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Troubleshooting Systems

There are lots of reasons to use North Carolina State University's (NCSU) training center for animal waste system operator training.

The 24-acre Land Application Training and Demonstration Center in Raleigh offers producers a blend of classroom and hands-on instruction during the day-long continuing education courses.

Ten hours of certification training are required by North Carolina law for animal waste operators. Those are usually held in Extension Service classrooms around the state. Additionally, producers must complete six hours of continuing education every three years.

"Producers get really frustrated with overload," says Ron Sheffield, animal waste Extension specialist and agricultural engineer at NCSU. "They just want to raise pigs and now they have to try and be environmental waste management specialists as well."

He continues, "That's where the training center comes in. When they can see it being done and ask questions, it takes the fear out of it and it makes more sense to them."

The training center boasts an array of manure handling equipment including a center pivot irrigation system, four different types of traveling gun irrigation systems and a single-stage lagoon, notes Sheffield and co-coordinator Karl Shaffer, Extension associate and soil scientist at NCSU. The center has access to slurry tank wagons and umbilical hose injectors. In all, the center features about $300,000 worth of donated equipment, supplies and services, says Sheffield.

The continuing education training programs are flexible to give the producer a chance to operate equipment "a little differently if he/she chooses to." Producers learn how to properly set up, calibrate, operate and maintain manure handling equipment in the field. They are also taught about other issues like managing lagoon sludge, lagoon closure and solid separation.

NCSU soil scientists and engineers teach other workshops at the training center on septic tank installation, water quality monitoring and wetland construction.

Hands-On Education But equally as important as the animal waste operator continuing education training is the advantage of hands-on education in troubleshooting manure equipment operations, says Sheffield.

For instance, instructors will purposely "break" equipment while students are in class, then have them troubleshoot and correct the problem, a situation they will likely encounter in the field, he points out.

The training center team also is developing manure handling system spreadsheets, some of which will be put on the Internet. The spreadsheets will assist producers in making manure handling decisions without having to do the math, he says. That way they can focus on putting in good data and evaluating their options to fix problems.

In North Carolina, a vast array of irrigation equipment is used to apply liquid manure from the state's more than 400 hog lagoons.

The variety of problems that can occur with irrigation equipment during application is almost overwhelming, admits Sheffield. Most common troubleshooting areas include:

* Calibration of equipment on a regular basis. Surprisingly, 10% or less of operators get the job done.

"They know how to do it, but they've always got something better to do. The problem is, it's a painstaking job," he says. Calibrate, check for problems, fix what's wrong and recalibrate. "To do that right can be a full day's job," he says.

* Matching lagoons to land area. It's been a problem getting producers to properly match effluent volume to the acreage. They say they are evenly irrigating it all, but the facts bear out they are missing spots, says Sheffield. A year-old project designed to correct that problem is called wettable acres. The project evaluates every farm on effluent volume and acres spread on.

"With an irrigation system, you are always going to leave out something, usually corners, because most systems are plotted on a square or rectangular pattern," says Sheffield. That causes a significant problem on irregular-shaped fields, resulting in double-application on parts of the land and under-application on other parts. To fill in those gaps, some producers use mobile sprinklers, which can be unreliable.

"From the calibration testing we can do on the variety of irrigation equipment at the training center, we've been able to show producers that they've often been putting out twice as much water and nutrients as needed in one area," explains Sheffield. Often the problem is the result of bad information from some equipment suppliers, he adds.

"We can show them how they should be operating their equipment and they can see how other systems operate," he explains.

To zero in on this problem, a North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service study examined and calibrated more than 40 irrigation systems in Jones and Lenoir counties. More than 50% of the systems were not operating at designed or desired conditions. Most producers were taking pressure readings at the pump rather than at the sprinkler. That was making a huge difference in performance, stresses Sheffield.

"In a traveling gun irrigation system, you may set the system to run at 90 lb. of pressure. If you set that level at the pump, you are probably getting only 60 lb. of pressure or less out at the sprinkler," he says. Not only are you pumping less effluent than you could be, you are pumping it out less uniformly and in streaks across the field.

"Some systems were operating so poorly that there were dry patches of land in between areas where there should have been overlap." Correcting overlap problems takes a properly designed and calibrated irrigation system, he says.

Lagoon Phase Outs Phasing out hog lagoons is a big concern to the pork industry in North Carolina. The state is focusing on the odor issue and the potential threat to groundwater from leaking lagoons. It may lead to a wide range of performance standards for livestock operations, he warns.

There is a strong focus on lagoon management at the training center aimed at three issues: developing a multi-year water level management program, managing sludge accumulation in lagoons and closing out a lagoon.

For Sheffield, sludge accumulation is a crucial, forgotten concern. "Financially, you need to put money away for that day because it's going to cost you a half cent to 5 cents a gallon to have it cleaned out," Sheffield says.

From an agronomics standpoint, you need to ensure you have a place to put that sludge. North Carolina regulations don't require land to be set aside for sludge disposal as part of a long-term waste management plan, he says. But a short-term nutrient management plan needs to be prepared to deal with both the nitrogen and phosphorous in the sludge.

The training center staff teaches producers to plan a site for sludge disposal for years 12-15 of a lagoon's life. Producers need to test for sludge depth. And, it is important to leave 2 ft. of sludge in the bottom when sludge is removed to protect against liner damage if the lagoon is going to remain in operation.

Classes at the NCSU training center are open to producers from all states, says Sheffield. Courses run one full day, cost $30 and include lunch and all educational materials.

For course or registration information, contact Joni Tanner at Soil Science Dept., Box 7619, NCSU, Raleigh, NC 27695; phone: (919) 513-1678; fax: (919) 515-7494; e-mail: joni_tanner@