WESTPHALIA, Kan. -- Scientists at Kansas State University and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment still have a lot of questions about managing livestock waste at the Nichols Dairy near Westphalia. But so far, they like the answers they've gotten.
They invited legislators, media, and others to an on-site tour recently. State representative Joann Flower, who chairs the House agriculture committee, said measures to implement livestock waste management at Nichols Dairy just may "raise the bar" for other small dairies in Kansas.
"This is not one of the mega-dairies of western Kansas where they have 3,000 cattle and are milking three times a day," said Flower, who attended the more than four-hour tour. "This is a small, independent producer who has the initiative to do something progressive."
The 200-cow Nichols Dairy is the first facility in Kansas to incorporate lagoons, wetland cells, and vegetative filter strips into a single waste management program. In all, it has one settling basin, one lagoon, three wetland cells, and three vegetative filters -- each designed to rid runoff of nitrogen, phosphorus, and fecal coliform bacteria.
There are similar systems in the United States, but nothing that compares in Kansas. KDHE approved its construction at the Nichols Dairy only as a demonstration project at this time.
"What's unique about this site is the fact that we have all three systems located in series," said Joe Harner, the K-State Research and Extension agricultural engineer who designed the system. "So, we drain (waste) from a lagoon through wetland cells and from the wetland cells to vegetative filters."
Thus, by the time milk parlor runoff reaches nearby Pottawatomie Creek (approximately one-half mile away), it is "as clean or cleaner than the runoff from (adjacent) land not concentrated with livestock," said owner Carl Nichols.
Rick Davis, an environmental planner and landscape architect with KDHE, designed a planting scheme that includes nearly 3,200 trees, shrubs, and deciduous plants.
"Some studies suggest that standing wetland systems may not be as good at eliminating fecal coliform bacteria from runoff," Davis said. "We're hoping the vegetative filter strips will actually provide additional contact time with the vegetation and eliminate more of the bacteria."
Construction of the Nichols Dairy waste management system cost approximately $40,000, paid mostly by state and federal grants. More conventional systems typically cost between $15,000 and $20,000.
But conventional systems also require farmers to pump manure from their lagoons. In eastern Kansas, where high annual rainfall contributes to that need, farmers pump their lagoons "once or twice a year" at a cost of $3,000 to $5,000 each time, Harner said.
"Nothing is totally maintenance-free," said KDHE's Davis. "What we are looking at here is having increased construction costs on the front end of the project. But over the life of the operation, the operator will have decreased maintenance costs associated with pumping and hauling manure."
The Nichols Dairy system also includes a few landowner perks.
"The wetland cells and vegetative filters will attract some additional wildlife habitat," said Davis, who noted that several blackbird species, frogs, and turtles already have established residence. "The trees and shrubs that were planted (as vegetative filter strips) also will provide some edible fruits and nuts and enhance the general aesthetics of the site."
Some of the trees and shrubs Nichols chose include chokecherry, American plum, golden currant, fragrant sumac, walnut, green ash, silver maple, dwarf bankers willow, streamco willow, grey dogwood, silky dogwood, American filbert, elderberry, and buttonbush. From a nearby road, the vegetative filter strips will appear to be a wooded draw.
The system is not yet fully in place. In fact, the largest area where trees and shrubs will be planted is currently flooded. Plus, Harner estimated it will take "two to three years for the vegetation to really become established."
But, Nichols promised: "Given half a chance, this thing will work."
Harner noted that such systems are not "one-size-fits-all." The Nichols system is best-suited for a 200-cow operation.
"Not every dairy is going to be located in a site where we can use wetland vegetation or vegetative filter strips to handle the nutrient load," Harner said. "In some cases, we are going to have sites where it's not at all feasible to do the type of system that's here. The nice thing is that the individual landowner can determine what's best for their particular situation."
Ongoing monitoring and sampling will help scientists determine the long-term value of Nichols' waste management system and aid future designs. It's not yet certain if KDHE will move forward with approval of similar waste management systems, but officials think other farmers soon will be asking questions.
"Farmers have got several possibilities," Davis said. "The first thing they can do is contact someone who can provide technical assistance in identifying different options -- ranging from simple, improved management practices to a comprehensive system like we have here or to one that fits their farm."
Additional cooperators on the Nichols Dairy project are the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Anderson County Conservation District, Natural Resource Conservation Service, the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, and the State Conservation Commission.
Here's a simple description of how the Nichols Dairy waste management system should work:
Solid or liquid waste runs from the milking parlor into a sediment basin and then to the holding pond -- the traditional components of a livestock waste management system.
Return to the U.S. Water News Archives page
Return to the U.S. Water News Homepage