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Franklin County Dairy Farmer Turns Trash Into Treasure

Franklin County Dairy Farmer Turns Trash Into Treasure
May 26, 2004 |

During a recent field day at his Franklin County dairy, James Taff invited visitors to scoop a handful of rich compost from a steaming pile that only two days earlier was fresh cow manure. To their surprise, the warm humus had virtually no odor and was dry to the touch.”Since we started composting our manure, the smell has gone to nothing,” Taff said. “Most people who come to the farm say there’s really not much smell to it.”The secret is a closed-loop composting process that not only reduces the environmental impact of the dairy, but also creates a nutrient-rich product that can be used in potting soils and gardening products. Taff explained that the process begins in the free-stall barns where his 550 Holstein cows are fed.”We scrape the alleys in the barns twice a day with a skid steer loader and catch all of the bedding and manure in a settling basin,” he said. “It’s then pumped into a building where it goes through a vibrating screen and a screw press, which separates out the solids.”The solids from the manure go into a rotating cylinder the size of a semi-trailer. Inside the composter, the manure reaches a temperature of about 160 degrees, which essentially sterilizes the mixture. After two days, the compost is removed and stored in a dry-stack barn before being sold or returned to the barns as bedding material.”We used to use sand for bedding, and we were spending about $2,000 a month,” Taff said. “Now we use the compost, and it has really offset the cost of the equipment. We also have a few nurseries that use it (for potting soil). It’s not paying for itself yet, but I think it will someday.”Dr. Jeff Sibley, an associate alumni professor in Auburn University’s Horticulture Department, is studying potential uses for manure and other agricultural byproducts. He visited Taff’s dairy recently and was impressed by the composting process and the quality of the finished product.”The use of composted cow manure as a horticultural substrate is readily acceptable in the nursery and landscape industry. Homeowners have used Black Kow, or other bagged soil conditioners containing cow manure, for years,” Sibley said. “While no University testing has been done on the Taffs’ compost, the potential is obvious, and the product is similar to, if not better than, comparable products in the market place.”The most amazing part of the day was to visualize the way the Taffs have addressed solving their farm’s waste management concerns by creating a closed loop where the dry compost is recycled through the open barn area as bedding over and over,” Sibley added.In fact, it was environmental concerns and not economic considerations that convinced Taff to purchase his in-vessel composter almost three years ago.”When they passed a rule saying that you couldn’t spread manure from Nov. 15 to Feb. 15, we started looking for a way to handle our cow manure and dispose of it in an environmentally friendly way,” Taff recalled. “Before, we had two settling basins, and we would fill one up in about three weeks. We then had three weeks to spread the manure before the other one was full. But under the new rules, we couldn’t spread for three months.”Taff knew if he was to continue to operate the dairy his father started in 1960, he would have to find a year-round waste management solution. After researching several options, he traveled to Florida to see a composter in action before purchasing his own.Alabama Farmers Federation Dairy Director Jim Cravey was not surprised when he learned Taff was pioneering a new method of managing dairy waste in Alabama.”The Taffs have always been innovative producers. They are thinkers who solve problems and provide leadership,” Cravey said. “By composting his manure, James has reduced the size of the lagoon needed for his operation; he’s saved on bedding; he’s created a superior product that can be utilized by the horticulture industry; and he is able to recycle the water by using it to irrigate pastures.”One might think using compost for bedding material would increase the incidence of mastitis in dairy cows, but Taff said the opposite is true. “My somatic cell count (an indicator of mastitis) is lower now than when I used sand or sawdust,” Taff said “I like using it better for bedding than anything else I ever used.”Sibley said the positive results Taff has seen from recycling composted manure is encouraging news for farmers who must conform to increasingly strict environmental standards.”Perhaps the model the Taffs have in place can offer some alternatives to other dairies–providing occasional revenue from selling the compost to gardeners and landscapers, while managing waste in an environmentally sound manner,” Sibley said.Taff, meanwhile, is hopeful the composter also will pay financial dividends.”The manure is worth more if we can sell it to people to put in their gardens than it is if it’s spread on pastureland,” Taff said. “I’d like to get to the point where I could sell all that we make.”

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