Doing what’s right when no one is looking is an attitude and attribute that most modern farmers or ranchers should employ, and Kurt and Wayne Kaup live that to the fullest on their crop and hog operation near Stuart, Neb.
The brothers’ passion for and love of agriculture is what spurred them to set out on their own, breaking away from the diversified family farm that they grew up on that was operated by their dad and uncles.
“Kurt and I could see that there was not going to be a future for us there, not enough room for us,” Wayne says, “for the hunger we had in agriculture and the way we wanted to move forward in agriculture.”
What started with 80 acres and a borrowed tractor and round baler in 1994 has steadily grown into the current K&W Farms that includes about 4,000 no-till acres of irrigated corn, soybeans, popcorn with rye cover crop and about 520 acres of dryland alfalfa. The brothers also operate Premier Pork, where they contract-feed replacement gilts for Sandhills Elite Genetics.
Just as the crop production of K&W Farms has grown, so has Premier Pork, which started with a 1,400-head finishing barn in 1996. Since that first construction, the Kaups have grown to 17,800 finishing spaces with the latest expansion of 6,800 finishing spaces in 2019, and an addition of a 10,500-head nursery facility this year.
Kurt and Wayne are co-owners of both K&W Farms and Premier Pork, with Kurt taking the lead on the crop side and Wayne overseeing the pork operation. “We talk about each other’s plans and ideas, but the overall day-to-day management” on the crop side is up to Kurt and his oldest son, Grant, and the daily hog facility and operations management is up to Wayne.
One area where the brothers are in constant discussions is how to handle the manure that comes out of the pits from the five hog sites. Valuing manure as a nutrient input, the brothers pay close attention to the needs of the soils of their farm fields, while also knowing exactly what the manure has to offer.
“We do a lot of soil tests on our ground,” Kurt says, “and probably even more than that, we test the manure right as we’re pumping.” With years of historical data from the manure tests, “you kind of already know what it’s going to be, but I’m very cautious of the amount of manure that we apply.” Wayne says the brothers “spend a lot of money on a nitrogen stabilizer product in the under-barn manure pits.”
Most of the K&W Farms cropland is a foot of sand topsoil on a bed of gravel. Thus it is of utmost concern for the Kaups to apply only what the growing crops and cover crops will be able to use.
“We’re just very conscious about making sure that we’re not overapplying nutrients, so that it doesn’t leach into the groundwater,” Kurt says. Applying manure into the rye cover crop allows that crop to use the manure nutrients while holding it from leaching through the soil to the aquifer.
Wayne admits that as specified in their Operating Nutrient Management Plan, nitrogen in the manure can be applied not to exceed agronomic rates and crop uptake on an annual basis, which could be as much as or slightly more than 200 pounds of nitrogen per acre of corn.
The Kaups, however, strive to never exceed 100 pounds of available nitrogen with any application of their swine effluent as being a part of their overall fertility program. “Due to the nature of our soils, if we put 200 pounds of N out there in April and we get a 3-inch rain, those nutrients are going right into the aquifer, and that is something we manage according to our operation,” Wayne says.
The Kaup brothers keep a keen eye on the environment around them, but Wayne says it makes dollars-and-cents sense by keeping the manure in place. “If you do that and those nutrients end up in the aquifer, that’s dollars that your crop could take up,” he says. “So, it’s not only from a pollution standpoint; it’s also from a financial standpoint.”
In addition, the Kaups also have an eye on the surface waters, as “some of the dams and ponds are in the drain field for some like 800 acres, so we are very, very careful” with every practice implemented on the farm, Kurt says.
Environmental work gets noticed
K&W Farms was recognized with the 2017 Nebraska Leopold Conservation Award. According to the press release announcing the award, the Kaups have planted shelterbelts and food plots for wildlife and have left standing grain for winter food to benefit wildlife ranging from grassland-dependent birds to insect pollinators and monarch butterflies. Populations of pheasant, quail, deer, turkey and other wildlife have increased on K&W ground.
According to the press release, K&W’s environmental gem is a spring-fed cold water trout stream that originates on the property. The Kaups’ stewardship of the stream has produced a strong conservation partnership with Nebraska Game and Parks and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
A dam built in the 1950s and rebuilt in 2016 created a large pond that supports trout growth and reproduction. It has maintained a healthy trout population ever since being stocked in the 1970s. The pond stays open year-round and is a refuge for local and migrating waterfowl.
Carrying on the motto of doing what’s right, even when no one is looking, is evident in the care the brothers put into the appearance of their farm, particularly the hog barn sites even though not all are visible from public roads.
In addition to Grant, Kurt’s daughter Gracie, 15, spends a lot of time mowing grass around the hog barns, and weeds are kept under control. None of that adds a dollar to the Kaups’ bank accounts, but the benefits are immeasurable in the court of public opinion as some of their hog sites are visible from public roads.
“When you’re doing things right, it’s not directly cash in the account in the short term,” Kurt says. “It’s long-term rewards.”
Kurt also hopes that long-term rewards may play out in the event that his four children, Gage, 12, and Graylee, 6, in addition to Grant and Gracie, will have the opportunity to come back to the farm. “We try to keep them out there. They all enjoy working on the farm,” Kurt says. “I can definitely see them all being a part of it.”
Local livestock impact
Aside from the obvious benefit the hog operation brings to K&W Farms, the brothers see livestock in general as benefiting the local area and economy. “Feeding livestock in the local area, regardless of where the grain is being used, absolutely improves basis for the local grain production,” Kurt says.
Sandhills Elite Genetics provides the feed for the Premier Pork rations, but Wayne says the “corn that we produce would equal what these pigs are consuming.”
In addition to the improved basis that Kurt feels livestock production adds to the local market, he believes an often-overlooked benefit of livestock is the tax base added to local communities and school districts therein. “You don’t build more land to tax,” he says. “This is a benefit on top of the real estate that’s here.”
According to the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, pork production generates more than $813 million in annual cash receipts, while beef production adds about $10.6 billion. Milk sales come in at more than $232 million in annual agriculture receipts.
To maintain that economic impact, it takes good stewards of the ground that implement soil conservation measures and proper manure management. As Kurt puts it, “It all contributes to an end result that we all shoot for.” And the Kaups will keep doing it even if no one is looking.
Learn more about the K&W Farms Leopold Conservation Award at sandcountyfoundation.org.