Timing is also a problem. Livestock produce manure 24/7 – even when it is impractical or unwise to move it to the field. Delivering manure to the field needs to be timed to nutrient needs, soil moisture levels, and temperature. How can farmers handle this timing issue, as well as other manure problems?
In cities, sewers and water treatment facilities deal with human waste. On farms, manure storage lagoons can hold the manure until the time is ripe. This solves the timing and delivery problem – but what about odor and gas emissions?
In addition to the inconvenience of odor, manure can release gases connected to air pollution and climate change. Methane, nitrous oxide, ammonia, and hydrogen sulfide are examples. Scientist Brian Dougherty and colleagues researched methods to reduce these negatives while potentially adding some positives: biochar covers.
Biochar is plant matter, such as straw, woody debris, or corn stalks, that has been heated to high temperatures in a low- to no-oxygen environment. The result is a black, carbon-rich material similar to charcoal.
Dougherty says biochar is like a sponge.
“Biochar provides a structure with lots of empty pore space,” he says. “The outer surface may appear small but the interior surface area is absolutely massive. A few ounces of biochar can have an internal surface area the size of a football field. There is a lot of potential there for holding on to water and nutrients.”
In addition to its hidden storage capacity, the surface of the biochar tends to have a chemical charge. This gives biochar the ability to attract and hold nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium ions, metals, and other compounds. Biochar can also float (some types more than others). That attribute means it can trap gases at the water’s surface.
Growing up on a dairy farm, Dougherty is no stranger to the challenges of manure storage.
“Once I realized the properties of biochar, I thought it had good potential for a lagoon cover,” he says.
Dougherty’s research studied two liquid dairy manures with differing nutrient levels. It also studied two types of biochars, made at different temperatures. Biochar is somewhat fickle, showcasing different properties when created at different temperatures. He also included pails of manure with a straw cover for comparison, and au natural with no cover as his control.
The research found that the biochars picked up the most nutrients from the more concentrated manure with a higher nutrient content.
“The biochar will take up whatever it can, so if there are more nutrients available the potential for nutrient uptake is greater,” Dougherty says.
Nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are nutrients with the greatest economic value on a farm, but applying them in excess of what the crop can take up can lead to nutrient loss to the watershed.
Dougherty also measured the ammonia at the top of each pail. Ammonia and sulfates are the main source of manure’s odor. The cooler-crafted biochar did best here, reducing ammonia by 72 to 80 percent. It also floated better. But because it floated better and tended to repel water, it was less effective at attracting and attaching to the nutrients than the warmer-crafted biochar.
Biochar is currently more expensive to buy than straw, but Dougherty is undaunted. Biochar could have a good economic return: excess farm and forestry residue could be used to create the biochar on site. This process generates energy that could be used heat water and warm buildings during colder months. There is also potential for generating electricity, fuels, and other by-products using more sophisticated equipment. After its use in the lagoon, the biochar could be spread on fields as needed. Any excess could be sold as a high-value fertilizer product.
And biochar has great environmental benefits.
“Anything you can do to prevent gases from escaping the lagoon is a good thing,” Dougherty says. “Biochar applied to soils – particularly poorer quality soils – is very helpful. Making biochar can also help reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. A portion of the carbon dioxide that was taken in during plant growth ends up as a very stable form of carbon in the soil. The overall picture has multiple benefits.”
Dougherty’s research did not avoid the obvious. Would biochar or straw best improve the dairy air? Since the human nose knows, Dougherty recruited a panel of judges. The weather intervened, however, with freezing temperatures and rain affecting the odor intensity over the 12-week trial. Despite these challenges, three different biochars were shown to reduce odor from liquid dairy manure, whereas a straw cover was not effective.
“Determining the best trade-off of biochar properties will be an important next step,” Dougherty says. “More research could find the right biochar production temperature, particle size, pH, and float properties. The potential is there.”
This portion of the research still needs to be sniffed out.
Read more about Dougherty’s biochar research in Journal of Environmental Quality.
Proper management and maintenance is necessary to prevent manure from overflowing or discharging from a storage system. Whether the manure storage is in an earthen tank, a slurry store, or a deep pit, the basic principles to maintaining and managing the storage structure are similar. In any case, frequent evaluation and preventative maintenance will significantly reduce your risk and keep your manure where you want it.
- Monitor the operating level of your manure storages. Have a staff gauge or a method for determining how much manure is already in your storage. Keeping track of how much manure is there can give insight into if you have enough capacity to make it to your next land application window. If you are worried you may run short this will give you an early opportunity to evaluate how you are going to handle the situation when your storage gets full. Monitoring the level can also alert you to if anything unexpected is occurring, for instance, your manure storage isn’t filling up or filling up really quickly because of a water leak or outside drainage water getting in.
- Visual structure inspection. A quick look over the storage can tell you a lot about how your structure is holding up – as you walk around, pay close attention to inlet points, connections, and where the sidewalls connect to the base. To make this easier make sure you are mowing around your storage and cutting down trees, watching for animal burrows, and making sure clean water is being diverted around your manure storage structure.
- Odor evaluation. I know odor can be a stink of a topic, but it’s something we have to deal with. Make it a part of your routine to go around your farm once a week and make a note of the odor intensity and what neighbors may be smelling. Unfortunately there usually are not easy fixes, but for those of you interested in learning more about potential odor options check out AMPAT.
- Safety check. We all recognize there are some safety challenges to working in and around manure storage systems. Take the time to review your safety protocols and update as needed. Taking the time to go over them will remind everyone that they are important and to protect us. While you are at it make sure to check any fences, escape ladders, and warning signs you have posted to make sure they are still in good shape, readable, and present.
- Clean water diversions. Minimizing outside water entering a manure storage helps keep nutrient concentrations higher making it an economic fertilizer for a farm to use. Check over the clean water diversions around your farm to make sure things like silage piles, mortality compost piles, and in-ground manure storage piles aren’t receiving water from other areas.
- Application equipment. Manure equipment lives a tough life, it gets used quick for a month and then put away. Take the time to check it over now before you need it again this fall and get that one last part that you’ve been meaning to fix.
Still, when a farmer decides to build a lagoon to store millions of gallons of liquid manure, the neighbors are often disappointed to find out they have little say in the matter. They can also be shocked to hear that government sometimes requires manure storage and even helps pay for it.
Since 1994, 461 manure storages have been built with state financial help, according to the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets. Others are privately or federally funded.
The "Right to Farm" is a state law that protects 25,316 farms on 6.5 million of those 9-million acres of agricultural districts. The rest of that land is occupied by people who do not farm.
Mike McMahon, of McMahon's EZ Acres in Homer, allowed us to fly a drone over the lagoon on his dairy farm and explained how it was designed.
McMahon, other farmers and government officials say storage is the best practice to protect the environment from runoff.
Storage allows farmers to spread manure on fields on only the best days - when the soil is dry and less likely to run off of wet and frozen ground into lakes and streams. READ MORE
May 25, 2016, State College, PA – An online tool has been developed to help save the lives of people who enter manure storage facilities on the farm.
Dennis Murphy, Nationwide Insurance professor of agriculture, safety and health, says pits are designed for the safety of animals but there are complicated computations for designing adequate ventilation for people. That’s where the tool comes in for builders, designers and engineer. READ MORE
Recently, researchers have received a grant to study the risks posed by the gases – especially fast-acting hydrogen sulfide.
An unidentified farm near Lititz is included in the study funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Matching partners include Penn State, the Pennsylvania State Conservation Commission, USA Gypsum and Industrial Scientific Corp., a gas-detection equipment maker. READ MORE
The incident occurred on the afternoon of June 16 after the daughter collapsed into the manure pit when she tried to pick up her mobile phone. READ MORE
That’s because people who try to help can fall victim to the same toxic fumes that overcame the first person.
And it might become more common, because of factors such as pressure to build more manure storage facilities to avoid polluting ground water, and that fact that the number of farms is decreasing, but the average size is increasing. READ MORE
November 30, 2012, Clear Lake, IA — An Iowa-based company is using a well-established manure pit product combined with a new delivery system to simplify manure management on hog and dairy farms.
Advanced Biologicals plans to take the product – developed 30 or 40 years ago but now combined with a new delivery system called the Waste Away Injection System – nationwide by establishing a dealer network. The company is holding a series of informational meetings in northern Iowa and southern Minnesota starting in early December to introduce producers and possible dealers to the product. READ MORE
Jul. 16, 2012 - Concentrated livestock production facilities often store and treat manure in lagoons or deep pits. However, this practice can result in the production of noxious odors that adversely affect air quality, livestock health and human health.
Agricultural Research Service (ARS) researchers are looking at a range of options for mitigating the odors associated with manure storage, including methods that target the bacteria responsible for odor production. ARS is the chief intramural scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and this research supports the USDA priority of ensuring food safety.
ARS microbiologists Terry Whitehead and Mike Cotta at the agency’s National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, Ill., conducted population surveys to identify and characterize the different bacteria that live in these environments. One of their goals was to find strains of hyper-ammonia-producing (HAP) bacteria, which can produce and release significantly larger amounts of ammonia than other types of bacteria.
When Whitehead and Cotta conducted an isolation procedure for bacteria that may produce ammonia, they found seven unknown bacterial isolates. Using additional gene sequencing techniques, the researchers analyzed these isolates and confirmed that they belonged to a previously-unknown bacterial species in the genus Peptostreptococcus. Until this discovery, researchers had only identified two other species—P. anaerobius and P. stomatis—within the genus Peptostreptococcus.
This new species produced such prodigious amounts of ammonia that it met the criteria for classification as a HAP bacterium. The scientists think studying this newly identified species could provide valuable information about the mechanisms involved in the production of noxious odors in manure pits. This knowledge, in turn, could help in the development of strategies for mitigating the microbial processes that result in these odors.
The new species was named Peptostreptococcus russellii, in honor of the late James B. Russell, an ARS researcher who made many substantial contributions to rumen microbiology, including the initial isolation of HAP bacteria.
Results from this study were published in the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology. You can read an abstract of the research here.
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Farm Science Review 2017Tue Sep 19, 2017 @ 8:00AM - 05:00PM
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