Thursday, April 12, 2012

When the Post-Nutritional Waste Hits the Fan, It Might Be a Good Thing

Several current ag stories take me back to my manure pitchin’ days on the farm, and I now realize how important that job was. We knew that livestock slurry makes excellent natural fertilizer, but we had no idea that we were scooping out energy-producing “fecal fuel”---or that we could one day be working for Google or Apple because of it.
Using methane from pig manure, Apple plans to build an enormous fuel cell installation at its North Carolina data center. Google has been working on a manure-to-methane plant with Duke University, Duke Energy, and a local hog farm. The University of North Carolina, Iowa State University, and many others are researching manure-to-energy as a way to eliminate odors and waste disposal issues on hog farms. And a Kansas project, supported by the USDA, is researching ways to use waste from cattle feedlots, while a dairy farm in Washington state is converting manure into money by making methane. In other words, manure is big business.

But I still haven’t scraped all the manure off my boots, so I’m old school enough to appreciate the best thing about animal waste—it is a natural nutrient farmers use to make the crops grow.  This popular video called “Water ‘n Poo” is an example of one of the many ways farmers recycle and sustain. The farmer drives, sings, and even radiates joy as he spreads his “honey” on the field. 
With livestock waste so trendy now, I’ll update a blog entry from last year that provides a “manure pitching for novices” segment:
During the pre-confinement era, hog houses had to be mucked out by hand, one pitchfork load at a time, and it was a Saturday morning ritual on our farm.  We’d prop a transistor radio on a dusty ledge, make sure our five-buckle boots were snug over our tennis shoes, and start slinging it. We’d talk, argue, yell top-40 lyrics, and think about how to get the smell out of our hair before the school dance that night.
Most Midwest farms today recycle manure in “honey wagons,” huge caldrons on trucks or behind tractors. They pull the liquefied manure from pits next to the confinement “motels” that dot the countryside.  This “smell of money” can raise issues.
Some communities try to restrict hog confinement placement, and letters-to-the-editor reflect deep emotions concerning this situation.  Some claim regulations are overly-strict and the industry is vital to agricultural growth; others worry about health issues, decreased property values, and threats to groundwater. Although most seem to accept that hog farming is a vital industry, it’s the location that often raises a stink. You don’t need to be a scratch-and-sniff expert to know that manure smells different for the pig owners compared to the neighbors who live downwind. And water quality experts know that most farmers work hard to keep manure out of waterways, but fish kills and groundwater pollution in the Midwest indicate some problems still exist.
My brothers, cousins, and I generally worked without parental oversight on those barn-cleaning Saturday mornings. But occasionally, equipment would malfunction or a teenage argument would break out. When the “nutrients hit the fan,” we needed some regulating. Manure is a natural part of animal agriculture production, and now that the waste can be used for fuel as well as fertilizer, it is up to the producers and the public to figure out how much regulation the modern post-nutritional recyclers need.

Note:  A 2006 CAST publication Biotechnological Approaches to Manure Nutrient Management provides information about the use and management of animal waste.  by dan gogerty, photo from thedairymom.blogspot

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