Released: July 29, 2003
Kansas, U.S. Researchers Studying Cattle Odor, Dust
MANHATTAN, Kan. – Even on the good days, Jerry Bohn realizes his work stinks.
Bohn, the general manager of Pratt Feeders, calls the odor from his south central Kansas feedlot "one of the characteristics" of the cattle feeding industry.
"Housekeeping and cleanliness are the best things we can do to control the odor," says Bohn, whose feedlot four miles northwest of Pratt, can handle about 39,000 cattle. "We scrape the pens, haul manure and incorporate it into the soil," which are considered standard practices.
Still, any day that the wind blows – and in the High Plains, that’s many a day – feedlot owners typically get little sympathy from nearby residents.
In Hays, Kan. recently, the city commission asked officials of the Kansas State University Agricultural Research Center, located about a mile south of town, to find ways to decrease cattle odor from cattle feedlots used for research. Among possible solutions being discussed are moving the facility, shutting it down, or implementing practices to get rid of the odor.
In the High Plains region – especially in the cattle-rich states of Texas, Kansas and Nebraska – moving or shutting down feedlots is a costly proposition. Pat Coyne, head of K-State’s Agricultural Research Center-Hays, said his facility – including its research capabilities – would cost at least $2 million to move elsewhere. Perhaps a bigger issue to local economies is the loss of income and jobs in areas that are mostly rural.
Researchers at several U.S. universities believe they can come up with better solutions. In fact, at least a half-dozen universities and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are working together to study not only cattle odor, but also potential risks to human health when feedlot cattle kick up dust.
"This is an emerging issue that definitely is going to impact the sustainability of cattle feeding in Kansas (and other states)," said Bill Hargrove, director of the Kansas Center for Agricultural Resources and the Environment (KCARE). "Air quality regulations (for High Plains feedlots) are coming, and will be based on available data from other areas of the nation and world if data are not available for the High Plains."
That’s what is driving current research at Texas A&M University, where a team of 10 faculty members are studying ways to identify and measure emissions from concentrated animal feeding operations, and cost-effective ways to reduce them.
So far, those researchers believe their work ranks among the most complete and accurate measurements ever of emissions from swine farms and cattle feedyards.
"We are measuring baseline emissions rates for ammonia and hydrogen sulfide from typical cattle and swine operations in Texas," said A&M air quality engineer Jacek Koziel. "These measurements will serve as a benchmark for evaluation of odor and dust abatement technologies ...[and] this, in turn, may improve the air quality near confined animal feeding operations."
Hargrove noted that Kansas State University’s focus is on minimizing dust and odor emissions in feedlots. K-State researchers have been studying feedlot dust issues for at least 10 years, and particularly the potential health risk of dust to feedlot workers.
John Pickrell, an environmental toxicologist with K-State Research and Extension, said dust kicked up by cattle has not typically been thought to be as high risk as dust in confined swine operations, where the animals are inside a building.
"People used to think the dust in cattle feedlots was just a [public relations] problem; it probably is more than that," said Pickrell, who has researched the risk of feedlot dust since 1992. "We need to make a greater effort to find out what the potential health effects of cattle dust are to workers."
Pickrell said research continues in the High Plains to study the effectiveness of a "water curtain," an approximately 40-foot structure built along the edge of a feedlot that sprays water periodically and captures dust particles in the air. Preliminary research in Canada also has shown that adding 5-percent canola oil to water will capture even the smallest dust particles, he said.
He added that researchers also are looking at the use of directed fans – which may be particularly useful inside facilities – and windbreaks. Much of Pickrell’s current work on dust issues is studying the differences between swine and cattle operations.
"If I had to bet today," Pickrell said, "I’d say that the risk to human health of cattle dust is not as high as it is in pig operations because pigs are indoors and the environment is more dusty. The problem won’t be likely to reach the level of a serious clinical illness. But dust in cattle lots is not harmless."
Some feedlot operators are addressing the issue themselves. Larry Christiansen, manager of Gottsch Feeders in Deerfield, Kan., said his company recently constructed confined outdoor pens for feedlot cattle, which minimizes dust problems because cattle have less room to "play" at night. At least one other western Kansas feeder – Cattle Empire in Satanta – has adopted the confined feeding pens, according to the company’s operations manager, Ron Brown.
Ronaldo Maghirang, an associate professor of air quality and environmental control at Kansas State, said the university has not yet conducted research specific to cattle odor, though K-State is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded project led by Texas A&M.
While many scientists have studied swine odor, Maghirang said developing practices to control cattle odor presents its own set of problems.
"These are different management systems and there are different factors that determine the emissions processes," Maghirang said. "The air quality problem...is principally driven by weather conditions, so measurement approaches and control strategies will be different for cattle than for swine."
The goal of current and future research, Maghirang says, is to "manage the odor, not eliminate it. You need research to evaluate those management practices that will help you minimize the problem."
Some private companies are working toward solutions; one Oklahoma company already is marketing a product that it says provides "odor-free hog farming." Large corporations such as Seaboard Farms and Smithfield Foods also are testing various methods of odor control.
KCARE’s Hargrove, whose office is on the K-State campus, said he is encouraged by ongoing university research and its ability to address a current issue in the feed industry. He added that
K-State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans. Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus, Manhattan.
Bill Hargrove is at 785-532-7419 and Ronaldo Maghirang is at 785-532-2908 and John Pickrell is at 785-532-4331