Farmers will be encouraged to reduce nutrients going in the front end of farm animals while state and federal agencies plan to purchase more of what comes out the other end under a new Bay Program strategy designed to deal with animal waste.
The strategy, in the works for a year, seeks to reduce the impact inflicted on the Bay from the 44 million tons of manure produced annually by the cows, chickens, cattle, swine and turkeys in the watershed.
The magnitude of the manure problem not only threatens the Bay, but agriculture itself. Some regions of the watershed have more manure than can be applied to the land, especially as rules governing the application of animal waste have become more strict over time.
“As agricultural animal operations become more concentrated and the acreage of cropland available for proper manure application is lost to development, the challenge of managing animal manure and poultry litter in the watershed will only intensify,” said a statement that was to be signed by the Chesapeake Executive Council Nov. 29, which would formally adopt the new strategy as a regional policy.
Agriculture is the largest source of nutrients entering the Bay, and animal wastes account for about half of the nutrients originating from farming. But, officials say they also offer a big potential for nutrient reduction efforts.
If all of the animal manure-related actions in the strategy are implemented along with all those called for in state nutrient reduction strategies—such as streambank fencing and using nutrient management on farmlands—the amount of nitrogen reaching the Bay from animal wastes would be reduced by about 18.4 million pounds per year, and the amount of phosphorus by about 1.69 million pounds, said Kelly Shenk, of the EPA’s Bay Program Office, who led the effort to develop the manure strategy.
“That is on par with what we expect to get with wastewater treatment plant upgrades,” she said.
The strategy was developed with the input from scientists, farmers, agricultural agencies and others.
The first goal of the strategy is to reduce the amount of nutrients coming out of the animals by better managing the feed going in. The aim is to reduce the amount of nutrients that have to be dealt with in manure, which are difficult to deal with.
The most aggressive goal is for dairy farms, which scientists and many farm agencies believe hold great potential for improved feed management.
But the strategy also seeks further reductions from poultry, which has already achieved significant phosphorus reductions by adding phytase to feed. It will also explore the potential for reductions from hog operations, which are a relatively small—though growing—source of manure nutrients.
The second major initiative of the strategy is to create markets for alternative products using manure, such as pelletizing poultry litter into fertilizer for golf courses. This is something that officials acknowledge will be difficult because chemical fertilizers are so cheap to manufacture.
As a result, the strategy directs state and federal agencies to reduce the use of chemical fertilizers—which are imported from outside the watershed—by purchasing 20 percent of their fertilizer, soil amendments and compost from poultry litter or animal manure nutrients derived from sources within the watershed.
The goal would apply to universities, highway rights of ways, military bases, state and national parks, abandoned mines and other sites.
“We think that through government leadership, we will be able to jump-start the market and drive the prices down for these products and increase the demand for them,” Shenk said. “Over time, they will be competitive with other nutrient sources. But our main goal is to use the nutrient sources we generate in the watershed where they are needed and reduce our reliance on imported nutrients.”
But there is so much manure produced in the watershed that finding enough alternate uses will be difficult. To help find new uses, the strategy calls for the Bay Program to create a Regional Manure and Litter Use Technology Task Force to identify and promote promising technologies for producing manure and litter products.
Among the ideas it will explore are finding ways to build regional facilities to help share the expenses for projects that may have high capital costs, such as a regional composting facility.
The strategy also encourages states to look for opportunities to use wastes as energy and support pilot projects, but to prioritize toward those that reduce nutrient content. Some bioenergy technologies, such as anaerobic digesters, do net reduce the amount of nutrients.
Other elements of the strategy include:
- Inventory Surpluses of Manure and Litter Nutrient Surpluses in the Watershed. Poultry litter and animal manure are not equally distributed in the watershed. The inventory would identify where surpluses (amounts beyond what can be applied locally to meet crop needs) exist. The analysis will also make projections of how surpluses are likely to be affected as a result of fluctuating energy prices, animal operation expansions or relocations, as well as changes in cropping patterns and farm acreage.
- Coordinate State Manure Management Programs across the Watershed. There is often little coordination among states on manure management issues. In some cases, one state may subsidize the transport of manure into another state, displacing local manure. The strategy calls for an ongoing forum through which states can better coordinate regional manure and litter issues.
- Increase Funding for Manure and Poultry Litter Nutrient Management. The states and other non-federal agencies agreed to work together to find opportunities in the federal Farm Bill to support strategy goals, such as precision feeding and alternative uses of manure and litter products.
Copies of the manure strategy are available on the Bay Program’s web site, www.chesapeakebay.net