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Research Looks to Transform Manure Into Protein

WRITTEN BY: Adam Russell

(Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Laura McKenzie)

Texas A&M AgriLife Research focuses on the environmental impact of turning waste into a resource.

A three-year, $618,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute for Food and Agriculture is funding a study by scientists in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Science Department of Entomology and Mississippi State University to explore the use of black soldier flies for dairy manure cleanup. The team will then examine the flies’ potential value as a possible ingredient in livestock, poultry, and aquaculture feed.

The project will concentrate on the environmental health and economic benefits of converting dairy waste into protein for feed. Early data indicate probiotics could accelerate the digestive process in fed animals, increase the conversion of waste to insect biomass, decrease greenhouse gases and noxious odors, and reduce concerns about pathogens that might be present in the manure.

The study will be led by Jeff Tomberlin, Ph.D., professor, AgriLife Research Fellow, Presidential Impact Fellow, and director of the Center for Environmental Sustainability through Insect Farming, and Anjel Helms, Ph.D., an assistant professor and chemical ecologist, both in the Department of Entomology.

Heather Jordan, Ph.D., an associate professor and microbiologist at Mississippi State University, will examine the resulting larvae and frass, the material remaining after larvae digest manure, for microbial diversity and feed safety. Helms’ postdoctoral research associate Amber MacInnis, Ph.D., will lead the day-to-day data collection with the help of students.

“We’re testing the limits of black soldier fly production in conjunction with probiotics to see how efficient they could be for large animal production facilities, in this case dairies,” Helms said. “Manure management is an expense to these producers, and we are testing to see if this is a way to manage that waste and turn it into a productive feed source.”

Black soldier fly larvae consume their weight in organic waste daily for two weeks – around 1 gram or the weight of a single raisin per larva. That may sound insignificant, but those amounts add up when multiplied by millions of black soldier fly larvae.

For example, facilities in Europe, Asia, and North America can digest 100 tons of waste daily using the larvae of black soldier flies.

MacInnis’ experiments are conducted in plastic containers filled with about 18 pounds of manure, where 10,000 black soldier fly eggs are placed. The larvae hatch, consume the dairy manure for two weeks, and are then harvested. The process is repeated.

An essential part of the project is determining how safe harvested larvae are when converted into feed ingredients. Little is known about pathogen diversity in larvae that consume manure, which could impact feed safety. Helms suspects larvae consuming manure are safe for livestock consumption, but the end product must be certified.

“This is an exciting study to be a part of because it is problem-solving at its core,” MacInnis said. “These dairies produce an enormous amount of waste. If black soldier flies can be an efficient part of their management process and provide other benefits, that could be a big breakthrough across the industry.”

The project fits into the overarching circular economy concept. Dairy waste is managed by utilizing black soldier flies’ natural feeding cycles to harvest larvae that can be turned into protein ingredients for livestock and fish feed. The process reduces management costs and potential environmental impacts while providing a valuable resource. (Texas A&M AgriLife photos by Michael Miller and Laura McKenzie)

Black soldier flies consume organic waste, including manure, but the waste conversion process leaves room for efficiency improvements.

The study will utilize probiotics to enhance the conversion of black soldier fly waste to dairy manure and remove more than 50% of nitrogen and potassium from the waste. Helms said the team is working with Jordan to study the probiotic impacts.

Manure conversion by black soldier flies is also expected to provide an environmental benefit beyond reducing reliance on traditional manure management methods, such as waste storage lagoons.

“Incorporating black soldier flies in manure management has potential for layers of economic and environmental benefits,” Helms said. “Turning waste into a resource sounds too good to be true, but we are learning more and more about how black soldier flies can solve many problems.”

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