Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Illinois Livestock Farms Demonstrate Sound Stewardship
Hunter Haven Dairy is proof that livestock farms and suburban sprawl can coexist successfully in Illinois. The Pearl City operation, which is about two hours from downtown Chicago, has seen a boom in residential neighbors during the last decade. And sound stewardship keeps the farm from being a barrier to a move to the country.
“We are good neighbors,” stressed Doug Block, who operates Hunter Haven with his wife, Edie, and brother, Tom and wife Mary. The brothers, who previously were in partnership with their now-retired father, grew up on the farm and have farmed full-time for 35 years. In addition to the 600-cow dairy, the Blocks farm 1,200 acres of corn and alfalfa in minimum and no-till settings to maintain the fertile soils and water quality.
“You can see the soil tilth and the organic matter,” he said. “We practice sound stewardship with our land and our animals. This farm has been in our family for decades, and we want to continue to improve it. We feel our operation is a benefit to the environment, and our residential neighbors have been very supportive of it.”
Hunter Haven sits on a hill in this scenic part of northwestern Illinois, and overlooks a 6,000-acre lake and high-dollar home development to the west. The development was first opened in 1972, but has expanded rapidly in the last few years. About 800 homes and an 18-hole golf course are part of the development today. The area is not only popular with Chicagoans, but is also within an hour of Galena and Madison, Wisconsin.
“We try and be proactive environmentally with everything we do. I think that is true of the majority of Illinois livestock producers,” Block said.
The Blocks received a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development renewable energy grant to help offset costs to install a nearly $1 million methane digester. The digester turns manure into biogas and solid by-products. The digester generates enough electricity for 120 homes, or twice as much electricity as is needed on the farm. It also reduces odor in the manure used for fertilizer and provides a source of bedding for cows.
“We inject our manure directly into the soils, and our neighbors do not even know we are applying it to the fields. There is very little odor,” said Block. “I never thought all that we do today would have been possible 10 years ago. But if you keep up with technology, a livestock operation is actually conducive to a good environment.”
Officials at the University of Illinois would agree. Neal Merchen, head of the university’s department of animal sciences, said the relocation and modernization of the university’s South Farms two years ago also is proof livestock and residents can coexist successfully.
“We have a huge opportunity to create a research setting for livestock, crops and horticulture that is sitting on the edge of an urban area,” said Merchen. “We have been able to study how agriculture can successfully interface with urban dwellers.”
Merchen said the previous South Farm facilities were anywhere from 25-75 years old, and most were built without modern technologies and fundamental knowledge.
“We had some trepidation about the move to one mile south of a housing development because odor from the old farm was a previous nuisance,” he said. “We also wanted to address flies and other vermin, noise and general activity, so we took care in designing the facilities with the most innovative technology to eliminate potential problems.”
Residential neighbors initially expressed concern about the relocation of the facility, but Merchen said only one legitimate concern has been voiced to his office in two years. Beef cattle are housed on slatted floors in confinement buildings that are designed to contain odor and minimize problems with birds and other vermin. The manure is flushed from the floors through a system to settling tanks. The liquids are injected into fields as a fertilizer source and the solids someday may become part of a composting facility.
“Longer term, we want to relocate the dairy and use a methane digester to recycle livestock and other university waste to become more energy independent,” he said. “We have an obligation to the future of Illinois’ livestock industry to illustrate that technology can be successfully applied to these facilities. We put our credibility and reputation on the line with our promise to demonstrate that a livestock unit can be one mile from a residential district and not be noticed, and we have succeeded in being a good neighbor.”