‘Designer manure’ could become fashionable on farms

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Jactone Ogejo

Eugene Bowman’s family has owned a dairy farm in Franklin County, Virginia, for four generations, and Bowman wants to make sure that when he hands it over to his sons, the land is healthy for generations to come.

“It needs to be as good or better than when I got it,” he said.

So when his local Virginia Cooperative Extension agent told him about a research project Virginia Tech is undertaking to mitigate fertilizer runoff, Bowman jumped at the chance.

He is now working with Jactone Ogejo, an associate professor of biological systems engineering on a project to create the most fashionable thing to hit farms since Carhartts — designer manure.

Plants need nutrients such as those in manure to help them grow strong and produce food to feed the world. Plants love to suck up the nitrogen in manure when it is used as a fertilizer, but they don’t always need the phosphorous that comes with it. If plants don’t take up all the phosphorus, what’s left can run off into streams and waterways, sending pollutants downstream to places like the Chesapeake Bay.

Using a series of operations, Ogejo is developing a chemical-based process where manure is treated to remove some of the phosphorus — hence the term “designer manure.”  The recovered phosphorus is set aside so it stays out of the water source and can be sold separately to farmers who are in need of phosphorus for their plants.

“I approach my work by looking at the most beneficial research we can do for farmers,” Ogejo said. “This solution will not only protect the environment, but it will also help farmers continue farming while increasing their bottom lines.”

Government regulations are increasingly calling on farmers to monitor and curb runoff from their land, and efforts are underway to stem the flow of phosphorus to the Chesapeake Bay, so this research can help them comply with new guidelines. It is being funded in part by the USDA National Institutes of Food and Agriculture.

The process works by first separating the liquid from the solids in manure. The solids can be dried out and reused for other purposes, such as stall bedding. The liquids are then routed to a large vat where chemicals are applied to recover and separate the phosphorus from the other materials; the three different chemicals used are salts based on aluminum, iron, or calcium. Once the chemicals are applied, the phosphorus that is separated can be sold.

Ogejo is testing this system at Bowman’s farm but expects it to be available soon to others around the state. He wants farmers to learn about the process through videos and at field days and Extension events in hopes that it will make their work easier while benefiting the environment.

“I really enjoy agricultural production and the challenges of growing good food to put on the table with limited resources,” Ogejo said. “I hope this work will help make farmers’ work a bit easier.”

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