Utilization of Highly Digestible Cover Crop Ensilage by Adult Swine In an Integrated Organic Farming System

Final report for FNC19-1174

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2019: $22,060.00
Projected End Date: 02/28/2021
Grant Recipient: Wildwood Farm
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:
Russ Kremer
Wildwood Farm
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Project Information

Description of operation:

My farm consists of a diverse 150 acres located in the northern Ozarks of Missouri. I have a 120 sow farrow-to-finish swine operation using heritage breeds and selling into an antibiotic-free, Non-GMO certified market. The production practices are third party certified GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) Level 4, meaning the hogs are never in crates and have access to pasture. Humane treatment and sustainable practices are of paramount importance. I use organic practices on all of my land. I grow small grain crops of wheat, barley, rye, oats and buckwheat as well as milo and green beans in a rotational strategy. I allow my hogs to rotationally graze and apply hog manure according to soil test recommendations. The harvested grain is fed back to the hogs. I also mange my woodlands sustainably and have controlled grazing with my hogs. The other 2 farmer team members, Grant Neuner and Scott Stieferman, share a similar philosophy and passion for sustainable food and agriculture. These two young farmers are also from Osage County, MO. The Neuner farm is a sustainable 250-acre farrow-to-finish closed herd of heritage bloodlines of Berkshire, Yorkshire and Tamworth. They currently have on hand 8 boars and 50 gilts/sows and use all-in all-out methods to raise 400 market pigs per year. Grant Neuner, 20, has participated in farming his entire life. He plans to stay on the family farm and continue to build a sustainable and organic hog operation as well as grass finish cattle. Scott Stieferman's farm is 120 acres with enterprises of farrow-to-finish hogs and grass-fed beef. He uses sustainable and regenerative practices such as rotational grazing for all livestock. Scott Stieferman has also worked on the family farm his entire life. The three of us have collaborated on other successful sustainable agriculture projects such as the sustainable pork marketing network, Heritage Foods. Research Results and Discussion section shows the participation levels of each research participant.

Summary:

Consumer demand for safe, high-quality organic pork products continues to grow significantly while farmers are reluctant to supply this demand primarily because of the high cost of traditional organic grains for feed. Moreover, keeping hogs healthy in an organic swine system is imperative, and implementing a cereal grain cover crop is a vital agronomic practice. This project aims to resolve these particular barriers through research, education, and demonstration of the utilization of highly digestible cover crop ensilage by breeding and finishing swine in an integrated organic farming system. A cooperative network of community-based, sustainable pig farmers, with an emphasis on young farmers, will perform the tasks of the project.

Project Objectives:
  1. Research reduction in feed expense of organic swine operations by using homegrown cover crop ensilage.
  2. Maintain records of health, mortality, and number of qualifying hogs while providing silage year-round.
  3. Research and demonstrate an economical and practical incorporation of highly digestible sustainably harvested cover crops in an integrated swine operation.
  4. Eliminate economic barriers for entry of young farmers into organic agriculture by reducing organic feed costs.
  5. Research and demonstrate adaptation of advancements in sustainable agriculture techniques pioneered in Europe including a feeding system that is adaptable to diverse needs.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand

Research

Materials and methods:

This is a feeding trial, which builds on a trial in the United Kingdom which fed ensilage to hogs for better nutrition and a more sustainable system. In order to perform this trial, a European feeding system will be purchased to feed ensilage, which requires a completely different delivery system than dry feed. Records will be kept of amount of feed used, growth, mortality and health rates of hogs.

This project involves two young Osage County farmers who have over 10 years experience in animal husbandry and certifications by National Pork Producers and Global Alliance Partnership.

Scientific method will be used, including tissue analysis of cover crops used for ensilage and manure analysis. Results will be carefully documented and shared through the use of flyers, presentations at conferences, social media, a comprehensive manual and farm field days.

Research results and discussion:

Results in the first year include:

Tissue analysis of growing cover crop for feed:  The analysis, on a dry matter basis, is 14.1%.  This compares to 12% for traditional cereal grain cover crop tissue analysis and 14% requirement for growing finishing hogs and adult sows and boars.

The health of the soil improved based on the earthworm population.  On April 15, 2020, the earthworm population was measured in the cover crop's plot and measured 23 earthworms per cubic foot of soil, compared to November 15, 2019 measurement in the same plot of 14 earthworms and 8 earthworms from a check plot on April 15, 2020 of a conventional crop field. 

The May, 2020 cover crop harvest showed above average yields in the research plots of 6.3 tons per acre compared to 5.1 tons per acre that is commonly harvested from standard cereal grains.

In the second year, after the ensiling process was complete, we performed feeding trials.  The gestating/lactating sow feeding trial was started on August 3, 2020.  We selected 32 sows for each group (control/conventional fed and ensilage fed) to be bred, farrowed and nursed for 6 weeks.  The conventional rations were formulated with roasted soybeans and milo at a protein percentage of 13% for gestation and 16% for lactation.  They were fed 5 pounds daily of the gestation ration and 18 pounds per day of the lactation ration for the respective phases.  The ensilage fed group were fed a gestation ration made up of 40% ensilage and 60% conventional ration on a dry matter basis and fed 5 pounds daily (DM basis).  The ensilage fed group had a lactation ration of 25% ensilage (DM basis) and 75% conventional feed and fed 18 pounds daily (DM basis).  Pasture mating was performed with 1 boar per 4 sows.  Conception rate was measured and improved from 93.75% for the control group to 96.88% for the ensilage fed.  Average number of pigs born alive was 10.11 and 10.64 for the control and ensilage fed groups respectively.  Average number of weaned was 8.85 (12.47% pre-weaned mortality rate) for the control group and 9.58 average number weaned (9.98% pre-weaned mortality rate) for the ensilage fed.  $3.11 per pig weaned additional net income was realized from the ensilage fed pigs over the control based on market value of a 20 pound pig.

In the 150 day finishing feeding trial the control group was fed an ad lib diet of milo, roasted soybeans and premix with a protein content of 15%. The ensilage group was started on the same control diet and once the pigs reached an average weight of 125 pounds, they were switched to a diet composed of 50% control diet and 50% of ensilage (dry matter basis).  A total ration mixer was used to prepare this ration and it was made available ad lib to the pigs.  Pigs were grown to average of 270 pounds.  Pigs finished on the control diet had an average daily intake of 5.46 pounds and average daily gain of 1.61 pounds compared to 5.23 pounds of daily intake and 1.49 average daily gain by the ensilage fed group.  Feed per pound of gain (dry matter basis) was 3.39 and 3.51 for the control and ensilage fed group respectively.  The mortality rate was 2.17% for the control group and 0.00% for the ensilage fed group.  The cost of feed/pound of gain was higher at $0.686 for the control group compared to $0.602 for the ensilage fed pigs.

Carcass data was collected from the harvested pigs in the feeding trial.  Results concluded that the ensilage fed group were leaner with .95" of 10th rib backfat versus 1.03" for the control group.  The ensilage fed pigs had improved color (4.0) and marbling scores (4.1) compared to the control groups with 3.0 and 3.3 scores for color and marbling respectively.  The ensilage fed carcasses had a lower percentage of polyunsaturated fat at 14.77% compared to the control group at 25.78%. 

Discussion:

Russ Kremer, Grant Neuner and Scott Stieferman were much involved in the research during the first year of this project.  In September, 2019, the three of us sowed a total of 45 acres with a mixture of rye and Austrian winter pea in 3 fields on our farms.  Kremer selected the seed varieties based on predicted nutritional analysis for an ideal ration for adult hogs.  Neuner and Stieferman managed the soil preparation and seeding and designed an agronomic management plan. That plan was followed and resulted in high yields of highly nutritious forages.  Kremer selected and purchased silage feeders from Eurogan as well as storage bins and throughout October Kremer, Neuner and Stieferman installed them.  Stieferman, with engineering and mechanization skills provided the supervision.  Also in October, Kremer and Neuner took soil and manure samples to be analyzed and applied manure to the plots accordingly.  Throughout November, Kremer analyzed traditional feed requirements for breeding and finishing hogs and researched nutrient content of traditional forages for swine.  In April, 2020, the three cooperators performed tissue analysis of the growing cover crop mixture in field. Throughout the last half of May, 2020, Kremer, Neuner, Stieferman harvested the cover crop silage.  During the first year, Neuner connected with new, beginning and transitional farmers on social media.  He successfully reached out to 52 farmers via text, Facebook and Instagram and received positive responses/likes from 31.    

Second year: After the ensiling process was complete, we performed feeding trials.  The Gestating/Lactating sow feeding trial was started on August 3, 2020.  We selected 32 sows for each group (control/conventional fed and ensilage fed) to be bred, farrowed and nursed for 6 weeks.  The finishing feed trial began on August 15 and concluded 150 days later.  The control and ensilage fed groups each had 46 pigs with an average starting weight of 53 and 52 pounds for the control and ensilage fed groups respectively.  The carcasses from the feeding trial were measured and analyzed and results showed that the ensilage fed carcasses were leaner, had significantly better color and marbling scores, lower polyunsaturated fat percentage and a better Iodine level which is an indicator of shelf life.  Russ Kremer, Grant Neuner and Scott Stieferman were all actively involved in all aspects of the feeding trials including selection of sows that were of the same heirloom genetic lines, age, parity and stage of reproductive cycle.  All team members participated in weighing, preparing and dispensing the feed for both the control and and ensilage fed groups.  All participated in daily observation, heat detection, humane handling and movement. All members attended farrowings and recorded all farrowing/nursing/weaning related events.  All participated in the finishing feeding trials with selection of consistent genetics, size and health for both the control and ensilage groups.  All helped with all weighing events and daily observations of environment and health.  Feed prep and delivery responsibilities were shared.  All helped with meat quality measurements and evaluation. 

Participation Summary
3 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

19 Consultations
3 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Journal articles
3 On-farm demonstrations
2 Online trainings
1 Published press articles, newsletters
3 Tours
3 Webinars / talks / presentations
1 Workshop field days
3 Other educational activities: Grant Neuner, one of our young farmer participants, has been using social media to highlight and demonstrate our project activities. He has reached out to 68 young and disadvantaged farmers via text, Facebook and Twitter. We had a project information booth at the Putman, Missouri County Fair in September, 2020 and participated in an information display at Centerville, IA Farm Day in January, 2021.

Participation Summary:

72 Farmers
6 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

I have had tours, demonstrations and field days to demonstrate the management practices of the cover crops and explain the nutritional value of the cover crops for finishing adult swine.  I also demonstrated the different types of feeders used in Europe to feed swine.  I have also presented a webinar hosted by the Practical Farmers of Iowa and have presented before cooperative managers at the Midwest Coop Meeting.  There has been a total of 12 professional animal nutritionists that have met with me to discuss economic performance and health advantages.  The tours and workshop were attended by 24 neighboring hog farmers, mostly in the Heritage Foods system.  Eight of those farmers showed strong interest in using this method for an organic transition.  We had information displays and discussions at events in Unionville, MO and Centerville, IA and had much interest.  A prominent publisher for a major university requested rights to publish the project's work for its educational materials.  We have created a public brand name "Green Balance" for the ideal cover crop mix for organic swine ensilage and have promoted it extensively. The Green Balance Cover crop mix can be found here:

Green-Balance-Specs - Russ Kremer FNC19-1174

We put together a Powerpoint presentation, which can viewed as an information product accompanying this report, a  project manual and the Green Balance Specification sheet (referenced above) that we use at all of our education and outreach events.  We continue to receive calls and requests to make presentations. 

Learning Outcomes

22 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Lessons Learned:

In the first year of this grant project, we learned that cover crops can excel in an integrated livestock and cropping system as the balanced application of swine manure has contributed to significant forage growth.  We also learned that a cover crop mix of hybrid rye/winter pea helps with growth and weed control and tissue analysis indicates the mixture has a near perfect nutritional analysis (14% protein dry matter basis) for feeding finishing pigs and mature breeding stock. We also learned, while installing feeder equipment, that the ideal number of pigs per feeder space is five.  So far, beneficial effects on the farm has been observed in lush cover crops that have greatly reduced erosion and improved the ecology of the soil and surrounding environment.  The tissue analysis of the cover crops show remarkable outcome as a potential replacement for purchased swine feedstuffs.  This will result in economical, health and meat quality benefits. The choice of cover crop mixture and resulting tissue analysis successfully overcame the barrier and worry that forages would not provide the nutrient profile required by swine.  Advantages of implementing this project include turning a cover crop into an additional cash crop, soil health improvement, feed cost savings in a swine operation, improvement of herd health and meat quality, and improved farm profitability.  Disadvantages include additional time, labor and management requirements to sow, manage and harvest cover crops as well as time and special equipment to feed the swine.  At this time, I would highly recommend this practice because of all the sustainability benefits - in particular to young farmers facing barriers to entry. 

Project Outcomes

11 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
1 Grant received that built upon this project
4 New working collaborations
Success stories:

A swine nutritionist/consultant based in northern Illinois reviewed the tissue analysis of the rye/pea and remarked "I was blown away by the resulting analysis that showed, based on a dry matter basis, that this forage contained an ideal balance of protein, energy, and fat required by finishing swine over 125 pounds and boars and sows.  This practice has tremendous application on the farms of many of my clients."

Recommendations:

After I described this project on a webinar in January, four farmers from Iowa called and said they were inspired to implement a similar program on their farm.

Information Products

  • Ensiling Cover Crops for Organic Swine Production Presentation (Article/Newsletter/Blog, Book/Handbook, Bulletin, Conference/Presentation Material)
  • 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.