Australia pushing for zero-carbon pig farms

Australian pig producers are buying into a radical new environmental program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and develop a carbon-neutral production systems to produce high-integrity Australian pork.

“Flaring,” or burning the greenhouse gas collected from pig effluent on a demonstration unit in Australia.
“Flaring,” or burning the greenhouse gas collected from pig effluent on a demonstration unit in Australia.

Australian pig producers are buying into a radical new environmental program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and develop a carbon-neutral production systems to produce high-integrity Australian pork.

Niche pork market

“We are particularly concerned about climate change in Australia and want to produce a product that will have a minimal impact on the environment and meet rising consumer demands,” says Dr. Darryl D’Souza, general manager (research & information) at the Australian Pork Ltd. (APL). “At the end of the day, we are a small industry and we cannot compete against the ‘big guys’ (like Denmark, the United States, or Brazil) as far as quantity or price are concerned; so we are aiming to produce a special type of pork that will appeal to a niche market of consumers who are concerned about global warming and climate change.”

The APL launched a multi-million dollar three-prong approach to develop new commercially viable feeding and effluent management systems to minimize the pig industry’s carbon footprint and reduce greenhouse gas emissions including nitrous oxide from fertilizers. 

The project is part of the global pig industry’s international effort to produce more with less, according to a report published by the International Meat Secretariat (IMS) earlier in 2012. Its “Pig and the Environment” report presented an overview of the global impact pig production has on the environment and specifically the emission of green house gases and contained examples of measures being taken in individual countries to reduce the impact on the environment. 

In a special program looking at the future feeds for future needs in Australia, the APL worked with the Pork CRC (Cooperative Research Centre) to develop the novel use of nutrient sources such as algae specially tailored to meet the needs of pigs and reduced carbon emissions. “We received $18 million from the government for this research and we matched it with another $18 million with support from Australian pig producers,” says Dr. D’Souza.


Algae-based pig feeds

“The research into new algae-based pig feeds will build on the progress made by the Pork CRC in establishing more reliable and better defined protein and energy sources for pigs to better utilize, or mitigate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions,” says Dr. D’Souza.

In addition, the newly developed algae-based pig feeds are expected to help reduce demand for animal feed grains and replace 10 percent of existing feed with ingredients that have been derived from waste stream. Two sources of algal products are being investigated by the CRC and APL are algae grown using nutrients from piggery waste streams and algae, or co-products derived from bio-diesel production or industrial CO2 mitigation processes and then imported to units.

Admitting this is an ambitious project, Dr. D’Souza commented that it has been developed over the past four years and he hopes that the first growing, harvesting and processing systems for the production of algae and algae products would be established alongside existing pork production systems before the end of 2019.

“We are planning to complete the evaluation of algae and its ability to match and meet the requirements of pigs in balanced diets by the end of 2013,” says Dr. D’Souza. “During the following year we will select algae species that are best suited to grow on piggery effluent.”

At the same time, the industry is looking to researchers to help it obtain enhanced use from traditional pig feeds and protein resources with the development of real-time analysis of feed ingredients to develop new plant breeding programs. As well as sowing options and timelines for growers of feed grains, that could improve nutritional yields from conventional ingredients while reducing carbon and boosting growth. Research in conjunction with the Pork CRC is also looking to develop novel methods of processing feed ingredients and new feeds to increase the nutritional yield in pig diets.


Pig slurry treatment

“We also are commissioning highly novel research that will look at the opportunities to maximize methane production from effluent ponds, or slurry pits to enable the biogas to be collected and used in a cost-efficient manner,” says Dr. D’Souza.

Australian pig producers also could learn a lot from pig farmers in Denmark, Germany and New Zealand, where many are currently using pig slurry and other farm waste, or maize silage in anaerobic digestion plants to produce biogas which is used to generate “green” electricity, comments Dr. D’Souza. A number of the pig producers also are using heat generated by the biogas plants to replace conventional heating to keep their buildings warm and to dry their crops.

Most of the greenhouse gases associated with pig production come from methane in effluent ponds and nitrous oxide following the spreading of byproducts, commented Janine Price, environment manager at APL. “This large emission source can fortunately be managed and offers the Australian pig industry a significant opportunity to not only mitigate, but to offset resources such as energy with the production of biogas to generate electricity,” she said.

This is especially relevant for two of the three types of pig production systems in Australia—conventional steel or timber-framed sheds with slatted floors and under-floor effluent collection systems; and deep litter systems, where pigs are kept within a series of hooped metal-framed housing with straw or rice hull bedding. The third type of pig production, the outdoor system with arks or basic huts does not provide the opportunities to produce biogas to offset other inputs, she commented. 

The Australian livestock sector accounts for 66 percent of green house gas emissions, which amounts to about 16 percent of the country’s total green house gas emissions. Pig farming accounted for just 0.4 percent of the national total.

“The largest green house gas emission source across the pork supply chain here is the methane from undigested material in the effluent ponds and from the split feed that enters the byproduct stream,” says Price. 


Green energy

However, pig farmers could collect and use these emissions to produce energy and help the industry achieve its goal of becoming the most emission-friendly animal protein source of the future. The APL is already busy testing different ways to collect biogas in a series of pilot projects on demonstration farms across Australia. 

“At the simplest level, the effluent ponds can be covered and the biogas can be captured and burned (or flared) to destroy the methane and eliminate its global warming potential,” says Price. “But the mixture of methane and carbon dioxide (biogas) from piggeries has a moderate energy content, which can be used to generate heat and electricity for the farm or to export to other sites – and the APL is looking at all the opportunities.”

These include:

• Opportunities for anaerobic digestion in the Australian pig industry;
• Biogas feasibility studies;
• Using biogas to heat piggeries
• Least-cost application of anaerobic digestion to livestock wastes;
• Low-cost options for reducing effluent pond methane;
• PigGas – the Pork Industry Greenhouse Gas Calculator and case studies.

A bio-energy support program funded by Pork CRC provides pig producers with free information and advice on low-cost biogas options, information on available funding and carbon abatement schemes, details of equipment suppliers and independent reviews of feasibility assessments of biogas proposals.

Dr. D’Souza admits that the Australian pork industry had looked across the oceans to see what pig producers in other countries are doing and learned several useful lessons from the various anaerobic digestion and biogas schemes already underway in Europe, the United States and China, as well as from other carbon-reduction projects.

“I think it is important to share this knowledge when possible and make use of systems that have already been successful in other parts of the world – that is the great benefit of this global environmental project launched by the IMS,” says Dr. D’Souza. “But as a relatively small industry here in Australia, we developed our own special way to produce environmentally friendly, low-carbon pork and capture the niche market for this product.”

And he can be sure that the world is watching this ambitious project with great interest, because climate change, global warming and the need to reduce the carbon footprint of pig production is of international concern.

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