Oregon AG making magic out of manure

Oregon animal industries look to turn waste into a resource
By Oregon Department of Agriculture

It’s not exactly the fairy tale theme of turning straw into gold, but Oregon livestock operators are generally succeeding in turning animal manure into something beneficial. From utilizing the nutrients found in animal waste as a fertilizer for crops, to deriving methane gas from manure, dairies and other operations are taking a perceived negative and creating a positive.

“Manure is a reality for dairies and other livestock operations, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing,” says Wym Matthews, manager of the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) Program. “Clearly, there needs to be good manure management, but there are many benefits to properly taking care of the animal waste.”

Oregon’s 565 CAFOs include feedlots, ranches, dairies, poultry operations, hog farms, mink farms, livestock auction yards, and even dog kennels. But they all have one thing in common- they can produce a great deal of animal waste. ODA’s CAFO program issues permits to these operations to help ensure that animal waste does not impact nearby surface waters or groundwater.

Nearly 270 permits are issued to dairies, perhaps the most active group in dealing with manure issues. Those permits require a plan on how the operator deals with manure. If not handled properly, manure can become a pollutant. So there is an environmental impetus for doing things right. However, dairy operators are now discovering there can also be an economic benefit from managing manure.

“Pulling nutrients from the waste stream and putting them to use growing a crop has been going on for a long time,” says Matthews. “Most farms used to have a livestock component because the manure was valuable. The price of fertilizer remains high because synthetic nitrogen is petroleum based and oil prices are not likely to retreat to pre-2007 levels. If a farmer can retain or reclaim nitrogen from manure and use it in a cropping system without losing it, that’s a bottom line cash benefit for the operation.”

The classic cycle includes the cow eating forage as it grows in the pasture, manure is produced by the cow and collected by the dairy operator, the manure is applied to the pasture to provide the nutrients to grow the forage crop which ends up back in the cow’s mouth. While traditional “recycling” of animal waste is still a major way to deal with the issue, Oregon’s dairy industry has been on the cutting edge in developing innovative ways to manage manure, including its use as an energy source.

“Manure could be like bio-diesel and help reduce our dependence on foreign oil for fertilizer and fuel production,” says Matthews.

Anaerobic digestion of manure can produce methane. Oregon dairy operators consider these so-called methane digesters an option for some producers.

“We don’t have animal waste on our dairy, we call it a natural resource,” says Polk County dairy operator Bernie Faber, member of the State Board of Agriculture. “It’s a matter of how you use the manure and where you put it. We choose to put it where it is useful, and that is a methane digester on our farm.”

Faber’s 350-cow CalGon Dairy partnered with Portland General Electric in the construction of the digester with the hope that it could produce enough methane to create electricity. While the original pilot project did not produce the amount of power PGE initially hoped for, CalGon’s methane digester has done an excellent job of handling animal waste in an environmentally-friendly way while actually adding value to cow manure. The process produces weed-free compost that can be sold to nurseries and gardeners.

“The digester helps with nutrient management, water quality, and air quality- including odor,” says Faber. “However, the cost effectiveness for a dairy is not there yet from the standpoint of energy recovery.”

Faber estimates it costs anywhere from $600,000 up to well over a million dollars to construct a methane digester, depending on the size of the operation. That kind of investment is hard for dairies to make, but a handful have constructed digesters or are making plans to do so.

One of the fastest growing sectors of agriculture- organic production- may provide an excellent outlet for animal waste from dairies. Manure and compost made from manure has been a significant fertilizer source for organic farms that eschew the use of chemical imputs to grow their crops.

The siting of new dairies has been a challenge in some parts of the state as nearby residents question the environmental impact of a neighboring operation. Odor associated with dairies is certainly a factor nationwide, not just in Oregon. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency later this year concludes its research on the actual impact of CAFOs on air quality, many dairy operators are doing what they can to be a good neighbor.

“Some of the new technologies reduce impacts from these facilities and make the manure product more manageable,” says ODA’s Matthews. “But the biggest factor continues to be the operator and how well they manage the facility. It used to be that manure was one of the last things dairies worried about. They were more concerned with milking the cows and pasture management. But there is now more scrutiny by the surrounding community. For dairy operators, environmental concerns remain a high priority.”

The economic benefit of the state’s dairy industry should not be overlooked. Oregon dairies generate more than $400 million each year in sales and provide a significant number of local jobs. In 2009, dairy products ranked third of all Oregon agricultural commodities in terms of sales. There is every reason to believe the state can continue to benefit from this economic activity without sacrificing the environment.

“Let’s not vilify manure,” he says. “Our dairies are trying to be economically viable but still be a good neighbor and not pollute. The industry has heard loud and clear it needs to responsibly handle animal waste.”

Many operators are doing what they can to turn what is usually considered a liability into an asset.

For more information, contact Wym Matthews at (503) 986-4792.

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