Compost Heat for Group Nursing

Final Report for FNC02-438

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2002: $6,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2005
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


The goal of this project is to test the viability of using compost heat as our source of heat for our nursing and weaned pigs in Minnesota. This would allow us to market hogs for the higher summer markets and cut our cost of production by eliminating or reducing our LP heat.

Compost heat is uniform and occurs right where the pigs lay. LP is expensive and much of the heat is lost and unusable to the pigs. The deep straw compost method is being used for our finishing pigs with good success.

We market our hogs through Niman Ranch, which has an established floor price and offers a premium above cash price. This provides us a good market price well above the conventional market.

[Editor's Note: Niman Ranch works with family farmers and ranchers who raise cattle, hogs, and sheep for the company following animal husbandry protocols that are listed on their website. For pigs, these protocols specify that hogs are antibiotic free, hormone or growth promotant free, meat and meat-by product free, raised according to Animal Welfare Institute criteria, etc. For more information, contact: Niman Ranch at: or visit their website:]

We want to be able to farrow year round. This will allow us to sell in the higher priced summer hog markets (June, July, and August). This is when Nimans really needs extra hogs. This will even out our cash flows. We feel that if we can make this work other producers can follow. Also it's a low investment which allows young farmers to get started.

Two producers are involved in this project: Dennis Rabe and Justin Leonhardt. Both producers will be using the same general method, but with some variation. Each setup is described below.

I. Dennis Rabe Method
Four large pens in an old gable roof dairy barn will have 5-6 sows per pen. Sows farrow in a fiberglass A-frame with one heat lamp at the back of the A-frame at farrowing. Sows are free range. Piglets stay in A-frame for about 10 days. Straw is added daily both in A-frame and outside. At three weeks we’ll pull all but one A-frame out. This will act as a brooder when needed. At five-six weeks piglets are weaned. Composting is occurring and weaned pigs should remain quite comfortable. At 12 weeks piglets will weigh 50 pounds and should be moved to finisher. Compost will be removed. Farrowing months will be November, December, January.

II. Justin Leonhardt Method
Sow-joy box stalls with a heat lamp in a corner are used in the farrowing room. Sows are free range and pick their own stall to farrow in. Sows and piglets are moved to the group nursing room at four weeks. During the spring, fall, and winter months, this area is not cleaned but fresh bedding is added daily. At 7-8 weeks piglets are weaned and composting continues until 12 weeks or 50 pounds. In the summer months, pasture is used and the nursing room and the weaned pig room will be cleaned. Farrowing months will be December, January, and February.

Justin Leonhardt has about 300 crop acres consisting of corn, soybeans, oats, and hay. Pasture is used for his 25 stock cows which he rotationally grazes. His hog enterprise consists of about 80 sows. On May 20th (2005) his farrowing facility burned down. He was using Sow Joy farrowing pens for farrowing. Presently he started using nesting boxes in his hoop buildings. Group nursing is started at 10 to 21 days by pulling the nesting boxes. At weaning, piglets stay while the mothers are moved away. Finishing is done in the hoop barn where the piglets are born.

Dennis Rabe has 310 acres consisting of corn, soybean, oats, and hay. Pasture is used for his 70 beef cows on a rotational basis. One hundred acres of row crops (corn and beans) supplies the feed for our 40 sow herd. Two hundred acres consist of hay, pasture, and oats. By using crop rotation, rotational grazing, and livestock manure, our commercial fertilizer use for corn is very low ($15-$25 per acre). This also eliminates any use of insecticides for corn root worm.

The sow herd farrows four times a year. A converted dairy barn using Sow Joy farrowing pens and wooden box stalls are used for farrowing.

Results/ Advantages:
Our compost heat works very well in our cold Minnesota winters.

1. Justin weaned an average of 7.0 - 10.1 pigs and Dennis 7.5 - 9.5 pigs. Winter farrowing was slightly lower.

2. LP used: Justin used 45 gallons (for two winters), farrowing every 6 weeks. Dennis didn't use any LP.

3. The 10 week weight for the pigs was 50 - 60 pounds for both Justin and Dennis, and for both the day to market (260 - 270 pounds) was 6 months.

Other advantages (Dennis):
I farrowed conventionally for 18 years using elevated crates and liquid manure.

1. Going back to free range sows while farrowing we have had no downer sows. I was losing 10 to 30 percent at weaning in my elevated crate system.

2. Labor is less since we are not hand-feeding our sows in crates. Sows are on a self feeder.

3. Liquid manure is smelly!! Using deep straw, the smell is very little. Many visitors have stopped in and not found any offensive smells.

4. Power washing crates often led to respiratory problems for myself. This has been eliminated.

Project Impacts:
A. Economic Impact
• LP usage was reduced and eliminated on the Dennis Rabe farm.
• Number of pigs weaned was above the national average.
• Days to market was good (Six months to 260 - 270 pounds).
• Culling rate low- a sow can farrow and have seven to eight litters.
• No down sows.
• Disadvantage: It takes about one-third more bedding than what we originally figured.

B. Environmental Impact
• Deep straw production has very little smell.
• Encouraged the production of oats or barley. We prefer straw for farrowing over corn stalks.
• We prefer working in this pork system versus a conventional crate-liquid manure system.

C. Social Impact
• This system is recognized as a humane way of producing pork.
• This system allows young farmers a chance to get started.
• It's much lower in cost.
• Older farm buildings work well.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.