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Waste Not, Want Not by Dave Caldwell

U.S. Rep. David Price tours waste processing facility
New technology offers advantages for poultry, hog producers

Of all the things that might be expected to draw 500 people to a College of Agriculture and Life Sciences field laboratory on a sweltering August afternoon, a collection of equipment designed to grind, mix and otherwise process waste products such as manure and animal carcasses would not seem high on the list.

Dr. Mike Williams is director of the Animal and Poultry Waste Management Center.But this is North Carolina, and dealing with the waste products from animal agriculture is the hottest of topics, so when the college opened the Animal and Poultry Waste Management Center Waste Processing Facility last year, the ceremony drew a standing-room only crowd, including many of the state’s most powerful politicians.

Gov. Jim Hunt and U.S. Rep. David Price were among the speakers at the affair.

The Waste Processing Facility is part of an unprecedented research effort within the college, and its opening ranked as a milestone, perhaps the most notable milestone to date, in that effort.

Animal waste management has dominated the college’s research agenda during the 1990s as has no other single topic.

“I can’t remember a concerted collegewide effort of the magnitude, scope and duration of what we’ve been involved with in the waste management area,” says Dr. David Beasley, head of the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering.

Animal waste management has dominated the college's research agenda in the 1990s.It is, of course, the swine industry that is driving this effort. By now, it is the rare North Carolinian who is not at least aware of the state’s swine industry and its spectacular growth. Where there were approximately 2.4 million hogs in the state in 1986, there now are around 10 million. Hogs put close to $2 billion in the pockets of North Carolina farmers annually.

As the swine industry has grown, so has concern about odor and the way manure is treated. Poultry rivals pigs in economic importance but has not generated the interest in waste management that the swine industry has. As public attention focused on waste management issues, so did the attention of North Carolina legislators, who turned to the college in search of science that might assure the prosperity of an important segment of the economy while also protecting the environment. The college was ready.

“In the late ’80s our faculty sat down and looked at the (swine) industry,” says Dr. Johnny Wynne, director of the North Carolina Agricultural Research Service. “We decided we needed to work on waste management and that we should develop a center.”

The result was the Animal and Poultry Waste Management Center. At the center of the center is Dr. Mike Williams, who was hired in late 1993 to develop and direct the college’s waste management efforts. The job has not turned out to be exactly what Williams thought it would be.

“I never envisioned the level of intensity would turn out to be what it has,” Williams says. His job has become equal parts scientist, administrator, negotiator and legislative adviser. Over a two-week period in May, he began five days with unexpected requests from legislators for reports or information on waste management issues.

The center Williams directs is a public-private partnership designed to pursue waste management research. Center members pay an annual fee, which gives them a seat on a board of directors that determines the center’s research agenda. But membership fees are not the center’s only source of funding; center projects receive funding from a variety of sources. A Farmers Home Administration grant provided much of the funding for the Waste Processing Facility.

The facility, located within the college’s Lake Wheeler Road Field Laboratory, is among the center’s most important achievements thus far. Filled with industrial processing equipment, it represents what might be called the value-added approach.

Manure and dead animals contain nutrients, which, as anyone who has purchased a bag of 10-10-10 fertilizer at the local garden center knows, have value. If the nutrients in manure and animal carcasses can be harvested and turned into products with value, that might alter the waste management equation. Existing waste management technologies that are not now economically feasible might become feasible.

The center is also experimenting with existing technologies. A $1 million appropriation made available by Gov. Hunt is being used to test 11 alternatives to the lagoon and spray field method now favored by hog farmers. In addition to determining how effective these technologies are at treating waste, researchers are evaluating the odor abatement ability and economic feasibility of each technology.

The center also administers funding for a variety of other research projects, including several promising methods of mitigating the odor from hog farms.

70 farmers converged on a Halifax County farm to hear about a new waste treatment system.At the same time, the college has developed collaborative partnerships with other universities. In 1996, the college formed a consortium with Iowa State University to fund waste management research. Since then, Michigan State, Oklahoma State and Purdue universities and the University of Missouri have joined. Beasley coordinates consortium projects, each of which must include a scientist from at least two of the consortium members.

On the farm, the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service has played an integral role in helping producers understand and comply with new waste management regulations. Since 1996, Extension specialists and agents have been involved in an extensive effort to train farmers to become certified animal-waste systems operators, help producers get their operations certified and obtain the necessary permits.

As the waste management effort has grown, so has the need for administration. Dr. Frank Humenik, formerly department extension leader in Biological and Agricultural Engineering, last year was named coordinator of college Waste Management Programs, joining Beasley and Williams in key administrative positions directing what has become a high-profile program.

The Waste Processing Facility has received visitors from around the world; it may be the most visited single location related to N.C. State University. At the same time, Williams estimates he’s taken telephone calls from perhaps 25 states seeking waste management information. When large scale, confinement hog production is proposed anywhere in the United States, Williams is likely to get several calls.

It is too soon to assess the overall success of the college’s waste management effort, although it does seem clear that the discovery of some kind of magic waste management bullet that allows economical production of high-priced hogs without any odor or other environmental impact is highly unlikely.

It is equally clear that progress is being made.

“From our faculty’s exploratory research and from technology evaluations, we’re seeing technology that can have a positive impact on envi-ronmental concerns,” says Williams. “But we’re still a long way from establishing the economics and how the technology measures up against a well-managed traditional system.”

“We’ve made tremendous progress in terms of bringing science to bear to address waste management issues,” Wynne adds. “We’ve also made progress getting people to realize this is not just an engineering problem.”

While waste treatment technology and processing research will continue, Wynne says research will now turn toward manipulating swine diets to better control the composition of waste.

At the same time, other agricultural segments are coming to the realization that if the swine industry suffers, the economic pain may be felt in other areas. Soybeans, for example, are an ingredient in swine feed. If North Carolina grows fewer pigs, there may be less demand for soybeans. Soybean growers, as a result, are more willing to change the way they grow their crops or type of crops they grow if these changes will help swine growers.

While the college’s waste management research effort clearly has made progress, it would also seem clear that waste management will continue to be a research priority for some time to come.

Rep. Price tours
processing facility

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences animal and poultry waste management research has attracted attention across the state and nation and around the world. Among those interested in the college’s waste management research is U.S. Rep. David Price, who has been instrumental in obtaining federal funding.

Since 1993, the congressman has obtained more than $1.8 million in federal funding to support the Animal and Poultry Waste Management Center. In late June, Price toured the center’s Waste Processing Facility at the Lake Wheeler Road Field Laboratory.

To Process
and To Preserve

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences researchers have developed a new method of disposing of dead animals that promises considerable advantages over the methods now used by hog and poultry growers to deal with chicken, turkey and pig carcasses.

It appears that the new technology, which has been patented, may be adopted throughout the North Carolina swine and poultry industries.

N.C. State University patented a machine that grinds up the carcasses of dead animals, while adding either carbohydrates and bacteria to ferment the resulting material or phosphoric acid to preserve the material.

Animal waste management has dominated the college's research agenda during the 1990s as has no other single topic.In either case — whether the material is fermented or preserved with phosphoric acid — it may be kept on a farm until it is convenient to pick it up. The technology allows growers to capture the nutrients in animal carcasses. The nutrients may then be recycled, most likely as an ingredient in animal feeds.

The university has licensed the technology to a firm that is building the machines that grind carcasses. And negotiations are under way to build at least one processing plant in the state that would buy the preserved material and process it for use as a feed ingredient.

Disposal of dead animals has long been a problem for North Carolina’s huge poultry and swine industries, says Dr. Peter Ferket, a poultry scientist and one of the principal researchers involved in developing the new technology. Dr. Larry Stikeleather, an engineer in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, and Teena Middleton, a graduate student, also played integral roles in the project.

Growers now dispose of animal carcasses in several ways. In parts of the state where they are allowed to do so, some farmers bury dead animals. Other growers compost carcasses, then spread the composted material on fields as a fertilizer. In much of Eastern North Carolina, dead animals are picked up and taken to rendering plants.

All these methods have drawbacks. While burial and composting recycle nutrients in the sense that the nutrients are returned to the earth, growers do not realize much benefit from the nutrients. Rendering captures nutrients, but carcasses must be picked up within 24 hours after the animal dies. Trucks must go from farm to farm picking up mortalities seven days a week. Such a pick-up schedule is expensive, and growers don’t like it because the chances of spreading disease from farm to farm are increased.

While it is still unclear exactly how the new technology may be adapted throughout the state, it allows growers to hold fermented or preserved material almost indefinitely, Ferket says. This would allow the development of a more efficient pick-up system.

At the same time, the technology preprocesses mortalities on the farm. This means that the central processing facility would probably be smaller and more environmentally friendly than a rendering plant. Indeed, it appears the processing plant planned for North Carolina will be patterned after the college’s Waste Processing Facility.

The two methods of preserving mortalities produce material with different characteristics. When carbo-hydrates and bacteria are added, fermentation occurs and a type of silage is created.

Because the material is fermented, it has flavors and aromas that many animals apparently find desirable. It may be particularly valuable as a pet food ingredient. Ferket says researchers have also found that the material works well as crab bait. But because fermentation is a biological process, it requires more attention to detail, or management.

While it doesn’t have the same flavors and aromas as fermented material, the material that results from the phosphoric acid treatment is also a good protein source and may be used as an animal feed ingredient. The advantage of the phosphoric acid treatment is that it requires less management; less can go wrong.