The U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded University of Idaho researchers a $10 million grant to make manure more profitable.

The five-year grant supports research into converting manure into a more transportable and commercially viable fertilizer, as well as investigation into business opportunities for such products. The study will also fund developing and marketing biodegradable plastics made from manure.

Mark McGuire, associate dean and director for the Idaho Agricultural Experiment Station, said while it is a time-honored fertilizer in its own right, one of the problems with manure is it is a wet, heavy product making it expensive to transport. What’s more, he said, dairy production facilities in the U.S. tend to be concentrated in specific regions. This means creating a viable, profitable method for shipping the stuff farther could create a new revenue source for a struggling industry.

McGuire said he is hopeful researchers will find ways to extract useful nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, from manure and other dairy waste.

“When dairies import feed, that nitrogen and phosphorus is coming in that feed and so what doesn’t get taken up by the animal’s body ends up in the manure,” McGuire said. “We’ll extract that nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, which is essentially a commercial fertilizer, with these products.”

McGuire said those components would then be used to help create a nutrient rich “biochar” — a sort of fine charcoal — or similar product that could be easily shipped and utilized by crop producers. He said another aspiration of the program will be to develop businesses that would profit from this new product. He said either an intermediary could install equipment necessary for nutrient extraction on the farm and offer to sell the resulting product on their behalf for a piece of the pie or the farmer could purchase the equipment themselves and sell directly to the consumer.

However, McGuire said whether the fertilizer will be commercially viable or attractive to farmers and investors remains to be seen.

“Anticipate it will be because there are nutrients in that manure and those nutrients have value,” McGuire said. “We just got to figure out how to price them and get people convinced that there’s a benefit to using them.”

McGuire said the organic compounds that will likely be present in their product could make it a more effective fertilizer than commercial, chemical-based fertilizers. These organic components could help slow the release of beneficial nutrients, which would stand less of a chance of overwhelming soil and plant systems, he said.

He said finding a profitable use for this product would create a welcome source of revenue for struggling dairy producers.

“Most dairymen rely on milk as their major income source and so this gives them another source of income, and that would be very beneficial to the economic sustainability of any producer,” McGuire said. “Most farmers know the value of fertilizer, this is just a different source of fertilizer and there may be added values because of those organic pieces.”

Scott Jackson can be reached by email at sjackson@dnews.com.

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