ADAMS CENTER About the size of a football field, a lagoon with room for 7 million gallons of manure and sand was filling up, creating a dilemma at Hy-Light Farms; over 10 years, a massive sand pile about 10 feet deep had accumulated in the center and could not be pumped out.
Meanwhile, the farms 870 cattle continued to use thousands of tons of sand as bedding for their stalls each week, with increasing quantities of the sand and manure mix being sent to the lagoon. Work crews frequently had to dredge the perimeter using tractors and lagoon pumps. As a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, the farm is required by state regulations to store all of its manure in a lagoon during the winter.
Facing this situation, dairy farm senior co-owner Gerald M. Stockman had a decision to make last winter: Should he shell out more than $125,000 to have the pit excavated completely as a temporary fix? Hed thought there was no alternative until his son-in-law, Todd R. Hyman, showed him an Internet video of a machine hed never seen before: a manure agitator boat gliding across the lagoon, operated by remote control. Three high-powered jets suck up the surface water and blast it down to the bottom, mixing up the solids so the entire mass then can be pumped out.
After learning the price tag for the boat was $128,000, Mr. Stockman made his choice. He bought a 275-horsepower, 16-foot-long agitator boat in April from Puck Custom Enterprises in Manning, Iowa the only company in the country now selling them. It was a solution, he decided, that could save the farm on fuel and labor costs and also improve the nutrient quality of liquid manure spread on the corn and alfalfa fields.
The machine was about the same it was going to cost us to have the pit dug out, he said. And if we did that, the problem was going to come back again.
Though the boat purchase felt like a bold risk at the time Mr. Stockman didnt know anyone who owned one the move paid off in a major way in 2012. In the fall, there was just enough water on the lagoons surface to run the boat. Once the lagoon was thoroughly mixed by the machine, a work crew used a 30-foot pump powered by a tractor with 225 horsepower to vacuum out the liquid manure. Numerous truckloads of sludge were then spread over alfalfa fields.
We took out 6.5 million gallons out of the lagoon, practically emptying it, Mr. Stockman said.
Before, the lagoon could be only partly emptied using 30-foot-long pumps that worked the perimeter. Those pumps are equipped with an agitator that mixes sand at the bottom and sprays liquid manure to other areas of the lagoon, but there was simply no way remove buildup from the center. The process took much longer than using the manure boat, and the tractors that powered the pumps consumed 200 to 300 gallons of diesel fuel a day.
The manure boat uses only about 50 gallons, and makes far less work for the pumps.
We were doing a poor job because the pit is so big, Mr. Stockman said. But now we dont have to remove the sand physically with excavators and trucks.
Last month, the boat also helped dredge three additional lagoons at Hy-Light Farms second location in Smithville, removing a collective 2.5 million gallons of liquid manure there. More than 330 cattle are housed in three barns; a system of ramps plows the sand and manure into the lagoons.
Worker Andrew N. Monaghan, who practiced operating the manure boat at the Smithville farm in December, said it will save the farm thousands in fuel costs each year and provide a sustainable way to remove sand from the lagoon. Using sand as bedding for cattle is cited as a way to prevent diseases and keep them healthy.
Sand bedding is the best for the cattle, he said, adding that its practiced by most dairy farms in the north country. It stays nice and dry, prevents diseases, and is better for cows feet.
Puck Custom Enterprises has sold 70 manure boats nationwide and overseas since it introduced them two years ago, owner Benjamin D. Puck said. The small company manned by 24 employees began designing the manure boat in 2001 as a replacement for agitator pumps that shoot liquid manure into the air. Because of their efficiency, the agitator boats will be an upgrade most dairy farmers will consider in the future, he thinks.
Customers have mentioned theyre saving between 300 and 800 gallons of diesel fuel per 1 million theyre pumping, he said of the boats, which mix up to 4,200 gallons per minute. Agitator boats also ensure nutrients are evenly distributed in liquid manure, which is better for crops.
Farmers can use it for their land without using nearly as much commercial fertilizer, he said, because the nutrients go into the soil.