Environment, performance and the mono-slope barn

By: Terri Queck Matzie

For years, NCBA and other livestock organizations have used science to recommend or defend environmental practices of the cattle feeding industry. A new research project, the Tri-State Air Quality Project is using science to monitor confined animal feeding operations’s affect on air quality. The centerpiece of the effort is a research project involving four mono-slope beef barns in Iowa and South Dakota.

“This project is being conducted cooperatively by Iowa State University Extension, the Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Department at South Dakota State University and the USDA Meat Animal Research Center at Clay Center, Nebraska,” says ISU Extension Beef Specialist Beth Doran. “It involves monitoring air emissions over a two-year period to determine baseline data for gases and dust produced in the facility. The study also will evaluate two manure-handling systems to determine which emits lower levels of gases.”

A demonstration of the project was held June 22, at the Ron and Clayton Christensen farm near Royal, Iowa, with an open house featuring a tour of the Christensen’s mono-slope barn, and presentations highlighting:

•    How the barn is managed

•    The air quality project and air quality regulations

•    Cost-sharing opportunities

•    Managing the pack for animal comfort and reduced emissions

•    Stockpiling manure

•    Value and nutrient management of mono-slope manure

•    Analyzing the gases and particulate matter (dust)

As one of the presenters, Dick Nicolai, a retired Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering professor from South Dakota State University, explains the origins of the project.

“Several years ago, the EPA implemented programs to limit the effects of toxic waste on air quality. Those measures, along with the Clean Air Act, were not historically applied to agriculture,” says Nicolai. But subsequent legal action changed that. The EPA commissioned a national air emissions study, but it only addressed swine, poultry and dairy, not beef. Data for beef operations was approximated based on other livestock and European studies.

So South Dakota State took the bull by the horns – so to speak. With one of eleven USDA grants designed to address air quality, they took up the mono-slope study.

“Based on a preliminary study we had done, we had suspicions that emissions were low compared to other species,” says Nicolai. “At least that is our hypothesis.”

The project monitors ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane and particulate matter. At the Christensen barn, six monitoring stations – two in and four out – measure air speed and direction and the concentration of gasses and particulate matter. The difference between what comes in and what goes out is attributed to the cattle.

Nicolai says the data will be made available to the EPA, but it is unknown what use they will make of it. “I can’t begin to understand what the EPA is thinking,” he says.

In addition to monitoring air quality, the project has spawned two side experiments. One explores the effects of different methods of manure management, comparing deep pack vs. pens that are scraped clean weekly. The other measures nitrogen levels, by monitoring air, manure, and carcass tissue.

For the Christensen’s participation in the project was a case of being in the right place at the right time, and offered a unique opportunity. “We try to be proactive,” says Clayton Christensen. “We’d rather do that than get a slap on the wrist.”

The Christensen’s barn, like the others in the project, houses just under 1,000 head, divided into two pens, and is approximately 480×100 feet. It is completely open on one side and canvas flaps on the other allow for airflow and weather protection.

Northwest Iowa has severe winters, but Clayton says there are benefits to the structure in every season. “I thought it would be better in winter, but it’s in the summer that it really shines,” he explains. “The cattle are cooler and more comfortable – so they keep eating.” He compared cattle in the mono-slope barn with those in a nearby outside lot when the temperature reached 98 degrees and found those outside had a 20 percent decrease in feed intake while those in the barn showed no change.

Ron Christensen cites other benefits including the concrete floor and foundation. “Anytime you’re on concrete, you raise the bar on herd health,” he says, adding the cattle are cleaner, the manure is dryer, and protection from the elements makes maintenance easier. “You have all the advantage of confinement without the hassle.”

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