Finding solutions for manure challenges

Renee Schrift
By: Renee Schrift May 8, 2023
The path to success isn’t always linear, and finding optimal manure system solutions is no different. It may take some tweaking of systems and management to overcome challenges and find the equipment and strategy that works best for your farm. Adopting an open-minded, solutions-focused attitude on this journey can help you to discover opportunities from these challenges and prevent system hitches and difficulties from holding your dairy back.

Removing more sand

One example of this philosophy is the dairy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arlington Agriculture Research Station in Arlington, Wisconsin.

Prior to a revamp a few years ago, the manure handling system for the sand-bedded dairy lacked efficiency, to say the least.

The problem? The 500-cow dairy’s previous approach included a single sand settling lane, which only worked well in the summer months, and a two-stage lagoon.

The sand settling lane was too small for the dairy, resulting in sand-laden manure flowing into stage one of the storage lagoon, decreasing its operational efficiency and pushing sand into stage two.

“We could only reclaim about 35-40% of sand from manure, meaning about 65% was in the bottom of the lagoon,” explained Jessica Cederquist, University of Wisconsin-Madison Research Program Director – Ruminants.

This situation was not sustainable because it was expensive to remove sand from the lagoon. Plus, the dairy had to purchase a lot of sand to replace what it could not remove from the manure. Additionally, the inefficient sand removal meant applying a significant amount of sand to cropland.

The solution? The installation of a Sand-Manure Separator and expansion of the farm’s storage lagoon made a meaningful difference in how it approached manure management.

Thanks to this change, the dairy now recaptures about 90% of the sand from the manure.

“We’re intentional about the sand we purchase,” said Cederquist. “We source Mississippi River bottom sand, which recycles very well and, while gritty enough for separation, is smooth and comfortable for cows. It’s more expensive than the sand we bought before, but our overall sand cost has significantly decreased because we’re buying so much less.”

Additionally, with the switch to sand separation technology, sand bacterial loads are extremely low. The sand is dry enough to be returned to the freestalls within three or four days after the manure separation process, also lowering the total volume of sand needed for the facility.

“We’re returning the driest, healthiest sand possible to the barn,” Cederquist added.

The dairy has noted a reduction in cow hock lesions, and somatic cell count (SCC), already low, dropped another 30,000 to 50,000 units with the sand separation conversion.

The change also shifted labor focus from spending hours turning sand in skid loaders to learning and understanding nuances of the separation equipment. The team prioritizes preventive maintenance and is in tune with the machinery. This means employees can be proactive rather than reactive, decreasing emergency situations.

“We have more manure handling equipment than with the previous system, but it works 365 days a year unlike the sand settling lane,” said Cederquist.

“Manure handling is a big job, and we are very happy with what the system has done for us,” she added. “Just keep in mind maintenance is required to ensure everything is working as it should, higher quality sand is needed to maximize efficiency and it takes time to learn how to maintain the equipment properly.

“For success, develop and cultivate good relationships with your dealers and manufacturers and focus on the long-term efficiency for your farm and progress the system will help you achieve,” she noted.

Defeating the damp

Composted manure and digested manure solids can be cost-effective, comfortable bedding for cows, especially if you have plenty of material on hand from anaerobic digestion. However, you must manage these materials correctly to achieve success.

Five Star Dairy, in Elk Mound, Wisconsin, beds its 1,100-cow herd with digested manure solids. Two screw presses brought bedding moisture down to acceptable levels until age caught up with the equipment and bedding moisture crept upward.

Even before making any changes, the herd achieved premiums for milk quality, but dairy co-owner Lee Jensen felt he could do better. He wanted to reduce SCC further while improving udder health and reducing cull rates.

To accomplish these objectives and bring bedding moisture back down to target levels, Five Star Dairy added a Bedding Dryer to its system. The Bedding Dryer runs about 10 hours a day, six days a week and requires minimal labor to manage the equipment and provide adequate bedding material for the herd.

Following the installation of the Bedding Dryer, bedding moisture levels are now around 40%, down from 70% moisture. The high temperatures at which the dryer operates also help kill pathogens that can be detrimental to animal health, meaning cows are now lying in cleaner beds.

The farm reported a drop in SCC to about 120,000 or less, as well as fewer cases of mastitis and fewer cows destined for a career change. The cows are cleaner and more comfortable than before, and the drier bedder doesn’t freeze during the winter months, adding to ease of use.

Additionally, since Five Star Dairy added the Bedding Dryer, the herd’s milk solids production increased by more than 1 pound per cow. Combined milkfat and protein yield is now above 7 pounds per cow.

“This change was a proactive decision that made everyone’s job on the farm easier,” said Jensen. “Any time you can reduce stress, everything gets better. There is a correlation between somatic cell count, cow comfort, mastitis and pathogens.”

Whether your dairy’s manure system challenges require simple shifts or significant changes, success hinges on creating the best opportunity for your dairy today and into the future.

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