Searching for solutions: A message to farmers about managing manure

posted Jan. 3, 2017 12:35 p.m. (CDT)
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by / Ben Brancel

Agriculture has always faced challenges and sought out solutions.

Recently, Gov. Scott Walker, in an effort to address water quality, asked the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, and the Department of Natural Resources to step up — think big — and draft a “request for proposal” that will bring together business consortiums and farmers interested in using anaerobic digester technology to build, operate and maintain a system to treat manure from dairy farms to produce renewable energy in the form of biogas and incorporate a system for treating wastewater that will capture nutrients and reduce pathogens.

The preferable model is a “hub and spoke” that could use pipelines, or trucks or tractors and manure tanks to transport manure from a number of farms to a central location that houses the digester. This system will allow dairy farms — big and small — the opportunity to participate in this venture. The request for proposal will be officially released in early January.

To make this public/​private project possible, the Public Service Commission authorized Focus on Energy to spend up to $20 million for Integrated Anaerobic Digester projects that meet Focus on Energy eligibility requirements.

In addition to the obvious benefit of producing renewable energy, this project has many other potential benefits. There will be many questions that need answers when undertaking the all-encompassing project being proposed. The DATCP, DNR and PSC stand ready to assist interested businesses and farmers and answer their questions as best we can as they put their proposals together.

Farmers will need to determine the potential to reduce their manure hauling costs by having significant amounts of water removed from manure before applying the nutrients they get back after digestion occurs. They’ll have to figure out if the product they are receiving is a much more manageable “nutrient available” product than what they are now applying to fields.

Farmers will have to weigh the benefits of reducing pathogens, odor and greenhouse gas emissions. They will have to decide if they can or want to reduce animal bedding costs by using dried manure fibers. System operators will want to consider possible revenue streams for potential value-added products including saleable fertilizer, animal bedding and compost.

The generation of biogas, which can be compressed similar to natural gas, is growing in popularity and beginning to be used by private trucking companies and local governments. There is opportunity for growth. Businesses interested in this aspect of the project will need to decide how to efficiently move the biogas from the farm and how revenues will be dispersed.

While not a direct benefit to the business consortia or farmers, local citizens will benefit by having fewer manure tankers on the roads which is good for local road maintenance and public safety. The treatment of the wastewater benefits us all when extremely clean water can be returned to the land or provided to dairy cows.

Other questions that will need to be answered include, who will operate and maintain the digester system and who will pay for it? Who is responsible if there is a malfunction with the digester or the pipelines? How will the costs of water treatment components be covered? Who pays for transportations costs? How much manure is required of each farmer each day, week, month or year?

While it may seem that there are a lot of questions in need of answers, it is my experience over the years that thoughtful farmers and businesses have developed numerous approaches to the opportunities before them and found the answers.

Farmers, for as long as I can remember, have adopted improved farming practices and utilized technology to improve their farming operation to benefit not only themselves but their local community. This biodigester project is unlike anything done in the past in Wisconsin and is part of Gov. Walker’s goal to grow the agriculture economy in the state and at the same time making sure our natural resources are safe and healthy. It is my hope that farmers and businesses will seriously consider participating in this opportunity.

Ben Brancel is secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

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