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News last update:25 Jan 2021

Poultry wastewater as way to irrigate crops

Auburn University College of Agriculture researchers are working on ways to find and utilise alternative water resources for irrigating crops. Repurposing poultry wastewater for use in crop production has the potential to significantly reduce treatment costs, increase food production and reduce the overall impact on the environment.

Wastewater from the poultry industry could not only provide water to crops, it is also rich in rich in nutrients, specifically nitrogen and phosphorus. “Combined, these nutrients can improve the growth of food crops,” said Brendan Higgins, assistant professor in the Department of Biosystems Engineering at Auburn University College of Agriculture.

Higgins is leading a research team that has received a four-year $ 499,577 grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, or NIFA, to study the possibility of using poultry processing wastewater for irrigating in controlled-environment agriculture.

Three main challenges

According to Higgins, the poultry industry is a major generator of nutrient-rich wastewater. However, there are three main challenges that need to be addressed in order to safely and efficiently use wastewater for food production. Firstly, nutrients in the wastewater should be in the appropriate form for stable crop production. Secondly, the crops irrigated with wastewater must be free of pathogens, and, lastly, the negative effects of antimicrobial chemicals in the poultry wastewater must be mitigated.

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Brendan Higgins, assistant professor in the Auburn University College of Agriculture’s Department of Biosystems Engineering, is leading a team of researchers to study the possibility of using poultry processing wastewater for irrigating in controlled-environment agriculture. - Photo: Auburn University College of Agriculture
Brendan Higgins, assistant professor in the Auburn University College of Agriculture’s Department of Biosystems Engineering, is leading a team of researchers to study the possibility of using poultry processing wastewater for irrigating in controlled-environment agriculture. - Photo: Auburn University College of Agriculture

Wastewater treatment reactor

The researchers will develop an innovative wastewater treatment reactor that uses algae and bacteria deployed together to clean the water and transform existing nutrients into forms that are usable by plants. They will then use the wastewater to grow lettuce. The goal is to scale up the process so it can be deployed safely and effectively at commercial poultry processing plants.

Potential for variety of crops

While the research project will be focusing on growing lettuce, Higgins sees the potential for using wastewater on a variety of crops. “Non-food crops like cotton would probably be easiest from a regulatory standpoint,” he said. “However, we really wanted to grow food with the water because it is a major research challenge. There are already many options for reutilising waste materials on non-food crops and forage.”

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