Monday, March 10, 2014

Environmental Engineering Important to Farms Today

February 24, 2014 6:00 am • By ANDREA JOHNSON, Minnesota Farm Guide Assistant Editor

WILLMAR, Minn. – Environmental engineers have a role in helping 21st century farms succeed.

Once focused on designing systems for municipalities and industry, environmental engineers now also provide consulting services to livestock and crop farms.

One such firm is Bollig Inc founded in 2007 by Brian Bollig, P.E., a Registered Professional Engineering consultant. With a staff of 15 located in Willmar, Bollig Inc offers engineering and environmental services in the municipal, land development, agency, agricultural and watershed sectors.

"Our goal as a company is to really reach out to our clients, really understand what their needs are, and design facilities to meet their needs," said Bollig.

Bollig's senior engineer for the ag sector is Cris Skonard, Ph.D., P.E. He earned a bachelor's and master's from South Dakota State University, and a doctorate from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Over the past 10 years, Skonard has worked with hundreds of farmers on small and large projects.

Every project is unique.

As one example of what he does, last year, Skonard began working with Beckman Farms, Inc., a dairy operation near Kerkhoven, Minn., that intended to build a 120-cow robotic barn.

"We were working with a new site, so it was critical to sit down with the Beckmans to find out what they were going to do," said Skonard. "It's very important that the farmer tells me how they want to manage their operation. I'm going to design around the way they want to operate their farm."

They wanted to build the new farm site on the same section as their home farm, but on the opposite corner – a piece of land owned by the Beckman family.

The Beckmans asked Bollig Inc to help them determine the best farm site that would stay workable and profitable long term.

Skonard met with the Beckmans at the proposed farm site to get a sense of the lay of the land, and evaluate the physical features that could be incorporated into the final design. The farmland had a natural draw, a lower and flat region, and an elevated area.

After discussions and analysis, the Beckmans decided to build close to the same location where a previous farm site had been located – but farther back from the road.

There were many reasons for their decision.

The site they chose is on the higher region of the farmland, allowing for good ventilation and air movement. There is a hay shed already on the location.

Not real apparent from the road, the new site will not attract unexpected visitors. It is also set up well for planting trees and using other natural features to minimize odor and remain protected from the elements.

The selected farm site stayed away from any water features, including wetlands.

"If you see wetlands, we have to worry about a high water table," Skonard said.

The natural lay of the land also allowed a good use of available fill material.

In addition, the site offered the most potential for expansion.

With the selection of the site, the Beckmans wanted Bollig Inc to help develop a surface drainage system that would keep the driveway and working area in good shape. They wanted to minimize challenges for trucks coming in and leaving the site.

"We wanted to make sure we didn't have any surface water draining through the feed pad, and that we had adequate room to move around, and maneuver pumping equipment for manure removal," said Skonard.

Bollig pointed out the importance of accounting for water on the farm site.

"Every drop of water needs to go somewhere," he said. "Some is going to infiltrate, but most of it is going to drain. The more you disturb the earth, the more it's going to run off.

"Where that runoff is going to go, how it gets there, and how much – is important and affects future operations," he continued.

"You start to design to make sure the water isn't going where you don't want it to go. If you are designing a basin, make sure you are not getting excess runoff into your basin. You design around those items that would cause issues."

The team at Bollig Inc used software to create topographical maps for the Beckmans. By setting the elevations of various farm components, the software program estimates how much dirt has to be moved.

"That is a huge factor that is overlooked," said Bollig. "It takes fuel and it costs money to move dirt, so we want to minimize moving it."

With today's software programs, Skonard can overlay existing farm maps, aerial or satellite maps, topographical maps and more to render a picture of how a farm site will look.

For the Beckmans' site, Skonard designed the locations for the barn, feed pad, manure basin and more.

"We did some preliminary sizing on the basin," he said. "We know how many cows roughly, how much manure they are going to produce, and type of bedding used – so once we have all of that information from the producer, we make a preliminary size estimate on the basin."

Skonard originally wanted to construct a basin that was 15 feet deep to minimize the basin surface area and limit the amount of rain that would fall directly into the basin.

Several soil borings were advanced down to 20 feet – 5 feet below the proposed bottom of the basin. The soils were tested to ensure they met design standards.

"We found some material that wasn't quite suitable, so we went back to the drawing board, we went back to the owners and we ended up raising the basin – not going as deep and a little wider," he said. The final design called for a basin that was 180- by 170-feet and 12-feet deep.

Bollig pointed out that manure basins can have a clay base, and it's possible to haul clay in for the base. Clay is the preferred liner material due to costs; however, some basin liners are made from concrete or use a synthetic liner due to poor soils or producer preference.

Manure basins cannot be constructed in regional water tables, but they can be located in "perched-water" soils – finer-grained soils that hold water in pores.

"You think when you are on a hill, you are out of that, but that is not true," Bollig said. "The perched-water soils will follow the hill."

In 95 percent of farm sites located in the "Prairie Pothole" region, a perimeter tile line will be needed around a basin to protect the basin liner.

Skonard also verifies that a livestock owner has sufficient acreage to apply manure in an environmentally appropriate manner to meet the nutrient needs of the crop.

When the site plan is finalized, Bollig Inc can assist the owner/operator in obtaining permits, providing testimony at hearing sessions, and helping to secure grants to assist with the project financing.

After everything was approved at the Beckmans' site, Skonard participated in preconstruction meetings with the contractors, owners and others. During construction, he conducted periodic inspections that included monitoring the soil density to make certain that adequate soil compaction occurred during the liner installation.

He also verified elevations and locations of farm structures, and ensured that the perimeter tile – as well as all concrete work – was installed correctly.

"The MPCA requires that we are out monitoring and testing," he said. "I have to certify to the MPCA that these components are constructed according to the developed plans for the site."

The Beckmans moved cows to their new robotic barn on Dec. 10, 2013. The first two months were hectic as they trained cows to enter the robotic milkers. After about three weeks of training, the cows figured out the system and were milking on their own.

The Beckmans opted for a center manure reception pit in the barn. About one week's worth of manure is stored, and then it is pumped to the basin. The basin will be pumped out in the fall, and the liquid material will be injected into the soil to help with crop yields.

Bollig Inc is part of the team that remains available to the Beckmans, and to many other farming operations.

Every farm has its own attributes, challenges and methods for success.

"There could be multiple layers that we are dealing with on any specific project," said Skonard. "Each project is unique."

He encourages farmers to give him a call with their questions regarding liquid manure storage systems, manure stacking slab structures, sand lanes, concrete pits, feed pad runoff control measures, temporary manure storage, odor issues, water management, regulatory permits and more.

"There is a lot of planning that goes in, and there are so many factors that start to go with that," said Bollig. "We don't mind answering questions over the phone. Site planning is one of the often overlooked items that really is a huge factor in the success of a farm."

In general, successful farmers in 2014 have a good idea of how they want to move their farming operations ahead in the future. The challenge is dealing with the realities of the farm today and moving toward that future. Farmers have many questions as they think and work through the financial, logistical and generational roadblocks that must be overcome to move forward.

Spending time talking and developing a master plan for the farm can go a long way toward keeping the farm viable throughout the 21st century.

"Once you have an overall plan, you can move forward at whatever pace you want," Bollig said.

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