Dairy Owner Uses Worms to Turn Wastewater Into Gold

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When most folks think of a dairy, they envision rolling fields filled with green grass and perky milkmaids massaging the mammary glands of big bovines named Betsy while Junior teases out a bale of sweet hay in the barn

Ask Austin Allred, 28, what first comes to mind after ten years as a dairyman in Royal City, Washington, and he’ll give you a much muckier perspective. He says instead of days leisurely skimming cream from the top of the jar, he’s found most of his time and effort dedicated to managing copious volumes of manure and wastewater.

Since nobody gets into farming specifically for the poop, Allred quickly found himself seeking out alternatives to the standard lagoon and pump truck system typically used to store and re-disperse the millions of gallons of water it takes to keep his cows happy and milk clean. The solution he settled on was a whole heap of worms.

“Our practice has always been that we are responsible for every drop of water that we utilize, or that happens to come onto our property, from the milking parlor to the rain on the roof,” explained Allred. “For obvious reasons, I think every dairy farmer doing what we are doing is looking for an alternative. The tanker trucks are not efficient. That whole thing, the lagoons, and sediment management and tanker trucks is the most intensive part of dairying these days.”

Now though, Allred is working smarter instead of harder and letting an army of worms do the heavy lifting.

After attending an agriculture conference several years ago and bumping into a company touting the benefits of a worm-based filtration system Allred came home ready to add worm wrangler to his farming resume. First Allred put in two acres of 5-foot tall concrete cisterns he compared to above ground swimming pools. Then he filled those bunkers half way full of rocks and wood chips before adding what he calls “worm media” to the mix.

For the uninitiated, “worm media” is industry speak for a whole heap of writhing annelida. While Allred doesn’t know exactly how many worms he employs on his farm he is certain that it’s well into the millions.

Once the pools are full Allred uses a sprinkler system to run the wastewater through the mass of worms from the top on down. Allred says his 81,000 square feet of worm beds can handle around 200,000 gallons of water per day. The worms then feed on the organic bits found in the wastewater and excrete a garden-ready fertilizer known as worm castings. Once every 18 months Allred simply scrapes out the top 12-inch layer of worm castings and begins the process again. That process produces about 2,000 cubic yards of worm castings which can then be sold or used around the farm as fertilizer for other crops. 

What’s more, Allred says the worm filtration process allows him to better irrigate his own fields. He said that where the brown water that came out of the lagoon system was too chunky to run through irrigation pipes and sprinklers without plugging up the system, water leftover after the worms are through eating is fine enough to run through a classic center pivot irrigation system. He added that the worms remove 90 percent of the nitrogen, 70 percent of the phosphorus and about half of the potassium found in wastewater, which leads to less nutrients leaching off the farm.

Allred says he uses the water from his worm beds to regularly irrigate his 4,000 acres of pasture. So far his efforts have reclaimed more than 74 million gallons of water for irrigation use.

 “The only new water that we introduce is what we wash with or what we let the cows drink,” said Allred.

Allred’s success using worms has not gone unnoticed by observers in the industry and on May 16 he was awarded the Outstanding Dairy Farm Sustainability Award by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. As the first Washington farmer to implement a large-scale worm-based water filtration system, Allred is being touted as a pioneer for future farm practices.

“I am so pleased to have Austin and his family representing Washington’s dairy community,” said Scott Kinney, CEO of Dairy Farmers of Washington, in a press release. “DFW proudly supported the system’s launch and funded BioFiltro’s on-farm research at Royal Dairy. Because of Austin’s hard work and forward thinking, this innovative approach has the potential to change how farms manage wastewater across the country.”

According to Chelsi Riordan, community relations manager with DFW, her organization provided economic support to Allred for initial research costs and helped organize a ribbon cutting ceremony on his farm to celebrate his forward thinking water management system.

“We wanted to make the community aware of it and tell the story of sustainability here on Washington’s farms,” said Riordan. “We saw the value in this technology for the dairy community and wanted to help support that.” 

Riordan agreed with Allred that wastewater management is often a primary stresser on dairy farmers.

“In my role here I’m basically the liaison between farmers who are our stakeholders here at Dairy Farmers of Washington. I’m out on farms at least once a week, and I’d say water and other environmental regulations are right at the top of their priorities and to-do list,” Riordan said.

Kinney added that Allred is the fourth Washington dairy farmer to win the sustainability award.

“I believe this speaks to our dairy community’s commitment to innovation. Consumers want to eat a diet that is not only healthy, but also good for the environment and our farmers have stepped up to meet and exceed those demands,” said Kinney in the release.

Allredy admits that he sometimes gets funny looks from other dairymen when he tells them about his newfangled worm farm, but he is confident that old attitudes will shift once the benefits begin to bear fruit.

“There’s a lot of them that are excited about the system and a lot of them are wondering how that’s going to work,” said Allred. “But there’s hardly any other systems out there that are going to take green water and pull that much nitrogen out.”

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