Manure Management- Sustainably Taking Care of Our Environment

Published on Mon, 12/21/2009 - 1:00pm

As the growing phenomenon of going green, reducing our carbon footprint and being environmentally sustainable escalades across this nation and globe—we, as dairy producers, are already far ahead of many. You see, going green is something that your typical dairy producer knows a thing or two about. Something they practice daily, for the benefit of theirs and others; proudly demonstrating being good stewards to the land.



When it comes to building or expanding dairies, dairy producers undergo much research in what systems, operations, etc. will best work for their own dairy facility, before executing them, and quickly learning on behalf of their fellow dairy producer’s success and failures.
Perhaps the biggest environmental challenge on a dairy farm is manure management - enforcing dairy producers to study, learn and figure out ways to be sustainable in their manure management practices and other procedures on their dairy farm.
A personal take, sand is king
Dairy producers Randy and Jennifer Gross, Prairie Gold Dairy, LLC, Elkton, South Dakota, take manure management seriously. The young couple milk 3,600 Holstein cows that are housed in a four-row barn with bedded free-stalls and equipped with rubber flooring in all travel lanes. “All our sand is recycled utilizing our sand settling lanes,” Randy said.
Prairie Gold scrapes the barn with a skid steer that has a tire scraper attachment to reposition manure in the sand lanes to a gravity flow flume. “The flume carries this manure to a 300 foot setting lane where the sand separates and the solids continue to a series of four settling ponds,” Randy explains. These ponds were designed to capture manure solids and from there, the liquid manure product goes into a series of three large lagoons, with the third lagoon being the clean water that is recycled through the flume.
“The sand lane is cleaned out one to two times per day, allowing the sand to drain and dry-out before being re-used as bedding.”
Prairie Gold, a newer dairy facility that began construction in May 2004 and began milking cows in April 2005, built this dairy manure system because they believe there is no better bedding material for free-stall housed dairy cows, than sand. “We designed for our system to have the ability to handle sand without a great deal of equipment or maintenance,” Randy said. Prairie Gold’s only pump for the manure system is a 40 horse power pump in the third lagoon that pumps 1,500 gallons per minute of water through the flume. “Since the sand is recycled, it helps us keep our bedding costs relatively low.”
Both Randy and Jennifer cannot think of any real negative aspects to their manure set-up. “The system has treated us very well and we have purchased very little sand since stocking up four and half years ago,” Randy explains. “Also, it continues to be clean and comfortable for the cows.” In addition, they enjoy that there is only one pump to maintain and believe this is one of the best parts of the system. “It works and does not require constant maintenance,” Randy said. Also, they like that the crust that forms on the solids ponds helps keep odors to a minimum, relative to the number of cows they milk.
Like many dairy producers, Jennifer and Randy Gross decision to build off the I-29 corridor in Northwest South Dakota, was not taken lightly. “With the help of a team of people, there was much thought and decision put into every aspect of our dairy, especially our manure management system,” Randy explains.
Jennifer and Randy Gross and Prairie Gold Dairy LLC believes that any dairy, including theirs, that plans to be in the dairy business for several years with the possibility of future generations continuing it—are indeed sustainable, by its very own nature. “Decisions made on our farms, and many others, are made with long term goals and objectives in mind,” Randy explains. “Our manure management system and nutrient management plan provides adequate manure storage, minimizes odors and allows for the manure to be used as the natural fertilizer it is—providing the best opportunity to practice sustainability.”
Finally, Prairie Gold Dairy is designed to meet all the requirements of the state of South Dakota and they keep very detailed records, including regular monitoring of the lagoons, recording how much manure is applied to which fields based upon soil samples and manure test supporting it. They are inspected at least once per year and have their records reviewed by the South Dakota State Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) personnel.
“We take great pride in our sustainable practices, including our manure management system,” Jennifer said. “It aids comfort to our cows and is an environmental friendly operation to our farm and land.”
Dairy farms carbon footprint
Management of manure of livestock production, including dairy is a complex environmental issue. Manure can have both positive and negative environmental consequences. Manure can produce substantial benefits and/or results in severe environmental degradation. The actual environmental result depends upon choice that the producer makes.
The dairy industry faces growing scrutiny of its environmental stewardship. The potential impact of an individual operation on the environment varies with animal concentration, weather, terrain, soils and numerous other conditions.
While manure management is probably the greatest challenge in dairy farming with many rules and regulations to follow and continuing scrutiny pressuring the industry, questioning the rules and regulations—dairy farmers have to unite and stick together.
Thankfully much study and research has gone into calculating the true carbon footprint of a gallon of milk. While big calibrates try to do the study for us; the dairy industry has taken a proactive approach in calculating the true carbon footprint of dairy themselves. The study funded by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy sent out surveys on sustainability to 5,000 dairy producers across the nation in 2009. The purpose of the survey was to figure out the level of CO2 emissions—or greenhouses gases—the dairy industry produces. This effort took part of a broader attempt to determine the carbon footprint from farms to processors and beyond. Explaining how the dairy industry is reducing greenhouses gases will help protect our industry and could give us a leg up on the competition. The effort wanted to help demonstrate that sustainability issues work for dairy farmers by demonstrating responsible industry action. The survey asked specific questions regarding dairy herd, crop production and manure management. It asked for information on energy uses, waste and water management and some other things that can affect carbon emissions.
Some of you might care less and wonder why we as a dairy industry should care. The answer is simple, because our customers care and because it will help us a dairy farmers to reduce energy use and improve profitability. Increasingly, consumers, retailers and other key dairy buyers want to buy “green” foods—products that are good for the environment. We, as American dairy farms have done much to embrace sustainability in our operations and we have long been in the forefront of land stewardship. Why not share our story? If we don’t tell our story, figure out our carbon footprint—someone else will.
Any calculation of the carbon footprint of a gallon of milk needs to include fuel used by tractors and trucks, as well as electricity consumed by milking machines and refrigerators. But how much gas is coming from the cows themselves?
Measuring the greenhouse gas emissions of dairy cows will help determine the extent to which the dairy industry contributes to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, explains Rick Naczi, the group's executive vice president of strategic industry analysis and evaluation. "Preliminary scan level research was conducted in 2008 that showed the dairy industry accounts for less than two percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Now, we are expanding our efforts by partnering with respected academic institutions like Purdue and the University of Arkansas and engaging in extensive research to assure that our efforts are based on sound science as we address the environmental, economic and social importance of reducing our carbon footprint."
The studied brought in around 10 percent completed surveys from coast to coast, ranging in size of dairies from small (under 100 cows); medium (100-499 cows) and large (500+ cows). While the surveys are being examined and studied by the University of Arkansas—preliminary results are hopeful to be out early in 2010. 
Waste management help
For those dairy producers looking to build or expand their dairy facility and looking to see what best manure management system to put in or simply wondering how their manure management system is or can be more sustainable--there is a lot of informative Web sites and information out there.
Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DNR) website is
U.S. Dairy Sustainability website is
Taking good care of the land helps ensure not only healthy cows, but a healthy business. Most importantly, it sustains quality of life and makes the world a better place for future generations. You see, dairy producers, their cows and facilities, including their manure management facilities, continue to be ahead of its game in reducing carbon footprint. There is an old saying among farmers, “We live as if we’ll die tomorrow, farm as if we’ll live forever.” As the going green spectacle breeds across this nation and globe—let us, as dairy producers share our stories of what we do right to make our land a better place.