By Mike Jiggens
Milorganite is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year as the producer of a turfgrass fertilizer manufactured from recycled wastewater biosolids. The nutrient-rich material is kiln-dried into an environmentally-friendly and safe product that diverts materials from landfill disposal.
Production of Milorganite—which is currently not available in Canada—resulted from the City of Milwaukee’s dedication to cleaning its waterways. To this day, nutrients from the area’s wastewaters are reclaimed using large-scale, natural processes.
“Milorganite is a tangible, value-added byproduct of our commitment to the environment as it has been for nine decades,” said Jeff Spence, director of marketing for Milorganite. “We approach every aspect of our operation with environmental stewardship in mind to guide our decisions and actions.”
The Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District (MMSD), the government agency that produces and markets Milorganite, is already using alternative energy sources such as solar, landfill gas, and digester methane in its Milorganite production facilities to achieve its goal of having 80 per cent of its energy needs supplied from renewable resources by 2035.
“We’re dedicated to lessening the impact of our operations on the environment, so we’re creating value where others may see only waste,” explained Spence. “Our landfill gas initiative, launched in 2014, has reduced our dependence on both natural gas and electricity from the grid. Pre-treated landfill gas will continue to be used to generate the majority of our energy for the next 20 years.” Milorganite is dried using excess heat from turbines, which are primarily fueled by landfill gas.
Historically, sewerage in Milwaukee’s waterways put its residents at risk. More than 100 years ago, the Milwaukee River was so polluted there was talk of simply hiding the problem by covering what was more of an open sewer than a river with a plank road.
In the late 1800s, Milwaukee’s sewerage was emptied directly into the Milwaukee River. The inherent problems were worsened, because the river’s natural flow wasn’t sufficient to keep it clean. To help nature along, the city decided the practical solution was to build the Milwaukee River Flushing Station on the shores of Lake Michigan. Using the world’s largest pump at the time, 500 million gallons of water were daily pumped through underground pipes from Lake Michigan into the Milwaukee River to flush it clean. The “solution” clearly wasn’t sustainable.
In the early 1900s Milwaukee’s adoption of the newly developed biosolids sewerage treatment process (activated sludge) resulted in another problem: what to do with the remaining tons of dead microbes. Land-filling was expensive and wasted what was thought to be a potentially valuable resource of recycled nutrients.
In 1923 the sewerage district established a University of Wisconsin College of Agriculture fellowship, directed by Oyvind Jull (O.J.) Noer, to investigate uses for Milwaukee’s nutrient-rich biosolids. His groundbreaking research determined the product was superior in quality and one-third the cost of manures and single-nutrient chemical fertilizers commonly used at the time. It was the first pelletized, dust-free fertilizer that provided multiple nutrients in a single product.
After experiments demonstrated the product’s success as a fertilizer for field crops and vegetables, Noer turned to golf courses and found two distinct advantages of using the product on turf. First, there was no danger of it burning the turf even with over-application. Second, it produced a dark-green, dense turf without causing excessive top growth. As word spread among golf course superintendents across the country, Noer knew the product—soon to be called Milorganite—was commercially viable.
Through his initial and subsequent decades of research, Noer was instrumental in the commercial success of Milorganite and the founding of the turfgrass industry. His achievements were so advantageous to the professional turfgrass industry he was formally given the title “Mr. Turf” by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America.
The most traveled man in turf, Noer achieved venerable stature within the turf industry for his willingness to share his vast knowledge of turfgrass. During his time with Milorganite, it’s estimated he visited more than 80 per cent of the golf courses throughout the country. On his visits he did far more than extol the benefits of Milorganite, he assisted greens keepers diagnose and offer advice on how to treat turf problems.
He spoke extensively at turf conferences and wrote on the subject of turfgrass and fertilizer, including a series of articles titled The ABC of Turf Culture, which was later published as a book, and represents one of the earliest integrated works on the subject of turf maintenance. The only article not appearing in the published volume was the one which spoke directly about Milorganite, a testament to his impartial approach to turfgrass maintenance.
In the mid-1930s, MMSD hired Noer to establish the nation’s first soils laboratory solely dedicated to turfgrass research. There he pioneered much of the methodology still used in today’s labs. His studies are the basis of Milorganite’s fertilization recommendations, which have stood the test of time, and fit well with the low-nitrogen fertilization programs commonly used in modern turf management regimes. Milorganite’s research remains the benchmark for all university turf grass research.
Milorganite is one of the oldest branded fertilizers on the market. Using large-scale processes that mimic nature, microbes digest the nutrients found in wastewater and die after nutrients are completed consumed. Cleaned water is returned to Lake Michigan while the microbes are kiln-dried into pellets. The drying process heats the material to 900–1,200 degrees Fahrenheit and kills pathogens. Product samples are tested multiple times daily to ensure Milorganite complies with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards for protecting human health and the environment. Metals and pathogens are at levels low enough to avoid harm to people, pets, plants and wildlife.
Milorganite’s slow-release nutrients are gradually available as plants need them for up to 10 weeks. This extended feeding period provides more uniform turf growth, a deeper and better-established root system, healthier turf and a greatly reduced opportunity for nutrient runoff and leaching.
Milorganite is non-burning and doesn’t need to be watered in, making it an ideal fertilizer in drought-stricken areas. Soil temperatures and moisture need to be just right for Milorganite’s nutrients to be released and until then, it simply remains in the soil. It also improves soil’s water holding capacity as it is predominantly composed of organic matter.