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Airborne Emissions from Animal Production Systems

With the trend toward larger, more concentrated production operations, odors and other airborne emissions are rapidly becoming an important issue for agricultural producers.

Whether there is a direct impact of airborne emissions from animal operations on human health is still being debated. There are anecdotal reports about health problems and quality-of-life factors for those living near animal facilities have been documented.

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Source of Airborne Emissions

Liquid Manure Injected Directly into the Soil

Odor emissions from animal production systems originate from three primary sources: manure storage facilities, animal housing, and land application of manure.

In an odor study in a United Kingdom county (Hardwick 1985), 50% of all odor complaints were traced back to land application of manure, about 20% were from manure storage facilities, and another 25% were from animal production buildings. Other sources include feed production, processing centers, and silage storage. With the increased use of manure injection for land application, and longer manure storage times, there may be a higher percentage of complaints in the future associated with manure storage facilities and animal buildings and less from land application.

Animal wastes include manure (feces and urine), spilled feed and water, bedding materials (i.e., straw, sunflower hulls, wood shaving), wash water, and other wastes. This highly organic mixture includes carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and other nutrients that are readily degradable by microorganisms under a wide variety of suitable environments. Moisture content and temperature also affect the rate of microbial decomposition.

A large number of volatile compounds have been identified as byproducts of animal waste decomposition. O'Neill and Phillips (1992) compiled a list of 168 different gas compounds identified in swine and poultry wastes. Some of the gases (ammonia, methane, and carbon dioxide) also have implications for global warming and acid rain issues. It has been estimated that one third of the methane produced each year comes from industrial sources, one third from natural sources, and one third from agriculture (primarily animals and manure storage units). Although animals produce more carbon dioxide than methane, methane has as much as 15 times more impact on the greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide.

Dust, pathogens, and flies are from animal operations also airborne emission concerns. Dust, a combination of manure solids, dander, feathers, hair, and feed, is very difficult to eliminate from animal production units. It is typically more of a problem in buildings that have solid floors and use bedding as opposed to slotted floors and liquid manure. Concentrations inside animal buildings and near outdoor feedlots have been measured in a few studies; however, dust emission rates from animal production are mostly unknown.

Pathogens are another airborne emission concern. Although pathogens are present in buildings and manure storage units, they typically do not survive aerosolization well, but some may be transported by dust particles.

Flies are an additional concern from certain types of poultry and livestock operations. The housefly completes a cycle from egg to adult in 6 to 7 days when temperatures are 80 to 90°F. Females can produce 600 to 800 eggs, larvae can survive burial at depths up to 4 feet, and adults can fly up to 20 miles. Large populations of flies can be produced relatively quickly if the correct environment is provided. Flies tend to proliferate in moist animal production areas with low animal traffic.

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Emission Movement or Dispersion

The movement or dispersion of airborne emissions from animal production facilities is difficult to predict and is affected by many factors including topography, prevailing winds, and building orientation. Prevailing winds must be considered to minimize odor transport to close or sensitive neighbors. A number of dispersion models have been developed to Airborne Emission Regulations.

Most states and local units of government deal with agricultural air quality issues through zoning or land use ordinances. Setback distances may be required for a given size operation or for land application of manure. A few states (for example, Minnesota) have an ambient gas concentration (H2S for Minnesota) standard at the property line. Gas and odor standards are difficult to enforce since on-site measurements of gases and especially odor are hard to do with any high degree of accuracy. Producers should be aware of odor- or dust-related emissions regulations applicable to their livestock operation.

Source: Lesson 40 of the LPES: Adapted from Livestock and Poultry Environmental Stewardship curriculum, lesson authored by Larry Jacobson, University of Minnesota; Jeff Lorimor, Iowa State University; Jose Bicudo, University of Kentucky; and David Schmidt, University of Minnesota, courtesy of MidWest Plan Service, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa 50011-3080, Copyright (c) 2001.

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