was time to apply fertilizer, we didn’t pay any attention if that field had already been manured. Every acre got the same amount of commercial fertilizer. So we’re definitely doing a better job of taking care of our soils, and our manure programs. ... Now all fertilizer gets accounted for. You don’t double apply, you don’t waste it, and you maintain good humus contents so there is virtually zero leaching through the soil profile.”

Fertilizer savings don’t make profit

Saving $90,000 ($108,000 manure value less the $18,000 pumping costs) on purchased commercial fertilizer still doesn’t make this business of pork production profitable, at least not at the moment. A $25 to $30 loss per head is the current status of the U.S. swine industry according to folks who pay attention.

“I’m looking for one more year of red ink before this thing turns the corner. Most hog farmers who own their livestock have lost 30 to 40 percent equity since the hog market started tanking 20 months ago. Exceptions might be those producers who contracted either their hogs, or their corn or their soybean meal,” he said.

Glenn Grimes, University of Missouri professor emeritus of ag economics who has been predicting hog pricing cycles for nearly 40 years, said this current cycle will likely last at least another year, and it could be longer.

At last month’s World Pork Expo in Des Moines, a group of U.S. pork producers launched a voluntary, self-help funded initiative called Producer Retirement Program to reduce the U.S. sow herd to help producers return to profitability.

Krohn attended a Nicollet County Pork Producers meeting June 8 addressing this topic and said they were a pessimistic bunch.

“Looks like it’s going to be the last man standing,” was the blunt projection of one of the producers. “And for producers who have been leveraging more acres against their hog operations, if failures persist these bankrupt hog operations could bankrupt farmland also. We’re told we need to cut back about 300,000 sows from the U.S. breeding herd,” he said.

H1N1 was last straw

The H1N1 flu virus undoubtedly was the straw that broke the camel’s back. June 11 headlines made it even worse announcing this particular flu has been designated a pandemic, meaning it has reached into many countries around the world.

As of June 8, the H1N1 flu had cost the U.S. hog producers a reported $85 million and it could get worse. Right now, China and Russia, the two biggest buyers of U.S. pork products, aren’t buying U.S. pork. But the pandemic headline scares of June 11 could change that.

Dave Preisler, Minnesota Pork Producers executive director, said “with the disease now being a worldwide problem, Russia and China really have no reason to not buy U.S. pork. Since the flu is everywhere, they gain nothing by ignoring U.S. pork and some trade barriers initiated because of the flu issue may not hold together now. Countries no longer can use the excuse that the virus doesn’t exist in their country so buy from them.”

Krohn and other pork producers contend exports didn’t tumble just because of the flu virus, and not necessarily even because of the world recession. “Because of some reported health issues, U.S. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, Connecticut, wants to cut off all imports of chicken from either China or Russia. But any of these imported chicken products are cooked products, which have to pass U.S. Department of Agriculture import inspections. However, because of this reaction from DeLauro, the Chinese and Russians now don’t want to buy U.S. pork.

“The nation’s pork producers have been losing money since September 2007. Many are facing severe cash-flow shortages, lack of operating capital and possible bankruptcy,” said Mark Greenwood, vice president of Agribusiness Capital at AgStar Financial Services. In a PRP news release, he said producer losses the past 20 months have amounted to at least $3.5 billion in equity.

Producers voluntarily participating in the PRP will pay $20 per sow, which will be used to create a fund to help compensate producers for sows they send to slaughter. Once accepted, designated facilities must be shut down for sow production for two years.

Market analysts estimated a 5 percent to 8 percent reduction is needed within the next six months to bring producers back to profitability. Yet daily hog slaughter across the United States is currently running 405,00 to 415,000, or about 30,000 head per day more than just one year ago.

PRP looks good on paper

DTN Livestock Analyst John Harrington said, “unfortunately models like PRP have a tendency to work better on paper than they do on the ground. While many producers will no doubt nod at the wisdom of such a producer-funded plant, we all fight the traditional chant of the selfish gene: “good idea, you go first.”

The Krohns keep the hog farm records separate from the crop farm operation. And this year he is using a $3.50 corn price for the hog operation; also the same $3.50 price for corn produced. “This way I know where we’re making money, and where I’m losing money.”

He cautions that the PRP program is still too new to make assessments, but if the USDA can support a sow buyout program much like the USDA did for the dairy buyout in the early ’90s, this may be the leverage needed to get a substantial reduction in sow numbers. He also stressed the importance of sow facilities being shut down for two years. “Otherwise some of these systems will be sold to the low bidder who will keep on running sows through them. Unless you get these sows out of production, and sow numbers significantly lowered, it will likely mean that someone else has bought some cheap pigs but the numbers don’t change.”

Preisler reminds that by the end of April black ink was almost a reality for the pork industry and third quarter profits were on the horizon. “Yes, the economy, both U.S. and worldwide, has been a drag on domestic pork consumption and pork exports. But the real back breaker was the sudden onset of the flu, and of course the related panic that labeled it as a swine flu. Exports of U.S. pork just to Mexico had been running 7 percent higher than currently.

“There are only two ways to rectify this economic situation. One being a dramatic increase in demand and that would have to be triggered by big gains in pork exports. The other being to rationalize production; to sell off upwards of 300,000 of our breeding herd.”