Impact of Anaerobic Digestion on Solids, Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium, and Sulfur Concentrations of Swine Manure

Anaerobic digestion of swine manure is a treatment process that can be used to reduce odor emissions, generate bioenergy, and reduce methane emissions. Studies and models are available that can be used to quantify methane production, and volatile solids (VS) reduction rates. Few provide information on the plant nutrient contents of digested manure. Such information is needed to develop nutrient management plans to use digester effluent to produce crops, biomass, or as a nitrogen source for making compost in an environmentally responsible manner.  The objective of this study was to observe the reductions and transformations of solids (TS, VS), nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, and sulfur resulting from anaerobic digestion.

What did we do?

Fresh swine manure was obtained from the gestation barn at the Starkey Swine Center at Clemson University (Figure 1), and large supernatant samples were obtained from the lagoon on-site. The solid manure from the gestation floor was diluted with supernatant from the lagoon to obtain three total solids (TS) concentrations. The target total solids concentrations were 1%, 1.2%, and 2%. Dilutions in this range were selected because they were representative of common ranges of liquid swine manure removed from modern production facilities. This also provided three levels of organic load (OL) that was defined by the VS concentration of the mixtures (g VS/L). The dilutions that were actually achieved were 0.9%, 1.2%, and 1.9% total solids with volatile solids (VS) concentrations of 6.10, 9.05, and 13.75 g VS/L.

Since lagoon water was used for dilution in a manner similar to the operation of a recycled flush system no additional seed material was needed. The microorganisms needed for anaerobic digestion already existed in the manure.

Figure 1. Naturally ventilated gestation barn at the Starkey Swine Center at Clemson University.
Figure 1. Naturally ventilated gestation barn at the Starkey Swine Center at Clemson University.

Batch Anaerobic Digestion

The three mixtures of swine manure and lagoon water were anaerobically digested using 1.8L batch reactors that were maintained at 35 C in a heated water tank as shown in Figure 2. Three 1.8L bottles were used for each of the three liquid swine manure mixtures to give a total of 9 reactor bottles. Complete details of the batch method used is provided by Chastain and Smith (2015).

Figure 2. Aquarium used to provide a heated water bath (35°C) that held the nine, 1.8-L batch reactors.
Figure 2. Aquarium used to provide a heated water bath (35°C) that held the nine, 1.8-L batch reactors.

The reactor bottles were digested for 56 to 74 days. The pH of the bottles was measured daily and was used as the primary parameter to monitor digestion progress. Biogas production was also monitored by collecting it in 3-L Tedlar® bags, one per reactor bottle. The day on which the gas collection bags were emptied was recorded and provided a secondary parameter to determine when digestion was complete. Anaerobic digestion is a two phase process. During the first phase, called the acid forming phase, microorganisms create volatile fatty acids (VFA) and the pH falls rapidly to 6 or less. During the second phase the methanogens increase in population and consume the VFAs causing the pH to rise. Digestion was complete once the pH hovered around 7.5 for several days, and biogas was no longer produced. A graph of the variation in pH for the reactors is provided in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Variation of pH with respect to process time for three organic loading rates used. Each point is the mean of three 1.8-L batch reactor bottles.
Figure 3. Variation of pH with respect to process time for three organic loading rates used. Each point is the mean of three 1.8-L batch reactor bottles.

Solids and Plant Nutrients Measured Before and After Anaerobic Digestion

Well-mixed samples of the three liquid swine manure mixtures were obtained before and after anaerobic digestion. Since nitrogen and phosphorous in swine manure exist in soluble and organic forms the reductions and transformations of soluble and organic forms of these nutrients were also observed. The samples were analyzed to determine the following using standard techniques:

  • The total solids (TS),
  • The fixed solids (FS) or ash content,
  • The volatile solids (VS = TS – FS)
  • Total Kjeldahl nitrogen (TKN = Org-N + TAN)
  • Total ammonical nitrogen (TAN = NH4+-N + NH3 – N),
  • Organic nitrogen (Org-N = TKN – TAN),
  • Nitrate nitrogen (NO3-N),
  • Mineral nitrogen (Min N = TAN + NO3-N),
  • Total nitrogen (TN = TKN + NO3-N),
  • Total phosphorus (TP),
  • Soluble phosphorous (Sol-P),
  • Total potassium (TK), and
  • Sulfur (S).

What did we learn?

The first important observation was related to the completeness of anaerobic digestion. The mean VS reduction ratio (g VS destroyed/g VS added) for all nine reactors was measured, and was 0.62 on the average. This  and was in excellent agreement with the literature value of 0.63 for swine manure (Hill, 1991), and indicated that anaerobic digestion was complete. The rate of TS destruction was 0.45 g TS destroyed / g TS added.

The second set of observations were related to the impact of anaerobic digestion on nitrogen. The mass of total N was not changed by anaerobic digestion, but the mass of organic nitrogen was decreased by 36% as it was mineralized to TAN. The TAN was increased by a factor of 1.84, and the mineral N (TAN + NO3-N) was increased by a factor of 1.8 on the average. The initial nitrate-N concentrations were small and evidence of denitrification was observed as indicated by a reduction in nitrate-N by 59%. The impact of N transformations was to increase the fraction of total-N that was in the total ammonical form from 33% before digestion to 59% after digestion which highlights the need to store and land apply anaerobically digested manure so as to reduce ammonia volatilization.

Anaerobic digestion was also observed to have mixed results on the mass of P, K, and S.  The mass of total-P was not significantly impacted by anaerobic digestion. On the average, 73% of the soluble-P was converted to organic P by microbial activity, and was believed to remain in the microbial biomass. There was no impact on TK by digestion as expected. The mass of S was reduced by 7% on the average presumably by the formation of small amounts of H2S.


  • John P. Chastain, Ph.D. Professor and Extension Agricultural Engineer, Clemson University, Department of Agricultural Sciences, Agricultural Mechanization and Business Program, McAdams Hall, Clemson, South Carolina 29634 USA. 1-864-656-4089
  • Bryan Smith, BSAE, MSCE, Area Extension Agent – Agricultural Engineer, Clemson Extension Service, 219 West Laurens Street, Laurens, South Carolina 29360 USA.


Chastain, J.P. and W.B. Smith. (2015). Determination of the Anaerobic Volatile Solids Reduction Ratio of Animal Manure Using a Bench Scale Batch Reactor. Presented at the 2015 ASABE Annual International Meeting. Paper No. 152189216. ASABE, 2950 Niles Rd., St. Joseph, MI 49085-9659

Hill, D.T. (1991). Steady-State Mesophilic Design Equations for Methane Production from Livestock Wastes. TRANSACTIONS of the ASAE, 34(5):2157-2163.


This study was supported by the Clemson Extension Confined Animal Manure Managers Program and by a grant from the South Carolina Energy Office.



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