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Cleaning up

Possible solutions for lessening the impact of animal waste—scientific, technological and economic—are discussed

July 1, 2001


Douglas Clement Senior Writer

The controversy over feedlots won't be easily resolved. But a number of potential or partial solutions may be in the air—some scientific, others technologic or economic.

The scientific solutions are still in the dream stage. A Montana firm, Victor Industries, announced in March that it's beginning field trials on a product that would absorb ammonia and phosphates generated by cattle before they pollute groundwater. USDA scientists in Nebraska recently reported that adding a gram of essential oils from oregano or thyme can block odors in a half-liter of cattle waste and might reduce fecal bacterial pathogens as well, but more tests are under way.

And in a move that may both delight and horrify environmentalists, Canadian biotechnologists have just genetically engineered a mouse to better metabolize phosphates in its food, thus reducing phosphorous levels in its feces; with time, the same might be done for barnyard beasts. Other scientists are developing DNA libraries that will enable future regulators to pinpoint whether bacterial pollution in a river started at an upstream sewer, feedlot or manure-laden field.

Other ideas look at manure as an asset rather than a liability. In central Minnesota, Dennis Haubenschild heats the manure from his 850 dairy cows in an anaerobic digester, creating biogas that's about 60 percent methane. The methane powers a generator that creates electricity, one-third of which runs the farm; the rest is sold back to the local electric cooperative. The digested manure is then spread on fields, but its milder smell diffuses quickly. The project received $355,000 in state and federal grants and loans, and university economists are now evaluating the project's long-term financial viability.

South Dakota's Office of Economic Development gave a $402,500 grant last October for a feasibility study of a similar but larger scheme in southern Sully County—a $40 million cattle feedlot that would employ up to 50 people and use 8 million bushels of local corn each year to feed about 70,000 cows. The resulting manure—digested anaerobically to reduce odor—would generate 15 million gallons of ethanol.

An even larger deal is being discussed in north central Montana, where local developers are planning a $115 million hog-processing plant near Conrad. In a seemingly Rube Goldberg complex of technologies, the facility would include two sites. The first would slaughter pigs, digest their waste into methane and fertilizer, grow crops and generate electricity. The second would vaporize landfill, thereby creating nitrogen for cooling the slaughtered pigs and hydrogen for powering fuel cells. The cells would create electricity, fed onto Montana's thirsty power grid along with electricity generated from ethanol distilled on-site from local corn. Got that? Think it'll work? Some area residents are skeptical, but the promise of 500 jobs has local and state officials interested. The Montana Growth Through Agriculture Council issued a $50,000 grant to develop a business plan.

Some see the feedlot waste problem as a question of distribution and marketing. Manure, after all, is a valuable commodity, a store of nitrogen and phosphorous that farmers and gardeners seek to fertilize their soil. Creating markets and distribution channels for manure would enable feedlot owners to sell as a benefit what is otherwise a burden. "The engineers and the producers haven't had the vision to look at manure as a resource," argues Mark Jenner, an economist at the American Farm Bureau Federation. If they created a stable fertilizer product out of feedlot manure, he says, producers could sell it to areas that need it. "I've worked with people who do some amazing things with manure," he added. "There is money to be made. Home Depot can ship manure products across this country and sell it in their retail outlets."

Of course, others suggest that rather than distributing manure through retail chains, it would make more sense to disperse the animals more widely—distribute the manure before it's produced. Hoping to rush back to the future, Greg Krause and John Dutcher, farmers in the eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan, have adopted small-scale livestock production techniques. The two established the Big North Cooperative in 1999 to market meat and poultry that they produce using "free range" foraging rather than feedlot systems. Essentially the farmers intend to create an upscale niche—a reasonable reaction in any industry faced with falling prices and massive consolidation. Whether they'll make it is anyone's guess. Kraus didn't divulge the co-op's financial status other than to say, "We're doing okay."

Douglas Clement
Senior Writer

Douglas Clement was a managing editor at the Minneapolis Fed, where he wrote about research conducted by economists and other scholars associated with the Minneapolis Fed and interviewed prominent economists.