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Saturday, 19 August 2006

Earthworms Love Eating Hog Manure

 
August 4, 2006

By Michael Futch

ROBBINS — Earthworms are eating high off the hog on Gilbert Key’s farm in northwestern Moore County.

On second thought, better make that, high off the hog manure.

Representatives of federal and state agencies listen to a presentation about worm composting at the ‘worm building’ on a farm near Robbins. Worms are grown in 21-inch-deep troughs that stretch 200 feet long. It takes them from 24 to 36 hours to consume the hog waste they’re fed each day.

Key’s hilly 90-acre hog farm is home to a prototype operation where worms break down waste from 3,000 head of swine to produce an organic compost. The process relies on the insatiable hunger of nearly 30,000 pounds of 2- to 3-inch yellow tail worms.

“It’s plain and simple,” said Key, who is 68. “I don’t have much education. And it works for me.”

For environmentalists, the goal is to pair the worm compost system with one of the five technologies intended to replace the antiquated lagoon and spray field system that is in place on nearly all hog farms in North Carolina.

Those five waste-disposal technologies, which all have drawbacks and are more expensive than the lagoon system, were recommended in a $17 million study funded by Smithfield Foods and conducted by researchers at N.C. State University. The General Assembly took no action this year to help hog farmers install and test these new disposal technologies.

The state has placed a moratorium on new lagoons, which has stopped expansion of new and existing hog farms.

North Carolina farmers produce about 10 million hogs annually.

At most farms, the waste is stored in open-air pits until it can be sprayed on farm fields during crop production. The lagoons can leak or rupture, threatening the quality of groundwater and the state’s rivers and creeks.

On Wednesday afternoon, four representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were among a group that visited Key’s farm to see his worm-casting operation. It was the third day of the group’s tour of state hog farms using innovative waste systems.

“It sounds good if it’ll work over time with 3,000 hogs,” said Steve Troxler, the state agriculture commissioner. “It’s my hope that we take what is considered waste now and turn it into a valuable resource. And this process looks like a good process to do that.”

Bob Binkley of NatureWorksOrganics, which is based in Advance, answered questions from the EPA representatives. Binkley has a 30-year background in medical imaging. These days, he pictures earthworms as a means to a lucrative benefit for hog farmers.

“Where do they get their food supplement?” one person asked.

With a smile on his perspiring face, Binkley replied, “Their food supplement? All they get is manure. And they like it. They love it.”

Along with the pesky flies, the ripe smell of hog manure lingered in the thick, hot air around the worm trenches.

200-foot troughs

NatureWorksOrganics provided the worms for Key’s operation, which has been in place since last August. The worms are grown in six 21-inch-deep troughs that stretch 200 feet long. Key said he was told the company would supply the worms if he constructed the building. A wood-and-metal structure that can be enclosed during the winter protects the rows of vermin.

“I just call it the worm building,” Key said.

He estimated that he has spent $130,000 on the worm composting operation. For the past three decades, he has operated a slaughterhouse on site, too.

There are a couple of lagoons on his farm, as well as four hog houses.

Seven years ago, Key installed a solids separator that he bought for $8,000 after watching a demonstration on a farm in Wilson. “I wanted to keep the solids out of my lagoons,” he said. “The solids are what’s giving farmers the problem. You’ve got to keep the solids out.”

That’s where the yellow tail worms, which are constantly reproducing in the troughs, come in.

“Most people would turn these down as fishing worms,” Binkley said.

The worms are always eating up, toward the food supply. The worms gobble up “the stuff,” as one EPA rep called the manure, that’s spread over the troughs in thin layers. When it’s piled up, the manure can get too hot, reaching upward of 160 degrees.

“They’re happy when you don’t pile it up,” Binkley said. “They get too hot.”

The worms, Binkley said, take 24 to 36 hours to consume what they’re fed each day.

“That’s done a super job to keep the wastes out of the lagoons,” Key said.

Usually twice a day, a little water is added to the worm bins for moisture.

First harvest

The first harvest of worm manure on Key’s farm is expected in the next 45 days or so. Binkley anticipates a haul of better than 100,000 pounds of this organic soil amendment. He placed the retail value at $1 a quart. In bulk, the worm manure can go for 50 cents a pound.

The nutrient-rich soil is sold in garden centers and used with composts and other soil additives. It can be applied on golf courses and vineyards. Besides helping water retention, Binkley said, the manure enhances soil growth.

“A blind man can see the difference between a garden grown in worm castings and not,” he said.

“Anybody can learn to operate this,” Key said.

The tour was hosted by the N.C. office of Environmental Defense and Frontline Farmers, a group of 150 hog farmers. While they are looking to steer hog farmers from traditional lagoons to cleaner waste management systems, Key doesn’t see an end to the open-air waste ponds. At one time, he did. If other farmers used the technology that he’s got, he said, lagoons could be reclassified as holding ponds.

“We’re getting more manure out of the waste system than anticipated,” Binkley said. Key said he’s getting about 80 percent of the solid waste from the separator, reducing the volume that’s traditionally stored in the lagoons.

And Key expects to inch toward a profit from the worm composting operation. “I do. I really do,” he said.

 “You’ve got a product that’s plaguing us now that eventually you’re going to get paid for. That’s a plus. And you’re making the environment better by keeping solids out of the lagoons.”

 

 
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