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Make Manure Great Again: New Tech Challenge Aims to Put Animal Waste to Work

North Carolina is the second-largest pork-producing location in the U.S., home to roughly 8.9 million hogs across 2,300 industrial pig farms – and their manure. To manage this massive amount of animal waste, farmers have designed hog houses with slatted floors that allow the manure to fall through the slats and into drains that carry it out of the house into massive pools called hog lagoons. The manure slowly decomposes in the open-air pit becoming fertilizer over time.

When Hurricane Florence pummeled North Carolina in September 2018, hog farmers raced to drain their lagoons for fear that the extreme winds and flooding would cause massive spills. When a hog lagoon ruptures, it can cause major human and environmental health problems including poisoned drinking water, phosphorous blooms in local waterways, spoilage of cropland, and the spread of pollutants like fuel residue. The damage from a single hog lagoon rupture can be devastating, resulting in dead wildlife and livestock.

North Carolina’s hog farms and other confined animal feeding operations produce 10 billion gallons of fecal waste each year, which could fill more than 15,000 Olympic-size swimming pools, according to Environmental Working Group. North Carolina’s 100-year floodplain still contain 62 confined animal feeding operations with over 235,000 hogs, and 30 other operations house more than 1.8 million chickens. To capture the animals’ manure, 166 open-air lagoons sit directly within the floodplain while 366 more lagoons sit within 100 feet of the floodplain.

Hurricane Florence wasn’t the first time that North Carolina suffered a massive statewide manure spill. In 1999, Hurricane Floyd wreaked havoc on the state pouring as much as 2 feet of rain in some regions causing lagoon walls to rupture and killing over 20,000 pigs.

But the widespread media coverage of Florence’s threat to North Carolina’s hog farms drew the public’s attention to a very smelly and very dangerous problem in agricultural production — not the massive amount of manure that farmers manage each year, but the way in which the manure is collected, handled, and disseminated.

Last year, North Carolina residents filed public nuisance lawsuits against Smithfield Foods and Murphy-Brown alleging that the operations’ hog manure lagoons created a major nuisance in the form of odors and potential health concerns. Three of the lawsuits ended in more than $500 million being awarded to the plaintiffs.

Where Tech and Manure Collide

“Farms used to be more integrated systems, with pasture for animals to graze, crop production, and by-products that went to the livestock. The manure was applied back to the land. It was a more balanced system compared with nowadays when crops are grown in other places, sometimes very far away. Liquid manure is too expensive and too hard to haul to a crop site and it may not consist of the right ratios,” Sandra Vijn, director, dairy, sustainable food at World Wildlife Fund, tells AgFunderNews.

“Circular farming is what we would like to see, which consists of many farmers applying manure back to the land and growing crops to feed humans, and the by-products go to the animals who produce more manure to feed the crops. Nowadays, it’s broken. We want to bring those systems back and to bring back the nutrients to the farmland so that we can utilize them to the fullest extent.”

WWF is joining forces with The Yield Lab Institute, Newtrient, and Dairy Farmers of America to organize a start-up competition for solution providers that market manure-based products and services. Through The Manure Challenge, the group is hoping to put manure-based product marketing on the map by selecting a group of solution providers and guiding them through a commercialization curriculum coupled with mentorship and introduction to sources of capital.

Manure: A sacred input for some

For many farmers, especially those who rotationally graze their livestock and finish animals on grass instead of on feed in a feedlot, manure is a sacred input that replenishes pastures, provides insight into each animal’s health, and feeds organic matter in the soil making for rich and fertile ground.

But as the livestock industry became heavily consolidated, so did the animals’ manure. Like hog production, poultry production is particularly rife with concentrations of manure as laying hens and meat birds are confined in large houses until the day they are shipped to the processor. Even in nearly emerged free-range production, the birds are kept in large houses and provided with limited access to the outdoors, if at all. 

Manure management isn’t necessarily an issue of mega farms vs. small farms, either.

“Even small-scale dairy farmers have manure pits and lagoons with excess manure particularly in seasons where it cannot be applied to land. They have to find solutions to deal with that, so this challenge is also trying to help small-scale farmers.”

Many states have adopted manure management regulations to ensure that manure is handled in a safe and environmentally conscious manner, forcing farmers to take certain actions regarding their animals’ daily output. These laws adopt a variety of solutions, reflecting essential steps to manure management: collection, storage, treatment, transfer, and utilization.

Manure can be stored dry and handled as solids, or liquefied. Liquid manure can be digested anaerobically to produce biogas for energy production. Without a cover, however, the liquid manure releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The most common use of manure is as fertilizer on cropland or pastureland, but the industrialization of food production has put thousands of miles between the places where livestock is raised and row crops are grown. There are also health considerations when applying manure to human food crops.

Because farmers face regulatory pressure to manage manure and in light of the environmental implications, there have been a few industry-led, tech-driven efforts, as well.

California recently awarded a $90 million grant to dairy tech start-up CalBio to help the major dairy producing state meet its goal of reducing methane emissions from the dairy and livestock industry by 40% by 2030. The funds will be used to help advance the use of manure digesters on California dairy farms by building and operating an interconnection pipeline. The pipeline will transport biogas produced on farms to conversion facilities, where it’s turned into Renewable Compressed Natural Gas.

In 2018, Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork processor and hog producer, launched a partnership with Florida start-up Anuvia Plant Nutrients to convert the hog manure created by the company’s farming operations into fertilizer.

A Lot of Livestock Means a Lot of Manure – and A Lot of Untapped Value

AgriFood Tech has become a distinct and growing sector, attracting a record $16.9 billion in venture capital funding last year according to AgFunder’s 2018 AgriFood Tech Investing Report

With all that capital, it’s hard to understand why more start-ups haven’t set their sights on bringing innovation and disruption to manure management. 

“It’s certainly not sexy. It’s not the latest food trend coming out of Silicon Valley. It’s something hidden in the supply chain, but it is a valuable resource and it’s a pollutant, so there’s an urgent need to bring this on the radar,” Vijn says.

The amount of manure produced through agricultural enterprises in the U.S. is staggering. Although there are existing manure management systems and practices that are designed to make some use of the waste, there is undoubtedly untapped potential floating in hog lagoons and poultry litter piles.

In 2017, the meat and poultry industry processed 9.4 billion livestock animals according to the North American Meat Institute. That’s a staggering amount of meat, but it’s also a staggering amount of manure to account for, too.

Manure isn’t an issue unique to one particular region over another. Nearly half of the 2.1 million farms in operation as of the 2012 Census of Agriculture reported having cattle and calves, according to the USDA.

To put it on a more tangible scale, the manure from a 200-cow dairy produces as much nitrogen as the sewage from a community of 5,000 to 10,000 people according to the National Resource Conservation Service. The annual litter produced from a typical meat-bird house containing 22,000 birds produces as much phosphorous as the sewage from a community of 6,000 people.

The waste products that animals produce don’t only consist of manure, either. Bedding, spilled feed, and other substances that have become contaminated with manure are also often swept into the lagoons or other holding areas.

NRCS took the research even further to determine how much manure each species produces on a daily basis. The research project calculated the average daily output for each species based on a 1,000-pound animal unit to account for the major size differences between a large-framed dairy cow and a slight laying hen. 

The study concluded that a 1,000-pound beef cow produces 59.1 pounds of manure per day. A dairy cow of the same weight produces 80 pounds. Hogs and pigs produce 63.1 pounds of manure per day per 1,000-pound animal unit while laying hens produce 60.5 pounds and broilers produce 80 pounds. Turkeys produce the least amount at 43.6 pounds.

“We know there are a lot of programs and practices that farmers are using to manage and apply manure, but we also see a need for farmers to better manage the lagoons and storage they have on their farms,” Vijn said. “Even with the programs from the government and other sources, there are still accidental manure spills, runoff, and GHG emissions. If manure is managed well, there’s a big opportunity to improve food production efficiency, soil health, clean water, and GHG reductions.”

The Manure Challenge

Through The Manure Challenge, Vijn and the partners hope to identify new solutions that are not on existing manure management companies’ radar. They also want to raise awareness among supply chain partners about the possibility or reducing farm level impacts through better manure management.

“A lot of companies have set goals to reduce GHG emissions by 30% by 2030, and they have dairy in their supply chains. They’re all turning to their supply chains asking what solutions can help us get to our goal. This challenge could raise awareness about some of these solutions and bring together parties to invest them and bring them to scale,” Vijn explains. “This can help us look beyond traditional biogas digesters that require a lot of investment and that are really hard to maintain because they require external experts. We are really hoping to find smaller scale solutions that are more user-friendly and take less investment.”

The road to making manure matter is littered with some challenges. Getting farmers to adopt new technologies is always a challenge, especially when it requires an initial investment without a clear sense of when the returns will arrive. The trick to marketing manure tech will be the same as most other on-farm innovations: leading with the value proposition.

“I grew up on a farm and my dad was hesitant to invest in stuff like this, but if there is proof of it working, bringing in money, and making life easier in terms of complying with laws or staying ahead of the laws and it isn’t so hard to implement, then farmers will be interested,” Vijn explained. “I also know farmers love to visit with other farmers and to understand what they are doing, so if there is room in this challenge for demonstrations of the technologies, it would really help.”

Editor's Note: The author of this article is Lauren Manning. This story originally appeared in AgFunderNews.

Want more agriculture, technology and investment news? Visit AgFunderNews.com for daily news and interviews with ag tech start-ups, investors, and more.

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