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Better Way To Deal With Cattle Runoff

By David Elstein
April 14, 2003

Eliminating odors from cattle waste runoff is only one advantage of a new, environmentally friendly system developed by Agricultural Research Service scientists in Nebraska to handle animal waste. Another benefit of the new system is reduced costs for farmers, since the nutrients will flow from lagoons onto nearby fields to fertilize hay.

The feedlot at ARS' Roman L. Hruska U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) in Clay Center, Neb., is situated on top of a foothill. Rainfall runoff from a series of pens within this feedlot is directed to a small basin that runs the length of the pens. The runoff collects in the basin for a short period of time, allowing the solid particles to settle. The runoff is then discharged to a hayfield, where the water and nutrients are "recycled" to help the hay grow without any additional water or nutrients.

The retained solids have to be removed from the basin once a year. But these solids are spread on cornfields as fertilizer, thereby "recycling" them back to the production system.

Cattle's bodies cannot utilize all the nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients contained in their feed, and the excess winds up in the animals' manure. But with the new system, these underutilized nutrients can be put to work as fertilizer to help grow the thousands of acres of corn and hay that are planted each year as food for the MARC cattle. This not only saves money on commercial fertilizer costs, but also helps keep nutrients such as nitrogen out of water supplies by reusing those nutrients as fertilizer, rather than letting them wash away to nearby streams or other bodies of water. In the three years that agricultural engineers have studied the system, there has been no runoff of nitrogen or animal wastewater from the hayfields to the surrounding area.

More information about this research can be found in the April issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.