Dairy farmers may soon turn manure into money

Farm Forum

A film crew from Discover Wisconsin, a television program showcasing the many treasures of the Badger State, recently visited the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wis., as part of their America’s Dairyland series. This series takes a look at Wisconsin’s largest and most important industry.

So, what does this have to do with forest products?

A key component of the dairy industry is, well, cows. Cows produce a lot of milk, but they also produce a lot of waste. That’s right, good old fashioned manure. Lab engineer John Hunt has found a way to make composite panels from cow manure mixed with other materials, such as recycled paper or cardboard.

The Discover Wisconsin crew dug right in, getting down and dirty with this research project.

But it’s really not so bad. The manure Hunt uses has gone through a process called anaerobic digestion, in which microorganisms break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen. The process reduces the manure to raw fiber (and produces energy as seen in this USDA video) which is not unlike other natural fibers used in composite products.

The resulting product is strong, lightweight, recyclable, biodegradable, and incredibly versatile. A similar panel product (sans manure) has found considerable success through Forest Products Lab partner Noble Environmental Technologies. The company produces a high-value recycled panel product based on Hunt’s research called ECOR, which was recently touted for its use in building the first 100 percent sustainable Hollywood studio set.

We here at the lab had a great time with the Discover Wisconsin crew, and are excited to see the results. The episode is scheduled to air in June, so stay tuned.