This story is so strange that I'll just jump right into it. Pig farms are exploding. I put it in bold so you wouldn't have to have a double-take to make sure you read it right. In the Midwest, manure pits are filled with a new foam that is simply dynamite!
Since 2009, a total of six farms have actually blown up because of methane that is being held underneath a foam that sits on top of manure pits in these pig farms. 1 in 4 farms in the Midwest's affected area contain this foam. However, there is not one thing anybody can do, as scientists and farmers alike have no clue as to what this foam even is.
More on the insanity after the break.
Agricultural engineer Charles Clanton from the University of Minnesota has said,
This has all started in the last four or five years here. We don't have any idea where it came from or how it got started. Whatever has happened is new. I don't think anyone's very familiar with what microbes are present in a manure pit on a hog farm.
This brown foam manages to hold onto every single gas that is emitted by the bacteria that live in the manure pits. It is said that sometimes these are pits that are housed below farms that contain up to 4,000 animals. That's a lot of manure and bacteria.
Each fall, the farmers empty these pits, foam and all, but it doesn't seem to stop the problem. Even though there are fans that will release the gas, the foam can sometimes get to be so intense that the methane levels inside the bubbles are anywhere between 60 to 70%, which is four times more than what has been defined as "dangerous" by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA).
Methane by itself, while dangerous, needs something to make it combust, however, so what is happening here? Well, consider this scenario. You're a farmer who notices one day a metal grate near this pit needs to be repaired. You go over, wade through the muck, popping these foam bubbles as you go, and make your repair with your welding iron. A spark touches the pit and it's game over, like in the scenario that happened in September of 2011 that killed 1,500 hogs and caused injury to one worker.
While we know what the foam causes, we do not know what causes the foam, as this practice of manure collection has been around for a long time as it is. Researchers are saying it could be a mixture of several things like new, altered bacterial colonies that create foam as a byproduct, new food compounds for the pigs or even a different soap used to clean the pits. The weird thing about all of this is that there is no control at this point. Barns that have the same amount of pigs, same type of food and the same variables are coming up with different results, where one barn will have this foam and another barn won't have any. Scientists have so far ruled out the possibility of a new dangerous type microbe and are leaning towards more environmental changes that could be occurring.
So far, affected states include Minnesota and certain parts of Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin. Outside of that region, the foam is nonexistent.
The University of Minnesota is currently conducting a new round of controlled tests to see if they can replicate the issue.
Photo courtesy of Charles Clanton.