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Dahls are Environmental Steward winners

By Carol Stender

Date Modified: 10/25/2012 12:57 PM

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DAWSON, Minn. — Wayne and Laura Dahl of Dawson are the 12th Minnesota pork producing family to receive the National Pork Industry's Environmental Steward Award.

Their conservation efforts can be seen immediately along their driveway. The road includes a small wood bridge that crosses County Ditch 4. The ditch travels from nearby Bellingham across farmland, including the Dahl's property and runs into the Lac Qui Parle River. The river eventually empties into the Minnesota River.

To filter water coming from the farm into the ditch, the Dahls established a switchgrass buffer on both sides of the ditch. Wood duck houses are placed periodically along the ditch and Laura identifies a mink in the ditch bottom.

The farmyard is surrounded by a well-established shelterbelt. Flowers and bushes surround the house. Laura's menagerie of animals calls for attention. Wayne has transformed one of the farm's original buildings into a home for a variety of chicken and pheasant species. Nearby cages are home to several rabbits and a fenced-in area keeps ducks, geese, pygmy goats and alpacas near the buildings.

Their hog buildings are a short walk through the grove. The barns — a 4,400-head nursery and two 4,400-head finishing units — are well-placed on the far side of the woods. Laura picked the earth-tone barns to match the landscape, she said. Each barn has deep-pit manure storage and inlets with fans and automated controllers.

The yard around the barns contains areas of crushed granite, grass and trees. All of it, with the switchgrass, provides a filter for rainwater moving through the yard.

It's a different setup from the one they started in 1977 when they purchased the farm. They started a farrow-to-finish operation and constructed additional buildings in 1979. Low prices in the 1990s caused them to rethink their business. Their options included remodeling the barns with installation of new crates, or they could do something different. The most viable opportunity for their farm was to become contract growers.

Instead of a farrow-to-finish, they became nursery-to-finish producers raising hogs from Mill Farm based in Marshall.

The Dahls receive 21-day-old nursery pigs from Mill Farm every nine weeks for a total of six groups a year. Laura heads the nursery barn operations. Her experience as a medical laboratory technician and as a physical therapy aide is invaluable. Each day every pen is entered and each pig checked, she said. Any pigs having problems are placed in smaller pens where they receive special attention.

Laura monitors the barn's temperature. The water is filtered and an elecrostatic particle ionization system takes dust out of the air.

The pigs in each barn have it pretty good, Laura said. Each barn is climate controlled and provides the pigs fresh air, fresh feed and fresh water each day.

When the pigs weigh 40 to 60 pounds, they are moved from the nursery barn to one of the finishing barns or to a finishing site belonging to their nephew, Brent Dahl.

The hogs, when they reach market weight, are transported by Mill Farm.

They seek advice on manure management and soil and water conservation from Jared Anez, president and owner of Anez Consulting in Willmar. Anez has worked with the family on permits, helped when the barns were built and assisted with Conservation Stewardship Program and EQIP program applications.

The professional environmental and agronomic help has improved the farm's utilization of manure nutrients, Wayne said. The soil is tested annually. Brent is also a licensed manure applicator. He uses application rate maps, flow meters and GPS-aided navigation to ensure proper manure placement on the farm's medium-heavy soils. Corn tissue testing is conducted during the growing season to determine if supplemental nitrogen is necessary.

Wayne and his brother, David, each have 900 acres of cropland. Wayne's son, Jordan, has 270 acres and will eventually take over the farm. They share equipment and the workload for planting and harvesting, Wayne said. Along with Brent, they also do custom fieldwork. Joining them is Wayne and David's father, Eugene who, at 86, helps in the field.

The couple has hired Tanner Winge to work with the hogs. His animal husbandry skills are invaluable, they said.

The Dahls join other award recipients Future View Farm, Willow Street, Pa.; Trail's End Sow Farm, Ames, Okla; and Reed Family Farms, Ottumwa, Iowa.

"We are honored and happy to receive this award," Wayne said. "Through this award, we want to get the message out about modern hog production. People can understand the technological advances of iPhones, iPads and computers, but they don't seem to understand the technology we are using through the barns to keep pigs comfortable, monitor the hogs' health and provide fresh food and water to the pigs."

Laura agrees.

"This award really reflects what we do on our farm everyday," she said.