Coomboona farm hosts major waste reduction project

By Geoff Adams

A Coomboona farm will play a major role in developing a new way of cutting down on agricultural waste.

The University of Melbourne has announced the $7 million project will trial the use of brown coal to process agricultural waste into fertiliser.

The project could potentially put Australia in a world-leading position to cut greenhouse gas emissions, cutting costs to farmers and producing a useful fertiliser.

The university has been conducting experiments on the Coomboona property owned by Australian Fresh Milk Holdings (formerly co-owned by businessman Gerry Harvey) and on the university's Dookie campus.

Australian Fresh Milk Holdings is investing $1 million into the trial.

The project will be led by Professor Deli Chen, who demonstrated how brown coal, known as lignite, decreased the loss of ammonia to the environment by 66 per cent.

The multi-year project aims to address some of the significant environmental impacts of animal agriculture that occur as a result of reactive nitrogen escaping into the environment as ammonia in animal urine and faeces.

This can lead to the emission of highly potent greenhouse gases, nitrous oxide or algal blooms in waterways, leading to oxygen-starved ‘dead zones’ further downstream.

The research has shown that if the waste was collected and processed into fertiliser, it would be worth about $49 per cow per year — an enormous boon for many agricultural operations.

Prof Chen and a multidisciplinary team of soil scientists, chemical engineers, agricultural scientists and economists are now preparing to test the reuse model in the new $7 million Co-operative Research Centres Project: 'Optimising nitrogen recovery from livestock waste for multiple production and environmental benefits'.

This CRC-P project is funded by the University of Melbourne, the Federal Department of Industry, Innovation and Science and industry partners, including Australia’s largest milk producer, Australian Fresh Milk Holdings.

Prof Chen said the project would demonstrate and evaluate the new technologies at a commercial scale.

“More than half of the world’s population is nourished by food produced using synthetic nitrogen fertilisers, which are manufactured in energy-expensive processes that account for five per cent of the world’s total natural gas production, or two per cent of the world's total annual energy supply," he said.

“The loss of reactive nitrogen to the environment is therefore an enormous burden on the environment and human health, and an enormous economic burden to farmers worldwide.”

Co-funder Australian Fresh Milk Holdings will host a dairy pilot facility including lignite traps for waste, composting facilities and other infrastructure, and co-funder Ming Mornington will explore the use of lignite in a poultry facility.

National industry bodies Meat & Livestock Australia and Dairy Australia will provide support for research activities, training and opportunities and strategies to develop and assess the technology.