MILFORD, Neb. — Urban dwellers who enjoy dining on filet mignon at five-star restaurants would probably just as soon not know about David Dickinson’s dilemma.
Bad for the appetite, you know.
But Dickinson, who makes his living in the cattle business, has an environmental problem on his hands that is vexing state officials: a 2,000-ton pile of burning cow manure.
Dickinson owns and manages Midwest Feeding Co. about 20 miles west of Lincoln, which takes in as many as 12,000 cows at a time from farmers and ranchers and fattens them for market.
Byproducts from the massive operation resulted in a dung pile measuring 100 feet long, 30 feet high and 50 feet wide that began burning about two months ago and continues to smolder despite Herculean attempts to douse it.
While city folks might have trouble imagining a dung pile of such proportions, they are common sites in rural states.
In July, crews fighting a blaze in a three-acre manure lagoon at a dairy farm in Washington smothered the flames with more of the same — a blanket of wet cow manure.
In December, Montana officials ordered the owner of a horse feedlot to extinguish a large manure fire that sent a stench over a nearby town.
No easy solution
The Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality has informed Dickinson that his smoldering dung pile violates clean-air laws and is working with him to find the best solution to extinguish it, said agency spokesman Rich Webster.
Simply dumping water on the heap is not the answer, Webster said, because of concerns about runoff to any nearby water source.
Dickinson first tried using heavy equipment to spread out the smoldering pile and extinguish the fire.
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“But the problem was, it started in another spot,” he said. “We’ve also had the fire department out a couple of times.”
And still it burns.
No one is sure how the fire started, but a common theory is that heat from the decomposing manure deep inside the pile eventually ignited the manure.
Wilma Roth, who manages a restaurant along Interstate 80 about a mile north of the feedlot, said her customers have complained about the smoke, which wafts for miles.
“I’d just as soon forget about it,” she said.
Dickinson said the smoke is not particularly malodorous — although that comes from a man who works full-time around manure.
“I guess it’s just all perspective,” he said. “To me, it just smells like smoke. I really don’t know how to describe it.”
Decades ago, most farmers and ranchers kept their own cows and pigs until they were shipped to market and slaughtered into filet mignon, hamburger, pork chops and bacon.
And with all those animals spread far apart at thousands of farms, it was easier to dispose of the manure.
But huge feedlots — where animals are shipped to fatten on a high-grain diet for their last several months — have become commonplace.
Dickinson has an average of 12,000 animals on hand, each eating about 25 pounds of feed daily, resulting in as much as nine pounds of manure a day per animal — some 54 tons every 24 hours.
Most big feedlots spread the manure over farm fields or compost it to spread later or sell commercially to gardeners.
Farmers in several states are experimenting with using the methane gas from livestock manure to produce electricity. The manure is heated and produces methane gas as it breaks down. The gas is collected and used to power a generator, which sends electricity onto a power grid.
Dickinson acknowledged that while some folks see the humor in his predicament, he takes the fire seriously.
“It’s a nuisance, and obviously we are trying to get it resolved,” he said. “Everybody’s been really patient.”
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