Leamon Allen grew up as an independent producer in the hog business and growing corn at high risk to feed his animals. In 2007, he planted 3,000 acres of corn, but little of it is going for animal feed.
Allen and his father run a 3,000 sow to farrow operation, turned sow to weaning pig operation and grow some weaner pigs on a special contract. Though his 3,000 acres of corn would about feed all his livestock, Allen found a better way to maximize profit in his farming operation.
While earning a degree in ag business management at North Carolina State University, Allen was introduced to the world of contract hog producing. “We had always been independent growers. Some of the people I met at North Carolina State couldn’t believe we were still growing hogs without a contract. It took a while, but I finally convinced my father to try raising hogs a different way,” Allen says.
In September 2006, they made the decision to produce more corn, increasing acreage to 3,100 acres to go along with 850 acres of cotton and 750 acres of wheat and double crop soybeans.
“If we had stayed independent growers, we would have grown the corn as cheaply as possible to feed our hogs. Instead, we forward contracted most of the corn, taking advantage of the high prices being offered,” he explains.
While many growers venturing into corn production or increasing corn acreage have found nitrogen to be a limiting factor in profitability, Allen says his large hog operation provides much of the nitrogen needed to grow high quality corn.
Working with veteran Washington, N.C. Crop Consultant Bill Peele, Allen set up a corn production system that allows him to take full advantage of his source of nitrogen. “We helped Leamon switch to a zone sampling system and used that information to set up a better potash and phosphorus application rate. In addition, we pulled soil nitrogen samples to determine how much of the nitrogen from hog waste lagoons was available in the soil,” Peele says.
Nitrogen levels can vary tremendously from one lagoon to another, depending on the type animals in the houses that empty into the lagoon and by the amount of water in the mixture and how long it sits and how long it is stirred. Knowing the nitrogen content is critical to getting a precise application rate for crops. Allen takes samples every other day for 10-12 days prior to applying the lagoon waste to crops.
For example, Allen explains, finishing hogs produce more waste and thus more nitrogen than sows in a farrowing house. In some cases, he says, they can attain 12-15 pounds of available nitrogen per 1,000 gallons of waste water from his lagoons.
The four-stage lagoon systems end up at the fourth stage with only a half pound of waste material per thousand gallons of water. Much of the effluent at this station is applied via irrigation systems.
The more concentrated effluent is applied using a spreader wagon with a knife system that allows us to put the material in the ground. It’s probably not the most economical way to apply lagoon waste, but it is more environmentally friendly, according to Allen, who notes that growers are limited by how much per acre they can apply, based on runoff. By incorporating into the soil, he is able to reduce runoff and apply more nutrients to the soil.
Hog manure has most of the nutrients required for plant growth. The effluent can replace or reduce the need for commercial fertilizer in most crops, with corn being one of the most nitrogen needy crops grown in the Southeast.
Compared to commercial fertilizers, the relative nutrient concentration of liquid hog manure is low, and the distance manure can be economically transported is limited. With much of his corn in a relatively small geographic area, transportation is a minimal problem for Allen.
In addition to the quantity of nutrients in the manure, it is important to know the form of the nutrients in the hog effluent. Animal manure has nutrients in organic and inorganic forms. Liquid hog manure has a high percentage of its nutrients in the immediately available plant organic form. The inorganic form of nitrogen in hog manure is in the form.
Hog manure also contains phosphorus in both the organic and inorganic form. To be available to plants phosphorus in swine effluent must be in the inorganic form. Because of this, fall applied phosphorus may be less available than spring-applied phosphorus.
“The first year we monitored nitrogen from hog waste it was kind of a novelty. The second year we saved some money and last year it was highly successful,” Peele says.
On some of the land no additional nitrogen was needed and none of the land required more than 60 pounds of additional nitrogen, Peele adds.
“Because of the way we do it, it’s hard to determine exactly how much money we saved, using the hog waste as a source of nitrogen, but I believe we saved more than $20,000 just on nitrogen last year,” Allen adds.
“I saved enough money to hire Bill another year,” he jokes.
The next step in saving nitrogen costs will be variable rate application, Peele says. “They have done a good job of yield mapping, so we already have a good idea of variability across their farms. Leamon has seen that it works putting out phosphorus and potash, so I think he will be one of the first in our area to go to variable rate application of nitrogen. We can definitely save some more money with variable rate application,” the veteran North Carolina crops consultant says.
“I have grown vegetables in the past, and I like growing them because of the profit potential, but I’ve found that doing a better job of growing the grain crops and cotton that we’ve grown for many years is a better option,”Allen says.
“I believe some of the new GPS systems and the variable rate applications systems we are working on with Bill will allow us to concentrate on the crops we know how to grow, rather than experimenting with new ones,” Allen says.
“When we made the decision to grow more corn last fall it was due more to the low prices and increased risk in growing cotton than from the higher price of corn. Switching from cotton left us with a cotton picker we don’t need and in need of a second corn combine — that’s one of the downsides of switching crops,” Allen explains.
Across the Southeast, drought, an early season Easter freeze and the high cost of nitrogen have been limiting factors in how many acres went into corn in 2007.
Nitrogen prices alone have doubled in the past year, which caused many growers to back off in the projected number of corn acres they planted. Having a built-in source of nitrogen will not totally offset the high cost of nitrogen for Allen, but it will add some profitability.