AQUA Innovations’ hopes for a breakthrough technology depend largely on the experience of a farm in northwestern Wisconsin.
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From the pages of In Business magazine.
Thursday, June 14 was an important day for the future of Wisconsin’s economy. On that day, a promising agriculture technology was commissioned at Son-Bow Farms near Spring Valley in northwestern Wisconsin, and it could be just the beginning of forging a better relationship between farms and the environment.
The technology, billed as a nutrient-management system, not only promises to prevent farm waste from getting into lakes by changing the way farmers handle cow manure, it also produces what the manufacturer calls a “super-nutrient” water that improves the fertility of soil. AQUA Innovations, the Sharon, Wisconsin-based environmental engineering firm that manufactures the system, which is marketed as the NuWay process, believes it addresses a host of agricultural challenges, including soil and manure management, and allows farm operators to generate clean and usable water as a by-product of their manufacturing process.
Needless to say, the cost and environmental benefits of widespread adoption could be enormous, especially because farm runoff has undermined the quality of lakes and waterways throughout Wisconsin.
At Son-Bow Farms, the technology is expected to reduce the farm’s total cost of production by $1.80 per hundredweight of milk, which is no small figure. While confident the NuWay technology will prove its worth at Son-Bow, Chris Lenzendorf, president of AQUA Innovations, does not consider this a mere demonstration project, as is the case with a Dane County installation now underway in Middleton that will be used as a showcase during World Dairy Expo this fall.
This aerial photo of Son-Bow Farms Inc. in western Wisconsin, taken in 2014, shows holding lagoon used to store manure. Such “ponds” could become a thing of the past, as the farm has installed new technology that Son-Bow Owner Jay Richardson calls a “game-changer” in the way farms handle manure.
The Son-Bow installation is a live system that he believes will become the flagship for other dairies in Wisconsin — not only to see how the system works, but to get ideas on what they can do with the byproducts that are produced. “This is the beginning of working our pipeline of farms that we’ve already spoken to,” says Lenzendorf. “What’s exciting about that project really is the fact that [farm owner] Jay Richardson is doing so much agronomy work with the byproducts that are produced from our system, so a major impact for him is the reduction in volume through the reclamation of water, but also he’s going to do some interesting things with the byproducts and start using those with his agronomists.”
Show-me kind of guy
The proprietary NuWay process attempts to ease the hassle of managing cow manure with an all-mechanical separation process. The process is not only capable of reclaiming more than 50% of manure as distilled water without the use of chemicals, its byproducts include the aforementioned organic, super-nutrient water that contains the sought-after nitrogen and potassium with virtually no phosphorous or pathogens.
This also diminishes farmers’ dependence on chemicals by allowing them to care for crops using the super nutrient water by-product during the entire growing season in an environmentally compliant, customizable way.
AQUA Innovations provides 24/7 remote monitoring and support and has built a customer service platform that handles everything from permitting, to the construction of the facility to house the system, to the remote troubleshooting and monitoring of phosphorous removal. Instead of paying considerable upfront capital costs that could run into the millions, farmers can lease the system for 10 years and pay a flat monthly rate of about $35,000 to $38,000 with a maintenance fee included. According to Lenzendorf, that’s roughly half the current monthly cost of waste management, and as a result of installing the system, farmers also have reduced storage costs.
Workers install equipment that’s part of AQUA Innovations’ NuWay system at Son-Bow Farms in western Wisconsin. Under the firm’s business model, farmers lease the system for a monthly rate rather than incur upfront capital costs.
No less than former Governor Tommy Thompson and Green Bay Packers legend Frank Winters, who are investors in the company and were on hand at the commissioning, have hailed Jay Richardson, owner of Son-Bow Farms, and wife Kristi as agricultural and environmental pioneers. As the first farm in Wisconsin to install what is essentially a nutrient concentration system — the company has had systems running in other states, such as Oregon, for nearly eight years — Richardson has made a significant investment in the technology and has been working on implementation for three years.
For Richardson, who has 1,300 milking cows on his Pierce County farm, it’s not really a wait-and-see proposition because both he and his chief financial officer have crunched the numbers and they are pretty confident it will pay off. Still, before recommending it to other farmers, he’s taking a bit of a Missouri, “Show-Me” attitude. “I just hate to get out over my skis,” Richardson says. “I like to prove things to myself. I’m 99% confident but I want to be 100% confident when I’m talking to other people. I’d rather say here’s what we have done, past tense, versus here is what we hope to accomplish. That’s where I’m hesitant on some of these things until I prove the numbers out.
“We’ve done our due diligence. We’ve done a lot of research. We’re fairly well convinced of the numbers, but I haven’t proven them yet.”
Part of the technology’s promise is that the byproducts of the process retain the good nutrients in manure — including nitrogen and potassium — without the pathogens and the phosphorous. The system is designed to virtually eliminate the pathogens and the phosphorous so that farmers can apply the byproducts on the surface of the soil throughout the growing season, instead of injecting it deeper into the ground during the spring and fall, as they do now.
The company’s initial focus will be on large farms because of their herd size and the fact that one dairy cow produces 33 gallons of cow manure per day, leading to millions of gallons of waste produced in Wisconsin alone. The inability to keep this farm waste from entering local waterways has led to excessive levels of phosphorus in local rivers and lakes, stimulating the growth of toxic algae, impairing water quality, suffocating fish and other aquatic life, and undermining local economies.
The system prevents manure from making its way to watersheds with the use of holding tanks. Once the solids are removed, the system sends byproducts to holding tanks, and farmers take the “super-nutrient water,” which resembles tea water, and use it to make their soil more fertile. The tanks are pumped through a center pivot, which takes the nutrient water out to farm fields and diverts it away from the watershed.
Among the economic benefits that interests farmers are the resulting reduction in manure hauling costs, which has been a pain point for them. According to Lenzendorf, in Kewaunee County east of Green Bay it can cost upwards of four cents per gallon to haul cow manure, but he says the NuWay system eliminates anywhere from 50% to 65% of the hauling costs,
an immediate payback for dairy operators. It also could help local governments maintain roads by keeping large trucks off of them, and it practically eliminates the odors associated with the large, manure-filled lagoons that fester in the heat all summer because removing the pathogens also removes the odor from manure, another environmental concern of farm neighbors. In addition, the system could allow farmers to expand their herd size without having to purchase more land.
“In terms of the super-nutrient water, we will use that as our source of nutrients, and that will be much more concentrated than we’ve had in the past,” Richardson explains. “We’ll be able to reduce our hauling substantially and we’ll be able to apply this on the surface — not have to inject it but rather just apply it on the surface and just let it run into the ground at a time that is more conducive because we’ll have a bigger window [of time] to apply those nutrients.
“Right now, the challenge with the traditional manner of handling liquid manure is you just have just a tremendous volume that you have to handle, and such a small window to get it out. If the weather doesn’t cooperate perfectly, that causes some substantial challenges.”