Manure to energy

CEW-MR-2-ManuretoEnergy1bwby Steve Wagner

In 1966, when I was an Army Reservist, I had a two-week summer camp in Fort Shelby, MS. Not far from there was Gulfport, a resort town on the Gulf of Mexico, where I swore I would live one day. A bit north of Gulfport is a town called Prentiss, where five years ago John Logan, a chicken farmer, concluded that the fecal matter from his 275,000 chickens was putting too much phosphorus into his groundwater, which ran into the Gulf. He solved the problem by purchasing a manure digester.

A Snyder County, Pennsylvania farmer, Mac Curtis, shared Logan’s problem at about the same time — only his problem was turkeys. Curtis’s Windview acreage rests atop a hill and the river flows directly past his property. Needless to say, Curtis didn’t want turkey scat polluting those waters, which flowed into the Chesapeake Bay. Instead of a digester, Curtis solved his problem with a manure burner.

For the past several years, nutrient management as regards the Chesapeake Bay has been on the front burner of every farm agency and just about every farm in the bay watershed. Don McNutt, of the Lancaster County, PA Conservation District, got right down to it when addressing the topic of this story: “Poultry litter — the solution is to haul it or burn it.” McNutt was one of the speakers at PennAg’s annual meeting. “It is light enough to haul and it has potential to burn.”

Manure to energy is one of the inevitable concerns when bay watershed rehabilitation models are discussed. There are plenty of grants, McNutt noted, for people to back off on their fertilizer a little bit and see if they still get good crop quality. Generally speaking, the answer is no.

Fertilization at the right time and the proper levels, applied conscientiously, is still the best solution. But what can be done to maximize production and profitability when variable-speed spreaders apply fertilizers on the field through GPS units?

“Talk used to be,” said McNutt, “‘Oh, that will work in the Midwest. That will never happen here in the east.’ I think the opposite is true. We have greater variability going across small fields here in the east than they have in much larger fields in the Midwest.” GPS-enabled units might be part of the solution where the bay is concerned.

McNutt suggests an energy audit. Make an effort to find out where you are not being efficient in using and spending money. “We’ve got solar, we know about wind, and there’s hydro. It might surprise you to know there are four privately-owned hydro-electric dams on the Conestoga River in Lancaster County.”

McNutt showed a photo of Mac Curtis’s turkey farm in Snyder County and said, “This land is very traditional in its nearly 100-year-old technology.” In June of 2009, Curtis held a news conference to explain how he was coming into the 21st century with his new burner. Instead of putting 500 tons of turkey manure on the fields of his 70-acre farm, he exercised some grant money and installed a boiler to burn the manure. He explained that the boiler is using a heat exchanger system with heated water. The water will be pumped under the floor of his turkey barns to heat them, consuming about 600 pounds of litter an hour at between 1400 and 1600 degrees. Mac’s project was funded through two state grant programs — the Energy Harvest program and the Alternative Fuels Incentive Grant program. The project is saving the farm approximately $30,000 in annual fuel costs.

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