Mo’ Poo Mo’ Problems!

Cayden Theberge’s Sheldon, Vermont farm. You can read more about Cayden here.

 

When it comes to creatures from lagoons, it isn’t the campy sci-fi character from the 1950s that should be keeping you up at night. In reality, we have a much more dangerous lagoon situation, in the form of manure pits that populate Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and industrial farms, across the country.  There is a better way though—in the form of pasture-based regenerative agriculture, which avoids the need for manure lagoons.  When animals are not housed indoors in confinement, there is no concentrated buildup of waste. The “sewer” system for a group of cows is moving them through successive pastures, rather than keeping them on concrete and housing their waste in an open pit.

How Manure Benefits the Soil

Manure is an essential component to carbon building in soil. Some say it’s one of the most valuable products on a farm. While synthetic agricultural compounds can degrade soil, natural manure enriches it. According to the Rodale Institute, a ten-year comparison between crop rotations using composted manure and those using synthetic fertilizers showed the composted crops resulted in carbon gains of a ton per acre per year while those using the synthetic fertilizer lost carbon at the rate of 0.15 tons per acre per year.

When manure is successfully applied to crop or grasslands, its broken down by microorganisms, and nutrients become available for crop production. Pasture-raised animals not only minimize the required transfer of manure, they also push the carbon-dense byproduct into the soil by trampling it, reducing the need to spread, especially during the warm months.

Correctly incorporated manure helps soil by:

  1. Improving tilth, or soil structure.
  2. Adding biodiversity above and below the ground, by providing nutrients on which microorganisms can feed.
  3. Aiding in water retention, keeping it available for plants and microorganisms instead of adding nitrogen and phosphorus to our drinking water.
  4. Holding carbon and methane: Healthy soil, the result of manure application, has been shown to sequester 3.26 tons of carbon dioxide per acre per year according to a study published in Nature Communications 6 in 2015. That more than makes up for the greenhouse gases produced by a cow in a year.
  5. Reducing farmer overhead: manure is a cost-efficient fertilizer for farmers already struggling with diminishing profit margins.

What Happens in Lagoons

But manure is only helpful when it’s applied and reincorporated into the soil. When it’s stored in a football-field sized man-made ditch, it causes a host of problems. Perhaps you’ve read stories of overflowing lagoons in North Carolina following hurricane Florence, causing algae blooms in waterways, mass fish deaths, and toxic water contamination for those who inhabit the area. Or maybe you know about the free flowing methane and carbon dioxide conversion factories these lagoons become after anaerobic respiration. And we didn’t even mention the stench!

Manure lagoons collect feces, urine, blood, and other waste products from livestock. This waste contains harmful chemicals and gases, which cause oxygen depletion, explosions, and other hazards to the people and wildlife living in the area of one of these giant farms. Hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, carbon dioxide, and methane, as well as nitrogen and phosphorus, are released by manure lagoons. People living in the area of these giant farms are subject to higher per capita rates of asthma, high blood pressure, and nausea.

 

 

Photo courtesy of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

So Why Isn’t Everyone Using Manure the Right Way?

Large feedlot operations, pig and cow cities, do spread their manure on fields, but they have to do so at a rate in which it can be absorbed by the soil, by order of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Because of the sheer amount of waste these farms produce, that becomes difficult. According to a report by the University of Wisconsin, no more than 25 tons of solid dairy manure should be applied to an acre per year unless it’s incorporated back into the soil either by a spreader, pastured animals, or some other equitable method.

One Holstein cow on a feedlot produces 21 tons of manure a year and according to the EPA, there are over 15,000 large CAFOs, defined as having 1,000 cows or the equivalent of other livestock, in America, as of 2008. There’s just too much to spread safely, without risking oversaturation and soil degradation and runoff. So, the manure and other waste products need to be stored somewhere… ergo, the lagoon! In addition, in North Carolina alone, there are a reported 1,700 decommissioned manure lagoons, which pose additional environmental threats and cost about $43,000 an acre to close.

Staying Local, Staying Small

When you become a member of Walden Local, your meat comes from a small New England or New York farm. Our farmers’ names are written right on our packaging. There are no football field-sized manure lagoons on our farms. Our farmers don’t use pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers or other chemicals on their land. They farm to promote healthy soil so they can grow healthy, happy animals. Join the movement of people who care where their food comes from and how it was raised. Healthy soil makes for healthy animals, which means you get a healthier meal for you and your family.