The Importance of Research and Reporting in Sustainable Pork Production

Livestock building with pigs

Research has long supported the nutritional value of pork. But it has taken producers like Al Wulfekuhle to start providing answers to consumer questions about the environmental impact of eating pork. Wulfekuhle is an Iowa producer, a member of the National Pork Board and an early participant in the Board’s sustainability studies. He started G&W Pork with one of his employees in 1989. Today, the operation raises 50,000 pigs each year, farrow to finish, and grows 850 acres of corn and soybeans.

The entire business operates with a longstanding philosophy that has had practical application for many past and present employees of G&W Pork. “We want them to be successful in their lives. Not just in their work lives, but their total lives. It has always been a priority. If we can help an employee find a better place to live or help them buy a piece of ground or help them get started in agriculture, that’s a priority. It’s definitely a feel-good thing for me—and we’ve had a lot of success with that.”

“I think what sets us apart is we try really hard to help people. We help employees get started in farming by helping them buy or rent farm ground and sharing equipment,” said Wulfekuhle.

Longstanding Philosophy, Far-Reaching Impact

Wulfekuhle also looks beyond his immediate circle to continually assess the overall impact of the operation on others. This includes the consumers who ultimately enjoy the food he helps put on their tables. “We know (pork is) good for human nutrition,” said Wulfekuhle. “We have all the research to back that pork is one of the most nutritious products that you can feed your family. It’s high in vitamins, minerals and protein. It’s good for child development as it relates to bone structure and muscle mass. And it’s good for cognitive health, so it also benefits the elderly.”

Increasingly, consumers also want assurances that the pork they buy is produced sustainably. When the National Pork Board sought volunteers to participate in a project measuring environmental sustainability and carbon footprints at the operation level, G&W Pork signed up.

“My belief is that pig production is very sustainable, and the results of the sustainability study showed me that our operation is sustainable. With the practices that we’re doing, our farm is carbon-neutral—and that’s rewarding.” - Al Wulfekuhle, Owner and Producer

Why Research Matters at National Pork Board

Wulfekuhle stressed that research must back anything done at the National Pork Board (NPB), which served as the driving motivation for asking farms to sign up to have their operations evaluated.

“Understanding what can be improved can make a farm even more sustainable,” said Wulfekuhle. “With research, we know that we use a lot less feed and water for a pound of pork and have smaller carbon footprints than 50 years ago.”

“We know that it’s because of improved genetics, nutrition, management and facilities. It’s about making everything more efficient,” said Wulfekuhle.

For Wulfekuhle, the next logical step for the NPB is to provide similar proof points related to the sustainability of the overall agricultural industry. Consumers are demanding greater transparency and accountability from the entire industry. Knowledge also supports long-term viability by helping producers understand where gains can be made through improvement.

Using Reporting to Improve Operations

“The sustainability assessment goes into everything, from how you grow your crops to how you raise your animals to your impact on the community,” said Wulfekuhle. For example, data from 66 pork producers in 2021 showed that manure applied to 31,244 acres saved producers an average of $130 per acre. NPB also found that practices such as no-till and cover cropping helped to sequester carbon emissions at a rate equivalent to 7,761 fewer cars on the road for a year and prevent 272 tons of nitrogen and 44 tons of phosphorous from being lost to leaching or runoff. Using information from the sustainability assessment has shown G&W Pork how it’s doing and where progress can be made.

“For me, it’s all about improvement and taking these tools that we have to get better. Reporting is just another tool to figure out where you’re at and how you can improve.” - Al Wulfekuhle, Owner and Producer

G&W Pork knows that more than half of its carbon footprint comes from the crops it grows as feed. A focus on soil health has helped neutralize the operation’s carbon impact. To that end, Wulfekuhle takes soil health seriously, using no-till and strip-till practices to maximize yields with minimum resources. Wulfekuhle also is on the NPB’s soil health task force, which is looking into many different factors impacting soil health—everything from the use of cover crops to how manure increases organic matter and the soil’s water-holding capacity.

“Soil’s a living organism that needs to be fed. Manure does a very good job of that,” said Wulfekuhle. “Cover crops help hold those nutrients in place, stopping soil erosion and loosening the soil thanks to those roots that go deep into it. Then the roots help give back the organic matter as they decay, and that organic matter actually builds your soil even more.”

While “people from the beginning of time have used manure to grow crops,” said Wulfekuhle, growers and consumers need facts. “Everything we do at National Pork Board has to be backed by research, so we’re doing that to prove what we already know—that manure, when used at appropriate rates, is good for your soil.”

The Ultimate Goal—and Reward

When it comes to the ultimate goal, Wulfekuhle says it all comes down to creating something better than what you started with.

“When I look at sustainability, it’s about making things better,” said Wulfekuhle. “It’s about taking something, whether it’s a piece of ground or a hog operation or even the people that you work with and making everything better than when you started. That’s been my goal in life.”

“We care about our animals and do everything to keep them healthy and keep their environment where it should be. It’s the same with our crops. We try to do what we can to take care of the soil to prevent its erosion and improve its health.” - Al Wulfekuhle, Owner and Producer

For Al Wulfekuhle and G&W Pork, loving pig production and agriculture also means loving challenges—and loving how each can be turned into an opportunity.



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