Manure can be a management struggle for producers, but a Nebraska dairy has utilized the cow byproduct to increase sustainability and interaction with consumers.
The philosophy at Prairieland Dairy, near Firth, Neb., revolves around 1,400 cows as assets and what they produce: milk, meat and manure. The three M’s.
Marketing milk and meat are easy. Manure, not so much. Ten years ago, Prairieland decided it needed to find a place to go with its manure because the dairy could only spread so much of it on fields, says general manager Dan Rice.
“We want to market all three of those things to the best of our ability. We feel the best way we can market our manure is through compost, at least the solid portion of our manure,” Rice relates.
Liquid and solid manure are separated at the farm. Some 75% of the liquid manure is spread on neighboring farm fields, with the remainder used by Prairieland Dairy. Solids are recycled out and used in compost.
“As we got farther down the road into composting and learned more about it, we realized there was a great need for it in this area for the displaced biodegradables from the landfill,” Rice adds. “That is when we started to talk to people about bringing yard waste and food waste here.”
Some of the compostable items include waste popcorn from a local food manufacturer, drywall from construction sites and uneaten cafeteria food from Norris Middle School.
Helping people recycle their yard and food waste rather than taking it to the landfill has been an important part of the program, says Jacob Hickey, Prairieland business development and PR director.
“About 85% of the waste that goes to the landfill is organic and compostable. We would rather bring that into here and reuse it as a valuable product than go to a landfill,” Hickey adds.
The waste items are mixed with the manure solids and laid out in windrows to let the composting process begin.
A tractor attachment assists with the composting by chopping and turning the rows. The machine also aerates and adds moisture into the mixture.
Prairieland Dairy markets the majority of the compost in bulk semitrailer loads to landscapers in the Lincoln, Neb., area. Yet more than 25% leaves the farm in the back of pickup trucks for local gardeners. Another 5% is bagged and sold.
“As far as selling the compost we really don’t make a whole lot of money on the compost itself,” Rice says. “We actually make the money on the tipping fees from bringing the products in here and displacing it from the landfill.”
Businesses and people who dump waste at the dairy are charged the same tipping fee rate a landfill would apply.
The goal is to use 50% dairy manure and 50% outside waste that is displaced from the landfill. “We’re probably at 10% outside waste right now, so we’ve got a lot of room to grow. It is just a huge growth opportunity for us,” Rice says.
Food waste has the potential to fill that gap in outside waste. The only problem is 47% of food waste in the U.S. comes from residential areas. That makes collection, going house to house, difficult for an operation such as Prairieland.
“Where guys are really making that work is places that it is mandated by the city to separate everything that is biodegradable,” Rice says. Going forward Rice plans to work with industrial, grocery store and institutional waste.
At the end of the day the success of the compost program still depends on manure. That
opportunity lies in the future when Prairieland Dairy could better utilize the nutrients from the manure.
“We only use about 25% of our liquid manure on our own ground. Everything else gets supplied to neighbors. Then we buy the silage back from them, but there is still a lot more opportunity there,” Rice says.
“If you look at manure from dairy cows or any livestock, there is a huge potential there for fertilizer value. Most large dairies today are not capturing the full value of that,” Rice says.
Rice is looking at systems that will extract and separate those different fertilizer values, such as phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen.
Fertilizer could be sold to neighboring farmers for application. Rather than spreading manure across an entire field, a farmer could take a more targeted approach by utilizing those nutrients.
“That prevents pollution and everything else. That’s been my passion to figure that whole thing out. How we can be better stewards of our manure,” Rice says.
“There’s a huge opportunity there as far as selling fertilizer. It’s selling fertilizer, not manure. We need to figure out how we can do that and do it in a cost effective way,” he adds.