A Climate-Friendly Approach to Managing Manure

Posted on Wednesday, July 8th, 2020 by Guest Blogger
Cattle in Pasture, photo from NSAC, photo credit: Kelliann Blazek

This blog is reposted from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), of which CalCAN is a member. NSAC advocates for federal policy reform for the sustainability of food systems, natural resources, and rural communities. See the original post here. Editor’s Note: This is the third blog in a series focusing on specific provisions included in the Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA) introduced by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) in February 2020. The ARA represents the first comprehensive piece of legislation introduced in the House of Representatives addressing climate change and agriculture. The first blog focused on the goals section of the bill, and the second blog focused on carbon markets and related provisions of the ARA. 

This third blog focuses on alternative manure management, and it was co-authored by Jeanne Merrill, Policy Director of the California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN) and Cristel Zoebisch, Climate Policy Associate at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) in partnership with the Organic Farming Research Foundation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated the vulnerabilities of our current food and farming systems to sudden disruptions. Greater weather extremes, like the recent floods in the Midwest and wildfires in the West, are also challenging farmers and ranchers across the country. These weather extremes will have longer-term and deeper impacts if we do not actively work to avoid the worst effects of a changing climate.

To address these issues, agricultural policies need to better support farmers and ranchers in making the transition to more biologically diverse farming systems that can better withstand disruptions, including climate change, if we hope to achieve a sustainable and resilient future in agriculture.

This is the third post in our series on the Agricultural Resilience Act (ARA), introduced by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) this year, which provides necessary resources for American agriculture to transform into a system that can mitigate, rebound, and adapt to greater weather extremes in the years and decades to come.

Among the many issues the ARA addresses is that of resilient livestock systems. The ARA recognizes the importance of reintegrating livestock and cropping systems by setting a goal of increasing those farm types by 100 percent above 2017 levels.  More diversified cropping systems and crop-livestock integration can improve the resilience of farm operations in a variety of ways.

We will discuss in greater detail these provisions of the ARA in our upcoming posts, so stay tuned. Here we turn our attention to innovative manure management strategies to reduce methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas, while producing compost, an important component of healthy soils.

Alternative Manure Management Program

Managing and storing manure is a critical issue for any livestock system. Roughly half of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions in the United States comes from manure management and enteric fermentation (the belches from livestock). The ARA looks to reduce potent methane emissions in livestock operations through a new program to support alternative methods to manage manure, enabling a move away from current wet manure handling and its significant environmental footprint.

Based on California’s Alternative Manure Management Program (AMMP), the ARA would create a federal program to support dry manure management and pasture-based strategies to effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to maximize environmental benefits. Among the practices the program would incentivize are supporting the transition from wet manure handling and storage to dry manure practices, including composting, where anaerobic conditions are present. By moving away from storing manure in wet, anaerobic conditions, where methane emissions are produced, to dry manure handling and storage, other volatile organic compounds and run-off are also reduced.

Examples of eligible practices in the new program include flush to scrape conversion, solid separation technologies, open solar drying or composting of manure onsite, conversion of dairy and livestock operations to pasture-based management, and compost bedded pack barns.

The program would provide 90 percent cost share (including up to 50 percent in advance for needed equipment and materials), totaling up to $750,000 in any 5-year period. The bill would also provide an option for cluster applications for centralized composting facilities. The ARA would provide mandatory funding of $1 billion a year beginning in fiscal year 2021 for this program.

Bucher Dairy (Sonoma County)

AMMP Popular Among California Producers

The California version of AMMP has become a very popular program among the state’s dairy and livestock producers, where demand for the program continues to exceed state funding levels.  The program was created in the state as part of its suite of Climate Smart Agriculture programs to reduce methane emissions. Since 2017, the program has funded over 100 AMMP projects for a total of $63 million. Among the most popular practices are installing solids separation and converting to compost bedded pack barns. Two-thirds of AMMP program recipients are now composting their manure.

Most of the projects can be found in California’s Central Valley, but a number of pasture-based dairies on the North Coast are also participating. The state has also invested in demonstration projects to support farmer-to-farmer outreach and education on the agronomic and economic benefits, in addition to the climate benefits, of AMMP practices.  Among those benefits is producing compost, a product that is in high demand in the state by crop producers.

Producer demand for the California AMMP now surpasses that of the state’s other dairy methane program, the Dairy Digester Research and Development Program, for a variety of reasons.  Digesters are very expensive and can range in cost from $2 million upwards of $9 million per digester. While many producers no longer operate their own digester, choosing instead to work with third-party developers, digesters are still a capital and feedstock-intensive endeavor that tend to only work for the largest of operations. Many more dairy and livestock producers can take advantage of the low-tech practices promoted by AMMP. Moreover, the digester technology in California is only guaranteed for ten years, calling into question the long-term viability of the technology and the associated emission reductions.

The ARA addresses digesters by moving the AgSTAR program, which promotes anaerobic digesters to create biogas, from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The bill also authorizes a $5 million per year in appropriations.  Most of the AgSTAR operating projects are located on farms, so moving the program under USDA jurisdiction could help improve program implementation.

What Comes Next?

The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis is set to release their report by the end of this month. We anticipate the report will have an agricultural chapter and that many of the issues covered in this series and the ARA will be addressed by the Select Committee. NSAC will provide a summary of the report when it is released. Meanwhile, we encourage NSAC members and our partners to reach out to their House members to support the ARA, which provides the resources necessary to support agricultural solutions that reduce emissions and create resilient food and farming systems.

Learn more about California’s AMMP here and check out innovative California dairy farmers and ranchers with AMMP grants on our Farmer Climate Leader page here

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