August 20, 2008 | General

Biomass Energy Outlook: Manure And The Organics Drift

BioCycle August 2008, Vol. 49, No. 8, p. 49
Mark Jenner

WE have a vast, but fledgling knowledge of balancing the resources of our little planet. As we move toward biomass production and use, the lines traditionally drawn between the separate industries of agriculture, forestry, solid waste management and wastewater treatment are starting to blur. One area where this is becoming evident is the increasing use of organic fertilizers in crop production. Industries like agriculture are certainly doing a better job of pulling residual carbon-based nutrients back into the biomass (i.e., crops) they grow – even if it is because of the record high prices of petroleum-based fertilizers.
Farmers intuitively understand the benefits of adding organic materials to crop and pasture land, but the industry has not invested in the tools to manage organic nutrients. Until recently, livestock producers have largely undervalued their manure resources. For every farmer that really understands the value of organic nutrients, I can cite more than one that does not.
Change takes time. I am reminded of that over and over. Jerry Goldstein did an eloquent job of conveying that with his July 2008 editorial, reprinting his eminent hope for the adoption of organic growing practices and organics recycling – written in 1973.
High input costs of fertilizer and fuel have created a daunting economic motivator for farmers. USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Services reported that its index of commonly used fertilizer prices in the upper Midwest jumped 65 percent from April 2007 to April 2008. Farmers are hungry for crop fertility alternatives. This is a teachable moment.
Although farmers are often reluctant to try new practices, the daunting economic motivator of current fertilizer prices will engage them. And when the new practice is authentically beneficial, it will be continued after the “motivator” has lessened. This happened 20 years ago with the adoption of no-till and minimum tillage farming. In 1985, new USDA regulations required a “conservation plan” that reduced erosion for farm payment eligibility. An affordable solution to this daunting economic motivator was to quit tilling fields (adopt no-till). In just a few years, no-till production went from a nice idea to common practice.
Prior to that adoption, several decades of research clearly documented the environmental benefits of no-till farming. The economic driver was farm payment participation. Farmers adopted it for both those reasons, but the real clincher was that it saved farmers time and money. When they parked their tillage equipment, farmers learned they could grow a decent crop in one pass instead of the three to five passes required with conventional tillage practices. They saved thousands of gallons of fuel, got their crops in the field faster and reduced their production costs considerably. Program compliance was the economic motivator, but authentic economic and environmental benefits morphed this new practice toward common use.
Successful crop farmers take regular soil samples and apply their fertilizer based on crop history, yield goals and soil fertility. Mostly they look at soil pH, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. They do not measure, or know how to utilize, the detailed organic measures provided through standardized compost testing protocols. So even if they knew the organic quality of their manure, it is difficult to integrate into standard crop fertility recommendation.
Still, farmers are inadvertently backing their way into widespread use of manure nutrients:
The multiyear benefits of using properly managed organic crop nutrients linger beyond the first year. Having a successful farmer that raises several thousand acres of corn and harvests 160 to 200 bushels per acre experiencing these benefits is a very effective “sales” tool for organic practices. In their quest for cost-effective nutrients, they get all the other organic benefits as a bonus. This is far more effective than trying to convert a professional crop producer to a healthy soil mindset.
At about the same time farmers were adopting no-till, they found there was an economic benefit to concentrating their pasture hogs in confinement buildings. With the hogs moved inside, the marginally productive, highly erodible land could be taken out of production and enrolled in the USDA Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). This technology shift saved an estimated 50 million tons of soil from eroding annually. It also concentrated the manure so that now, with record fertilizer prices, it can be economically recycled in crop production.
Record feed and hay prices during the last nine months, punctuated by June floods in the Midwest, prompted USDA to consider allowing release of landowners from their CRP contracts. The last week of July, USDA announced it had changed its mind and would not release any land from the CRP.
In the next few years, as the demand for cellulosic energy crops draws closer to reality, there will be little incentive to keep our 34 million acres enrolled in the CRP. Perennial energy crops like switchgrass, hybrid poplar and miscanthus can be grown for energy, soil conservation, wildlife preservation and revenue. These deep-rooting energy crops will not erode the marginal CRP land.
Change takes time (and occasionally a daunting economic motivator). Farmers are learning that the recognized environmental benefits of fertilizing with organic nutrients also have significant economic benefits. Conventional agriculture is drifting toward organics.
Mark Jenner, PhD, operates Biomass Rules, LLC and has over 25 years of biomass utilization expertise. Burning Bio News is Jenner’s monthly scorecard of bioenergy project adoption, available at

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