Scientists work on bad-smell prediction

It’s no secret that cows and pigs stink. The problem is figuring out how bad they stink—and in which direction the smell will spread beyond the pens and yards where the livestock live.

That’s where Rick Stowell comes in. The University of Nebraska biological-engineering scientist is trying to better predict where the stench from livestock waste will waft.

Tools such as Stowell’s “Odor Footprint Tool” provide a scientific approach to determining the distance and direction of buffer zones around livestock operations.

They are important for nearly everyone affected by such operations—investors looking to locate a new farm or expand, county zoning officials and neighbours downwind of the smells.

The cattle and hog industries are big business in Nebraska, with a combined economic impact of about $15-billion a year.
Each year, nearly five million cattle and six million hogs are fed and marketed in Nebraska.

But along with the animals comes the waste. And odour from that waste has become a hot issue in Nebraska and other farm states.

A generation ago, most hogs and cows lived on much smaller farms. Waste collected in much smaller amounts and did not raise a stink.

Livestock today, however, congregate in the thousands and many live indoors. Their waste typically drains into sludge-bottomed pits known as lagoons.

To protect people from the smell—as well as the dust, flies and noise—counties usually require a buffer zone around the farms.

But many counties establish the size of that zone arbitrarily, said Rod Johnson, director of the Nebraska Pork Producers.

“There’s no rhyme or reason or science behind them,” he said.

Stowell enters reams of data about a site—including weather patterns, the number of animals and how they will be housed—to forecast the likely direction and intensity of the smell.

The tool, still in the testing phase in Nebraska and South Dakota, is the first of its kind in that it can be adapted to fit local weather patterns. The standard model, developed at the University of Minnesota, uses only Minnesota weather patterns.

Whereas the Minnesota model, known as Offset, produces a circle around the odor-emitting operation, Stowell’s model produces a varied outline—resembling a fried egg—showing where the odour will go.

While the tool may result in good information, implementing it could be a challenge, said Laura Krebsbach, with the Nebraska chapter of the Sierra Club.

“It could just be difficult to administer those lines,” Krebsbach said. “It would be intensive work on the ground.”

Stowell expects opposition.

“There’s going to be resistance from whichever party doesn’t get their way,” he said. “Some groups like to build their arguments off of lack of information. Scare tactics work better when there’s less information.”

Those in the industry, as well as zoning officials working with Stowell, say the tool will help producers determine the best location for a facility.

Some may even scrap their plans if it shows too many homes would be affected, said Craig Head, assistant director of government relations for the Nebraska Farm Bureau.

“I think it’s a really good tool,” said John Johnson, the zoning administrator for Pierce and Madison counties in north-east Nebraska. “What we’re trying to get away from is a one-size-fits-all.”—Sapa-AP

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