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Converted litter to power Murphy operation

By SEAN CLOUGHERTY
Managing Editor

RHODESDALE, Md. (Dec. 14, 2014) — Seeing opportunity in the commercial broiler industry, Bob Murphy and sons Brad and J.B. expanded from two poultry houses to 14 over a span of 12 years.
Facing the threat of more restrictions on spreading poultry litter on farmland, the Mountaire contract growers became interested in technology that would help them retain value in the litter on their farm operation.
The family built two poultry houses in 2002 and two more in 2004 while operating a custom crusting service.
In 2011, Brad and J.B. purchased a 112-acre farm from their grandparents who had operated two chicken houses there and built six new houses on the farm.
“We’ve seen what our grandparents had with their two poultry houses,” J.B. said. “They made a pretty good living out of it.”
The Murphys’ four-house Final Four Farm was built this year and recently finished its first flock.
Fearing their litter could soon become a cost if farmers couldn’t spread it on fields with high phosphorus levels, “we realized that we’ve got to do something,” Bob said.
After considering other alternative energy options for their farm, the Murphys partnered with BHSL, an Ireland-based company to serve as a its first U.S. site for a fluidized bed combustion system.
The system will convert poultry litter removed from the houses to energy to handle the heating and cooling needs of four of the Murphys’ newly built houses. The combustion process also produces a nutrient-rich ash byproduct at one-tenth the volume of the litter that the Murphys plan to market as a fertilizer product.
“This is a uniquely patented system for farms,” said Andre Dight, BHSL poultry specialist. “The farmer’s manure is used as a fuel without needing to change anything.”
Dight said similar systems that require the litter to be treated or processed for uniformity ultimately defeat its purpose.
“The problem with that was it takes so much energy to get to that point, the value of the litter is effectively used up at that point.”
Dight said the Murhpys’ high standards in growing chickens and farm maintenance made them a clear choice in working together.
“We recognize the Murphy farm as the best example of modern poultry farming on the Eastern Shore,” Dight said. “They’re very much on the forefront of the most modern poultry technology.”
BHSL has had combustion systems operating commercially in the United Kingdom for four years, according to Dight.
With his sons more heavily involved in running the farm and getting four new houses built, Bob, who is retired from a career at Delmarva Power and Light, became the main point of contact with BHSL and took a trip to Europe to see the company’s unit operate on a poultry farm.
“It’s not been an easy process going through it. But I really believe it’s going to work,” Bob said. “I’m behind them 100 percent.”
The $2.4 million project recently got a $970,000 grant from the Maryland Department of Agriculture for manure-to-energy projects with BHSL funding the rest of the project. Though the Murphys aren’t paying any of the installation cost, they anticipate investing nearly $100,000 in equipment on the farm to make the system work for them plus adjusting what income they may lose by not selling as much litter to other farmers. Bob said they expect to use about 3,500 tons of litter a year in the combustion unit.
Company engineers and officials visited the farm last month as planning for the project continues with securing necessary permits and finding a U.S. company to fabricate the unit’s components.
Dight said they expect to have the unit in operation sometime next summer.
Along with giving them another valuable use for their litter, the Murphys said the growing conditions for the birds should improve in the houses using the litter-fueled heating and cooling ventilation system and use less electricity to run house fans.
“They say with this natural heat it’s dryer heat, it’s dryer air and the birds perform better,” J.B. said after talking with BHSL officials. Also,, he said, the four houses that will be connected to the combustion unit, they should have more flexibility in how they manage the heating and cooling in the houses.
“If we’re generating our own heat, we can keep this house as dry as we want,” J.B. added.
Once the unit is running, BHSL plans to monitor electricity use and bird performance for one year to demonstrate to the Murphys and other poultry farmers the system’s capabilities.
Bob Murphy said he hopes the project’s success will show other growers a way to still get value out of their poultry litter as regulations on land application change. He said he doesn’t agree with all the proposed changes in how farmers can use litter but if they go into effect, growers need to be prepared.
“We’re into this to save poultry on the Eastern Shore,” he said.