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US-based solution to growing fertilizer concerns

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A simple, sustainable, and effective - yet not well-known - solution for rising fertilizer prices, is digestate.

By Patrick Serfass, Executive Director, American Biogas Council

Join us for a Feedstuffs 365 interview with Patrick on Aug. 16 at 1 PM Central / 2 PM Eastern

Between pandemic supply chain disruptions and the economic fallout following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, fertilizer supplies have been significantly impacted and prices have soared as a result. Some experts claim the uncertainty surrounding Russia’s fertilizer supply will likely cause prices to remain elevated for the foreseeable future. With inflated costs and limited availability, row crop farmers will be forced to make tough decisions for the 2023 planting season.

According to an International Agricultural Trade Report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), fertilizer prices account for nearly one-fifth of U.S. farm cash costs, with an even greater share for corn and wheat producers. Increased input costs have the potential to create a ripple effect through the many aspects of production lending itself to increased shortages of commodity grains.

The same USDA report added that while the U.S. is a significant producer of nitrogen and phosphorus, it imports large quantities of potassium-based fertilizers (potash), a vital nutrient in grain production.

A simple, sustainable and effective, yet not well-known, solution for this growing concern, is digestate, the byproduct of anaerobic digestion of organic waste material. The use of biogas systems supports domestic production of both fertilizer and energy that doesn’t rely on foreign inputs, all while tackling the growing environmental concerns of organic waste production on farms.

Through the process of anaerobic digestion, a biogas system recycles organic waste like animal manure and food waste into renewable energy and leaves a nutrient dense byproduct that can be used as fertilizer. The digestate consists of left-over indigestible material and dead micro-organisms. The use of digestate has demonstrated improved soil health and increased crop yields. Some studies have shown that digestate from biogas systems can boost crop yields by up to 10-30% compared to chemical fertilizers.

On-farm biogas systems create a closed loop process. Livestock eat grain and forage crops produced on farmland, which in turn produce animal food products as well as manure. Manure is then recycled in a biogas system that produces renewable heat, electricity, and/or fuel. Digested material is separated into solids and liquids, which can be applied to the land as fertilizer.

We have seen the not-so-subtle impacts of limited supply and increased pricing of fertilizer in 2022 and can predict the ongoing ripple effect as the Russia-Ukraine war continues. U.S. farmers will be forced to grapple with high input costs as they make planting decisions for 2023. I challenge farmers across the country to take advantage of the domestic production of nutrient dense fertilizer through digestate and implore policymakers to not underestimate this solution.

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