ABE graduate student tracks gas in swine barns

Agricultural waste management is the research area of Randy Swestka, graduate student in agricultural and biosystems engineering (ABE). Randy is studying the spatial distribution of hydrogen sulfide, a lethal gas that forms from decomposing swine waste. In some swine barns animal waste is stored beneath the floor. When the waste slurry is stirred up during the pump-out process, hydrogen sulfide is released. Tragically, both people and pigs have died from hydrogen sulfide poisoning during the swine waste pump-out process.

Randy SwestkaWorking with his major professor, Robert Burns, Randy is developing a network of remote hydrogen sulfide sensors to monitor distribution of hydrogen sulfide at multiple locations within a barn during the swine waste pump-out process. The sensors have proven to be valid for monitoring hydrogen sulfide in barns. Randy is connecting the sensors in a wireless network to transmit data to a central location. His goal is to determine the distribution of the gas within and to identify options to alleviate the risks to workers and swine.

Randy presented his research at the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers International Meeting in Reno, Nevada. He has also worked with ISU Extension to present training sessions for commercial manure applicators. This training went by live feed to extension offices across the state of Iowa and was recorded for those who missed the training. His presentation was on hydrogen sulfide safety and a hydrogen sulfide detection system.

Randy earned his BS in ABE at Iowa State. He worked as an undergraduate research assistant in the Agricultural Waste Management Laboratory, where he was mentored by Burns and graduate students. Now as a graduate assistant in the same lab he has the opportunity to help mentor nine undergraduates. Randy treasures the “family” mentality within the department. Ramesh Kanwar, department chair, frequently refers to the ABE “family.” Randy enjoys the camaraderie of his fellow graduate students, bouncing ideas back and forth, sharing problems, sparking ideas and solutions for each other’s research. Randy observes that everyone watches out for each other and enjoys informal activities together off campus. Recently they had a party to celebrate the high national ranking the ABE graduate program received from U.S.News and World Report.

After graduation Randy is considering working with producers as an engineering consultant, serving the university extension program, or returning to the family farm. He will have some information to pass along regarding managing hydrogen sulfide in swine operations.