I recently interviewed Terry Feldmann, head of Maurer-Stutz’s agricultural engineering division, about the manure management landscape that dairy producers face today. Feldmann assists livestock producers planning, designing, siting and building new or expanded facilities in Illinois and surrounding states.
Q. What is the most difficult part of getting a state dairy permit for a new facility today?
I think in Illinois by far the most difficult part would be the public hearing process. Not all of them will go through it, but if the facility is large enough to raise concern, the public hearing process is something a producer will have to go through.
Q. What is the most difficult part for existing dairies seeking a permit to expand?
For an existing dairy, the most challenging part (and it’s not always that challenging) can be fitting new components around an existing facility. The hardest part would be weighing the option to discontinue use of part or all of an old facility, tearing it down maybe. That’s hard for people to let go of sometimes.
Q. What kind of criterion should a producer use to evaluate their older existing facilities when considering an expansion?
A lot of expanding dairies have an earthen or concrete outdoor portion of a feedlot exposed to precipitation. If they are going to go through an expansion, they will need to contain all of that runoff. You need to be doing this anyway, even if the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hasn’t caught up with you yet.
Maybe the existing facility doesn’t have any runoff control structures associated with it or maybe they only have enough to give them a couple months’ worth of storage, but new requirements may require you to get up to 150 to 180 days of minimum storage. When you start adding all the rainfall potential during that period, it can really add up and increase your required storage capacity.
Q. Is it getting to the point that you can have sound science behind a permit and be denied simply because of negative public opinion?
I think that’s the case sometimes in some states more than others. It’s a time factor. Certainly, going through the public hearing process delays the timing of things. In some states, that’s worse than others.
If you’re a family operation, particularly if you’ve been there for a while, you have to make that decision whether you’re going to stick through it and fight things in the courts, if that’s what it takes. But it’s not just the cost of lawyers and engineers to do that part of an appeal; there are psychological and social factors involved. It’s a drain mentally on the families involved.
I can’t really say that I truly know what it’s like, but I’ve seen several families go through it. I know it’s tough.
Q. Are you annoyed or angered when environmentalists or activists call your dairy producer clients’ facilities, “factory farms”?
There was probably a point in time where I was more so than I am today. I’m used to these kinds of things. They bounce off me. I’ve heard them for so many years now that I think the level of annoyance is not what it used to be five or 10 years ago.
Q. What’s most challenging to you about describing waste management to government officials or interested parties at public hearings?
Some of the government officials aren’t as bad as the public. Sometimes you really want to hit home with the general public out there, but there are just some people that no matter what you say or how you say it you’re not going to change their minds.
The frustrating part is the claims the environmentalists will make. When environmentalists make claims without any scientific basis or expect you to respond to an accusation that has no foundation, that’s frustrating. That’s probably the toughest part.
Q. How have regulations changed over the course of your career?
When I first started, we didn’t really have much of anything for regulations. The only things that were regulated were releases or discharges. And those things really only came into play if someone called to complain and that call resulted in an investigation by the EPA. So we’ve gone from more of a complaint-driven situation to more of a preventative-type situation.
The next step is going to be more operational because no matter how well you design a system, the wrong guy managing it can still make a mess of things.
I think it’s going to be more about records and documentation. Regulators are going to ask, “Show me how you handle your mortalities and what they were,” or “Show me how you handle your manure and where you spread it and how much,” or “Show documentation that you’re in compliance.”
Q. How are you helping your clients prepare for this operational-type nutrient management planning?
First of all, what we are doing is working with them to develop a comprehensive nutrient management plan, which involves evaluation and planning of the animal waste system at the facility. We evaluate how much manure will be produced, where it will be stored and collected, and whether we have water-quality concerns. We like having a plan of where it’s going to go and what our crop rotations are going to be.
We are providing records and forms for the guy spreading manure to keep track of the number of loads he puts on each field and from which source it came from such as the stacked pad, pit, lagoon or another manure source. And we’re getting annual, if not more frequent, manure analysis of what we’re applying.
Q. Is it difficult to design a nutrient management system that not only meets regulations but is functional for dairy employees?
Yes. It certainly takes more time to do that. I think it’s a little bit easier for me and my team here; we have that background. I grew up knowing what it is like to be getting on and off the tractor to spread manure in the field. I also know the importance of having access to manure and getting it loaded. Scraping lots or dealing with the mechanical aspects of fixing equipment, I can truly appreciate that. Things always fail at the best time – on Christmas Eve when it’s -10ºF.
Q. In your opinion, is it important for a producer to look for a consultant who has experience in functional nutrient management planning?
I think it is very important for people to look for someone who is well-qualified. It does make it easier for someone who has grown up on a farm to have those qualifications. I still get a lot of producers that are shopping more for who will be cheapest on the dollar. That may come back to haunt them later on.
Q. Do you think the day will come when you will be designing new dairies with infrastructure to hook into existing natural gas pipelines or local electric utility grids?
Yes. We’ve already got some systems doing that. And I certainly look for it to increase.
Q. How willing do you think public utilities are to work with producers generating biogas?
Well, a lot of that depends on what comes in the future in terms of federal and state regulations. That might mean forcing utilities to be a little more eager to work with these small power producers because even a dairy with several thousand cows is still only producing 250 to 350 kilowatts (KW) of power. That’s just small peanuts in a utility company’s mind.
I guess the best thing dairy producers with digesters can hope for right now is that utilities are neutral in working with you. They don’t get overly excited about it at this point. As soon as you can produce up to a couple of megawatts, then you can bend their ear a little bit.
Q. Are digesters profitable? Why or why not?
Traditionally, the way the economics have gone, you do sell back your excess to them, but what you are really doing, depending on the type of contract you can get with your utility, is replacing the need to buy power from a public utility. That’s where the payback has typically been.
That has to do with regulations as well. They are only required to pay you the voided cost of producing the energy. That has nothing to do with the transport of that energy across their grid, which is what makes the price you and I pay a lot higher.
In the Midwest, it might take three cents or so per kilowatt-hour to generate power from a coal plant or a nuclear plant. So I don’t know the future of that. I think it’s in the regulations yet to come. Only time will tell.
Q. Which waste systems do you enjoy designing more – those for a small dairy or those for a large dairy?
I can’t say that I really like one over the other. I do both. I guess I probably enjoy the ones that want to do something a little bit different or want to be more innovative. I probably enjoy that a little bit more. So sometimes that lends itself to being a little bit larger operation. You have less room to be as innovative with a small operation because it may not cash flow.
What I enjoy most about the job is a systems approach to things. Not that the system has to be more complicated for me to enjoy it, but I like looking at the whole picture and making sure it fits together, and making sure producers have thought things through and considered the options. Some of them are naturally better at that than others.
Q. In your opinion, what are some of the major concerns dairy producers are facing as it relates to manure management?
I think one of the biggest questions people wrestle with is whether or not to use sand. Some of them have made the decision that sand is the way to go, so how they are going to reclaim their sand and what technology will they use are challenges. Certainly one of the challenges they face is making the decision about what system fits their needs.
I’ve got some clients, particularly those with expanding facilities, who really don’t have a clear picture about what they have. They value the manure, and they know its value, but I don’t think they know how many nutrients are really there. Some people still put on some additional nitrogen even though they may already have enough on to satisfy crop needs.
Some people have grown from 50 to 100 cows, and they’ve double or tripled their herd size, and I don’t think they’ve quite fathomed how many more acres they should be spreading this manure over. The highest nutrient tests in the fields are always around the old farmsteads. We’ve always spread it as close as possible to the farmstead, so those are the fields where phosphorus levels are higher than other places. It takes more time, energy and effort to haul it greater distances. But there’s value in the nutrients, so if we will approach things from the standpoint from appreciating that value and realize there is not only an environmental benefit but an economic benefit to better utilization, we’d be a lot further ahead.
Q. Is this there anything cutting edge or just out of the research stage you’re starting to implement within your clients’ nutrient management plans?
I don’t know that it’s coming out of research or that it’s cutting edge because it’s old technology, but biogas collection from digestion and treatment of dairy waste is happening.
The new part about it is we are learning how to do it better. From an equipment standpoint, we have equipment available that is more durable and able to deal with the rigors of being on the farm. This equipment can also deal with biogas that isn’t always clean; in other words, it’s corrosive.
We’re rapidly moving from a manure production standpoint and a nutrient production standpoint to more of a modeling type of approach. We just aren’t going to be using book values anymore for what a 1,400-pound dairy cow should be producing. I’m getting rations from my clients and milk production goals, and how much dry matter intake (DMI) the cows will intake to produce that amount of milk.
With that dry matter intake, we know how much phosphorus, nitrogen, calcium the cow is eating, and if you subtract out the milk she is producing and respiration from moisture, then the rest of it is coming out her rear end.
Q. Are modeling values usually higher or lower than book values?
They are mixed, frankly. It depends on the species and the level of milk production, but I don’t think nitrogen is a whole lot different. The potassium is a whole lot lower; there is a lot less being excreted than what book values say. I really think phosphorus is about right on.
Q. If you had an open microphone to speak to dairy producers about the dairy industry and waste management, what would you say?
Don’t rush. Go through a good planning process. You can learn a lot from going and visiting other dairy facilities that have other types of systems out there. The thing that’s nice to learn, if you get a chance, is the management differences or nuances of different systems.
The other part of what I would say is make sure you go through the pros and cons of the different systems with your engineer. Consider differences, initial fixed capital costs, operational costs, acreage limits, manure movement to the fields. Go through the planning process. I really believe the money spent there is worth it. If you are going to expand or build a new facility, you are going to put a lot of money into a facility. It’s worth some good planning on the front end of things.
The other thing is to get with a good engineer, or consultant in general, to take you through the steps. We all need to work together – the nutritionist, the engineer, the producer, the veterinarian, the builder. Everybody forms a multidisciplinary team.
The two biggest things in planning a project are: have a realistic timeframe and don’t rush through it. Also, do not underfund. You don’t want to come down to the end of a project and need this-that-and-the-other and say, “This is my budget, and it’s fixed.” You don’t want to have to cut corners. I think we can do a lot better job budgeting. PD