Nutrient recovery within the dairy industry has always been an important part of dairy production, albeit the term has recently taken on a new meaning. Historically, nutrient recovery meant taking nutrients from one area and applying them in a beneficial manner to another.

Land application of manure has always been a form of nutrient recovery. Nutrient-laden manure is taken from the barn, compost pile or lagoon and transported to land, where it then serves as fertilizer or soil conditioner for the benefit of the next crop – and the natural cycle continues.

Today, when people speak about nutrient recovery, they are likely referring to the extraction of nutrients and other constituents of manure, namely the energy content of manure, fiber, nitrogen, phosphorus and, to a lesser degree, potassium.

The courts wade in on manure

The increased focus on this concept has become more important than ever for several reasons. First and foremost, it reflects the changing judicial landscape. In the judicial ruling in Washington state’s Yakima Valley, the court held that the application, storage and management of manure that was not consistent with appropriate agronomic uptake violated the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act’s open dumping provisions. In non-legal terms: Too much manure where it isn’t needed is –in the court’s opinion –inappropriate dumping, and thus subject to further regulation.

That decision has sent shock waves throughout the agriculture industry, and will in all likelihood result in similar lawsuits elsewhere around the country. The second reason is that there is real economic value in manure, and farmers have always known that. The challenge, which will be discussed below, is how to capture that value. If the cards fall into place, excess nutrients above that needed on the farm could constitute a new source of revenue for the farm.

There are plenty of nutrient recovery technologies out there and lots of different products that come from them. Some of the technologies are very expensive and require the use of anaerobic digesters (AD) as a prerequisite. Others are less expensive and do not require AD.

What is appropriate for one farm may not be so for another. Custom solutions for unlocking the economic value of manure can depend on such factors as the farm’s location, surrounding agricultural needs, soil conditions, local environmental concerns, proximity to population centers, the type of bedding used, etc.

What this means is that we need multiple tools to address the diverse challenges and opportunities before us. To support this need, technological improvements must occur, especially with respect to improving efficiency and lowering the cost of managing the manure to optimize its value.

New manure markets

So, how do we take the “dairy manure industry” from its infancy to making nutrient recovery a mainstay of dairy production? We create a business entity to drive technological improvements and develop new product markets. In fact, that is happening already. Newtrient was formed this past summer by 12 of the nation’s dairy cooperatives, the National Milk Producers Federation and Dairy Management Inc.

In the interests of full disclosure, it is being headed by my friend, Steve Rowe, and I am its corporate secretary. Steve has assembled a great team of experts to drive the vision of reducing dairy’s environmental footprint while improving its economics.  Newtrient came about after years of exploration into how the dairy industry could take advantage of technology to protect or improve the environment, provide an additional revenue source for producers, and thus improve every dairy farmer’s social license to operate.

Early steps on this road to improved support for manure handling and marketing will include collecting information on the nutrient recovery technologies that already exist and making it easier for farmers to assess their needs and find out which technologies or practices may help them the most. After all, a prime mission of Newtrient is to ensure that dairy producers do not get inundated with snake oil salesmen or get sold a bill of goods that simply isn’t right for their needs.

Understanding the customer

One of the many unique aspects of Newtrient is its dedicated focus on treating manure as a valuable product. To do that, we will have to understand who our new customers will be and in what form are they willing to pay for the benefits of manure constituents.

I’ll be an optimist and predict we will get there. Note: It won’t be easy. In fact, it will take a lot of work and there will be challenges ahead. But this needs to be done because if we do not take charge of our future, the lawyers, legislators and regulators will. When I see a glass of milk filled halfway, I see it as halfway full. I invite you to stay tuned as we continue this journey.