May 24, 2005 | General


BioCycle May 2005, Vol. 46, No. 5, p. 65
In Iowa, the MaxYield Cooperative develops methods to digest and compost excess manure by aggregating waste from 80,000 or more hogs near the proposed facility.
John Norwood

IN TODAY’S world of rapidly consolidating hog farms across Iowa and in other hog producing states like North Carolina, identifying and deploying new cooperative approaches to manure management has been a slow and contentious process. What was once arguably a practical and sustainable “closed loop” solution to recycling of nutrient flows – from corn feed to liquid animal manure to plant nutrient – is coming under increasing fire, as producers consolidate their operations into larger, more visible units of production. The situation has been complicated by the fact that the marketplace does not begin to address many of the negative externalities like the odor, air pollution and the nutrient runoff that large-scale confinement operations, which raise thousands of animals in concentrated areas, invariably entails.
Despite the gathering storm clouds, there are bright spots on the horizon. One forward thinking agricultural cooperative in north central Iowa is responding by investigating a community-based approach to meet its present and future manure management handling needs. Spearheading this effort is the MaxYield Cooperative, a mid-sized agricultural operation based in West Bend, Iowa, with more than 3,500 members and annual sales approaching $100 million.
Explains Larry Arndt, the Agronomy & Technical Services marketing director and chief catalyst behind the effort, as he launches into an overview of the present situation: “I am quite honestly for the livestock feeding operation and the opportunities that it offers the private sector, and the types of jobs that it has created and can create in the future. But we need to capture revenues differently…they have overapplied [the manure] just like our fathers did before them, but on a much larger scale.”
Arndt is carefully, and quietly, assembling a team of internationally-recognized experts to help investigate the technical, economic and political feasibility of building a centralized manure processing facility in the Whittemore region of Kossuth County. A national panel of experts endorsed the effort last October by awarding a USDA Value-Added business planning grant to help underwrite a feasibility study.
In MaxYield’s case, the idea is to create a manure cooperative of a sufficient scale to handle the liquid stream from multiple small to medium-sized producers in the region – aggregrate the waste from 80,000 or more hogs within a four to eight-mile radius of the proposed anaerobic digestion facility, as is being done in some other areas such as Tillamook, Oregon.
A community-based approach to manure management includes many economic, environmental and social benefits, notes Arndt – a Lytton, Iowa native who has lived and breathed the farming business nearly all of his 54 years. For starters, unlike individually owned and operated on-farm digestion systems, centralized digesters can be professionally managed and designed to deliver a robust array of value-added products: from heat and electrical energy to specialized fertilizers and soil conditioners.
Furthermore, by taking the freshly digested manure and then combining it with other carbon-rich, solid waste products, such as wood chips, pallets, nontreated lumber, green waste or other landfill destined material, a richer, more valuable soil conditioner can be produced.
Enter Olaf Riedel, a native of Bavaria, and a systems engineer with Biopower Technologies, Inc. and a technical advisor on the MaxYield project. Explains Riedel, who is part technician and part educator: “Community-based digestion systems are commonplace in many areas of Europe. Studies in Germany have shown that converting liquid manure into a solid via digestion can reduce nutrient losses to the groundwater table from 95 percent to five percent,” Riedel noted.
In MaxYield’s market of north central Iowa, technical experts are looking at a two-stage manure handling facility which would entail both centralized anaerobic digestion and composting. There are three basic steps. First, the manure is collected and transported to a centralized digester where it is screened and clarified. Then it is loaded into the digester with other methane-rich feedstocks, which are used to help generate heat. Using a fixed-film digester, the heat from the digestion process “cooks” the liquid manure over a period of three to five days, killing potential pathogens and producing methane gas as a by-product of the digestion process.
While surplus heat energy may be available for other on-site uses, the methane can be combusted to generate renewable electricity for local consumption, or it can be used as a feedstock to produce other forms of “green” biomass based energy, such as methanol for biodiesel. In reviewing the digestion process, Riedel explains, “For every 100 gallons of influent coming into the digester, four gallons are solids and the remainder is water. Through digestion, half of the solids are transformed into gas, leaving two gallons of solids and 96 gallons of water.”
The next step in the process involves separating the solids and nutrients coming out of digester so that any remaining wastewater is clean enough to allow discharge to a river or stream, or a publicly operated treatment works (POTW). The third and final step in the process, composting, requires combining the 25 to 50 percent moisture soil conditioner coming out of the digester with carbon-based, solid waste bulking agents to facilitate further breakdown, stabilize the nutrients, and add more value to the end product.
As demonstrated in California’s Central Valley, a line of customizable products can be developed by combining the operation’s standard compost with other soil additives. Leading composting operations, such as New Era Farm Service in Tulare, California sell between 80,000 and 100,000 tons, annually, to conventional and organic farms in their area – some 400 growers working 283,000 acres.
In considering the opportunities that could be created by deploying a centralized approach in Iowa, one very lucrative opportunity before Iowa grain and livestock producers is to transform the linkages between livestock producers (4 million cattle, 16 million hogs, and 46 million chickens) and corn and soybean growers (23 million acres) into a strategic competitive advantage.
Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack is all for leveraging the state’s competitive advantages. In envisioning the future of agriculture, Vilsack, a student of history, likes to point to pioneering Iowans, such as Henry Wallace who founded the Pioneer Hybrid Seed Company. Wallace changed the face of agriculture in the early 1900s, Vilsack will tell you, by shifting the focus of producers of corn from appearance to yield.
“We look to support and nurture the pioneering efforts of risk-takers like MaxYield, as they search for new business models and innovative ways of protecting our environment,” said Governor Vilsack. “Cooperative approaches are particularly exciting because they can yield benefits on many levels: empower our family farmers and local economic development leaders, create new investment opportunities to build our farm economy, and improve the water in our rivers and streams and the air we breathe.”
Few other farm states have as good a ratio of livestock to plants, which can help foster local nutrient cycles, while retaining economic investment within the state. Case in point: According to Iowa’s Department of Agricultural and Land Stewardship, Iowa’s corn and soybean farmers consume more than 4 million tons of chemical fertilizers each year, imported at a cost of several billion dollars annually.
Yet, according to Iowa’s Manure Management Action Group, the state’s livestock industry has the potential to supply roughly 25 percent of its grain farmers’ primary nutrient needs (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) if the manure can be transformed cost effectively into a more consistent, stable, and transportable end product. The fact that liquid manure is inconsistent in its nutrient content and, as such, cannot be sold as a commercial fertilizer is an opportunity. Using a centralized digestion and composting approach, the liquid manure can be transformed into an organic compost with a guaranteed nutrient analysis.
Having a guaranteed nutrient analysis is not only a prerequisite for the possibility of marketing compost as a fertilizer or other commercial product, but as important, it signals to the farmer and the regulator that there is an opportunity to reduce the regulatory costs and burden associated with overseeing and tracking liquid manure from each producer to each field.
As the centralized operation assumes responsibility for tracking the liquid manure to the facility, creating a safer, more reliable commercially viable end product could result in a host of benefits.Simplified manure management planning for participating producers; Lower regulatory and enforcement costs for the public and private sector; Reduced litigation risk for livestock and grain farmers, based on better control of odor, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide emissions; and Lower threat of environmental penalties resulting from less NPK leakage into surface or ground waters.
MaxYield’s General Manager Joe Anniss believes “the timing is good” in Iowa for a community-based approach. Anniss sees at least three reasons for his cooperative to move on this project now: First, many producer contracts with large processing firms are ready to rotate in the 2004 to 2007 period, providing new opportunities for changes in current production practices; Second, a new approach to manure management is desperately needed as land use conflicts resulting from land application of liquid manure continue to rise; and Third, the industry won’t grow effectively without adequately addressing rising environmental and human health concerns, such as new scientific data indicating associations between confinement operations and asthma.
As MaxYield has embarked on this multifaceted planning effort, it is clear that a range of new partnerships will need to be forged, both public and private. In Iowa, the community-based approach touches at least three public agencies, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, (IDNR), the Iowa Department of Agricultural and Land Stewardship (IDALS), and the Iowa Department of Economic Development (IDED).
Michael Bloiun, director of the Iowa Department of Economic Development, understands the importance of getting disparate groups of stakeholders to the table and working together to generate new economic development opportunities in rural Iowa. “As we look to the future, project concepts like regional manure management and biomasss processing facilities can be key drivers of economic development in the rural portions of our state,” said Mike Blouin. “If successful, the economic multiplier of projects like MaxYield’s will be substantial.”
On the energy side, Jim Bodensteiner, IDNR’s Biomass Program manager, believes that MaxYield’s work to develop a model project in Iowa will undoubtedly provide the groundwork for the development of similar centralized manure management facilities throughout the Midwest. “Considering the price volatility of nonrenewable fuels and the environmental issues livestock producers are facing, anaerobic digester technologies are looking more and more promising,” commented Bodensteiner. “This is an opportunity for producers to turn a profit from a waste stream, while mitigating the environmental risks associated with manure management.”
IDNR is also interested in the MaxYield community-based approach for its potential to stimulate collaborative, regional solutions for recycling while encouraging best practices, market development, and education goals for long-term pollution prevention, waste reduction and recycling sustainability.
To assist organizations like MaxYield, IDNR has implemented a Solid Waste Alternatives Program (SWAP) to provide financial assistance to aid pollution prevention and solid waste management projects in certain targeted areas. MaxYield is looking to the SWAP program to help evaluate the possibility for a new set of partnerships with regional suppliers of feedstocks, which are needed to help produce energy and compost.
One important regional solid waste partner is Richard Shiek, Kossuth County’s lead solid waste engineer. Said Shiek in discussing the MaxYield opportunity, “the key to meeting our waste reduction goals is finding markets for the material that we collect for recycling. This project may develop a demand and create a market for materials that are presently being landfilled.”
Looking down the road, MaxYield is hopeful that the initial partnership work with the state and federal agencies on planning and construction can be extended to include market development assistance. For example, compost is already being used in some areas of the state on highway reclamation and other public works projects. How can the state or federal government help create new markets and local demand for locally produced energy and compost?
After touring the Whittemore region with Arndt, one has a keen appreciation for the years of experience that went into building his vision. His optimism is infectious. “I’m interested in new technology and new approaches that work, not old technology or old ways of thinking that have failed,” he concludes, reaching for his pant’s pocket. Arndt pulls out an orange-sized campaign style button, displays it in his hand and simply smiles. There’s a circle with a slash through the slogan, which reads “But we’ve always done it this way.”
John Norwood is with Triple Bottom Consulting, a management consulting firm which delivers superior economic, environmental and social returns on investment, based in West Des Moines, Iowa. Mr. Norwood can be reached at

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