Category Archives: Agriculture

‘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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Evaluation pays off for producers

Mandy and Chris Fletcher, of Abingdon, Virginia, have purchased rams from the ram test sale for the past four years and have improved their flock’s genetics by selecting for growth and parasite resistance.  As their flock’s genetics have improved, the Fletchers have seen a decrease in health care costs and flock mortality.

Mandy and Chris Fletcher, of Abingdon, Virginia, have purchased rams from the ram test sale for the past four years and have improved their flock’s genetics by selecting for growth and parasite resistance. As their flock’s genetics have improved, the Fletchers have seen a decrease in health care costs and flock mortality.

Sheep producers are finding new ways to put dollars in their pockets with some help from Virginia Tech’s Southwest Virginia Agricultural Research and Extension Center.

The center, located in Glade Spring, is home to the Southwest Virginia Forage-Based Ram Test. The ram test, now in its fifth year, is the only program in the U.S. that evaluates rams through a forage-based performance test designed specifically to quantify growth and parasite resistance. The test provides a mechanism for ram lambs to be evaluated and compared to rams from other flocks in a standardized environment. At the conclusion of the test, the ram lambs that are offered for sale come with a vast body of production data.

“Internal parasites are among the leading health concerns for sheep,” said Scott Greiner, Virginia Cooperative Extension sheep specialist and professor of animal and poultry sciences. “They can pose dramatic economic losses for many producers, especially those in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast regions of the U.S. where forage-based production is an ideal management system for livestock.”

“The value-added research and data collected on these rams is a huge asset to both seedstock and commercial producers around the country who are making selections for their breeding programs,” said Lee Wright, Southwest Virginia AREC superintendent and ram test manager. “Over the years our research has shown that parasite resistance is a highly heritable trait with genetic variation. Identifying rams that have the potential of passing these favorable genetic traits on to the lambs they sire can make a significant impact on the health and well-being of many producer flocks.”

Chris and Mandy Fletcher of Abingdon, Virginia, know firsthand the value of having this data available on their rams.

The Fletchers purchased their first ram at the inaugural ram test sale in 2012. They have purchased a ram from the test for the past four years, making their selection based on growth and parasite resistance.

“Each year our genetics and parasite resistance have improved. We haven’t had to deworm our ewes in 18 months,” said Chris Fletcher.

As a local veterinarian, Chris Fletcher shares his personal experience with his clients. Nearly 90 percent of his medical calls about sheep are related to parasite issues, and he spends a lot of time stressing the value of parasite control. He says using a ram with increased parasite resistance would easily pay for itself with decreased health costs and flock mortality.

Researchers from Virginia Tech also provide information on a variety on management and nutrition topics to producers during the center’s annual field day and sale each September.

“I wasn’t familiar with raising sheep when we first got started,” said Mandy Fletcher. “The educational program offered as part of the field day and sale has really helped me.”

The Fletchers have consigned rams to the test for the past three years. The annual sale serves as a merchandising outlet for their rams, while their ewes are sold off the farm for seedstock. The rams they consign are progeny of rams they have purchased through the sale.

In 2015 producers from eight states consigned 110 rams, with 36 of the highest-performing rams offered through the sale. The sale averaged $1,222 per head, which surpassed national sale averages from other Katahdin ram sales around the county.

“Our goal for the program has been to demonstrate the tools and application of strategies that can be utilized on-farm for genetic improvement of parasite resistance. The Fletchers are a testimony to the benefits of putting these practices in place, and they are recognizing the benefits on their farm and the farms of their customers,” Greiner said.

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