Leon Sheets was back on the hog farm a little over a month after a flash fire nearly took his life in 2014

Leon Sheets was back on the hog farm a little over a month after a flash fire nearly took his life in 2014.

Safety stressed at all times in hog barns

University researchers from Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois are trying to get to the bottom of why manure in livestock storage facilities foams, hoping to find answers to eliminate the dangerous conditions connected to the foaming manure.

Solutions cannot come soon enough for Leon Sheets, a hog producer from Ionia, Iowa, who learned on Sept. 15, 2014, just how dangerous foaming manure can be in an under-barn manure pit.

Sheets vividly recalls that day as he was “just going to wet down the pens” of the empty barn with a power washer on his farm. Research so far has not found conclusive data as to the cause of foaming manure, but researchers had done enough work to know the dangers that lurk from a myriad of gases that cause harm to man and animal. Hydrogen sulfide has been linked to inhalation deaths, and methane has combustible qualities.

As a precaution, one of the things researchers recommend is to extinguish any source of flame, such as a heater pilot light, prior to doing work in a barn in case methane is present. Safety has been stressed when producers are emptying manure from the pits, since the agitation of the slurry causes gases to move around, making it more dangerous for handlers and animals.

Sheets warns producers to also practice caution any time they enter the barn.

Back on that day in September 2014, Sheets was not pumping out the manure; he was just going to water down the pens with a power washer. As he was moving the power washer wand back and forth, he made note of the liquid propane heater hanging there. “It wasn’t on because it was September, and we didn’t need it for heat, but I knew the pilot light was still on, because it’s easier to leave it on than it is to try and restart it in the fall.”

Something went wrong

He knew the recommendation was to extinguish the pilot light, but he was only going to do a quick rinse. He had reset the soakers and misters to help clean the barn, and he started rinsing the pen. “I threw the wand back and forth a time or two, and somewhere along the line, something went wrong, and it went ‘boom.’”

He catches himself as he retells the story, “It went ‘BOOM!’”

He thought the fireball came from behind him, hit the wall 12 feet in front of him, and came back at him. Then it got quiet.

As it cleared and his senses returned, he started thinking of “the plan” that all producers should have in place in case you have an emergency — and he most definitely was in the middle of one. “I looked around and did not see any flames in the room,” he says. Then he shows the eyeglasses that he had on that day. The heat from the fireball distorted the plastic lenses, so he wasn’t seeing too much too clearly.

He recalls that the attic was “talking,” that the flames had reached that point of the building, and he realized it was time to get out, walking through the door that he had closed but that was no longer there. Though he had suffered second- and third-degree burns over 20% of his body, he still had the wherewithal to go to the utility shed to trip the breakers, cutting the power source to the barn, and to disconnect the genera tor so that wouldn’t kick in, and he also shut the valves from the LP tank. “What possessed me to do that, I don’t know, but I thought to secure the scene.”

Not until the scene was secured did he call 911.

Sheets credits his physical activity as a farmer for getting him back in the barns sooner than doctors had envisioned. After a doctor told him it would be at least six months, maybe up to 18 months before he got back in the barns, Sheets thought he might be looking at a career change. He was back just a little over a month later.

He has not changed careers, but he has changed his attitude about how he approaches his hog operation.

The flash fire Sheets survived was caused by the methane gas released from foaming manure, but his barn wasn’t typical of the manure foaming situations pictured on safety brochures. “I wasn’t thinking of the consequences, the foam wasn’t bubbling up out of the pit, it was only a foot deep, and it was 4 feet down,” he says.

After his life-changing, and potentially life-ending, experience, Sheets encourages producers to take a serious look at even the “smallest” of tasks on the farm and in the barn. “Think about it,” he says. “Who does the power washing? It’s the newest person on the farm; you send your kids out to do it. … If I can’t walk in there and do it, I can’t ask anyone else to go in and do it.”

Daily reminders

The Pork Checkoff has stickers producers can post in their barns, alerting all entering of the dangers of foaming manure. “You can put these stickers up in your barns to remind you to take precautions,” says Sheets, who wakes up and looks at his reminders every day — the right side of his face still has visible scarring.

Stickers are nice visual reminders that producers and herdsmen should be cautious in hog barns. Sheets suggests that producers need to remember to take note of what they can’t readily see. Daily barn checks are common for any producer, but Sheets says producers need to look deeper, as in what’s happening below the slats. “Look downstairs every day. You need to know what’s going on down there. … You’ve got to do things in the barns for a safer environment, so that it doesn’t go boom.”

An article in the December 2015 “Research Review” issue of National Hog Farmer described research conducted by a multidisciplinary research team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Iowa State University and the University of Minnesota. In this research, manure samples from foaming and non-foaming barns were analyzed to identify environmental and feed variables that influenced shifts in microbial communities as they relate to foaming.

Not all manure is created equal. Some manure foams, and some does not. The featured research showed that foaming samples had significantly higher pH, foaming capacity, methane production rate and lysine content, in comparison to non-foaming samples. In barns that transitioned to foaming status, manure was found to be higher in pH and foaming capacity along with dried distillers grains, salt and neutral detergent fiber. A higher concentration of soybean meal, fat and crude protein was correlated with manure that transitioned from foaming to non-foaming.

Angela Kent, associate professor of microbial ecology at the University of Illinois, was part of that foaming manure research. Though the collaborative research “found a shift in the microbial communities that was associated with occurrence of foaming,” Kent says, “we also need to find out why this change in microbial communities is happening.” To address this, Kent and collaborators collected information about on-farm factors, manure chemical and physical factors, and feed composition to try to determine what might cause changes in the manure microbial communities.

No definite cause

This has proved to be a complex issue, however, and the researchers have not identified a definitive cause just yet. “It appears that there are multiple contributors to the foaming condition. We are now at the stage where we have identified factors that are correlated with foaming. Going forward, these factors can be tested in replicated studies, to ultimately generate recommendations for reducing manure foaming,” she says.

The research team demonstrated that methane production rate is significantly increased in foaming sites. According to the research, DDGS and fiber were the leading feed components associated with the increase in methane production. Some physical factors are believed to contribute to production or retention of methane in the manure, particle size of feed, composition and content of feed that may alter the microbial community and thus contribute to foaming. Kent says she went into this research project assuming that the foaming manure was doing a better job of capturing the methane, but as the research has demonstrated, foaming manure also creates more methane.

Kent says methane is an important component of the biogases evolving from the manure foam. Methane is created by methanogens, which are microbial populations that are distinct from bacteria. Shifts in the bacterial populations can also affect the activity and availability of resources for the methanogens, so it is important to examine all of the manure microbial populations. Methane trapped in foam is released when the bubbles are burst through disturbances such as agitation, water dripping from power washing above, or even feed particles falling through the slats. It is the sudden release of methane that causes the harmful conditions, more so than if the methane were released at a more gradual rate as it naturally would be.

Wants answers

Sheets credits researchers with searching for the methane causes, as well as with providing safety recommendations, but he wants more.

“We’re [the industry] doing a good job when we’re pumping,” Sheets says. “But more people have got hurt washing. … I want the fix; I don’t want the suggestions how to cure it. I don’t want to worry about it, I don’t want my staff to worry about it, I don’t want you [producers] to have to worry about it.”

Sadly, there is no answer for the fix that Sheets and all producers seek. Researchers are just as discouraged about not having a solution to the methane issue, as only precautions are what can be offered. Daniel Andersen, Iowa State University assistant professor in the College of Engineering and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and his fellow researchers are looking at pit additives that can alter the microbial community of the manure to resolve the dangerous gas issue.

Andersen says the foaming, and thus methane, will continue to be a problem as long as producers keep feeding diets higher in fiber.

In the meantime, Andersen continues with the safety precautions. “Check your pit for foam, and try to avoid things that cause sparks,” he says. “It really is a dangerous situation. And there is no way to turn off the biogas.”

Sheets’ mantra has become, “No more, nobody else.” He doesn’t want to hear any more tales of incidents such as his; he wants producers to be properly prepared for the worst. “Take the precautions, but if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen,” he says.

Access the National Pork Board’s Safe Manure Removal Policies fact sheet at porkcdn.s3.amazonaws.com/sites/all/files/documents/ManureFactSheet.pdf. In addition to safety tips to follow when pumping manure, the fact sheet also gives a breakdown of the gases — hydrogen sulfide, methane, ammonia, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide — that can be found in manure.   

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