Monash university student Tom Stevenson has been playing an important role in improving the Victorian dairy industry’s use of wastewater.

As part of the Monash Industry Team Initiative (MITI) Dairy Program, Tom has helped both Burra Foods and Agriculture Victoria to investigate more efficient use of water and re-use of wastewater.

For someone with no previous connection to the dairy industry, Tom has relished both opportunities and will seek work in the field after completing his chemical engineering degree.

Tom said the program, which is a collaboration between Gardiner Dairy Foundation and Monash University, opened his eyes to opportunities in dairy and the benefits of living in the country.

“I’ve got no background in dairy farming in my family and I’ve lived my whole life in Melbourne, but I definitely learnt a lot from both experiences,” he said.

While at Burra Foods, Tom assisted with a water resource strategy which aimed to improve efficiency, detail water usage in each department, and ensure precise monitoring of re-used water.

More recently at Agriculture Victoria’s Ellinbank research farm, Tom joined a team trialling different chemicals to separate solid manure from liquids in washdown water to improve the quality of water for re-use.

The team also looked at developing biogas opportunities from manure on farms by combining it with other waste streams from the Gippsland area to improve biogas generation.

Tom said the research could have lasting benefits for farmers and the environment.

“Advancing these techniques would mean benefits for farmers because they can re-use water and potentially create a source of energy,” he said.

Tom added that the team found several promising chemical treatment options and the biogas preliminary results were also promising.

“Preliminary research shows it’s feasible but more research is required on a bigger scale,” he added.

While farmers and the environment stand to benefit from the research, Tom has no doubt the placements have benefited him as well.

“I made the most of it. I’m now working at Monash University in the chemical engineering department during the last year of my course, and the MITI experience definitely helped me to get that role,” he said.

It also gave him an insight into the joys of country living. “I went hiking in the fresh air and got to relax a lot,” Tom said. “There’s a bit more freedom out there and it was only 10 minutes to get to work, from Warragul to Ellinbank.”

Tom is now looking to apply for graduate programs in the dairy industry.

“I felt a bit out of my depth when I first got there but I learnt fairly quickly,” he said. “I learnt a lot about the dairy industry and a broader overview of agriculture, and what we learnt about water could be applicable to other industries.

“From these experiences, I’m much more likely to want to get involved in the industry and I thank Gardiner Dairy Foundation for making that possible.”

Senior research scientist and Ellinbank site leader, Dr Sharon Aarons, said MITI students were involved in research that explored new opportunities for the dairy industry.

“We give them tasks that extend the work we do,” she said.

“In this case they tested a range of chemicals to separate solid material out of manure and dairy factory wastewater to assist in improving management. We also asked them to measure biogas production from manure and manure mixed with other waste streams, such as dairy factory waste.”

The research could lead to a range of benefits such as preventing manure ending up in the environment, preventing loss of greenhouse gases and ammonia to the atmosphere and giving farmers and industry the opportunity to generate energy through anerobic digestion.

Dr Aarons said the MITI team had produced useful data that is supporting further work in the area.

“Part of the program is to encourage students to consider working in the dairy industry and at least one of our students went on to work with Burra Foods,” Dr Aarons said.

“It’s a mutually beneficial program; it provides us an opportunity to dig a little deeper into an area we want to explore; it gives students a chance to learn about the dairy industry and it gives the industry a potential source of employees,” she added.