Is it possible to walk in and out of a swine barn without actually taking home the particular swine smell? Yes, it is – at Juergens Produce & Feed, in Iowa, USA, a system has been developed taking out the ammonia as well as the dust from the air. Good for the air quality, the environment, animal health… How does it work?
If there is any smell in this pig house, it is a faint one. No doubt it is a lot fainter than in conventional swine barns. Could it perhaps be due to the open barn construction, with air flowing in and out from both sides? Once Pete Juergens switches on the spray systems, through nozzles attached everywhere to the ceiling, it’s clear something else is going on. The interior is quickly covered with an aerosol mist, troubling the view and covering everything with a sticky substance. And it smells of… lemonade!
Normally, when no journalists are around at Ranch Creek Farm (photo 1), the spraying happens automatically, every four hours, for about five seconds. Together with his brother/ co-owner Aaron, and with the help of Gary Rapp, environmental specialist, Pete Juergens equipped the two finishing barns with this odour- and dust removing system in the autumn of 2008. The 48-pen pig barns, housing 1,250 swine each, from 27 kg upwards, are located just outside Carroll, Iowa, in the middle of vast corn fields (photo 2).‘Atomisation’ is the buzz word here – trying to solve the problem of dust and odour by neutralising it at micro-level with other components through electrostatic attraction and coagulation. The result? Active pigs, healthy workers, manure for sale and above all – clean air, says Pete Juergens, aged 29.“My main motivation is to create a better environment for my kids – I have two little boys,” says Juergens. “I don’t want them to be growing up in a harmful environment, like we had to. They’ll be able to work and enjoy more.”
The spray (photo 3), distributed at a pressure of 1,620 kPa, is a blending of corn oil into a water formulation that includes pleasantly smelling components like alcohol, citric acid, eucalyptus and vanilla, all having their own specific modes of action – See Box: Ingredients of the atomisation mixture.
Juergens explains it as an ‘acid/ base reaction’ created by natural products. “The conversion is NH3 to NH4-N. First we harvest the ammonia gas into an aqueous ammonia state and convert it with an acid to create the ammonium. That goes into the liquid slurry as a commodity of nitrogen available for our crops the next year.”
Apart from the ceiling, the atomisation system is also installed right beneath the slats, right on top of the manure pit – addressing toxic air right at its source.
A small biosecurity unit (photo 4), located right in the middle of the two farm buildings, is equipped with a 1,000 litre (275 gallon) tank for the oil solution, as well as the main pump. Through pipes the solution is distributed to the farm buildings.
A third system being used at the farm is through injections, right at the bottom of the manure pits. The contents of this substance are different from the atomisation approach – but its contents are proprietary. Injection here happens every four to eight hours. This system was added in the autumn of 2009.
Inspiration for the system came from a farm in Maryland, Juergens explains, where a similar approach had been used. So far, benefits recorded from the field include reduced allergy symptoms due to reduced particulate matter levels; improved herd health through reduced mortality and morbidity records; better feed efficiency and faster pig growth rates plus consistent and uniform insect control throughout the facility. Juergens adds, “I can see that the pigs benefit as well. They don’t have dusty eyes – they look healthier. And I have the feeling that I am seeing more activity too.”
Outside the swine barns, the total concept has yielded a lot of praise – from local neighbours reporting to be living in clean air to recognition at higher levels. Many US agricultural media have reported on the finding, and the brothers won an Environmental Stewardship Award in 2010 from the US National Pork Board. In addition, earlier this year, Juergens received the first Environmental Leaders Award, sponsored by the National Young Farmers Educational Association (NYFEA).
The Juergens brothers have set up a special ‘Environmental Control’ business unit within their agricultural company to be able to market the system. Some scientific back-up was already provided by trials at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, in 2005. There, research in swine operations yielded that an alcohol-acid-aerosol mixture decreased particulate matter by 75-90% as well as airborne bacteria levels – and its effectiveness increased with time, application and particle size.
More specific data about this system in particular should become available early next year. As we speak, trials are being done under supervision of Iowa State University’s Prof Dr Steve Hoff, for a third-party verification of the total system. Gathering results right above and underneath the slats, the research will provide data with effects on feed conversion, as well as animal and producer health. No doubt the Juergens brothers hope this will help them get the message out of a cleaner air.
In a special brochure, Juergens Produce & Feed explained how the different elements of the mixture have their own properties.
• Alcoholis used to keep nozzles sterilised and acts as an antibiotic that heals infectious cuts and abrasions.
• Studies have indicated that citric acidmakes antibiotics more readily available to the hogs.
• Eucalyptusis used for medicinal purposes, primarily focused on the respiratory systems. It helps make the air easier to breathe and helps clean the cilia in the producers and hogs nasal/lung passages.
• Vanilla is used as a deception to influence a positive smell not associated to the barn. It has also proven to be a pheromone for sows and helps to fight anxiety in people.
Juergens Produce & Feed The Ranch Creek Farm is only one part of the total Juergens farrow-to-finish swine business. The whole herd consists of 7,000 sows, spread out over three breeding facilities. Of the 165,000 pigs produced annually, about 13,000 are grown up to about 124 kg liveweight by Aaron and Pete Juergens at four finishing sites around Carroll. The rest is finished by contract growers, as from about 18 pounds (8 kg). The farm uses Danbred genetics, reaches an ADG of 0.84 kg and a FCR of 2.9 after weaning. Sows produce 27 pigs/sow/year. The swine business, in turn, is part of Juergens Produce & Feed Company, which was founded in 1945 by Vernis Juergens and expanded by his son Ron. He now owns the agricultural business, together with both his sons Aaron and Pete. It has come to exist with a wide range of other divisions, like a lawn and landscape business, a trading business, and a seed company.One of the major parts of the company is a feed production division, consisting of two feed mills and four warehouses, and which has been a supplier for Purina Mills since 1951. The feed division produced 60,000 tonnes (54,000 mt) of feed in 2010, equivalent to a $1.75 million sales. Virtually all is swine feed – and only 20% is sold in own swine facilities, the rest is sold externally.