BROOKINGS, S.D. (AP) — A giant brown cloud billowed from the back of a truck as a crowd of onlookers watched, some taking video as it settled into the earth.
Those recently gathered behind caution tape were either curious or prospecting, checking out an equipment demonstration for one of agriculture’s fast-rising commodity.
A group of young friends from Iowa were so excited about the business potential of manure they were talking over each other, as if trying to share a secret the world was ignoring. The general public, for some reason, treats manure like waste.
Animal poop, yes. But not waste.
“It’s gold,” said Andy Mazurik, echoing one of his buddies.
The 20-year-old was not the first person to use the word “gold” to describe manure at the 2018 North American Manure Expo, a two-day event at the Swiftel Convention Center.
Language is a matter of context. And money talks.
The Argus Leader reports that as urbanites create the need for mass food production and ignore the industry’s by-products, residents of rural America are embracing the untapped potential of the hundreds of millions of tons of animal waste produced each year by swine, cattle and poultry farms.
Like any volatile product, manure also demands caution. Created in vast quantities by large-scale livestock operations, problems with storage and transportation can be devastating and even fatal. Not to mention ripple effects with damaging consequences on an already dim public perception of manure and its source.
The goal of the expo — now in its 17th year — is to teach farmers about how to best harness the agricultural value of manure, but also to help them avoid the hazards of working with “black gold,” said Anthony Bly, a soils field specialist for South Dakota State University Extension.
“Agriculture in my mind is really on the defensive a lot,” Bly said. “We do want to be responsible for what we do.”
South Dakota is home to 440 concentrated animal feeding operations, CAFOs for short. All are required to file permits with state officials and meet standards for handling the substantial amounts of manure produced by livestock.
Between the cow and hog CAFOs in the state, there are 1.39 million animals, all producing manure in high quantities.
Spills from inadequate storage and transportation can mean days of clean-up and ruin neighboring properties.
Manure pits also cause significant risks to workers if safety precautions aren’t followed. Brookings area farmer Jerry Nelson spent weeks in the hospital after climbing into his family farm’s manure pit to try to unplug a pipe.
He nearly choked to death on the pool of hydrogen sulfide gas hovering just above the pit. Doctors told family he would likely die. He suffered a collapsed lung and damage to his peripheral vision because his brain had started to die, Nelson said.
“It strikes me how many farmers are vaguely aware that there are gasses in the manure pit,” Nelson said. “But they’re not aware of how dangerous or how quickly it can kill or injure.”
Mazurik attended the expo to get ideas and analyze equipment options for a business venture.
The 20-year-old and his friends are planning to start a manure hauling and application business near their home in Eldora, Iowa, after witnessing the economic benefits for nearby farmers.
With the ambition of Silicon Valley-type entrepreneurs, they described manure as an untapped market.
“It’s organic,” Mazurik said. “You can’t beat organic.”
Demand for manure has increased with skyrocketing costs of chemical fertilizer. Widely used chemical fertilizers such as nitrogen-rich anhydrous ammonia have doubled, tripled and even quadrupled in price in the last couple of decades, depending on the fertilizer
If applied correctly, manure can supply the nitrogen and phosphate cash crops need to flourish, along with offering other benefits for the soil.
A fast-rising market is creating new resources and leading to the development of new technology as farmers abandon old perceptions and embrace manure as a valuable commodity.
Peter Bakken runs a beef operation west of Luverne, Minnesota, on the same property his dad owned and operated when he was a child.
Other farmers covet his manure — they started coming by and making offers. He’s already been selling and applying it, he just wants to learn more about how to streamline an already lucrative piece of his business.
“I’ve got something of significant value,” Bakken said.
Manure production and sales is a boon for the regional economy, Bly said. Instead of sending ag dollars out of the area to the giant manufacturers of chemical fertilizer, manure is made and produced locally.
“The animal operators that produce a lot of manure, we get to keep that,” Bly said.
Bakken and his brother run the farm now, but they both grew up working for their dad. Manure was considered mostly as a by-product of the herd.
“When I was growing up we didn’t realize the value as much as we have today,” Bakken said.
Farmers pivoted to relying heavily on chemicals on their crops in the 1950s and 1960s. Chemical fertilizer became significantly cheaper around that time, said Linda Schott, a graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“They started treating manure like a waste product,” Schott said.
Manure sat on hills and in pits for decades, spread on fields maybe, but largely as a second-class citizen to the cheaper and more targeted chemical fertilizers that allow farmers to blend the mixture of plant nutrients to their desired ratios.
But the rising costs of chemical fertilizers, along with developments in science have allowed farmers to regain respect for manure and more effectively put it to work.
“Technology has brought us a long way,” Mazurik said.