Saturday, July 23rd, 2016

Dirksen digging into new Ag Solutions job

By Nancy Allen

Theresa Dirksen, coordinator of Ag Solutions, shovels manure into a container at. . .

A county employee is searching for affordable manure management methods to help area farmers reduce nutrient runoff blamed for toxic algae blooms in Grand Lake.
Theresa Dirksen began work as Ag Solutions coordinator on March 27, replacing Jim Keller, who had worked in a volunteer capacity. She is tasked with researching and exploring agriculture and water-quality initiatives and fostering coordination between different groups.
"My goal is to find nontraditional methods of manure management," she said. "To research and look for solutions other than traditional land application of manure that could be suitable for this area and work not only scientifically but economically for farmers here."
Dirksen is researching manure additives that reduce phosphorous and separate out phosphorous-laden solids. She's seeking grants to test large-scale manure separation technology at area farms and looking for local livestock producers to try manure composting on their farms.
She also is involved with two individuals looking to produce a fertilizer from local manure for farmers and gardeners.
"We are looking at a larger technology to utilize a larger amount of manure through a specialized treatment process to turn it into a fertilizer," she said. "We cannot really talk about it yet, but hopefully we will have something that will show some promise in the near future."
In her new job, Dirksen is drawing on her background as both a farmer and an engineer. She was raised on a Fort Recovery area turkey farm and operates a dairy with her husband. She has a civil engineering degree. Most recently she worked for several years at the Mercer County Soil and Water Conservation District, focusing on drainage and manure management issues.
Nutrient runoff comes from many sources, but in the Grand Lake Watershed, studies show it's mostly coming from farmland in the 58,000-acre, livestock-heavy watershed. Phosphorous found in manure is the algae's favorite food source.
Every year since 2009, the sate has issued advisories for the lake due to unsafe microcystin algae toxin levels. The toxins can harm the liver and cause gastrointestinal symptoms and rashes.
Since then, toxin-producing algae has become a worldwide issue.
On Jan. 18, 2011, the state designated the local watershed distressed after humans and animals in 2010 were sickened by blue-green algae in the lake. This triggered new rules for watershed farmers, including mandatory nutrient management plans invovling soil tests and restricting manure application.
Prior to the designation, different local groups had already formed to research algae-reduction technology in the lake. In late 2011 the farmer-led Ag Solutions group formed to research ways to help local farmers manage their manure.
Keller facilitated the group and held monthly meetings. He pressed county commissioners to come up with funding to hire a full-timer person to work on the issue.
They did, and hired Dirksen.
Mercer County Economic Development Director Jared Ebbing said it's "critical" to have someone working on solutions to reduce nutrient runoff in the watershed. But any technology must be sustainable and affordable for area farmers, he said.
"The ag industry is very, very vital and it has to work on all fronts," Ebbing said. "That is what Theresa is looking at - what can work and what makes sense from a cost perspective. It has to be a win-win. If not, we and the state and the country are stuck in the same point."
Grand Lake Watershed farmer Lou Brown said he is pleased Dirksen has been hired. Brown said Dirksen asked him to attend the North American Manure Expo in London. He said he may go.
Many farmers now take their manure out of the watershed to meet new soil phosphorous limits.
"We are always looking at equipment that moves it more economically," he said.
A year ago on Brown's farm, a company tested a portable unit that processes liquid dairy manure into a two products - a phosphorous-rich solid and mostly clean water. The solid could then be shipped off the farm and the liquid applied to crops or returned to the manure lagoon.
Other farmers in the watershed have tested similar technologies in the past few years yet none of them have been adopted, state agriculture engineer Terry Mescher said.
Farmers are reluctant to adopt the technologies because of high costs.
"Currently the economics of shipping the manure out is still cheaper than technologies to process the manure and separate the nutrients, particularly the phosphorous, from the manure," Mescher said.
Brown said lake watershed farmers need to step up and test different phosphorous-reduction technologies on their farms.
"It's extremely important we get some farms to test all different technologies coming down the road," he said. "If they want to test it, they need to come to this small watershed to put it to their best test and pull samples of water and manure and soil to see if it is working."
Dirksen on her farm has been testing a manure additive called Insta-gro in 50-gallon buckets filled with dairy and swine manure. The additive homogenizes the waste, making it easier for plants to absorb. It's also supposed to reduce odor and flies, she said.
If money wasn't an issue, a manure digester would be useful for the watershed, she said.
"I would love to try a manure digester or livestock water recycling technology that has been tried successfully on large farms on our farms here," she said. "There is definitely technology out there that works, but it's just not cost effective for farmers in our area. These are at dairies that have more than 1,000 cows. Our farms aren't that big."
She also is working with a group of farmers on traditional manure composting, an old, yet management intensive process that requires more time and space.
"Composting doesn't reduce nutrients, but it reduces the weight and volume of the product," she said.
Composting also produces heat that kills bacteria, pathogens and weed seeds in the manure, she said. She is planning a field day on manure composting on Aug. 25.
In the coming weeks Dirksen will attend the North American Manure Expo in London, an event showcasing an array of manure management technologies.
She's interested in a dairy tour that will highlight a manure gassifying process that turns dairy manure into a dry, odorless, nutrient-rich product.
Studies have shown the process reduces dairy manure's moisture content by 75 percent. Dairy manure is difficult to handle and expensive to transport because of the liquid.
"Everything we have looked at as far as a different ways to handle manure is cost prohibitive. It costs a lot of money and takes a lot of management," she said. "We've got to keep trying things to find something that fits."
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