Hogs’ manure causing multi-million headache

Staggering 157,300 cubic metres of pig slurry could be dumped in public sewers, with spiralling costs raising questions on viability of pig farms

‘Snout my problem! Pig manure can become a very costly problem for Malta
‘Snout my problem! Pig manure can become a very costly problem for Malta

The volume of pig slurry disposed of in the public sewers could reach a staggering 157,300 cubic metres – the equivalent of 79 million mineral water bottles every year.

This would be equivalent to the amount of sewage processed in Malta’s three recycling plants in three whole days, and the amount processed by the Cirkewwa plant in 22 days.

The figure emerges from a draft report on agricultural waste management, which set a wide range of slurry production from 12,500m3 to a much higher volume of 157,300m3.

But because there are no waste treatment or disposal facilities for this waste, the cost of exporting this waste could vary from €1.4 million to €14.4 million.

One risk from the lack of facilities to dispose of the sewage is the possibility of leakage in the water table when the slurry is disposed of on farms, thus contributing to Malta’s high nitrate levels in ground water and streams.

The disposal of slurry in the drainage system, which is also illegal, affects the operation of sewage treatment plants; including cases where the plants had to stop operating because of the system becoming clogged by animal waste.

The uncertainty on the quantity of pig slurry dumped in the public sewers is related to the use of large volumes of water added to wash it down into the sewage system.

This also explains the higher amount of waste generated by this sector when compared to bovine farms, which produce up to 60,000 cubic metres of sewage, 75% of which have already invested in waste storage facilities.

Pig slurry is in the main disposed of in the public sewers for a lack of alternatives.

“The practice of discharging livestock slurry into the sewage system through a designated point in the system or through the drainage network is therefore illegal, albeit common practice locally”.

According to the report the pig sector poses the greatest challenges in the implementation of the agricultural waste management plan as current practices associated with the disposal of this manure cannot be continued.

The decline of the pig sector has in itself accentuated the problem.

The report shows that the number of pigs registered in Malta and Gozo declined to about 46,000 heads in 2011 from 73,000 heads in 2005. If the trend continues there will only be 34,480 heads by 2030, which would be equivalent to 82% of the number of pigs registered in March 2015.

Another key element in addressing agricultural waste management is the management of livestock heads.

“It is evident from the economic assessment of the agricultural sector, that a number of farms, particularly the smaller ones, are not financially sustainable”.

Despite the availability of financial assistance offered through funding sources such as the Common Agricultural Policy and the Rural Development Policy, the “enhanced and rigorous competition offered by larger scale farms which benefit from economies of scale continues to dent the financial sustainability of these farms”.

Closing pig farms

The continuous reduction in livestock units is expected to be maintained in the future. An option to address the reduction in the livestock units in a sustainable manner to reduce the generation of manure and slurry, by diversifying rural activity.

The report refers to the ODZ policy (2014) with regard to the possible redevelopment of these farms into “small scale farm retail, farm-based visitor attractions and agro-tourism accommodation”.

But for farms which express a lack of desire towards diversification, the potential use of ‘buy-outs of production rights’ could also be considered. This option has been used in countries such as the Netherlands, which face an environmental challenge associated with manure and slurry whereby the government opted for a buy-out scheme in 2000 and 2012 which reduced the manure surplus significantly.

In fact, over 5,000 farms applied, with pig stocks declining from 13 million in 1999 to 11.5 million in 2002. Similarly in the Netherlands, a social economic plan for animal husbandry was adopted to focus on advising livestock farmers about future developments and about termination of farming.

Exporting pig slurry

The treatment and disposal of pig slurry is much more costly because the only way of getting rid of it at the moment is by exporting it. At present the entire volume generated would have to be exported simply because there are presently no treatment or disposal facilities which can cater for the volume of pig slurry.

As a result, the costs on an annual basis could vary from €1.4 million to €14.4 million.

The first export option considered in the report, labelled, is based on a setup that would require the collection of slurry from different locations across Malta and Gozo and the transportation of the slurry in 33,000-litre trailers.
The slurry would be stored at a central location in trailers for three to four days, reflecting the vessel availability to export the slurry to Sicily.

In a scenario which generates the minimum volume of manure in 2016 (12,500 cubic metres), this option would require four trucks to collect the manure from the farms and eight trailers located at the central collection depot to store the manure for eventual exportation.  The financial cost of the operation would reach €1.4 million.

In the maximum scenario (157,300 cubic metres), this option would require six trucks to collect the manure from the farms and over 100 trailers located at the central collection depot to store the manure for eventual exportation. The financial cost of this option could reach €14 million.

Another disposal option which may be considered is the transformation of pig slurry into material similar to human waste allowing for discharge into the sewers.

This option is still being studied and the feasibility of the option from a technical, financial and economic perspective remains to be seen.

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