Confined livestock production in Canada is approaching a critical
crossroad in the next few years, which will determine how viable its
future is in this country. Globalization of agriculture is continually
pushing livestock farmers towards expansion of their operations in order
to remain competitive, while they seem to face unending crises, whether
it be BSE, Walkerton-type water crises, or climate extremes, each of
which threaten their economic survival. For the most part, issues discussed
in this document do not apply to the less-intense, grazing-based livestock
In Quebec, intensification of the hog production industry has led
to severe overloading of nutrients, especially phosphorus, in both surface
and groundwater aquifers, while creating unacceptable odour problems
for nearby rural neighbours. This has led to rather draconian measures
to restrict further livestock development until health and water quality
concerns can be adequately addressed. In Ontario, the continuing exodus
of urban populations into rural areas is continuing to reduce available
space for livestock operations to exist, as determined by Minimum Separation
Distance regulations. To compound this issue, there are increasing instances
of rural neighbours (who may also be farmers) no longer feeling safe
being in close proximity to large livestock operations. Public pressure
on municipal governments is leading to more stringent siting restrictions
for these operations, and there are increasing incidents of vigilante
actions threatening proponents of new or expanding livestock operations.
Even on the prairies, where there appears to be adequate space for livestock
expansion, there have been protests from rural neighbours not feeling
safe near these large operations (Steinbach, Manitoba).
From an economic perspective, confined livestock production behaves
in a similar fashion to other industries such as electronics, or automobile
manufacturing, and will migrate to regions of the world having lower
labour costs, and more lax environmental restrictions on operations.
Already vertically-integrated livestock production giants, such as Smithfield
Foods (USA), have started operations in Eastern Europe (Poland), and
will probably move on eastward into the Ukraine and Russia as labour
costs and environmental restrictions increase in Poland in coming years.
Similar scenarios probably exist in parts of South America, which will
siphon livestock operations from North America, as increasing domestic
restrictions are brought to bear on the industry.
If Canada is to keep a viable and competitive livestock production
industry flourishing here in the coming decades, it is imperative that
solutions be soon found to allow confined livestock production to safely
co-exist in reasonable proximity to their rural neighbours, while conserving
and protecting our irreplaceable natural resources (soil, air, water,
human health and safety).
When considering sustainable agricultural production, it is
essential that an appropriate balance be established amongst
three primary factors, which are:
- Productivity (Yield/Economics/Profits),
- Environmental Protection, and
- Societal Values.
To visualize the interaction between these factors, different
farm operations could be positioned inside a virtual cube, having
the above factors as the primary axes.
management - balancing productivity, environment and societal
issues: comparing two differently managed farms, F1, F2
Whereas both productivity and environmental protection are usually
science-based, societal issues are often perception-based, and can quickly
overrule either science or logic, and is often expressed with a NIMBY
(not in my back yard) attitude. Once this process of fear and distrust
by the public has taken root, it becomes increasingly difficult to stop
or reverse the process, with the result that the producer is often the
Compounding the entire issue is the fact that agriculture production
has become so highly efficient over the past several decades that less
than 2% of our population are now involved in primary agriculture production.
Agriculture is becoming a “non-visible minority” in an increasingly
urban-focussed consumer world. Consumers are often so disconnected from
their food sources that they don’t realize, nor even care that farmers
are important to their well being, since they all know that their food
comes from supermarkets!! It doesn’t matter to many consumers where
their food comes from until they get sick from a contaminated source,
such as the incident of imported strawberries carrying pathogens from
South America several years ago. Currently, Canada does not have a
mandatory food tracking system. Without the recognition, understanding,
and support of the urban population for the importance of high quality,
domestically-produced agriculture produce over which we have some control
for quality and safety, farmers are in great jeopardy for their long-term
survival in a global marketplace, based primarily on price.
One significant consequence of agricultural intensification and specialization
in the post-World War II era has been the separation of cereal crop
production from livestock production in North America. This has resulted
in wide spread nutrient excesses within livestock production systems,
and even more so throughout the human food supply system. While cheap
mineral fertilizers have not made it economic to recycle excess livestock
nutrients back to cash crop production, lingering odours and pathogens
associated with untreated manures have also hindered significant off-farm
export of excess nutrients. However, there are increasing negative environmental
impacts associated with both nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer production
that will start to favour livestock nutrient recycling. Phosphate deposits
are, in fact, finite (American phosphate reserves, <25 yr; remainder
of more expensive reserves, before end of this century -
Roberts & Stewart, 2002), and there are increasing environmental
restrictions associated with mining them, while increasing energy costs
and greenhouse gas emissions associated with urea production for commercial
nitrogen fertilizers will increase their costs. See related article:
“Sustainable Nutrient Management
in Agriculture and Closing the Loop on Large-Scale Nutrient Flows”
"Renewable Energy" is an emerging issue that is also starting
to impact on livestock production issues as well. As governments develop
programs to reduce our dependence on traditional fossil fuels, which
in turn reduce their environmental footprint, there is a realization
that renewable forms of energy, such as wind, solar and biomass can
play a vital role. One type of biomass energy comes from farm-based
sources such as livestock wastes (manure, deadstock, etc). Farm-based
renewable energy can make a positive contribution to a national renewable
energy strategy by providing distributed, baseload capacity (7/24 operation),
while remediating important environmental problems (odours, pathogens,
renewable energy programs are well advanced in several parts
of the European Union, as well as in several of the States in the U.S.A.,
and with similar development in Canada could improve the economics for
manure processing, which in turn has positive benefits outlined in this
In summary, there are two major issues that need to be addressed,
both related to the need to reduce odours and eliminate pathogens from
- Need for livestock producers to regain public trust in their
- Need to export (recycle) excess nutrients (N, P, K) from livestock
Steps Toward a Sustainable Solution
1. Setting a New Goal
The first important step towards solving this impending crisis for
livestock production in Canada would be to establish a long-term goal
of “adopting manure processing as a Standard Practice” for confined
livestock operations. In this context, “manure processing” implies that
the entire manure volume (wet or dry) should be processed to substantially
reduce odours and eliminate pathogens, preferably employing closed or
contained systems to also conserve nutrients. There are at least two
important conditions that need to be linked to this goal:
- Adoption by livestock producers should be a gradual process
over the next decade or more, which should be promoted through demonstration
of the practices.
- Adoption should be achieved primarily though policy changes
to foster better practices, with regulations acting as a safety
net (performance baseline). Farmers respond more positively to incentives
(particularly economic) than to regulations.
Key issues that must be addressed in this context include the following:
- Manures must be processed to substantially reduce odour and
eliminate pathogens as health and safety issues, which will begin
the process of restoring public trust in livestock operations, and
allowing them to peacefully co-exist with rural neighbours.
- Odour emissions are frequently a major issue before the storage
and processing stages - in the confined housing of livestock and
in the practices used to collect and transfer manure. Initiatives
need to be focussed on housing system designs that reduce odour
production, and to collection systems that strive to remove manure
while still fresh, before it starts generating substantial odours.
An additional benefit to rapid collection and processing is the
conservation of volatile ammonia,
much of which is lost before the manure even reaches the storage/processing
- Farmers will require greater flexibility in managing excess
nutrients in livestock manures, as a result of increasingly stringent
nutrient management regulations. Once the manure is essentially
odour and pathogen-free, and the processed manure is in an air-dry
state, excess nutrients can be economically exported from the farm
in the form of value-added amendments. In a whole farm nutrient
balance study of 33 Nebraska confined livestock operations,
& Lesoing (1999) found that 75% and 50% of the farms had
significant N & P imbalances, respectively (50% more nutrient inputs
than outputs). Further insight into farm-scale nutrient flows and
balances is presented in a small watershed-scale study by
Nord and Lanyon (2003).
This has some very important implications for the large-scale re-distribution
of excess livestock nutrients, as organic amendments, back to cash
crop production, now relying solely on annual mineral fertilizer
inputs which, in the longer term, is not sustainable. Organic amendments
provide soil quality improvements in addition to the nutrient value,
which mineral fertilizers can not provide.
2. Making Manure Processing Profitable
The key to making manure processing a “Standard Practice” for confined
livestock operations is making it profitable or, at least in the beginning,
Unfortunately, there appears to be sparse information in the literature
quantifying the value of manure treatment to farmers based on societal
impacts and benefits. However, we know that persisting odour and pathogen
issues from failure to process manure, or to control odour emissions
from the housing facilities, can create real obstacles for rural neighbours,
who through their municipal governments, can make it increasingly difficult
and costly for producers to expand or even renew their existing operations,
and thus remain in business. In this context, manure processing does
have a “real incentive value” for the farmer, although it is manifested
not in direct profits, but rather as a “societal approval” to continue
Once farmers can profit by processing their manures, most of the
environmental problems associated with manure management will diminish
because nutrients become valuable and farmers will quickly exceed current
environmental nutrient management regulations to create more profits.
In essence, the regulations will become a safety net, or performance
baseline for the farmer. See more detailed discussion of factors
influencing manure management: “Changing
the paradigm for manure management”:
There are two basic approaches for complete processing of livestock
manures -composting, and anaerobic digestion.
A. Anaerobic Digestion (AD)
In the early stages of adopting manure processing as a standard
practice, larger confined livestock operations with liquid manure
systems which have nutrient excesses to export and/or, which are
able to produce green energy (electricity and heat from anaerobically-generated
biogas), will benefit the most. In this case, revenue streams from
both exported green electricity and value-added soil amendments
have the potential to produce positive cash flows and complete payback
of investment within a few years. Although total numbers of large
operations able to take advantage of this technology may currently
be rather limited, this class of livestock operation accounts for
a significant fraction of the total production from this sector,
and adoption of this technology should have a positive environmental
impact. Furthermore, this scale of operation is the best venue for
initially demonstrating the technology. Innovation will help adapt
the technology to smaller operations, once producer interest and
acceptance starts to grow.
At a time when our electrical generating facilities across the
country are being challenged to have a smaller environmental footprint,
and to be more distributed and more diverse in their nature, farm-based
generation of “green energy” can become an important contributor
to this strategy. Some estimates place the potential for the generation
of green electricity from agricultural organic wastes at 1,500 MW
for Canada, and 250 MW for Ontario. Farm-based electricity generation,
unlike other renewable sources such as wind and solar, are continuous
7/24 operations, which after a major power blackout (such as Aug.
2003 in eastern North America), can be back on line almost immediately,
and also have the advantage of being distributed throughout the
country-side, thereby reducing distribution losses. Farm-based systems
could also take advantage of peak power demands and store biogas
for increased generation during these periods.
Since AD systems are closed during the processing of the manure,
all nutrients are conserved, including nitrogen (ammonia, ammonium),
and methane is captured rather than being released to the environment.
Consequently, the processed manure should retain a greater nitrogen
content, while greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions during and following
the processing should be lessened. Therefore, AD-processed manures
should have a more favourable N:P ratio for plant growth than conventionally-handled
liquid manures. The digestion process converts 50% or more of the
labile carbon in the manure to methane, and thus the resulting product
is lower in carbon and less likely to cause nitrous oxide emissions
when the treated slurry is land applied (
Barton & Schipper, 2001). In addition the nutrients in the
digestate will be in a more available mineral form and their release
for plant growth will be more predictable.
The avoidance of ghg emissions during anaerobic digestion and
subsequent co-generation of renewable energy may create a market
for emission credits, which also could add to the profitability
of the technology for the producer.
For confined livestock operations using solid manure handling,
composting is the best means of processing the manures, which then
can be exported as value-added products, if in excess of on-farm
requirements for crop production. In situations where the farm operation
collects significant volumes of nutrient-rich runoff water from
the facilities, it may prove more profitable in the longer term
to blend the solids to an optimum 10-12% content and anaerobically
digest them to obtain biogas as well as value-added dried amendments.
While composting has a significant economic and technology advantage
over AD systems through the simplicity of the practice (level of
management required), and the much lower startup costs, revenues
from composting would primarily be generated from exporting value-added
products. However, many farmers have long recognized the value of
“stabilizing” their manures by composting, even if the composted
product is used only on their own property.
Provided that greenhouse gas emissions are minimized during composting
by keeping the piles aerobic, the greatest disadvantage in composting
is the considerable loss of
ammonia-nitrogen during the process. Newer rotary composting
systems employing controlled air flow may have potential to reduce
ammonia losses to some extent. Consideration should also be given
to lowering the pH of the moisture in composting manures to near
neutrality, so as to maximize the ammonium (non-volatile) content
and minimize the ammonia content. Like anaerobic digestion, the
resulting product is essentially odour and pathogen-free, and greatly
reduces the level of viable weed seeds in the composted products.
3. Developing Enabling Policies
There are several key policy changes that would trigger major changes
in how confined livestock producers approach manure management:
access to electrical Grids - Net Metering
Perhaps the most significant key to changing the economics for
farm-based co-generation digester systems would be for governments
to mandate two things:
- Net Metering - give farm-based renewable energy access to
electrical grids and,
- A Fair Market Price be paid for farm-generated electricity.
This now provides another stable
source of revenue for livestock producers. In fact this can
become a new constant revenue stream, an important step towards
stabilizing chronically-depressed farm incomes, since livestock
will continue to generate manure regardless of what farm commodity
Since farm-based energy systems can operate 7/24, they make an
important contribution to "distributed baseload capacity" for the
electrical grid, complimenting less-reliable wind and solar power
sources. Electrical transmission losses are typically in the
5-7% range, and having the generating capacity distributed across
the countryside increases overall grid stability, while reducing
Farm-generated biogas can also be temporarily stored so that
generation can be ramped up during peak demand periods (morning
and evening). This allows the farmer to maximize his revenue
during peak demand, when generation costs routinely exceed 10 ¢/kwh,
and sometimes peak above 15 ¢/kwh for short periods. For the
remainder of the day, the co-gen units can run at partial load,
supplying the local needs of the farm operation.
Interestingly, the Ontario Ministry of
Energy made a press release (Jan
20, 2004), expressing the
need for 300 MW of renewable energy. It is estimated that
in Ontario, livestock-sourced renewable energy could supply upwards
of 200 MW, and across Canada, upwards of 1500 MW.
In Europe, Germany legislated a net metering law that provides
a fair market price for renewable energy, and this has stimulated
substantial growth in farm-based renewable energy. Similar net metering
laws are now being implemented in several of the US States, including
Vermont and Wisconsin.
for Livestock Nutrient Recycling/Re-Distribution
In order to reduce existing levels of agricultural sources of
nitrogen and phosphorus in the environment, it is essential that
policies be developed to promote the large-scale re-distribution
and utilization of existing, excess livestock nutrients (as well
as agriculture-sourced nutrients in the human food chain), as a
partial replacement for new mineral fertilizers. A necessary prerequisite
for off-farm export of excess nutrients is that the manure be odour-
and pathogen-free and in an air-dry state - thus the need for manure
Steadily increasing costs for producing commercial nitrogen fertilizers
(urea) and mining the finite sources of phosphate fertilizers (25-yr
Roberts & Stewart, 2002)
will make livestock nutrient recycling more attractive to cash crop
producers, but additional policy changes are also required. Examples
of this might be environmental taxes applied to commercial mineral
fertilizer sources (N, P), or transportation assistance for recycled
livestock nutrients. A first step in developing new policies is
a comprehensive economic assessment of current practices and packaging
technologies for processed manure, and to identify barriers to re-distribution
and use of livestock nutrients.
Environmental Loan Guarantees for Large Capital Investments
To facilitate adoption of these advanced technologies, it is
essential that governments provide environmental loan guarantees
to assist farmers in underwriting the risks associated with the
design, installation and startup of manure processing systems. Such
policies are appropriate in situations where there are significant
co-benefits to the public as well as to the private (farmers) sector.
Even when producers are prepared to adopt advanced manure processing
technologies and have secured contracts for renewable energy sales
and off-farm sales of value-added manures, there is frequently a
huge obstacle in the way - up-front financing of the expensive equipment.
If there is no default on the loans, there is no actual cost to
the tax payer to underwrite these risks.
for Reducing Greenhouse Gas emissions and Emission Trading Credits
With the challenging targets that Canada has set for meeting
its Kyoto commitments on greenhouse gas emission reductions, agriculture
has a major role to play in reducing methane and nitrous oxide emissions.
Rapid collection of fresh manure and processing it in closed co-generation
AD systems is the most effective approach for conserving nutrients
(especially nitrogen) while minimizing ghg emissions. Incentives
need to be implemented to encourage these practices. At the present
time an emission trading system is starting to develop in North
America, which may provide additional revenues to livestock producers
that can demonstrate significant avoidance of ghg emissions during
the storage, processing and land application of their manures.
There are several key steps that need to be implemented to assist
the confined livestock industry in solving some major environmental
problems, becoming valued neighbours again, and maintaining a viable
business operation. This will require a close working partnership between
producers and governments to accomplish these goals,which are:
- Set a goal of making Manure Processing a Standard Practice.
- Implement net metering legislation for farm-generated
electricity that would ensure both access to the grid and fair market
value for the supplied electricity. Importantly, farm-based renewable
energy systems can play a positive role in a national renewable
energy strategy, specifically in terms of distributed energy production
(reduced transmission losses) as well as providing consistent baseload
capacity (7/24 operation), which neither solar nor wind sources
- Implement incentives for large-scale nutrient re-distribution
back to cash cropping operations.
- Implement environmental loan guarantees for assisting
producers to install advanced manure processing systems that reduce
odour emissions, eliminate pathogens, and which substantially reduce
- Establish ongoing communications with rural neighbours
to keep them informed and to deal with issues before they become
serious barriers to continued operation.
of Nitrous Oxide Emissions from Soils Irrigated with Dairy Farm Effluent
(2001), L. Barton and L. A. Schipper. J. of Environmental Quality
series of papers on Sustainable Farming by Dr. John Ikerd, Prof.
Emeritus, U. of Missouri -
Complete set of Papers
(approx. 65) [3572 KB pdf].
Nutrient Balance on Nebraska Livestock Confinement Systems. (1999). Rick Koelsch, and Gary Lesoing.
American Society of Animal Science and American Dairy Science Association.
Equal Access For American Farm Digester Electricity. Mark Moser,
Resource Conservation Management, Inc.
(RCM Digesters, Inc.)
Managing Material Transfer and Nutrient Flow in an Agricultural Watershed
(2003). E. A. Nord and L. E. Lanyon. J. Environ. Qual.
Inorganic Phosphorus and Potassium Production and Reserves.
(2002) [98 KB pdf]. T. L . Roberts
and W. M . Stewart. Better Crops.
Vol. 86 (2002, No. 2)
Bruce T. Bowman, Archivist
Tuesday, February 13, 2018 12:52:35 PM