Looking to reduce manure odor

On The Farm

On the Farm

April 24, 2005|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

IT DOESN'T come close to reaching the level of the Hatfield-McCoy feud, but farmers in Maryland, as well as those in other parts of the country, have been fighting with their neighbors across the fence over manure -- specifically its smell -- for as long as anyone can remember.

"It happens every year," Maryland Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley said during a cell-phone interview one day last week as he was spreading chicken manure over grain fields at his farm near Parsonsburg in Wicomico County. "People begin complaining about the smell of manure. It's been this way as long as anyone can remember.

"I even get complaints from my neighbors on occasion, and I don't live in an urban area," Riley said. "It's not like we have a lot of development in this area. But it's a fact of life; if we want an agriculture industry and we want to eat, the public is just going to have to put up with a little inconvenience."

Perhaps, but maybe not much longer.

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture may be on to something that will bring peace to the farm country.

At an Agricultural Research Service (ARS) laboratory in Clay Center, Neb., scientists are looking at ways to reduce the odor from beef cattle manure.

And it should work for dairy cows, which are more plentiful in Maryland, and maybe even on chicken manure, said Daniel N. Miller, a microbiologist with the service's Roman L. Hruska U.S. Meat Animal Research Center.

Unmistakable cattle manure odors have become a bigger issue during the past several years as more people move from cities and suburbs to rural areas, according to the USDA.

Miller and the other scientists at the center are studying beef cattle diets to see if they can change them to reduce unpleasant odors while still raising productive animals.

They have found that feeding cattle high-moisture corn instead of the traditional dry-rolled corn significantly reduced the odor, the ARS said in a news release announcing the research.

Scientists don't measure odor per se, but the compounds that might cause odor. Starch that is not digested produces many odor-causing compounds in manure. If more starch is digested, less starch is available to cause odor.

Asked whether there was any chance that all the unwanted smell could be eliminated from manure, Miller replied: "That's a hard thing to do. I don't think we will be able to eliminate it completely, but maybe through diet we will be able to control it."

Miller said researchers have been able to reduce the compounds in manure that cause the odor by about 50 percent, "and we are operating on the assumption that the odor is also being cut in half."

"But," he added, "we have not done any people tests to determine if the smell has been reduced."

Other members of the research team include Shawn L. Archibeque, a postdoctoral fellow, and Harvey C. Freetly and Calvin L. Ferrell, who are animal scientists.

Riley said the manure generated by farm animals "is not a waste product, but a resource. It has lots of nutrients in it," and it's used in lieu of chemical fertilizer to help plants grow.

"It's not a great problem," he said. "The smell usually goes away in a day or two. All it takes is a little bit of understanding from people who have moved next to a farm to be in the country."

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