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Ag technology helps farms and lakes co-exist

The ability to reclaim millions of gallons of manure as distilled water is a remarkable benefit of a new technology that strikes a balance between a farmer’s need to expand and the public’s need for clean water.

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Can Aqua Innovations and its novel manure management technology restore lakes here and throughout the state?

That’s the strong conviction of a high-powered local business partnership that includes former Gov. Tommy Thompson and Green Bay Packers legend Frank Winters as they work to develop the agricultural manufacturing business. By the time the 2018 World Dairy Expo wraps up in early October, a global audience will have first-hand knowledge of the ecological and economic benefits of the technology, which is being marketed as the NuWay nutrient management system.

First up, however, is the commissioning of a NuWay system on a farm outside of Spring Valley, Wis., located between Eau Claire and the Twin Cities. After several installations, including one seven years ago on an organic farm in the state of Oregon, it promises to be yet another proving ground. Interested people are coming from as far away as California, and Brazil’s minister of agriculture has expressed an interest in attending, as well.

For company President Chris Lenzendorf and his partners, who have spent the past 16 months developing the business and courting investors, it’s an exciting time. “It’s a true Wisconsin success story,” Lenzendorf states. “It’s a Wisconsin idea.”

Fracturing fertilizer

If widely adopted by large dairy operations, Aqua Innovations’ NuWay technology will change the way farmers handle cow manure. The brand promise of this particular technology is that it can help farmers manage manure in a more cost effective, environmentally friendly, and customizable way. In essence, it’s a nutrient management system that uses a mechanical separation process to remove 100% of the suspended solids and 99% of the phosphorus from manure, produce biodegradable byproducts that allow spreading throughout the growing season, and reclaim some of the manure as distilled water.

The system prevents manure from making its way to the watershed with the use of holding tanks. Once the solids are removed, the system sends byproducts to holding tanks, and farmers take what Lenzendorf calls “super-nutrient water” that 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.

While removing phosphorus, which is public enemy number one for the Yahara Watershed, the technology’s liquid/solid partitioning system helps farmers produce pure, dischargeable wastewater — claiming zero environmental impact — plus a bedding replacement, compost materials, and the aforementioned nutrient-rich organic fertilizer that resembles tea water. This water contains approximately 1 to 2% of the phosphorus of raw manure but retains nutrients such as nitrogen and potassium as part of a liquid fertilizer that is easy to pump and irrigate on farm fields.

The system uses a reverse osmosis process to reclaim 50% of the water in manure as pure distilled water, which then is safe enough to return to the watershed with some modifications to mirror the composition of local waterways. According to Lenzendorf, reclaimed water is the most exciting prospect of the technology because it’s actually cleaner than the tap water available to Wisconsin residents.

Also among NuWay’s touted benefits is that it reduces storage and hauling costs (placing less stress on local roads), minimizes odors, and is supported by round-the-clock monitoring by Aqua Innovations.

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.

One keenly interested observer is James Tye, executive director of the Clean Lakes Alliance, which has worked with various stakeholders, including farmers, to divert phosphorus from the Yahara Watershed. “There are a lot of farmers out there trying to up their game on conservation efforts, but this would be something to add to the mix because you’re still going to have to do the conservation practices like buffer strips to keep the soil in place,” he notes. “There’s no one magic bullet.”

Tye notes the Greater Madison community is at the beginning stages of a transformational shift in how it interacts with local lakes. “We’ve already done it with recycling, we’ve done it with biking, and we’ve done it with nonsmoking policies,” he notes. “All of these have been transformational shifts in our community, and we’re several years into this transformational shift in how we interact with our lakes.”

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