Waste testing lab a valuable resource

According to the “Poop Scoop” newsletter — published by the University of Florida to help farmers manage waste from thousands of dairy cows and millions of chickens — manure can be a good thing.

“We try to take a light-hearted, rear view of the problem, but managing all that waste to protect the environment is no easy task,” says Cliff Starling, coordinator of nutrient management programs at UF's Suwannee Valley Livestock Waste Testing Laboratory in Live Oak.

The lab, which is the first of its kind in the nation, serves livestock producers throughout the state. In the environmentally sensitive Suwannee River basin of north Florida, there are about 25,000 dairy cows and 38 million chickens. Statewide, there are about 142,000 dairy cows.

“After all the jokes about it, manure actually has a lot of good things in it,” Starling said. “These include valuable organic matter and nutrients that can be applied to crops to reduce fertilizer costs and protect water resources.”

The price of fertilizer is increasing rapidly, and the goal of the lab is to help change animal waste into a valuable resource by analyzing it for different nutrients, he said.

The cow manure and chicken litter — which contain valuable plant nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium — can help farmers save money by reusing and recycling nutrients. Use of animal waste may also lower production costs by reducing the need for commercial fertilizer, he said.

In north Florida, careful application of manure to crops also helps reduce the movement of nutrients into ground and surface waters in the 13 counties that comprise the Suwannee River Management District. Because of the region's porous soils and active hydrology, every effort must be taken to protect water resources from pollution by animal wastes as well as human wastes and fertilizers, Starling said.

“In order to apply manure to crops at the proper rate, farmers need to know what levels of nutrients are present in the waste, and our lab can provide them with that information,” he said. “The actual nutrient concentration in manure may vary from one livestock operation to another, depending on the animal feed, season of the year and design of the waste collection system.”

John and Doug Carter, father and son owners of C&C Farms in McAlpin, Fla., said they rely on the lab to test chicken litter for various nutrients.

Starling said manure should be sampled at the lab before each field application is made, or at least twice a year, preferably in winter and late summer to measure seasonal nutrient variations in the waste. The free lab service is provided by UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

“Our lab report, which takes about two or three weeks to prepare, provides detailed information that can be used in the overall nutrient management program of any farm operation, Starling said. “In addition to providing the analytical results and nutrient availability estimates, the report includes fertilizer recommendations for the selected crop as well as supplemental nutrients that are needed and the economic value of the waste being utilized.

To use the lab's services, farmers can contact their local county Extension agent to discuss their manure management system and arrange for waste samples to be analyzed. At the request of local county Extension agents, Starling also educates individual farmers about their waste management programs.

In addition to coordinating the lab's nutrient management programs, Starling conducts education programs, workshops and tours for farmers and other residents who want to utilize organic wastes on crops, pastures and pine trees.

He said many conditions affect the use of wastes on crops. Nitrogen, for example, is the most abundant nutrient in waste, and the nutrient must be broken down by microorganisms in the soil before it can be used by plants. This process — called mineralization — is affected by the type of soil as well as soil moisture, soil temperature and microbial populations. As the temperature increases during the summer, microbial activity increases.

All of these environmental factors are considered by the livestock waste testing lab, which is located at UF's North Florida Research and Education Center. The center also works closely with the Suwannee River Partnership, which includes local, state and federal government agencies that are helping farmers develop strategies for monitoring and managing waste and fertilizer in the basin.

Nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients in waste can degrade water quality in rivers and springs, causing algae blooms that consume oxygen needed by fish and other aquatic animals. High nitrogen levels can also affect human health.

George Hochmuth, director of the UF research and education center in Live Oak, said the partnership is being coordinated by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Suwannee River Water Management District in cooperation with UF, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Florida Farm Bureau and other agencies, agricultural producers and related associations.

For more information on the Suwannee Valley Livestock Waste Testing Laboratory, visit http://nfrec-sv.ifas.ufl.edu.

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