Activists groups want stiffer environmental regulations, neighbors are filing lawsuits against proposed and existing pork production units, and the Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of writing new national regulations.

Large-scale operations are taking the brunt of the hit, but no operation – regardless of size – is immune to the situation.

Among the pork producers taking charge is Premium Standard Farms. The company is spending millions of dollars investigating new manure-management technologies. Headquartered in Princeton, Mo., the company’s goal is to cut in half the amount of manure nutrients that are land-applied from its Missouri pork operations. The point, of course is to minimize the impact of hog manure and reduce odors.

Granted, the commitment to reduce nutrients is part of a legal agreement between the company, EPA and the Citizens Legal Environmental Action Network. But it also gives PSF a jump-start in terms of complying with EPA’s soon-to-be-released nationwide regulations.

The agreement settles all environmental claims against the company by EPA and CLEAN, as well as those against ContiGroup Co.

Specifically, the agreement calls for a 50 percent reduction in nitrogen concentration of the effluent applied to area fields from the company’s farms. This reduction in nutrients will allow PSF to apply more gallons of diluted effluent to each field. It will provide an additional benefit for area farmers because it will increase the volume of water they can apply to their crops. This water can replace existing irrigation water. It also can be applied to fields that aren’t receiving supplemental water, which could boost crop yields.

Air monitoring is another important part of the agreement. PSF will be measuring baseline emissions from an untreated lagoon and an untreated barn for several months to monitor seasonal variations.

During that same time frame, the company will measure emissions from a covered lagoon, wastewater treatment cells and barns involved in a dust-control test. An on-site laboratory will evaluate hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, particulate matter and non-methane, volatile-organic-compound emissions at both the treatment and control sites.

The company has three test sites up and running, which were approved by a three-person advisory panel of industry experts. The goal with all of the systems is to collect data for about a year, then based on the findings determine whether each technology is a viable option for PSF to use. If not, the company will continue to explore other technologies.

PSF is concentrating on three environmental technologies that promote the philosophy of reduce, reuse and recycle.

The nitrification/denitrification system at PSF’s Whitetail farm in Putnam County Missouri converts ammonia nitrogen to harmless nitrogen gas, which is then released into the atmosphere.

It began operating in 2000. “With this system, we hope to cut the nitrogen content of our effluent by half,” says David Townsend, vice president for environmental affairs at PSF. “The nitrogen reduction should allow us to apply more water on fewer acres. This will keep our land application process further away from neighbors, creeks and streams.”

This is a system in which microorganisms and aeration change the effluent’s chemical make-up. Through this process, odorous gas ammonia is stripped away – releasing only harmless nitrogen into the air.

The nitrification/denitrification begins when effluent flows from the barns to covered lagoons. This process utilizes a permeable lagoon cover that breathes. Because oxygen passes down through the cover, microorganisms can grow. They attach themselves to the cover, creating a thick layer through which gases must pass. Microorganisms clean the odorous air before it’s released into the atmosphere.

Next, the effluent is processed with a process called nitrification and denitrification where the odorous gas ammonia is turned into harmless nitrogen. It’s a proven wastewater treatment technique used by municipalities and other industries.

This system was designed to process wastewater from the nitrification/denitrification and final stages for re-feeding to livestock. This system treats the wastewater by reducing ammonia nitrogen and odors. Once again, this process reduces the amount of land PSF needs for land-applying manure.

After the initial treatment, water moves to the nutrient-reduction cell, algae-removal cell and flows through a slow-sand filter where any remaining algae or particles are removed. By the time it trickles out of the bottom, the fluid is as clear as drinking water. Finally, the water is disinfected and pumped back to the barns for the pigs to use as drinking water.

This system is designed to operate during warm months of the year so treated water can be stored and used during cooler months. It was completed this past spring, but didn’t become fully operational until this fall.

“Water reuse processes are often criticized as costly and unrealistic, but we’re committed to exploring it,” says Townsend. “Regulations prevent us from discharging wastewater, no matter how successfully it’s treated. So, finding new uses for it on site is an attractive option.”

At PSF’s Homan farm in southern Gentry County Missouri, the company is testing a system that recycles hog manure into a value-added pelleted fertilizer.

It also could reduce the need for lagoons and possibly even irrigation in some cases.

In this system, effluent from eight grow/finish barns bypasses the lagoon and flows directly to a station that pumps the material over a screen and into a recycle tank. The liquid is chemically treated in the tank to control odor and is then used to flush the barns.   

The course material resting on the screen and excess liquids are pumped into a slurry tank.

This concentrated material then goes through the Crystal Peak process, which recycles the hog manure into rich, high-quality pelleted fertilizer.

The Crystal Peak process removes the volatile organic material from the slurry and converts it to methane gas, which is later used in the drying process. The slurry is further treated and sent to a centrifuge where it is thickened from 8 percent solids to 30 percent solids. At this point, the solid material is the consistency of potting soil. It can be recycled in to dried fertilizer pellets or transported off-site to a regional waste-to-energy plant.

“The Crystal Peak process has the potential to succeed where similar processes have failed,” says Townsend. “The system does an excellent job of concentrating,
de-watering and drying manure, converting it into a
value-added fertilizer.”

If this project is successful, PSF will try to sell the product as a commercial fertilizer.

Along with these three prominent environmental technologies, PSF also has covered more than 100 lagoons at its farms in five north-central Missouri counties. Plus, the company installed more than 200 air dams to help limit odors along property lines and public roads.

“We strive to be good neighbors,” says Townsend.

During the past four years, PSF has spent $10 million on environmental projects. But through this, the company has the opportunity to determine which ones are viable options to reduce the manure load and odors that all pork operations face.