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Creating opportunities to compost animal manure in combination with agricultural vegetable waste is a method that can reduce GHG emissions.



Confined Animal Feedlot Operations (CAFOs) are large-production animal farms that generate a significant amount of animal manure. However, there are concerns over the quantity of animal manures produced, and the resulting effects on environmental and human health in the lower Mississippi River basin. If not managed properly, this manure may largely contribute to greenhouse gases (GHG) from both direct decomposition, as well as from waterborne bacteria that feed off of leachate.

Runoff from a Dairy Cow CAFO

(U.S. Department of Agriculture)

Composting animal manure with agricultural vegetable waste can reduce pathogen and nutrient load to water bodies, save energy to transport manure off-site, and produce a value-added product that locks carbon into soil. Because CAFOs need grains to feed the animal populations, and because grain farmers find decreasing soil fertility trends each year from intensive practices (DeLuca & DeLuca, 1997), this project’s purpose is to create beneficial partnerships among farming operations. Not only will nutrient runoff and greenhouse gas emissions decrease from the treatment of animal manures, but also the compost created can be used to augment the soil fertility of the grain producers. The grain produced in turn may be used to feed the animals on the CAFO.

This project will identify potential partnerships between grain producers and CAFO operators, train the operators in large-scale composting, and create a plan together with both parties to pilot the composting operation. This project seeks to use existing farm infrastructure for the creation and maintenance of compost piles, but will address financial needs for the rental of necessary farm equipment for these purposes. Baseline and follow-up discussions and surveys will be used to gain insight into the success of the project. A viability study will assess whether this kind of partnership in other locations within the Mississippi watershed can be cost-beneficial to both farm operators.

Category of the action

Reducing emissions from waste management

What actions do you propose?

CAFOs are defined by meeting the regulatory definition for Animal Feedlot Operations (AFOs), by the quantity threshold of the animal type, and by having contact with a surface water body through either direct contact or a man-made ditch or pipe (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2003). CAFOs differ from AFOs in that animals are not free to graze in pastures, but instead are kept in confined areas and are fed a processed grain daily (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2014a). The confined conditions allow animal manure to collect in these concentrated areas. The high volume of animal manure produced must be disposed of accordingly in order to keep animal living conditions as sanitary as possible. Like any manure, animal manure is high in nutrients, and may contain harmful pathogens. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated in 2007 that 2.2 billion head of livestock (cattle, dairy, and swine) and poultry generated approximately 1.1 billion tons of manure (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2014b)

The Mississippi Watershed and Hypoxic Zone

(Partners of Scott County Watersheds)

Many non-federal initiatives and studies are also taking place. Non-governmental agencies like the Mississippi River Collaborative advocate for lower pollution limits, increased frequency of water testing, faster compliance times, and stronger EPA oversight (Mississippi River Collaborative, 2015). Several studies have also explored different methods of waste treatment for animal manures generated at CAFOs, such as waste treatment lagoons. Although options like these exist, they can be associated with negative effects. For example, in terms of air quality, waste treatment options like lagoons or direct land application may exacerbate the amount of airborne ammonia released into the environment, and the noxious odors associated with unprocessed animal manures may cause local grain farmers to reject the untreated waste (Gurian-Sherman, 2008).

This research project seeks to create a partnership between a CAFO and a neighboring industrial grain producer in the lower Mississippi watershed to compost CAFO animal manures using grain wastes from industrial grain production. These operations may legally dispose of farm wastes under USEPA regulations, but they must also be in such a situation where composting could potentially benefit both parties economically. An assessment and site visit will be conducted in the first week of project initiation, identifying potential candidates. The identified farmers will attend a 4-day composting workshop hosted by the United States Composting Council (USCC). USCC trainings are held every few months in a chosen place in the United States. The training covers the biology of composting, site design, air quality and odor control, water quality and stormwater management, permitting and regulations, product marketing, and safety (United States Composting Council, 2015).

A USCC Compost Operators Training Course

(U.S. Composting Council)

Composting is an identified method of animal manure treatment and disposal that can benefit both farmers, the environment, and any stakeholders that derive benefits from the associated watershed. The kinds of composting methods identified vary in amount of infrastructure required, amount of time to obtain a finished product, and the amount of hands-on labor necessary. These composting approaches are described in the Cornell Composting Feasibility Study for industrial farms as ranging from a static compost pile requiring no active management, to use of existing farm equipment to manage compost piles, to the implementation of large-scale windrows, requiring new machinery investment and more involved management (Fabian, Richard, Kay, Allee, & Regenstein, 1993) . Choosing an approach requires an evaluation of the amount of material to treat, existing machinery available, and potential cooperative partners and their resources.

A feasibility study was conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) that analyzed the economic effectiveness of large-scale windrow composting methods. This study calculated the costs of various animal manure composting systems alongside the costs of traditional waste disposal methods, incorporating factors like time, annual operating costs, and equipment costs. The study suggests that composting can be a viable method for managing manure if the equipment is already available on-site, costing an average $142 per cow per year—as compared with manure storage which could cost up to an average of $266 per cow per year (Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, 1996). Based on this background research, this project aims to utilize on-site composting, employing existing farm equipment, as the ideal approach.

Farm Machinery Moving a Compost Pile

(Grass Valley Grains)

After the principal operators of both the CAFO and industrial grain farmer, and the project leader have attended the USCC training, a second site visit will be conducted. At this visit, a post-USCC training/workshop will be conducted so that relevant information can be relayed to any farm personnel that will be involved in the project. According to an agreed-upon schedule, project initiation will begin promptly at the next site visit, coordinating the transport of materials to create a compost windrow in a designated area. Farm personnel will be compensated for any additional time worked beyond their normal schedule, and all fiscal data will be collected. The compost windrow will sit for 1 month, and turned according to an agreed-upon schedule. During this 1 month period, both CAFO and grain farm will continue to create new compost windrows according to an agreed-upon plan.

In order to assess the effectiveness of using composting as a pathogen and nutrient reduction tool, ten baseline samples of surface water (5) and initial compost piles (5) will be collected and sent to the Louisiana State University (LSU) Ag Center for analysis, a certified lab in compliance with the International Standards of Operation (ISO) 17025.

Although the LSU Ag Center states that they offer free laboratory services to projects focused on environmental quality improvement, an amount of money has been allocated for sample transport, with additional funds if necessary. Ten follow-up samples will be taken and sent to the LSU Ag Center 1 month after project implementation. The LSU Ag Center will analyze both baseline and follow-up samples using the “USCC’s latest analytical procedures for organic waste and compost analysis, called Test Methods for the Examination of Composting and Compost (TMECC)” (Louisiana State University Ag Center, 2015). Surface water samples will be compared with the CAFO’s discharge monitoring reports (DMRs).

During the 1 month follow-up visit, a survey will be completed by all farm personnel involved with the project to assess the practicality and effort of continuing to compost farm wastes. An economic feasibility analysis will be done under the assumption that both the CAFO and industrial grain farmers will be able to provide economic information on the normal waste disposal operations, and any relevant inputs that would be calculated into a cost-benefit analysis. Both the survey and the economic cost-benefit analysis will be integrated into a final report assessing the value of this partnership, reporting whether this partnership could be repeated.

Assumptions include that the amount of existing farm machinery is sufficient to sustain a composting operation that could continue beyond this scope of this project. However, the project team holds no liability for any cooperative composting operation that continues beyond the scope of this project that is found to hold negative impact to environmental and/or human health. If the LSU Ag Center results show that there is no improvement in water quality or pathogen reduction as a result of this project, then the cooperative composting operation is not recommended to continue beyond the scope of this project.

This project assumes that all CAFOs have the potential to improve their waste disposal methods, no matter what their current system is like, and no matter what time of year it is. Composting is a proven method for pathogen reduction, nutrient stabilization in manures, greenhouse gas emissions, and there is plenty of literature on this subject. The focus of this study is not to prove that composting works to achieve these goals, but to analyze the process of partnership creation in order to achieve beneficial results for both parties involved, as well as the environment.

Who will take these actions?

Project Team

The team leader is located in New Orleans, Louisiana, at the junction of research facilities, regulatory agencies, and at the heart of the lower Mississippi River. The team leader has demonstrated competence in the field of waste management, and has an innovative, entrepreneurial spirit, dedicated to the advancement of alternative waste management practices. The MIT Climate CoLab: Waste Management Contest is an ideal setting to apply this passion.

CAFO Operator(s)

Identified CAFO operators that meet participation criteria will be selected to participate in this project.

Grain Farm Operator(s)

Identified grain farm operators that meet participation criteria will be selected to participate in this project.

United States Composting Council (USCC)

The USCC will not take any additional role in this project besides offering scheduled large-scale composting training sessions several times per year.

Louisiana State University (LSU) Ag Center

The LSU Ag Center will not take any additional role in this project besides offering lab analysis services for soil, compost, and water quality testing. The LSU Ag Center employs the “USCC’s latest analytical procedures for organic waste and compost analysis, called Test Methods for the Examination of Composting and Compost (TMECC)” (Louisiana State University Ag Center, 2015).

Where will these actions be taken?

The composting collaborative part of the project will take place at an identified site(s) in the lower Mississippi watershed near the city of New Orleans, Louisiana. Composting training will take place at the identified U.S. Composting Council training week. Compost analyses and project coordination will take place in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Map of Cultivated Cropland in the Mississippi and surrounding watersheds

(National Resources Conservation Service)

What are other key benefits?

Feedlot manure management research found that composting reduces the amount of material to be disposed, drastically reduces pathogens like Cryptosporidium and Giardia, and transforms the nutrients that normally pollute water into a stable form for soil enhancement upon land application (Larney & Hao, 2007). Other research suggests “cooperative on-farm composting could provide a means of introducing important elements of sustainability within the existing structure of industrialized agriculture” (DeLuca & DeLuca, 1997) .

This project demonstrates the potential for significant impact on how the agriculture field intersects with environmental strategies that address climate change. Not only are there far-reaching implications for GHG reductions, but other key benefits will address water quality improvement in the lower Mississippi basin and the Gulf of Mexico by improving agricultural system waste.

Flow Chart Depicting Various GHG Emission Sources and Sinks

(Environmental Protection Agency)

How much will emissions be reduced or sequestered vs. business as usual levels?

Emissions baseline data for animal feedlot operations was collected over a 2-year period by the EPA, resulting in the Air Quality Compliance Agreement for Animal Feeding Operations. While these data and standards are important, GHG emissions vary depending on the operation.

This pilot study will assess both grain and CAFO operators for possible GHG emission sources. There is still much unknown information. For example, according to some research, nitrogen fertilizers that leach into water sources may be a significant contributor of hard-to-quantify nitrous oxide GHG emissions in the ocean (Frame 2008). Ultimately, the amount of GHG emissions that would be reduced from this pilot study will depend on the size of the CAFO, the agreed-upon amount of material to be composted, and an assessment of other factors on the sites.

Comparison of Different GHGs Varying Sources and Sinks

(Global Research)

What are the proposal’s costs?

Project Initiation (~1 month)

$2000 – Initial site visit: planning, transportation, food, stipend, and travel expenses

$8300 – USCC training for 3 people: food, hotel, travel, stipend, and program

$1400 – Second site visit: transportation, food, stipend, and travel expenses

$1000 – Follow-up post-USCC workshop for involved farm persons (second site visit)

Project Implementation (~1 week)

$1000 – Implementation visit: transportation, food, stipend, and travel expenses

$1000 – Water quality and soil baseline testing

$2000 – Machinery Rental (if needed)

$1000 – Farmer stipends

$1000 – Follow-up project team planning stipend

Monitoring & Evaluation (~3 weeks, after 1 month break)

$1000 – Follow-up visit: transportation, food, stipend, and travel expenses

$1000 – Water quality and soil follow-up testing

$2000 – Machinery Rental (if needed)

$1000 – Farmer stipends

$1000 – Follow-up discussion/survey of project: food and stipends

$2000 – Marketing materials for compost (if needed)

$2000 – Project team stipends to produce report and feasibility study

Post-Project Research & Development (Timeframe N/A)

$10000 – Funds to assess scalability of project and development of network


Total Project Cost: $38,700

Time line

The proposed work will take 2 months, but because a waiting period of 1 month is necessary to analyze the results of the compost, the project in total will take about 3 months from start to finish as a Phase 1. If the feasibility reports indicate successful results, Phase 2 research and development funding will lay the groundwork for future partnerships to take place within the Mississippi River basin. This funding could be used to develop a technology and culturally appropriate platform to track CAFOs and industrial grain farmers interested in participating in composting cooperatives.

Long-term, an organizational entity could be developed to manage this platform, as well as provide educational resources, support, and outreach for farmers to reduce GHG emissions. Interested governmental or non-governmental agencies may support this effort by creating economic incentives for CAFOs and industrial grain producers to participate in the program.

Related proposals

The Little Engine That Could: Carbon Fee and Dividend /  CitizensClimateLobby - The taxing of GHG emissions is an important driving factor for carbon credits programs, which increase the incentive for composting agricultural waste.

Nualgi - Diatom Algae - Oxygen /  Nualgi-Diatom Algae  - There is a significant amount of wastewater generated at CAFOs, beyond what could be composted. Algae could play an important role in treating this wastewater and transforming it into value-added products.

Midwest Rural Climate Dialogues /  Jefferson Center – Creating a platform to engage rural farmers in the Midwest in dialogue about climate change is an important aspect of making positive waste management changes in the Mississippi watershed that reduce GHG emissions.


Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems. (1996). Windrow composting systems can be feasable, cost effective. ( No. 20). University of Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin-Madison.

DeLuca, T. H., & DeLuca, D. K. (1997). Composting for feedlot manure management and soil quality.10(2), 235-241. doi:10.2134/jpa1997.0235

Fabian, E. E., Richard, T. L., Kay, D., Allee, D., & Regenstein, J. (1993). Agricultural composting: A feasibility study for new york farms. (). New York: New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.

Frame, C. (2008). Another Greenhouse Gas to Watch: Nitrous Oxide. OceanUS Magazine. Retrieved from

Gurian-Sherman, D. (2008). CAFOs uncovered: The untold costs of confined animal feeding operations. (). Cambridge, MA: Union of Concerned Scientists.

Hribar, C. (2010). Understanding concentrated animal feeding operations and their impact on communities. (). Bowling Green, Ohio: National Association of Local Boards of Health.

Larney, F. J., & Hao, X. (2007). A review of composting as a management alternative for beef cattle feedlot manure in southern alberta, canada. Bioresource Technology, 98(17), 3221. doi:doi:10.1016/j.biortech.2006.07.005

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United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2003). Producer's compliance guide for CAFOs. ( No. EPA 821-R-03-010 Ê). Washington, D.C.: Office of Water.

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