How to Grow Lunch from Fish Waste - Aquaponics & Other Agricultural Innovations

Did you know that at Lethbridge College, they are growing veggies galore from fish waste?! These and other amazing ideas were presented to us on a fabulous tour. Read On ...

Editor's Note: Many thanks to OWC's Taren Hager for this detailed reporting. Great job!

On October 5, 2016, the OWC attended the 2016 Sustainable Agriculture Tour hosted by the Lethbridge County. This tour, organized by Dwayne Rogness, Extension Specialist with the county, is an information tour that visited five places that are testing and promoting Sustainable Agriculture Beneficial Management Practices (BMPs).

The first stop was at the Lethbridge College Aquaculture Centre and Greenhouse where we met with Dr. Nick Savidov and Dr. John Derksen. Dr. Savidov started explaining to us what aquaponics is and what this bright pink light up fish aquariums was.

Aquaponics is a system of aquaculture in which the waste produced by farmed fish or other aquatic animals supplies nutrients for plants grown hydroponically, which in turn filter and clean the water.

In these systems, it is important to separate the solid wastes from the fish and plants to reduce organic build-up. Sludge build-up in these environments is not ideal and only works in natural systems with soils. The system here is 98% efficient with recirculating water throughout the system and couldn’t be done without plants filtering the water. Plants have a key role in this system; they take up minerals and nutrients from the water. Clean, clear water is important for the entire aquaponics system to work properly.

A small-scale model of the aquaponics system at the Lethbridge College Aquaculture Centre.

A small-scale model of the aquaponics system at the Lethbridge College Aquaculture Centre.

“The most important component of aquaponics is to keep the fish and plants happy and thriving.” – Dr. Savidov.

The college greenhouse uses recirculated water from the aquaponics to help grow their plants. Here you will find the Lethbridge College students growing plants such as microgreens, chinese veggies, tomatoes, cucumbers and herbs. Rockwool is used as a growing medium, as opposed to soil. For this reason, the plants can’t be considered “organically grown” even though they very much are grown organically. The greenhouse operations are proud to be chemical-free. Whenever there is a need to treat the plants - for instance if they have an aphid infestation - they use alternative methods such as biocontrol >wasps< to rid of the problem. Who said wasps were useless?!

Dr. Derksen explained that they have been working to get the federal policy changed on what conditions produce are considered to be organically grown and that it should not be limited to just plants grown in soil without chemicals.

Students have been conducting research on nutrients in the plants and have found that nutrients levels in the plants grown by aquaponics are higher than those plants grown through hydroponics. They tested the difference between growing vegetables under cooler conditions with rainbow trout vs. warmer conditions with rainbow trout and found that cooler conditions produced better tasting lettuce. The greenhouse grows veggies for research. for the college’s culinary program and also for local restaurants to use (Plum, Firestone, Mocha Cabana, Earls). So, next time you are out eating at one of these local establishments, take the time to think about where the veggies came from!

Tomatoes being grown the the greenhouse at the Lethbridge College.

Tomatoes being grown the the greenhouse at the Lethbridge College.

Across the street from the Aquaponics Centre is Alberta Agriculture’s Farm Stewardship Centre. Government of Alberta employees had displays set up of their current and upcoming BMP (Beneficial Management Practices) projects.

1. Hach Water Monitoring Device – Ken Perl, Lethbridge College

The Hach Water Monitoring Kit is perfect for individual producers, feedlot operators, ranchers or for anyone who perhaps has to do a little water testing or even soil testing as part of their operations. It is most ideal for producers who have to deal with nutrient management.

This new device from Hach is portable and has the ability to test water quality on site rather than sending samples to the lab for analysis each time you need it. However, that doesn’t mean this device replaces the lab completely. Testing with this device will give you an idea of water or soil quality thresholds and help you make the best decision on how to proceed with operations (i.e. applying manure to fields).

Producers should still be sending 1 out of 10 samples to the lab for more accurate analysis. The Hach device sells for about $2000 and has the ability to test about 20 different elements including dissolved oxygen, pH, and nutrients. In southern Alberta, excessive nutrients returning to the river is always a concern and using the device to better manage that excess in nutrients might not be a bad idea!

2. Rolled Compacted Concrete – Deb Werk and Cody Metheral, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry

A project is underway by Alberta Agriculture at a commercial feedlot operation in southern Alberta where traditional clay floor pens have been replaced by RCC (Rolled Compacted Concrete) floors. The purpose is to assess the impacts of raising feedlot cattle on RCC floor pens vs traditional clay floor pens. Other specific objectives of the project are to assess:

• Social Impacts - cattle health and welfare;

• Environmental Impacts - water runoff volume and water quality;

• Air – ammonia emissions;

• Climate Change – greenhouse gas emissions;

• Soil – seepage and sub-surface soil quality;

• Manure – volume at cleanout and quality;

• Technological Impacts – RCC strength, thickness, durability and mobility;

• Economic Impacts – cattle average daily gain and tag scores, manure costs, clay handling costs and pen floor, RCC construction and maintenance costs.

The project continues until 2019, initial results show that the product performs well but is on the costly side, however, it remains cheaper than traditional concrete. Research being done on monitoring emissions from cattle in the RCC pens vs clay pens. They are testing for CO2, CH4 and N20. A veterinarian is looking at changes in livestock health. The government is involved, looking at water quality. Currently, RCC pens are not funded under the Growing Forward 2 program, but they hope that RCC pens will be included under Growing Forward 3.

3. Solar Water Troughs and Alert Systems – Ken Janzen, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry

There was a lot of interest recently in this subject on a guest blogpost we featured by Quentin Stevick. Solar powered watering troughs have been promoted for years as a BMP that is a dependable, alternate method of watering livestock. Along with the purpose of supplying clean water to livestock, troughs also limit their access to water bodies and therefore protect riparian areas and reduce their impacts on water quality.

While some producers love the systems, others are weary of the reliability of the system especially during winter conditions. Other issues can arise like wildlife impacts to the equipment (i.e. critters chewing wires) that also impacts the functionality of the troughs.

Alberta Agriculture has developed and tested 3 different alert systems that can be integrated into the systems and add peace of mind when using troughs to water your livestock. The first alert and the cheapest option ($300) is the beacon light. When the system experiences an alarm condition, the beacon light will flash, alerting the producer. The disadvantage to the beacon light is line of site.

The second alert system is the satellite alert which is in the middle range for pricing ($1500-2000) and requires a smart phone to be effective. It sends an email when the system experiences an alarm condition. It is simple to set up but does have monthly contract charges ($15-$35).

The third system is the cellular alert which also requires a cell phone. It will send a text message when the watering system has an alarm condition. The cellular system has an easy to use interface with lots of user controls to customize settings. However, this system is very expensive ($6000), has more features than most producers would need and is limited to cellular service areas. It also has high power requirements and monthly cellular contract charges. The cellular and satellite alerts are available for funding under the Growing Forward 2 program, the beacon light is not.

Beacon light on the water trough display unit.

Beacon light on the water trough display unit.

4. Phosphorus Filter Project – Lynda Miedema, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry Lynda, who is the Nutrient Management Specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry (AF) provided this brief summary of a very interesting project beginning in 2017 that could prove very useful in southern Alberta for removing phosphorus from surface water, if the results are positive.

_“We have partnered in collaboration with Warner County and Oklahoma State University (OSU) and have initiated a research project to evaluate the effectiveness of a non-point source filtration system for the removal of dissolved phosphorus from surface water run-off. OSU has been researching and testing the run-off filtration system for the past ten years, as well as testing various filter media (industrial by-products and manufactured products).

Their studies have included lab scale as well as field scale filters in agricultural and industrial settings which have received Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approval. OSU has developed an online software tool for filter design, and they will be working with AF engineering and agronomic staff to develop a field scale filter for research and demonstration in Alberta. The filter will be monitored for effectiveness of phosphorus removal under Alberta conditions while serving as a demonstration site in Warner County.

If successful, the filter can be implemented as an agricultural beneficial management practice for removing phosphorus from surface water run-off for improved water quality.”_

5. On-farm Energy Management Program - Keri McPhee, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry Growing Forward 2 is government funded and provides 27 different programs and services; some of the programs are already at maximum capacity or have been cancelled.

The On-Farm Energy Program shares the costs on improving energy efficiency through upgrading lighting, vent fans and furnaces, etc. on Alberta farms. This enables producers to conserve energy, reduce carbon emissions and reduce their environmental footprint. The program addresses three important industry priorities:

a) Increased industry competitiveness.

b) Improved environmental stewardship.

c) Improved energy management.

For most items, the program covers 50% of eligible costs, to a maximum of $50,000. Some items are funded on a square-footage or formula basis. For more information on this program or other Growing Forward 2 programs visit www.growingforward.alberta.ca.

6. Agro-climatic Information Service (ACIS)- Tom O-Reilley, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry

ACIS is home to a wide range of interactive tools that can help those in the agriculture industry or the general public who are dependent on weather, better understand Alberta’s weather and climate. Their service allows you to view:

a. Radar imagery and forecasts from Environment Canada.

b. Current conditions from more than 350 weather stations.

c. Maps of temperature, precipitation and more.

d. Precipitation records at crop insurance weather stations.

Example of what a weather station looks like. 

Example of what a weather station looks like. 

Weather stations are very helpful for those in the agriculture industry in southern Alberta. They show current conditions at the nearest station to you, 21 day hourly graphs, zoom to any time period, track precipitation accumulations (e.g. we received approximately 260mm of rain from May-Sept in 2016), temperature trends and wind speeds. Some other useful ACIS features are using the weather stations for crop insurance purposes, finding stations that best represent that hail storm that happened on your field could mean all the difference in the world. They are trying to ensure that there are weather stations at least 20km from all farm operations for insurance purposes. Variables such as precipitation and temperature can be used to analyze how such variables may have impacted your yields. You can also check out snow pack development over winter to see how things are looking for the next seeding season! There are many implications ACIS provides to users.. check out the website at www.weatherdata.ca.

Lunch was provided to us buffet style from the Lethbridge College and their culinary program students. The food was top notch! Thank you very much Lethbridge College. Our own Communications Specialist Anna Garleff entertained the mostly student crowd with a few of the OWC films and asked some trivia about watersheds and messaging in the films.

After our bellies were stuffed with delicious food, we headed out into the cold to go check out some manure composting projects, go figure! Ben Thomas of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada is testing a few different methods in composting manure. The first project is composting manure vs. basic stock piling of manure and the persistence of compounds in-situ. Composting means turning the manure and allowing it to heat up and decompose. Whereas stock piling is just that, piling and leaving the manure there to sit, with no extra attention. Emission monitoring is also being done. An experimental drug was given to a portion of cows that reduces the amount of methane emissions that cattle produce. Preliminary results show that it has reduced cattle methane emissions by 60%. Results of the composting manure are not known yet but they expect to have better results of the composted manure. Composting also reduces the mass & volume of the manure, making transport and application more economical to producers.

Piles of composting manure at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada facility.

Piles of composting manure at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada facility.

Dr. Frank Larney, Soil Conservation Scientist with Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada has been composting feedlot manure for ~20 years. They have about 1000-1500 head of cattle at the feedlot on site.

The experiment he is conducting is a trial looking at the fate of hormone residues in manure after composting. In particular, MGA (administered through feed) and TBA (administered through ear) given to cattle in Canada to increase feed efficiency. The concern is that these hormones might be transported outside of the feedlots through surface water into our rivers and from there, being ingested by fish, wildlife and humans. The samples are composted over 90 days, during which time they’re turned and sampled 7-8 times.

Composting temperatures get up to 70°C in which these conditions kills parasites, microorganisms, weed seeds and allows the breakdown of other elements. Manure samples are sent to University of Saskatchewan for analysis. Due to the project in the very early stages, they have no results yet however, the expectations are to see a decrease in the amount of residual hormones found in the composted manure.

At the final stop we met up with Cody Metheral , CFO Extension Specialist with Alberta Agriculture. He talked about how many feedlot operators don’t think much about catch basin drainage and maintenance and how they often misgauge their catch basin capacity. The demofarm demonstration had machinery that is useful for those with feedlot operations, in particular those with catch basins. The Growing Forward 2 funding (~$150,000) invested in catch basin drainage equipment that consists of 3 units:

  1. Pumping unit on tractor, 400 gal/min (~$20,000)
  2. Cadman feeder hose and caddy, with ¾ mile lay-flat feeder hose (~$25,000 with cart)
  3. Sprinkler and gun cart (~$100,000)
The catch basin draining unit in operation at the Ag Research Demofarm.

The catch basin draining unit in operation at the Ag Research Demofarm.

A catch basin draining program began this year through Alberta Agriculture, providing the use of the draining system free of charge to feedlot operators to drain their catch basins and have the benefit of using that nutrient rich water to irrigate a pasture or field if suitable.

"We are doing catch basin water testing and the results will be used to better understand nutrient concentration and changes during pumping. Results are shared with the producer and will hopefully be part of their future pumping strategies. We are seeing a range of nutrient concentrations, that seem to reflect previous emptying activities and if solids have accumulated in the bottom of the catch basin. More information will be available this fall." Cody explains.

Newer basins with fewer solids often have lower nutrient levels, while for older basins with heavy solids on the bottom; the water often comes out brown-black in color and with higher nutrients.

Alberta Agriculture employees will come set up the system on your property for 1 week at a time and provide an operator to run the equipment.. for more information please contact Cody Metheral at (403) 381-5885 or cody.metheral@gov.ab.ca.

Thanks to Dwayne Rogness and Lethbridge County for putting on such a informative tour! We look forward to the next one!