Manure Manager

Features Applications Compost Dairy Manure Application Profiles
Compost offers sustainable solution

November 30, 1999  by Diane Mettler

Si-Ellen Farms has been dealing with growing pains and manure management issues for more than 15 years. They feel only now do they have the ideal program in place.

Si-Ellen Farms has been dealing with growing pains and manure management issues for more than 15 years. They feel only now do they have the ideal program in place.

In the mid-1990s, Si-Ellen Farms was several farms in Washington State. Urban sprawl has caused owner and CEO Mike Roth to consider moving the operation. After much looking, they found a perfect location – Jerome, Idaho. The land was back from the road and on a slope with southern exposure.
A new dairy was designed and built and the Washington dairies consolidated there.

“For the first time they were dealing with 2,000 milk cows,” says operations manager David Mezes, who has been with Si-Ellen Farms for 23 years and oversaw the construction.

The first system

The original 2,000 cows was a big operation for the Roth family at the time and they brought in an engineering firm from Oregon to install a separator and flush system.

“We went to quite a bit of expense, but it only lasted two or three years,” says Mezes. “It was too high maintenance, so we pulled it all out and went to triple slope screens and settling ponds – a more conventional separator system.”

Current system

Today, the farm houses 10,000 animals – 6,500 milk cows and the rest heifers. And on 7,809 acres, they grow all the corn silage and about one-third of the alfalfa needed.

The flush system is fairly simple. Being on a southern slope, the manure flushes down to the open ditches that run along the back of the corrals and to pumping stations. Using Houle pumps, the slurry is pumped to a central pumping station.

“We use a lot of Houle pumps,” says Mezes. “We’re hard on pumps and they are easy to maintain. They’re made of steel that we can weld and they’re not highly expensive. We also use U.S. Farms Systems — its the sister company. They have a very similar pump set up and it works quite good as well.”

From that central pumping station there are three slope screen separators built approximately 14 feet high. The solids pile under the screens and there is room for the farm’s Volvo loaders to drive in and remove the piles without touching the screens.

The screens remove about 25 percent of the largest solids. The sand and very fine debris go through the screens and then on to a series of small settling ponds, which are 50 feet long, 20 feet wide and only eight inches deep.

“Every day we take a small tractor and scrape out the wet, small sludge and sand mixture from these little settling ponds. It’s mixed with the straw bedding from the calving operation, which is fairly clean. Neither the manure from the separators nor the straw will compost on their own but, mixed together, they create a great composting ratio,” says Mezes.

The solids from the settling ponds and the slope screens along with the straw are trucked to a couple of 200-foot by 200-foot concrete slabs, where they are mixed. They are mixed on slabs because of the high liquid content — up to 80 percent. Because of the amount of liquid, the slabs have a one percent grade back to a catch area.

The liquids that flow from the settling ponds move on to larger (40-feet-wide, three-feet-deep and 200-feet-long) ponds. “These ponds are cleaned in much the same fashion as the others, except we clean them twice a week” says Mezes. “We have a specially modified bucket on the loader so we can drag that product out onto a concrete area for mixing.”

At the compost site

Once the straw and the manure are mixed for composting, the material is trucked approximately half a mile away, where it is placed in rows approximately eight feet wide and six feet tall.

“Once it’s rowed, we use a 416 Wildcat with a large roller to turn it,” says Mezes. “It has its own engine, but we pull it with a tractor. It’s fairly aggressive. It takes something like 250 horsepower to turn the rotor in this machine, which turns the rows inside out.”

In the winter, the rows aren’t turned but during the spring and summer, they’re turned once a week for four to six weeks. During that time, the rows lose about 60 percent of the volume. When the rows are about three feet tall, two rows will be moved and combined into one.

“By moving them, we get the very bottom where it’s still wet,” explains Mezes. “And after we’ve combined rows, we’ll turn it once again. Then it’s trucked out for the neighbors to buy or we give it to our corn growers to grow corn for us.”

Making growers happy

While some may think putting all this work into composting and then giving it away doesn’t make good financial sense, Si-Ellen sees real value.

“We need a certain amount of corn silage from our neighbors, because we don’t have enough land to do it all,” says Mezes. “We pay them for the corn, the compost is an extra benefit, so they don’t go and sell the corn to other dairies. Plus we have a lot of this compost – 100,000 tons a year. There is a need to use it up and our neighbors’ ground is very good because it’s not too far from the dairy.”

Normally, Si-Ellen will truck the compost within a 10-mile radius, but it’s not uncommon to drive as far as 20 miles. And Mezes says the compost is a good product to truck – versus something like liquid manure – because it’s dry and doesn’t smell. “The average person wouldn’t be able to tell it from dirt,” he says.

Of course, some of the compost is used on their own fields. The compost supplies all the fertilizer needed for the alfalfa, but the corn requires some additional nitrogen.

“The fertilizer bill for a big farm can be in the hundreds of thousands, and our compost cuts down two-thirds of that cost,” says Mezes. “It’s a substantial amount of money. But it probably works out fairly even because by the time you consider all the trucking involved and everything, it’s still not free.”
Si-Ellen chose going the composting route after looking at other dairies and their success.

The operations manager’s education has come from a variety of courses, seminars and asking advice from other commercial composters.

“It’s also been a bit of trial and error over the years to get to the system we have now – understanding the carbon ratios and the timing and the weather.”

Si-Ellen employs about 200 people, of which about a dozen work solely on composting “We run about six trucks, two loaders, a tractor, and composting machine that are directly related to composting and then we have more support people in semi trucks carrying the compost away to the fields.”

The leftover liquid

Handling the solids and creating the compost is only half the battle — there are still the liquids to deal with. They are stored in large storage lagoons until the crops are in. Then the liquid is irrigated onto the fields through several miles of pipeline.

“We can’t put it on too thick, so we try to dilute it down to about 20 percent with the irrigation water,” says Mezes. “Then we spread it on our crops through the pivot system. We have elaborate systems with a complete manure line system underneath the freshwater system, so the manure water doesn’t actually ever get into the irrigation water. Zero contamination.”  In short, they have dual irrigation systems covering more than 800 acres.

Then and now

Si-Ellen hasn’t changed in that it continues to grow. In addition to this dairy, Si-Ellen has another dairy with approximately 3,000 cows and nearly as many heifers, about 10 miles away. “We do very much a similar process there,” says Mezes. “So the total number of animals we’re dealing with is at least 20,000 head.”

Before composting, wet manure was a challenge and Mezes says they didn’t have a sustainable long-term plan without spreading it on nearby fields. “Composting, and reducing the volume and moisture, has allowed us to do more economical trucking so it’s going the needed distance,” says Mezes. “Plus it’s cleaner and smells better and there are very low bacteria and pathogens, in well-made compost.”

The wastewater too had been a constant challenge, and because of an elaborate – and also expensive – system it’s clean enough to move without clogging up pipelines.

Mezes is proud to say that the farm has finally developed a composting and water system on a big enough scale to handle its volume. “It’s no longer a constant headache. But it’s taken a long time to develop it.

“According to the banks, we are not the most profitable dairy. We put a lot of money back into the farm,” says Mezes. “But when people come here they say, ‘What a clean, wonderful dairy!’”


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