Composting manure becoming a viable option
Seeing opportunity where others see challenges.
November 13, 2007 By Top Crop Manager
Sometimes, the hardest part about being an innovator is waiting. It can take
years and even decades from the time of first concept to a point when the finished
product begins fulfilling its initial promise. In between, there can be setbacks,
unrealized potential and legions of skeptics.
Tom Smith and Ron Fleming know all about the promise of tomorrow and the growing
pains of today. The two worked together in 1998 to co-ordinate the development
of a compost system at Ridgetown College. Designed by Smith's company Global
Earth Products of Utopia, Ontario, the initial goal for the College was to reduce
odours from liquid manure. For Smith, the broader hope was to have a positive
impact on 'earth, air and water'. At the time, that was seen as a potential
boon to environmental challenges associated with Ontario's rapidly expanding
hog industry. That summer, with considerable funding and interest from a variety
of government and grower organizations, the college held an open house to showcase
what was hoped to be a success. The original layout consisted of three 7x50ft
channels with an overhead applicator and blending device to turn the manure
as it was mixed with corn cobs, wood chips and wheat straw.
The concept was not new, but the impact was. Odours were virtually eliminated,
along with some surprising benefits, including significant heat generation and
the potential for pathogen kill. "To start, we wanted to see if it could
work, and if it could, then make suggestions for improvements to the equipment,"
says Fleming, a research engineer at Ridgetown College. "Then we wanted
to come up with some ideas for the best recipes, the best management so it could
work on the farm."
However, as with so many projects in their infancy, the Global Earth Products
design met with some resistance. Enhanced designs on one farm broke down, causing
the grower to dismiss the concept entirely. What had been greeted with such
promise began to experience some doubt. "There were some issues, but they
weren't related to the concept," explains Fleming, adding the early adapters
became caught up in other matters. "For example, there was an interest
in getting some waste materials that other industries were generating and impose
tipping fees and generate income."
Since then, Fleming has busied himself with other applications of the technology
and notes standardized values for greenhouse gas emissions have been established
from the initial design. "The research was done here and on-farm, and confirmed
that there is quite a potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from liquid
manure handling," he says. Further study was done by the University of
Guelph, both at Guelph and at Ridgetown, to determine a base value of emissions
from the composter itself, and at the time of spreading on the ground. The findings
have indicated a substantial reduction in the emissions during spreading and
enabled Global Earth Products to secure the right to display the ETV (Environmental
Technology Verification) logo on their promotional material. The verification
is based on the system's ability to sequester carbon among other facets.
Many positives for the future
Smith, on the other hand, stuck by his belief that it was only a matter of time
before customers would begin showing interest. In 2002, Michigan State University
purchased an enhanced Marvel system for its dairy operation and large horse
It was about that time that Smith met Marvin Shaw, who had experience working
with heat transfer technology, making use of the considerable heat generated
from the composting process. At 55 to 70 degrees C from composting manure with
wheat straw, the two wanted to work on a means of containing that energy by-product
and use it to heat a greenhouse or generate electricity. "And that's precisely
what we've done," says Smith. "Now on top of that, we've been able
to recover heat so we can create hot water from the heat extraction from the
bottom of the pile."
The potential is tremendous because Smith and Shaw have the technology to create
electricity from hot water, without creating steam. The system is based on a
water purification system called V-SEP, or Vibration-Shear Enhancement Processing
which has been in place at Ridgetown College for some years. In this application
it works in combination with Smith's composting facility and can separate and
purify the water from about 80 percent of the volume. That leaves a denser product
that can be stored in liquid form and run through the composter. "In doing
that, you've increased the nutrient level, and from that, we're creating a high
value organic fertilizer," says Smith. "From there, the hot water
can be used to heat greenhouses or we can create electricity which a farmer
could use or sell to the grid."
Potential is still there
There is still considerable promise for this technology but standing in the
way is the perceived value to the end-user. Smith recognizes that society may
not be ready for composting on such a large scale. It is true the composter
has evolved into a complete system with a whole series of environmental benefits
and income generation potential. But it is the willingness of the average consumer
or the average producer that continues to be the question. Consumers have a
difficult time viewing livestock manure as a resource instead of a waste material:
can they make the jump to seeing it as a valued raw material in an industrial
What of the producer? The organic fertilizer of which Smith speaks has a considerable
benefit to soil health which makes it more attractive in the face of increasing
prices for commercial fertilizers. "We're really pleased with the way it's
evolving and we're finalizing details on two large systems which will put all
the technologies to use in a systems approach," says Smith. He is not sorry
to have encountered the bumps and the hurdles along the way, using them to his
advantage to learn and grow, and see the opportunities that await in the future.
"We've been through all the hard parts, and we've been able to take things
to the point where we're comfortable and where the solution is much clearer
than what it was maybe a few years ago." -30-
The Bottom Line
Vision and leadership is all about looking at something as it has never been
seen before, or as this article specifically puts it 'viewing livestock manure
as a resource instead of a waste material'.
Tom Smith's broader hope was to have a positive impact on 'earth, air and water'…
not selfish goals and not easy goals from a financial point of view. Much of
this technology is operational, but yet some is still unexplored, with considerable
opportunity and research still remaining.
Certainly the 'bumps and hurdles along the way', from pursuing his vision from
scratch on his own farm, have built his character and patience. And he has probably
learned that two heads are better than one. It begs the question: Where are
the Tom Smith's and Ron Flemming's of tomorrow? Could they be just next-door?
Andy van Niekerk, Stayner, Ontario.