MSU's dirty jobs
Despite the growing role laboratory research plays at MSU, not all jobs at the university involve lab coats and sterile tabletops. To keep campus running and advance agricultural education, MSU still has its fair share of employees who get down and dirty in their work.
A churning pit of manure
Heated under the July sun in black trash cans, food scraps don't smell too pleasant. As particular a stench as that is, Materials Recovery Facility employee Steve Simpson knows it all too well.
Three days a week at the MSU Surplus Store and Recycling Center, Simpson lugs trash cans full of food waste, collected from the dining halls, onto a lift that dumps the can's contents into one large container.
Simpson guards himself from any splatter, peers over the edge of the container to check for plastics, then sprays the cans with a heated pressure washer to remove any grease and other food remnants.
Dansville, Mich., resident Steve Simpson rinses out a food waste bin with a power washer July 22, 2014, at MSU Surplus Store and Recycling Center. Food waste from the campus dining halls is collected and moved to an anaerobic digester, where it is broken down into biogas. Corey Damocles/The State News
Food waste bins line the back of the building July 22, 2014, at MSU Surplus Store and Recycling Center. Food waste from the campus dining halls is collected and moved to an anaerobic digester, where it is broken down into biogas. Corey Damocles/The State News
Food waste exits a trailer and enters an anaerobic digester July 22, 2014, at MSU Surplus Store and Recycling Center. Food waste from the campus dining halls is collected and moved to an anaerobic digester, where it is broken down into biogas. Corey Damocles/The State News
The cans hold everything from fruit rinds to full pizzas — it's all the luck of the draw.
Simpson has his favorites foods — pineapple rinds and coffee grounds — which smell pleasant. And he has his least favorites — spaghetti and alfredo sauces — which are pungent when they sit in the heat, he said.
"We went down to Brody (Square) and ate, and I saw the pasta that I normally see here. I saw it there and that would've been one of the last things that I would have grabbed to eat," Simpson said.
After Simpson empties the cans into the container, Materials Recovery Facility employee Regianald Laferriere hauls the container to MSU's anaerobic digester and dumps it in a pit where it sits, until it is combined with cow manure to create methane gas that provides a small portion of the electricity campus requires.
The food-waste pit is located next to an open-air pit that contains manure. A propellor deep down in the manure pit churns the liquid feces like a slushy machine, producing pungent odors.
During the process of dumping the food waste, Laferriere has to station himself next to the manure pit to power wash the container.
Along with the smells, the swarming hordes of flies are bothersome, he said.
But it's all just a day on the job.
Romance is a boar
Rearing pigs and meddling in their sex lives is dirty work.
Before her shift at the MSU Swine Teaching and Research Center, animal science junior Ashley Rogers showers at the facility, discarding her shoes at the entrance and her clothes in the locker room. She then swaps whatever outfit she picked to wear that day for coveralls and muck boots.
Rogers, along with everyone else who enters the biosecure facility, practices hygiene not to reduce odor — because there's no avoiding the onslaught of pungent smells that will linger in the nose hairs long after leaving — but to keep the pigs free of diseases brought in from the outside.
Much of the stench that confronts students like Rogers, who are learning pig husbandry at the facility, is caused by pig dander mingling with feed dust and fills the air with a thick odor which clings to clothes and hair long after leaving.
Animal science and fisheries and wildlife senior Brittney Miller, who started working at the facility in May, said she often coughed during her first few weeks, but now is familiar with and unbothered by the scent.
"When I go home, I wonder if it's just in my nose or if anyone else smells it too," Miller said.
Although the odor takes some getting used to, Miller said studying under farm manager Kevin Turner makes the unpleasantries worth it.
Miller said during her time at the facility she's garnered pig husbandry knowledge that is hard to come by for someone with no prior experience.
"I never handled a pig before I came here," Miller said. "If it wasn't for this place, I would have never had any experience with pigs."
One of the most pungent odors the workers encounter is emitted by non-castrated male pigs. It's called boar taint, and it's so foul it permeates throughout the boar's meat, rendering it unsellable, Rogers said.
"You can never use their meat, because the smell taints the meat — except for pepperoni," she said. "It's not going to make a very good pork chop."
But boar taint has its uses. Once a day the workers parade a boar past the pens of female pigs.
During this pig trot, a worker applies pressure to a female's hind end, simulating a boar ready to mate. The female pig either stands firm or squeals, letting the workers know whether or not the pig is in heat and ready for breeding, Rogers said.
Because boars are rough with the female pigs during mating, and because artificial insemination yields more pregnancies and requires fewer boars than natural mating, the females most often are artificially inseminated with semen from one of the nine boars at the facility.
To collect the semen, the boars are led to a mounting dummy. When a boar reaches full erection, a worker clamps their hand on the boar's corkscrew-like penis and simulates a pig vulva until the boar ejaculates.
The process, Turner said, lasts from five to 45 minutes, depending on the age of the boar, because the older ones last longer.
The boar semen is stretched with vitamin meal so that one collection can impregnate 20 to 30 females, whereas natural breeding might yield one pregnancy every few days — an inefficient practice, taking into account the facility's 240 breeding females and nine boars, Turner said.
Collecting animal semen by hand for artificial insemination is a typical practice for many involved in animal husbandry. The difference with boars is that the boar taint smell lingers on the hand, against all attempts to remove it, for several days, Turner said.
"Some people wear gloves, but it gets to be slippery and hard to handle," he said. "My wife hates it. You can use lye, toothpaste or lemon juice, but it takes two or three days to get the smell off your hands."
But the dirtiest job, Turner said, takes him to a place underneath the pens and stalls, a place where pig feces and urine are collected, a place abundant with mice and spiders, a place that "makes collecting from the boars a walk in the park."
Whenever the liquid-solid waste separation system fails, Turner outfits himself with a headlamp and searches this place to fix the issue. His least favorite part, he said, is hunching forward through the spiderwebs that are so thick and spread throughout he likened them to those in the lair of Shelob, the massive spider Frodo encounters in "The Lord of the Rings."
"There (are) just mice and spiders everywhere, and you're working in and around pig poop and urine," Turner said. "You've never seen cobwebs like I'm talking about — you could drape yourself in a blanket with them."
The facility, which is used for teaching pig husbandry and conducting research, houses 1,000 to 1,500 pigs at any given time, Turner said. Apart from university allocations, the facility generates operating income through selling pigs at market.
Workers tend to the pigs from birth to breeding. The dirtiest job Rogers has encountered, she said, is sleeving.
Sleeving is a method of aiding a piglet out of the birth canal by reaching inside the birthing sow with a bare hand — sometimes reaching arm-deep if the trouble is bad enough. Because if the piglet is unable to exit, the rest of the litter will suffocate and die within the mother, Rogers said.
"The birth canal is only so big," she said. "So if a piglet is not coming out, we'll have to put our arm in and help it, so the rest of the litter survives. It's kind of gross the first couple of times, but you get used to it."
Although the process coats the arm with placenta and blood, it saves the lives of a litter, making the sacrifice of comfort and the dirty job well worth it, Rogers said.
"(Pig birthing) is a very dirty job, but it's a very rewarding job," she said.