In today’s culture we hear the term sustainability used in many different contexts — from concerns about the environment and food production to fashion and cosmetics. In basic terms, sustainability relates to a method of using a resource so that it is not depleted or permanently damaged.
In agriculture, producers with an eye to continuous improvement and retaining productivity have long operated in a sustainable manner. It’s always been important to farmers to not « mine the farm », to ensure that nutrients are returned to the soil after a crop is harvested. Livestock farmers are uniquely situated to maintain soil fertility through application of manure.
PQA+ and We Care
In the pig business, producers have been participating in the Pork Quality Assurance program since 1989. At that time, PQA was established through the industry’s producer-led group, the National Pork Board, and offered an education/assessment program to help pig farmers ensure the pork they delivered to the consumer was free from medication residues. In the following years, animal handling and animal welfare components were added to PQA, and now it is a certification process for all swine farmers called Pork Quality Assurance Plus (PQA+). PQA+ certification is good for three years, and it is updated and improved with continuing research data every three years.
In 2008, National Pork Board delegates approved the We Care ethical principles for U.S. pig farmers. We Care is an overarching philosophy and commitment grounded in the six ethical principles which guide America’s pig farmers in all that they do. These six ethical principles have been incorporated into the content of the PQA+ certification, and tie together the importance of ethical practices in producing safe pork for U.S. meat consumers.
The six elements of We Care include pig farmers’ commitment to food safety, animal well-being, the environment, public health, the people who work with pigs, and the communities in which farmers operate.
These elements encompass appropriate use of medications and raising healthy pigs; meticulous pig care and handling; protection of natural resources; ensuring safe pork for consumers; creating a positive workplace for pig caretakers; and providing transparency to the community about the farm, and contributing to a better quality of life for the community
Back to sustainability
As pig industry leadership began to address questions about sustainability, they realized that in We Care they already had the structure in place on which to develop an industry-wide sustainability plan. The National Pork Board has been measuring pig farms’ environmental footprint for nearly 10 years.
One of the We Care ethical principles is management of the environment. This includes the use of manure as a valuable resource in a manner that safeguards air and water quality, includes air quality from production facilities to minimize the impact on neighbors and the community, and includes managing operations to protect the quality of natural resources.
In 2019 the National Pork Board first piloted the On-Farm Sustainability project to quantify the impact of actual pig farm practices. Collecting data from pig farmers could assist the individual farmer to first benchmark the farm’s water, energy and nutrient usage; and then, with annual additions to the report, help the producer improve those practices. From the national perspective, the aggregation of many farms’ data could help the industry tell the sustainability story to consumers and supply chain partners. The national goal has been to embrace the principles, apply the practices, provide the proof, and develop public trust.
After a successful pilot year, NPB rolled out the project to swine producers across the country. Sustainability goals were set, and the project joined with Sustainable Environmental Consultants to collect the raw data and turn it into usable information for the farmer and in aggregate, for the industry. One of the overarching goals of the project is to gather industry sustainability information to better answer questions from supply chain partners.
In Minnesota, several swine producers served as early” guinea pigs” in the project, first providing their farm data, then reviewing the results, setting further farm goals, and in a second year in the project, measuring improvements made.
NPB recently offered an afternoon workshop of participants at the University of Minnesota’s Leman Swine Conference. Discussion surrounded the ongoing ability of farmers to evaluate their farm from the perspective of energy and water usage, environmental impact, and size of their carbon footprint. Pig farmers who also grow crops have a special advantage in working with SEC to make specific fertility decisions and improve their effectiveness in putting the nutrients exactly where they are needed.
One Minnesota pig farmer who joined the project at the beginning said he used the electricity use data from the project to make the decision to add solar panels to the farm, and mentioned that returning electricity to the power company was a way to diversify his farming operation. In addition, he has incorporated cover crops and no-till practices into the crop side of his farm, and is on the verge of adding water meters to better quantify the farm’s water usage.
The On-Farm Sustainability Project uses a two-pronged approach: Data-collection from farm records plus interview-style recording of farm practices. The project is focused on data quality, so it uses a verification process by comparing to U.S. Department of Agriculture Land-Grant data to help double-check the results.
The On-Farm Reports include a Sustainable Continuous Improvement Plan — offering recommendations for producers to improve sustainability on their operations. This can include manure data with application, agronomic rates; water data on both quality and amount used; and community outreach including donations and service hours
After a year of data collection, NPB reports that within the economics of manure usage, 112 farms realized a $5.9 million dollar synthetic fertilizer savings. Currently there are 330 farms across the country participating with in impact of 200,000 acres and 2 million pigs.
Anonymity and cost
The data collected from each farmer is kept anonymously, and for an annual industry report, the data is aggregated. Because Sustainable Environmental Consultants is a privately held company, individual farm information is private and not obtainable by outside groups. SEC provides individual farm sustainability reports to the specific farmer. This enables the producer to evaluate farm practices and make management decisions which can improve sustainability in the next season and beyond.
The blinded, aggregated data will be used at the state and national level to share real data on producers’ commitment to sustainability. Using these reports will allow the pork industry to continue to build trust in modern pig farming, while protecting pig farmers’ freedom to operate.
The On-Farm Sustainability project is available to any pig producer who sells pigs and pays check-off dollars to the National Pork Checkoff. Currently, the pig checkoff is 40 cents per every $100 of pork sold, and is automatically collected at the sale site.
On average, participation takes 2 to 4 hours. Participants have an initial interview and provide data collection for the previous growing seasons’ data (depending on farm size, each of these steps lasts about an hour). Any records work — either paper or digital. Farm data is confidential and the specific operation and data will not be shared. Results of all on-farm reports are kept in an aggregate of state and national reports to help learn and share the industry’s sustainability story.
How to participate
Here in Minnesota, Sustainability project participation is being managed by Lauren Servick, Minnesota Pork’s director of marketing and public policy engagement. Pig farmers who would like to learn more about the sustainability project can reach Servick at Lauren@mnpork.com or by calling (507) 345-8814.
Diane DeWitte is an Extension Educator specializing in swine for the University of Minnesota Extension. Her e-mail address is email@example.com