Environmental monitoring begins at Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence

Engineer Terry Fonstad has begun work on an environmental monitoring project with a scope and magnitude unlike anything else in Canada.

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His work is part of the University of Saskatchewan’s Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence (LFCE), a multi-million-dollar project that will bring together research in livestock, forage, pasture management and environmental health.

The LFCE will provide new research, teaching and extension facilities to a group including U of S scientists from different disciplines across campus and researchers from the provincial government’s Western Beef Development Centre (WBDC), as well as producers and forage groups.

Fonstad’s work presents a unique opportunity to study the impact of intensive livestock operations on a parcel of land that has been used as crop land for at least the past 30 years.

“I don’t know anybody that’s had this comprehensive of a site, on a green field site, being able to get this kind of information,” says Fonstad, P.Eng. and an associate professor at the U of S College of Engineering.

His research team is responsible for monitoring the environmental impact of intensive livestock operations. While cattle have yet to move onto the land, the work is already well underway. Fonstad says the majority of changes that will occur on the site will likely occur within the first five years of the project — during development and through the first two cycles of cattle production.  

In this time frame, scientists and engineers hope to work on more than a dozen individual research projects. The results of this research will be combined into best practices and site characterization documents for the industry.

The manual will allow for better evaluation of potential feedlots. Through testing done at the LFCE, the researchers will be able to determine what makes the best site for a feedlot and what modifications would be necessary to build an environmentally-safe site.

This research includes, but is not limited to, subsurface geology, hydrogeology, pen soils and pen soil management. Researchers will determine which soils are durable and which aren’t; they will also study manure and surface water management for intensive livestock operations.

Fonstad’s team has already conducted significant test drilling and installed piezometers across the site to measure groundwater changes before and during development. Thanks to new instrumentation developments, the scientists are using underground instruments that are sensitive enough to detect barometric pressure. The technology also allows scientists to capture information such as changes in groundwater and the amount of water evaporating from the ground on a given day.

Recent discoveries have helped engineers fine tune this process, meaning that LFCE researchers will be able to measure information about groundwater that has never been tracked before.

Another piece of equipment will use a laser beam to measure airborne methane levels across the site on a daily basis.

Researchers will use these tools to discover the true impact of intensive livestock operations on a site – both in terms of emissions and the effect on groundwater and soils.

Even after the initial group of best-practice studies are complete, Fonstad says he and other researchers will be able to further explore environmental management at the site to assist the industry.

For example, agriculture students used to learn that a sand base in cattle pens was better for the animals’ feet. While the practice is good for cows’ hoofs, it’s not necessarily good for the water system because all the waste passes through the soil.

Further research could help them determine the ideal soil base for feedlot pens.

“Somewhere between the sand and having to put asphalt in every pen, there’s got to be some indication of what those soils are,” Fonstad explains, giving the example of potential geosynthetic materials that would be like “carpets” put under pens.

“There are things we’ll be able to develop over time and then we can hand that to the industry and say ‘Look, there’s a cost to this, but you’re going to save money over time by not having to haul dirt in and not having cattle up to their belly in muck,’” says Fonstad.

Additionally, there are opportunities to work with machinery manufacturers to develop controls and guidance systems that are specific to the feedlot industry and can help to limit the damage to pen floors during cleaning.

Environmental engineer Crystal Rinas was recently hired to oversee the environmental monitoring project.

“I’m excited. It’s interesting. You don’t get to work on sites like this from green field up until when they’re built,” she says, noting she’s enthusiastic about the opportunity “to work on a project where you can really look at all the factors that go into planning for a site.”

Rinas, a U of S graduate who has master’s and doctorate degrees in engineering, will assist in keeping track of the broad team of researchers who will examine key issues facing the livestock industry.

Fonstad is excited about the research options that the LFCE opens up for the university as well as the potential improvements for the industry.

“I think it’s a huge opportunity because we’re sitting in the middle of 82 per cent of Canada’s ag land,” he says. “I think it’s a huge opportunity for the province and for this university.”

Fonstad adds that because U of S scientists from different disciplines are located together on campus, collaboration is already possible. Creating a centre for different disciplines to work together on research will further strengthen those opportunities.

“You might have a handful of universities in North America that have all the people you need in one spot, and here, it’s even more unique in the fact that I can walk and within 100 yards talk to all those people. When it comes to collaborating on these research projects the opportunity is huge for us,” says Fonstad.

Sub-head: One size doesn’t fit all

In the late 1990s, U of S engineer Terry Fonstad was part of a project that worked to find best practices for swine producers building new barns.

Researchers investigated existing lagoons used to store pigs’ manure and then installed instruments in three new lagoons with support from the swine industry and the provincial government.

The team installed piezometers and measuring devices suitable for manure stored in earthen basins, and then monitored the manure lagoons over a 10-year period.

Results from this industry-supported project helped researchers develop a document that outlines the minimum requirements necessary for environmental protection. Since then, the industry has adopted some of these requirements for facility development — a framework that was lacking in the swine industry.

However, the hog industry’s requirements for managing manure are much different than those of the cattle industry. Most hog barns have a sewer system that transfers the swine manure directly into a lagoon. Producers then pump out the liquid manure and inject it into cropland as a source of fertilizer.

In contrast, cattle feedlots are more complex systems with groundwater and soil concerns. Environmental research that U of S scientists will conduct as part of the LFCE project will produce cattle-specific information about best practices for manure management – ideally helping cattle producers save money and enhance their environmental stewardship.