A profitable solution
September 4, 2008 by Diane Mettler
As MOARK’s egg business
grew, so did issues surrounding litter. They solved the problem by
turning their waste management system into a nutrient business.
discovered that by blending the different types of litter together, the
company had a usable, stable, lower odor product with about 35 to 45
percent moisture content.
As MOARK’s egg business grew, so did issues surrounding litter. They solved the problem by turning their waste management system into a nutrient business.
MOARK, based in Southwest Missouri, has been in the egg business for nearly 60 years. As the business grew, so did litter issues. But they have turned adversity into profitability. Today, they have 2.5 million chickens and a turnkey nutrient business, which handles the 1,000 to 1,500 tons of litter produced each week.
No to composting
Three years ago MOARK was composting their litter, but it wasn’t working out.
“We had odor issues because of the sawdust we used,” recalls Hugh Vogel, MOARK’s byproducts manager. “It was heating up the manure and, because of that, it was enhancing our ammonia emissions.”
Because of those issues and pressure from Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the community, they decided to stop composting altogether.
It was a small but vital observation that allowed the company to move away from waste management and turn to a more profitable business model.
The farm had 10 barns at each of its three different locations — all within a 40-mile radius. The barns, they noticed, could be placed in three groups based on the manure moisture content:
Those with 65 to 70 percent moisture content. These were the 30-year-old barns that used older-style water nipples. The manure dropped onto belts and was removed three times a week, but there wasn’t enough air movement over the belt, so the litter remained wet.
Those with approximately 40 to 50 percent moisture content. These were the newer barns with a new belt system. “Those belts have air tubes above the belts that blow air and dry that product,” says Vogel.
Those with 30 to 35 percent moisture content. These were the new cage-free houses with the Big Dutch belts.
|MOARK, based in Southwest Missouri, houses 2.5 million chickens at three different locations all within a 40-mile radius.
|MOARK also operates a turnkey nutrient business, which handles the operation’s 1,000 to 1,500 tons of litter produced each week.|
|MOARK employs about 12 people to handle its nutrient business, correctly applying up to 1,500 tons a week on 600 to 800 acres.|
Hugh says they discovered that when they blended the three types of litter together, they had a usable, stable, lower odor product with about 35 to 45 percent moisture content. The product also didn’t heat up because there was no sawdust.
“And it spreads well,” says Hugh. “There are actually issues spreading the dry litter. It gets so dusty and light that you don’t get a good application pattern. So we like about a 35 to 40 percent moisture product because we get a good pattern. Otherwise you have to pelletize it or put it in a drill to get a good distribution.”
When it comes to mixing the manures, the process is fairly low tech. “We have some old slinger trucks that we sometimes put it in and then just throw it out,” says Vogel. “But usually just rolling it around with a pay loader is about the quickest and simplest.”
Spreading the litter on customers fields, however, is definitely high tech. Vogel says it was the Ag Chem machinery that allowed them to move from waste managers to a turnkey nutrient business.
“We use two Ag Chem TerraGator® spreaders,” says Vogel. “The difference is in the way the product is distributed. They put down the manure as good as dry fertilizer spreaders. There are scales on the spreaders and a SGIS (GIS-based) program that tracks your application.”
Vogel is especially impressed with the European-designed spreader boxes. “I’ve been in the business for 30 years and I’ve never seen an applicator that does as good a job as they do as far as surface application.”
The MOARK pricing system is unique. Instead of paying by the ton, customers pay by the nutrient content.
“We sample the litter once a week and the turn around is about four days,” explains Vogel. “We make available the most recent analysis and then we discount the pricing enough so that nobody complains if it’s off five or 10 percent from the reading.”
MOARK has found the only variance from house to house has been the moisture. “If some of the houses happen to have a water leak it becomes wetter, others may be drier,” says Vogel. “And material can vary just because of the outside temperature being warmer. But by the time you blend everything together and you’ve done it for a few weeks, it’s pretty close to the same.”
Vogel has been responsible for putting together a computer program that is able to calculate the fluctuating market price of litter. He based the system on a pricing structure Oklahoma State University had created. Now a potential customer can go to a website (http://www.soiltesting.okstate.edu/Interpretation.htm ) and see what the litter will cost them per ton applied.
MOARK’s product is extremely economical — even though prices were recently raised because of rising fuel costs. It runs between $30 and $35 per applied ton. That’s a bargain when commercial fertilizers are running about $70 to $80 per ton applied.
Although some farmers have come to the farm to buy litter, the business model is a turnkey one. MOARK does everything — litter testing, soil testing, delivery and application.
Deliveries are made within a 60 to 80 mile radius and primarily to the larger operations that can handle the semis MOARK uses.
“We track everything,” says Vogel. “We track the nutrients, the soil tests, the field IDs, the GPS locations of each field, and the nutrient production to make sure we’re not over applying.”
Over application it turns out, isn’t their biggest challenge. “It’s the logistics of getting to the right place at the right time,” says Vogel. They have 12 employees handling the nutrient business, correctly applying up to 1,500 tons a week on 600 to 800 acres.
Another challenge is dealing with Mother Nature. “When weather patterns change, we have to adjust,” Vogel says. “This year has been really challenging, because in this part of the county it’s not only been raining, there have been tornados too.”
To be flexible, MOARK has a covered storage facility. On a big black top they can store up to 120 days worth. Vogel says if pressed they could possibly store 160 days’ worth.
|MOARK divides its manure based on moisture content with its driest litter registering at 30 to 35 percent moisture content.||The company’s wettest manure usually comes from its older barns that
have older style nipple drinkers. The moisture content of the manure
usually ranges from 65 to 70 percent.
|MOARK’s pricing system is unique, with customers paying by the nutrient content rather than the ton.|
Although the program is working well — odor is down, litter is affordable and it’s applied correctly — Vogel says there has been some resistance. Some people have had problems adjusting to a new type of business, and some resistance has come understandably from waste management companies who are competing for the business.
But MOARK has had no problem finding customers and enjoys a number of repeat customers. Vogel does add that they are diligent when it comes to those who want to purchase the litter straight from the farm.
“We want to make sure they have the right kind of equipment to get the job done and they’re not going to have a pile of litter out in the field for a long time,” he says.
If it’s not broke, don’t fix it
MOARK has no plans to change their current routine. But if they did, it would be with caution. “You’ve got to be careful how much and what you change in this business, especially if you’ve got something that works,” says Vogel. And you have to take into account the litter that continues to accumulate. “If you make a change you have to make sure you’ve got that covered.”
Back in its composting days, MOARK had looked at scrubbers and technology of that kind, but didn’t find any products that would work consistently. “There needs to be some development in that area,” says Vogel.
To combat odors, they tried various sprays but, depending on the moisture content of the litter, they couldn’t find a product that was guaranteed to work every time. With the pressures they were experiencing from the community “we had to have something that worked every day,” adds Vogel. “I don’t want to be negative about anybody’s product, but we just couldn’t find anything that worked for us.”
|Each location contains 10 layer barns.|
The choice to move from compost to a nutrient business looks to be a sound one. Three years ago, the farm was knee deep in complaints and embroiled in hearings. “That has all calmed down,” says Vogel, “So I’m going to have to say that we’re doing better, but there is still a complaint now and then.”
He’s discouraged though by the negative mentality of the public regarding big farms. Even thought MOARK works to educate the public, Vogel says things have changed. “Agriculture is different than it’s ever been in my lifetime. I don’t know how it’s going to end up. We’ve got to figure out how to get along because I don’t think we want animal agriculture in another country that exports food to the United States.
“I think there’s some misconception in that people think that if they bust up the big producers that the problems will go away,” he adds. “But you have to take a look at how much food the big producers provide. I don’t think there’s enough small producers left to fill the gap. We’ve got to figure out how to communicate and change people’s attitudes and I don’t know how possible that is today.”
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