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Our USDA Neighbor Does Serious Compost Research


One of Behnkes’ closest long-time neighbors in Beltsville is the world-famous Beltsville Agricultural Research Center,  which I visited recently to get a tour of their compost research from an old friend.  But any notion that the target audience here is gardeners or even homeowners is way off – this is about composting manure from dairy farms, like the 100-cow farm here.  Walter told me that figuring out what’s best on this small operation would work for 90 percent of the dairy farms in the U.S.  Their research has produced results ranging far off the farm, though.  Did I mention this place is world famous?


In most ways the dairy barn here is a typical “freestyle” barn, meaning the cows can roam freely, as the cows shown do to eat, lick salt, and use the mechanical back scratcher that they love.  The cows are here for nine months at a stretch when they’re producing milk, after which (as “dry cows”) they’re rewarded with two months in the pasture, where after being artificially impregnated they await the births of their calves and the beginning of milk production again.


But it isn’t just milk these ladies produce – also 30 gallons of “waste” every day.  That’s 3,000 gallons a day from this 100-cow barn alone.

So let’s follow that waste, shall we?  After moving along the slanted floor, manure and urine are held in an underground tank, then in this lagoon, which is typical of what a small farm would use.  Next, the solids are hauled away and spread in rows using surplus army trucks to pull the spreaders.



The solids sit in these “wind rows ” for 30 days, where they heat up to 150 degrees and are turned five times using this machine (the aptly named wind-row turner).  This machine is a four-foot turner, though larger ones can handle 20-foot rows.

The Research


Less than 25% of dairy manure ends up feeding crops, so the primary focus of this research is to reduce the loss of all those nutrients – in storage, in spreading, where half goes into the air as gas, and from microorganism action.  If manure could more efficiently direct nutrients into crops, there’d be less nutrient run-off into the waterways, and less need for farmers to buy fertilizer.  Besides efficiency, the compost that’s spread on crops has to be free of weeds and pathogens.

One solution used widely on large farms is to turn manure into bio-gas that then produces electricity.  It’s called “green power.”

The Tour GuideBARC7
Walter Mulbry is a 25-year veteran here at this USDA facility, where they’re especially proud of their research on removing pathogens and heavy metals from bio-solids taken from wastewater.  Their findings became the EPA standards for treatment of bio-solids.  Though Walter studied molecular biology and started his career researching toxins in solid waste, he soon discovered that even more dramatic environmental improvements could be accomplished from managing nutrients in waste.  Nutrients are the primary environmental problem in agriculture, not toxins.

Walter says this is a beautiful place to work and loves it here.  On the gorgeous fall day I visited, he was dressed not just in casual Friday garb but in farm clothes – even for this guvmint job, just outside D.C.   Here in the midst of 6,600 acres of farmland, Walter seems as happy as a pig in manure.


Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

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