Too Much Poo: Valuable Solution for Manure Shows Promise

By Jessie Israel, Puget Sound Director

One dairy cow can produce up to 100 pounds of manure each day. So in a state that is fourth in the U.S. in cow milk production, with 262,000 of these cream-producing miracles, that means a whole lot of waste.

Our Puget Sound dairies generate large amounts of manure and must make costly investments in traditional handling solutions. Even with these costly investments, dairies are criticized as a leading contributor to surface and groundwater contamination. 

This month, a group of stakeholders in Snohomish County invited Gov. Jay Inslee out to see how they have been working across sectors to spur innovation on this front in the Stillaguamish River valley. Monte Marti from the Snohomish Conservation District says, “We wanted an opportunity for Gov. Jay Inslee to see how the Snohomish Lands Strategy coalition is demonstrating the value of multi-benefit projects, working together and focusing on the long-term needs and values tied to salmon recovery, Puget Sound recovery and agriculture viability.”

Jeremy Visser, left, gives Gov. Inslee, Jessie Israel and others a tour around the dairy farm. Photo by Hannah Letinich.

Only through large-scale, collaborative approaches — such as those being advanced by the Sustainable Lands Strategy (SLS) and supported by Floodplains By Design (FbD) — will we be able to adapt and build resilience. SLS provides the forum for the community to come together and develop a course of action. FbD provides a funding mechanism for them to purse that course in a collective manner.

The governor’s visit focused on a new technology designed to turn dairy manure into clean water (now coined a ‘VARCOR System’). This new technology is just one of a suite of actions that partners are advancing in the Stillaguamish delta to build community, economic and environmental resilience. One of the SLS partners, The Stillaguamish Tribe, proposes to demonstrate successful implementation of an emerging animal-nutrient treatment system for dairy farms. A technology, originally developed to address human waste in developing countries, was the inspiration to develop this new machine to treat dairy nutrients.

Jeremy Visser, right, gives Gov. Inslee and others a tour around the dairy farm. Photo by Hannah Letinich.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) announced that the agency will award $1 million to the Stillaguamish Tribe for an innovative project in dairy nutrient management. The Conservation Innovation Grant program of NRCS “provides seed money to help spur cutting-edge projects,” said NRCS Washington's Acting State Conservationist Alan McBee. “We are excited to partner with the Stillaguamish Tribe and see the results of this state-of-the-art project.”

As a result of TNC advocacy efforts, this VARCOR system is also one of five nutrient management technologies being piloted across Washington State.

Once funded and built, “This machine is going to be a template, a prototype you can set up anywhere,” said Pat Stevenson, environmental manager for the Stillaguamish Tribe. “Our hope is that with this technology, we can move away from storing manure in lagoons that can leak into the watershed.”

The advanced distillation and nutrient-separation processor is designed to convert dairy wastewater into clean, distilled, reclaimed water, with liquid ammonia and nutrient-rich solid material byproducts that can be used for agricultural purposes.

“Dairy manure, failing septic tanks and fecal impacts from other mammals and birds all combine to lead to closed shellfish beds,” said Stevenson. “The dairy processor will also remove excess nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium that have been attributed to increasing ocean acidification.”

Dairy cows at the Natural Milk Farm. Photo by Hannah Letinich.

The system will be built by Sedron Technologies (formerly Janicki Bioenergy) of Sedro-Woolley and at Natural Milk Dairy in Stanwood. With a herd of about 3,000 cows, Natural Milk Dairy is the largest dairy farm in the watershed.

“Being a good steward of our natural resources is important to dairy farmers because we have a holistic relationship with the land, water and all our resources,” said Jeremy Visser, owner of Natural Milk Dairy.

“This could be quite a holy grail for dairy technology,” Visser said.

The Stillaguamish delta is a prime example of a community already feeling the impacts of climate change — tidal marshes are eroding, sediment is increasing in the river, the five largest floods of record have all occurred in the past 10 to 15 years. This is a big deal — to agriculture, to the city of Stanwood and to nature and salmon. 

The Stillaguamish River is just 300 yards away from the entrance to the Natural Milk Dairy Farm. Photo by Hannah Letinich.

In the Stillaguamish River floodplain, the Sustainable Lands Strategy (SLS) partners have come up with a vision that offers the valley a sustainable future on all fronts under the umbrella of Floodplains By Design. It is a model of a program that brings communities together to build solutions where everyone has something to gain. This project is one example of people doing this good work. 

Floodplains by Design is a model that’s being replicated in 30 other places across the state and in each place is supporting local solutions. Each serves as a model, but each place is also inherently different. The success of the program comes from the participation and active engagement of the tribes, agricultural community, local government and others.  

Cooperating partners on the Sustainable Land Strategy, Stillaguamish Tribe project include: Snohomish Conservation District, Washington State Dairy Federation, Alliance for Puget Sound Natural Resources, Janicki Bioenergy, Washington State Conservation Commission, American Farmland Trust, Northwest Dairy Association/Darigold, Inc and The Nature Conservancy.


Stanwood & Camano News: Stanwood dairy to turn cow manure into clean water

Everett Herald: Dairy aims to be first to test system that reclaims waste

NW Treaty Tribes: Stillaguamish Tribe Awarded $1Million for Dairy Waste Management

Capital Press: New technology a game changer for dairy industry