Excess prompts innovation in manure management

Animals from seven barns on the St. Paul campus produce more than one million gallons of liquid manure each year.

Branden Peterson

A land-grant university tucked between two major metropolitan areas with hundreds of farm animals in one location is unique. Feeding these animals is not the problem. But as their food moves through, a new challenge arises after it exits the body.

That means manure and lots of it. The University has more of it than it needs – or knows what to do with.

“I think we’re the only major university that has this many animals in a metropolitan area,” said Bev Durgan, an associate dean in the College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences.

“Just moving manure, to get it out of here or to utilize it in our fields, it poses some unique challenges,” she said.

Animals from seven barns on the St. Paul campus produce more than one million gallons of liquid manure and 260,000 cubic yards of dry manure annually. Administrators say it’s a smelly job, but somebody has to dig in.

University workers pick up manure from the barns twice each day. They then haul the material to the animal waste compost facility located on the east end of the St. Paul campus.

Stored between dry manure cement stalls and liquid holding tanks, the two manures are mixed to produce compost material garden-growers swoon over. In the meantime, whiffs from the facility can nearly elicit tears – especially in the summer.

Built in 1990, the current manure management facility is now outdated.

Durgan said challenges in the University’s animal waste management procedures have been solved momentarily, but long-term changes are coming.

“Our compost facility is outdated; it was never built to last that long,” Durgan said. “We’re looking at other ways to deal with the manure on campus.”

The 1990 facility cost approximately $500,000, and officials believe it would cost even more to build a new facility. Yet manure management cannot be compromised if the University is committed to keeping animals on campus.

“At our college and in the College of Veterinary Medicine, we feel we need animals on campus as part of our mission,” Durgan said. “We do what we have to do to be able to manage the manure. It comes with the business.”

One option for future manure management procedures might include new energy-generating technology.

Methane digesters convert manure into a methane gas that produces electricity. The energy could supplement electricity on campus, and leftover compost would still be available for fertilizer use.

Tom Warnke has no reservations about digging his hands into whatever the University’s farm animals leave behind.

After spending most of his life in farm-like settings, dealing with manure is natural for him. He said the smell is, too.

“It’s amazing how quick it sets in,” he said.

As administrative director of the Agriculture Experiment Station, Warnke oversees the day-to-day operations between many of the St. Paul campus’ fields, animals and animal waste management procedures.

Warnke said hundreds of individuals, both from the public and University, demand manure at their homes.

“There was so many people that it started to get a bit overwhelming,” he said.

Taking the manure off campus alleviates some safety concerns caused by high vehicle and foot traffic near the animals.

And after supplying St. Paul campus fields with more than enough fertilizer, excess manure regularly remains. In a new change, a private contractor was hired this year to transport excess manure off campus.

“We’re committed to keeping animals here, but there’s a cost,” Durgan said. “Buildings cost money, manure costs money, moving animals costs money. It’s just an issue that we have to deal with agriculture in the middle of the city.”

Branden Peterson covers the St. Paul campus and welcomes comments at [email protected]