All animal agriculture must deal with the issue of waste and how to dispose of it. Manure, which is composed of the indigestible, unusable portions of feedstuffs, is cumbersome and expensive to dispose of. It releases volatile gases as it decomposes and can pose a health hazard if not stored and managed appropriately. Manure is the perfect growth medium for E. coli and salmonella. For insects, half-dried piles of manure are luxury accommodations in which to raise their families.
Manure is well-known for its value as a fertilizer and soil amendment. However, in many cases, especially for large cattle operations, there’s far more manure produced than there is available cropland on which to spread it. Often, it can’t be applied in a timely manner due to weather conditions. Overapplication, heavy rains and uncontrolled runoff enable manure and its accompanying nutrients to find their way into surface water and underground aquifers, resulting in contaminated water supplies or algae growth and oxygen deprivation in riparian habitat.
Waste products from animals consist of cellulose and other carbohydrates, as well as small amounts of proteins and other nitrogen compounds, phosphorus, potassium and other salts. The organic molecules in manure still have nutritional value that can be recirculated into both the human and animal food chains, as well as fertilizer and soil amendments for plants. While manure may be a valuable resource that enables a farmer to make a living, it can also be the cause of pollution that destroys the livelihood of others or adversely impacts drinking water.
We need only consider the algae bloom in Lake Erie in early August 2014. Because of the toxins coming from blue-green algae, the drinking water in Toledo, Ohio, was undrinkable for a time. The algae growth was attributed to excessive phosphorus coming from agriculture along the western shores of the lake and triggered by weather conditions. Almost every year we are also reminded of the “dead zone” at the mouth of the Mississippi River in the Gulf of Mexico. Again, excess nitrogen and phosphorus coming from agriculture along the Mississippi watershed are blamed for the death of sea life, affecting large portions of the economy in that region.
Like it or not, it’s now a necessity to undertake responsible, effective management of animal waste, along with “nutrient management,” a more recently coined term. Gone are the days when a farmer could allow manure-contaminated rainwater to run uncontrolled through a field and into a pond or stream. Manure, whether it’s a liquefied slurry or in solid form, must be stored so that it’s contained and does not leach into the surrounding land. Local and federal water authorities now aggressively manage point-source contamination of waterways. Manure storage and effluent containment facilities are being required on more and more farms across the country.
In the northeastern U.S., where rain and snow are abundant and lakes and streams can be found around every bend in the road, keeping manure out of the environment is a challenge. As population densities increase in many rural areas and more homes border waterways or lakes, pollution of water and riparian habitat is no longer tolerated. People are becoming more aware of the importance of reducing pollution as they realize there’s not an infinite supply of clean water.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for protecting the well-being of the environment, including water. Animal agriculture and the accompanying waste have been singled out for their tendency to pollute aquifers with nitrates and riparian habitat with excessive levels of nitrogen and phosphorus. Manure brings with it nitrogen and phosphorus, which promote excessive plant growth in ponds, lakes, rivers and estuaries, depriving them of oxygen for aquatic species or polluting water to such an extent that it is unusable for human consumption.
In the broadest sense, nutrient management planning encompasses more than just managing animal waste. A nutrient management plan considers the entire nutrient cycle as it moves from soil to crop to animal and back to the soil as manure. This article will focus on the importance of livestock farms that accumulate large quantities of manure during the course of a year and must store and manage nutrients in an environmentally acceptable fashion.
In Rochdale, Massachusetts, the Cooper family has been farming for nearly a century. In this part of Massachusetts, Coopers’ Hilltop Dairy Farm is the only dairy for miles around. Since Grandma Cooper purchased the very first cow shortly after World War I, they have been processing and retailing all of the milk they produce, so they enjoy a special niche market and a tremendous amount of respect from customers who drive many miles to purchase their products. After years of delivering dairy products door-to-door, the Coopers now sell their dairy products from a retail store.
Recognizing how fragile and tenuous public opinion can be concerning dairy products, agricultural sustainability and cow health, the Coopers have been proactive in showing their community and customers that they intend to do what’s right where the environment is concerned.
The nonfarming public often has difficulty understanding the challenges dairy farms face and the extra costs associated with new environmental requirements. Nevertheless, the public expects all of its food coming from animals or the ground to be free of dirt or pathogens, while at the same time having a minimal impact on the environment. The onus falls on the shoulders of those involved in animal agriculture to expend the extra effort to represent the industry as being clean and health-conscious as well as environmentally responsible. Fortunately, federal and state agencies understand that meeting these requirements can pose a significant financial burden and have stepped in to help with the cost of keeping the environment clean.
James Cooper (the fourth generation of Coopers on the farm) explained that in 2007 they recognized that the existing barn drain system was no longer acceptable. The water being used in the creamery and bottling facility needed to be properly disposed of in the municipal sewer system. With the help of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a nutrient management plan was developed to not only take care of the water used to process and bottle the milk, but to eventually put in place a manure storage and retrieval system that would eliminate the potential for manure pollution in the surrounding countryside.
The Massachusetts NRCS provides a host of experts in soil conservation, agronomy, biology and geology who will help dairy farmers plan for the best way to manage waste. Bringing all these disciplines together ensures that any dairy farm, big or small, can effectively and economically manage manure. With NRCS expertise, calculations are made for a manure handling and storage system based on the manure output of the dairy herd, including the bedding that’s used in the barn.
Whether a dairy uses a tie-stall barn for a few dozen cows or is a freestall operation with a thousand cows, farmers must clean barns, barnyards, gutters and walkways every day and store the manure for future use. In most tie-stall barns, manure is transported by the venerable drag-and-chain barn cleaner and dumped outside the barn. Manure is piled and moved and stored, and then moved again when the pile gets too big. Manure piles are usually exposed to the elements, and excess nutrients leach into the soil. The manure eventually makes it out to a field when time and weather permit. This is the type of manure handling the NRCS would like to eliminate.
Even though the Coopers milk 40 to 50 cows, staying ahead of and managing the manure was a never-ending chore. A manure spreader was parked under the barn cleaner and had to be emptied every day during the winter months; the manure was piled somewhere on the property. During the summer, with cows on pasture, they still had to empty the spreader every second day. Spreading was also problematic. During the summer when the corn was growing, that ground couldn’t be used. Cooper explained that they often had to spread manure on a hayfield that was almost ready to cut just so they could get rid of the manure. Come springtime and summer, it was a mad rush to get manure onto the fields.
In 2012, a manure pumping and storage system was completed at the Coopers’ dairy with the help of the NRCS. A Jamesway vertical piston pump was installed adjacent to the cow barn. A covered cement storage pit with a capacity of about 30,000 cubic feet was located approximately 100 feet from the barn. An underground pipe connects the pump to the storage pit. The barn cleaner was replaced and now reaches the piston pump. The costs for the pump and storage facility were funded by the NRCS; the Coopers covered the costs for the barn cleaner and new roofing on a shed.
Now the manure flows under the driveway and into the 8-foot-deep pit and stays there until a field needs it. It’s protected from the weather, and the cement storage basin prevents nutrients from leaching into the soil. The NRCS designed the storage pit to hold six months’ worth of manure. The Coopers empty the pit twice per year, spreading it on approximately 100 acres used for corn and hay crops.
Cooper noted that one of the nice things about this new system is that it has made working with manure much more convenient. Manure removal from the barn is nearly automatic, and it can be stored without fear of contaminating the neighboring habitat. Fields can now be fertilized when they need it, saving everyone a lot of time and money. Most importantly, it allows the Coopers to manage valuable nutrients more effectively and efficiently, which is a win-win situation for the environment and the family, ensuring that Coopers’ Hilltop Dairy Farm will continue to provide fresh dairy products to their customers for many years to come.