Dutch Farmers Find It Pays To Manage Poultry Manure

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Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

Poultry farmers in Holland face challenges similar to their North American counterparts in dealing with manure from concentrated operations where there is insufficient cropland for application. This creates a need for exporting manure from the producing farm to users in other places.

Poultry operations in Holland differ from most North American poultry farms in that most are not vertically integrated. Most farmers are independent producers who contract for feed, pullets, and other inputs. Most contracts are renewed every three months so it keeps strong competition working for the purchases that producers need. Because of this structure, farmers are actively involved in directing the industry and in seeking solutions to their manure management problems.

Farmers and agricultural advisors from the United States had the opportunity to visit compost sites on farms in Holland as well as a poultry waste research center in September, 1997 as part of a tour organized by Penn State Cooperative Extension. A grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program helped to cover the trip costs.

The Center for Applied Poultry Research is studying ways to reduce ammonia emissions from poultry houses as well as seeking solutions to other issues in the poultry industry. The Center is funded 50 percent by tax dollars and 50 percent by direct assessments on producers. It is run by a board of directors — half of whom are poultry farmers who are beneficiaries of the research and who are funding the research. This provides a strong link between the producers and the research community.

A major reason that the Center is conducting research to reduce ammonia emissions from poultry buildings is that government regulations are mandating a 70 percent reduction in ammonia emissions from livestock facilities. Ammonia is formed when uric acid in poultry manure decomposes. The best way to prevent this decomposition is to dry the manure to less than 40 percent moisture quickly and then further dry the manure to 20 percent moisture. A ventilated floor system was being evaluated for both broiler and turkey production. While the system was effective in reducing ammonia, it was not cost effective for broiler production. The work was ongoing, and there were indications that the system might be economical for turkey production.

One million birds and no cropland

The Wierko company, an egg production operation is owned by Harry J. Wierik. He has one million birds in the operation and no cropland. Therefore all manure is sold off the farm. One interesting aspect is that most of the equipment (including cages used in the operation) is made on site. A shop with several full-time employees is kept busy with equipment fabrication.

Another unique aspect of this farm was the proactive efforts that are underway in response to a concern about animal welfare, which is becoming a major issue in Holland. Some experimental cages are being tried that include a roost for the birds and a door between pairs of cages enabling the birds to move between them.

On this farm, manure is collected on a belt system under the cages. The raw manure is taken to a static pile composting unit, where it is mixed with equal parts of wood chips on a volume basis. Air is forced through the manure for three days. After the wood chips are screened off (resulting in manure with 30 percent moisture,) the material is then placed in a drying tunnel where heated air is blown over the manure for five days. The air is heated by an exchanger which captures heat generated in the compost unit. After five days in the drying tunnel, the manure has been dried to ten percent moisture.

The air coming out of the drying tunnel is sent to a scrubber to remove ammonia which has been lost by the manure. The ammonia is removed as a liquid which is then sprayed back on the manure in the compost unit to return lost nitrogen. One half of the air leaving the scrubber is recycled back to the drying tunnel, while the other half is cooled in a long tunnel outdoors before passing through a biofilter to remove odors.

The composted manure is currently marketed in large bulk containers for about $65/ton (U.S.). Most of the product is presently shipped in bulk bags holding two tons to Germany or the U.S. for use on golf courses.
 
 The fertilizer analysis is 3.5-4 N, 4.0-5 P205, 4-5 K2O. The final product contains 60 percent organic matter.

A pellet mill is currently being installed to further process the manure. The investment in the manure handling system is about $3/bird. Obviously this is a significant investment which would be much more difficult in the U.S. where egg income is lower.The biofilter consists of coarse bark mulch in trailer size containers. The air is forced in the bottom of the containers, passes through the bark and is vented to the atmosphere through the top of the containers. This is very effective in removing odors and dust.

A series of belts and a tunnel

A second operation visited by our group was owned by Van Putten. Manure is collected on belts under the cages and usually is in the chicken house about two days. This manure is 35-40 percent moisture when it is removed and sent to a tower of belts in a chamber called a tunnel which adjoins the chicken house. Here, the manure starts on the top layer of 14 belts, then moves from end to end each time dropping to the belt below. Air is forced over each layer of the belts. In two days, the manure gets to the end of the process and it has been dried to 15-20 percent moisture. Next, the manure is pelletized and dried further to less than 10 percent moisture. The product is packaged in very convenient five kilo containers, 25 kilo bags, and large bulk bags containing two to three tons. These products are marketed across Europe, the Middle East and the producers are seeking markets in the U.S. as well.


Lessons learned

In order to grasp the challenges facing U.S. farmers who compost, one needs to understand the global nature of today’s economy. Farmers overseas are not only competing with North American farmers for markets in other countries but in our own as well. Some of the technology used overseas can be very useful here. However, before one makes major investments in systems similar to what European farmers are using, it is important to understand the differences in our economies. It is necessary to evaluate whether the technology which is profitable and successful somewhere else, will be useful under our very different set of economic constraints.

There are several advantages that farmers in Holland have which enables them to be tough competition in the world market for fertilizer products. For example, on the Van Putten farm, manure from several other producers is hauled to the pelletizing plant and added to the production from that farm. This provides for efficiency of operation of the pelletizing plant which is running six days/week. Bringing manure from several farms to a central location would be difficult to do in the U.S. due to biosecurity issues. The minimal biosecurity that was practiced on these Dutch farms was striking relative to the concerns we have in the U.S. It is unclear whether this lower level of biosecurity will be acceptable in the future.

Another advantage that the Dutch farmer has is relatively low energy costs enabling drying of the manure with outside energy sources. On the Van Putten farm, electricity is generated by burning natural gas in turbines. This electricity was produced at about the same cost that it could be purchased for off the grid. However, 50 percent of the energy is released as waste heat which is captured to dry the manure, meaning that the heat to dry the manure is essentially free.

Finally, the major advantage that producers in Holland have is the egg prices. One laying hen generates $17-$20/year in egg revenue for the poultry farmers in Holland, while in the U.S., revenue is often in the $11-$12/year range. Obviously, if one has $5-$9 more per bird to work with, there are many more things that can be done with the by-product of egg production.

Farmers in Holland still don’t have everything in their favor. Higher land costs and much more restrictive regulations increase costs for producers. One also needs to buy a manure quota to have animals which adds to the start-up costs.

In summary, before one invests in European technology for composting in North America, a number of questions need to be carefully evaluated. One needs to understand the competitive advantages and disadvantages in relation to another farm that is successfully using a particular technology. Each part of a system should be evaluated as to how well it fits into one’s own operation. By Leon Ressler.

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