By DEBRA J. GROOM
There’s more work than ever being done on farms in an effort to keep the environment clean.
That’s why there are more and more agricultural recycling programs available to farmers today. There are ways for them to get rid of the plastics they use to wrap hay, ways to eliminate excess manure, and methods to dispose of deceased animals.
In the olden days, items often were buried in the ground on the farm or burned in large metal containers, resulting in nasty or potentially harmful residue seeping into ground water or rising into the air.
But stricter laws from federal and state governments mean burying or burning aren’t options any more.
So what’s a farmer to do?
Here are some ways to dispose of items on the farm:
MANURE AND CARCASSES
According to the Cornell Waste Management Institute, manure and carcasses can be composted.
Some farmers do this now, but Nathan Leonard, the institute’s Recycling Agricultural Plastics Program state field coordinator, said: “in the future, the big thing farmers will be doing is composting.”
Leonard said composting not only disposes of waste in an environmentally friendly manner, but farmers get “valuable material at the end.”
Manure is used as fertilizer on fields where crops are being grown, but farmers have to make sure too much manure isn’t used.
According to a study by the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, farmers can use too much manure, which can be harmful to the crops and soil.
Farmers should carefully monitor how much manure is used on any one field so as not to introduce too many nutrients into the soil. For example, too much nitrogen from the manure on a field can damage plants or kill seedlings, according to a gardening brochure put out by Cornell’s horticulture department.
Also, manure can contain pathogens that are harmful to crops and plants.
Any manure that farmers don’t use must be contained or disposed of. Many farmers store it in lagoons, but there have been situations when lagoons have collapsed, spilling raw sewage into area waterways.
One such event was in 2005, when the lagoon at the Marks Dairy Farm in the town of Martinsburg, Lewis County, collapsed, spilling several million gallons of a manure slurry into the Black River. This resulted in a major fish kill due to lethal amounts of ammonia in the river in both Lewis and Jefferson counties.
Here are three ways to dispose of manure, according to fact sheets put out by Cornell and Washington State universities:
*** Use it to make electricity. Farmers can install anaerobic digesters, which break down manure through a composting process. The byproduct is methane gas, which then can be used to power turbines that spin to create electricity. Farms in New York with digesters use the electricity to power their own operations and/or sell the electricity to the local grid for use in powering nearby homes and businesses.
*** Put it on the ground for use as a fertilizer. Many farmers do this, but, as noted above, they have to be aware of where they are spreading it and how much they are spreading. Some farmers have turned to experts to try to reduce the amount of some chemicals — especially phosphorous — in the manure so as not to pollute waterways.
Phosphorous can damage lakes and streams. It helps create algae, which then multiply and choke off oxygen in the water. This leads to fish dying and the fish and algae then decomposing, changing the taste and chemistry of the water.
Michael McMahon, who runs E-Z Acres Dairy Farm in Homer, Cortland County, used research from Cornell to change what he was feeding his cows to reduce the amount of phosphorous in their manure. This helped reduce phosphorous runoff into area waterways, including Skaneateles Lake, which is a prime drinking water source for the city of Syracuse.
*** Recycle it into compost. Any item that is composted, such as food scraps and yard waste, can be used in gardens.
About 15 years ago, farmer Tim Fessenden began taking the nearly 25,000 gallons of manure made daily by cows at his King Ferry farm in Cayuga County and composting it into dry compost that he bags and sells to gardeners. He is one of a few farmers in the state turning manure into compost for reuse.
On his farm, Fessenden dumps the manure into two holding bins, and then it is separated into solids and liquid. The solids are put onto a concrete floor, which has many tiny holes through which oxygen is pumped into the solids.
This constant flow of oxygen helps microbes break down the solids, reduce odors and kill off harmful pathogens. After three weeks, a loader takes the mixture outside, where it constantly is turned to continue the breakdown of the solids.
After about six months, the manure compost is ready to be picked up at the farm, or bagged for shipment to stores. Fessenden also sells his product, called Tender Loving Compost, at his farm.
Another potentially hazardous item farmers need to dispose of are the bodies of deceased farm animals. At one time, the carcasses were taken to rendering companies, which would sell parts of the animal that others could use, such as hides, tallow and bone meal.
But when the price of these parts declined, many rendering firms closed because they couldn’t make any money on body parts.
Burying carcasses on the farm used to be commonplace, but it started to be a problem because the decay of animal bodies can leach into groundwater and pose risks to any person or animal that drinks the water.
So many farmers are turning to composting. This helps get rid of the carcass without the odor or danger of any runoff into water tables. Tip sheets on how to do this can be obtained through Cornell’s Waste Management Institute (cwmi.css.cornell.edu).
The recycling of ag plastics has been big in New York state for about the past five years, but it has been slow to catch on in some parts of the state, including much of Western New York and the Hudson Valley.
“In some ways, we take three steps forward and slide back two,” Leonard said of the Waste Management Institute at Cornell.
The idea of the program is to recycle plastic used for bunker covers, silage bags and to wrap hay bales and make them into something that can be used again in another industry.
Leonard said a lot of ag plastics recycled in New York go to a recycling plant in Brooklyn that makes trash bags. Meanwhile, NBF Plastics (in Auburn, Cayuga County), a division of North Brook Farms, is turning ag plastics into a plastic plywood substitute.
Leonard said the waste management institute also has six mobile ag plastic baylers that are being used in various parts of the state. Most are operated through the local Soil and Water Conservation Districts.
Leonard said the key to this program being successful is having markets for the recycled plastic.
“When this started, there were no markets,” he said. “It is very active in some counties (Otsego and Wyoming) and is picking up in other counties.”
Some counties have begun their own ag plastics recycling ventures.
In Madison County, just east of Syracuse, the county’s Department of Solid Waste has had an ag plastics recycling program since 2012. But Director James A. Zecca agreed with Leonard that the problem is finding markets for the plastic.
Madison County is trying to work with another company that would take the ag plastics — along with the large blue plastic sheets that cover boats in the winter — and recycle them into oil and diesel fuel. Zecca said the county has submitted two grant proposals to New York state to fund this project, but both were denied.
“We are trying to promote this and get it started,” he said. “We have other counties, like Onondaga, Chenango and Oneida-Herkimer, who are interested in this. But for now, we are still collecting the plastic and baling it.”
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