Quite a Spread

Tuesday, October 23, 2012
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The New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station (NHAES) and the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture (COLSA) at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) recently received a $550,000 gift in support of a project to build a composting research facility at the Organic Dairy Research Farm that will work to produce high-level compost and heat capture, thereby reducing the use of fossil fuels on the farm.

Our generous donors, who own a sheep farm in New England and have a passion for what UNH is doing to improve sustainable methods of agriculture, made a gift that will have a direct impact on producers and other rural residents in the region. Their investment is a recognition of the University’s exceptional teaching, research, and outreach opportunities that, ultimately, improve people’s lives in practical and affordable ways while simultaneously restoring the health of the environment. “One of the important roles of the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station (NHAES) is to take on the economic risks of developing and testing the technology so producers don’t have to,” says NHAES Director and Dean of COLSA, Jon Wraith. “As a result of research trials we will provide practical, proven management and technological approaches for scaled down, affordable versions of this system.”

Provost John Aber is equally enthusiastic about the facility in which scientists and students will test and develop a novel approach for reducing environmental impacts and energy costs while increasing the sustainability of moderate-sized dairies typical of northern New England.  “A unique combination of significant philanthropic support, NHAES baseline facilities money, and long-term USDA funding through the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (SARE) is what makes this project possible,” says Aber. “The facility will provide a rich research environment for both undergraduate and graduate student projects and a valuable demonstration site for farmers who may want to adopt this technique.”

Matt Smith '08, '12G is a Ph.D. student in the Natural Resources and Earth Systems Science program, working with the SARE and NHAES-funded facility. “This project originated out of the need for New England farmers to really diversify their products to stay alive and to better account for the whole agroecosystem – what’s coming on the farm and what’s leaving the farm,” says Smith. “Our true measure of success is whether we can develop a heat recovery compost system that not only maximizes heat output, but compost quality as well. Most importantly, the system has to have a short enough payback period that is economically realistic for small to mid-sized dairy farms throughout the region.”

Right now at the Organic Dairy, there is a half-acre bare patch signifying the groundbreaking stage for a 96’ X 50’ pole barn structure with a concrete floor embedded with PVC pipe aeration channels. The barn will be divided into four bays, each of which will have four aeration channels. Every bay will further be split in half to accommodate two compost treatment areas. Fans at the ends of the PVC pipes will draw air down through the compost piles into the aeration floor and over to a proprietary system from Acrolab called Isobar. This network of thermal conductors, to be located in a mechanical room that spans the entire length of the rear of the building, will store the heat produced by the vibrant microbial activity in optimal compost. The stored heat will be used to heat water, which has much better thermal properties than air for heat storage and transfer.

“We’ll be composting aerobically to capture the metabolic heat from the microbes,” says Smith. We’ll aim to keep the temperatures at the 140°F to 150°F level through proper moisture control and aeration.” In addition to researching treatments that make optimal environments for microbial activity, Smith and other project participants will be examining the best recipes for initial feedstock, reflecting a carbon to nitrogen ratio of approximately 30:1, which will help to produce maximum heat recovery and compost quality. In order to assure a positive outcome, the need to supplement with waste hay and wood chips to create the proper porosity for air flow within the mix will be another focus of study.

A related project in closing the nutrient cycle and reducing energy outputs is that of producing bedding on property. NHAES will acquire a wood shaving machine, which transforms logs into a fine, fluffy bedding suitable for both cows and horses. Approximately 60 cords of white pine sustainably harvested from the Burley-Demeritt and Bartlett-Dudley woodlots, and other UNH Woodland locations, will provide a year’s supply of animal bedding for the Organic Dairy Research Farm. The bedding will also be used at the college’s Equine Center and the Fairchild Dairy.  Not only is this a significant net savings for the college, it is a viable way to manage the woodlots and make way for the new growth of more valuable saw logs in the future. Bedding from the shaver will be stored far enough away from the composting facility to discourage microbial growth in the shavings; however, heat energy produced from the compost is planned for use in the drying process for bedding.

Thanks to this gift from our generous donors, the new aerobic composting research facility will provide many opportunities for collaborative, multi-disciplinary projects long into the future. There are many ways to support the college's varied teaching, research, and outreach efforts and have a profound impact on our students, faculty, and the community-at-large. If you'd like to learn more about how you can contribute to our success, contact COLSA's Director of Development, Stephanie Gillen, at stephanie.gillen@unh.edu or 603-862-2089.