By Matt Reese
There has been ample fodder for frustration this fall and winter for agriculture in general, but it surely could be argued that few have faced more challenges due to the persistent wet weather during this time frame than those trying to follow the letter of the law when applying livestock manure to farm fields.
Tim Wood is the sales manager for M&W Farm Supply, LLC that handles the manure from 14.75 million chickens at Trillium Farms locations around Marseilles, Mt. Victory and Croton. Conditions since last fall have been far from ideal for getting the poultry manure out of the barns and onto the fields.
“Our intention each fall is to spread roughly 100,000 tons on close to 50,000 acres. So, we are kind of in a hole. We cover an 11-county area and typically harvest starts earlier in the north than the south. Around the 20th of September we had only spread around 1,500 tons. Things started to pick up after the 25th of September but we were literally shut down after the 25th of October. We had a few random runs here and there since then but it has been very limited due to the weather,” Wood said. “We had one really good week in mid-October for a 6-day window, but since late October the windows have been narrow at best. One of the nice things about our geography is the spread out harvest. But our farm customers, in some cases, were still trying to finish harvest. We have stockpiled 30,000 tons this winter for the spring application season with the limited windows we have had. The hauling burden is lessened somewhat but there is a lot of work to do.”
The weather moving forward does not look much better. Because the manure M&W works with is from a commercial Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO), regulations for application are very stringent.
“The top two inches of the soil cannot be saturated and we cannot apply if there is a forecast of 50% or greater chance that the following 24 hours will have a half inch or more of rain. That is a no go time for us, so we can be shut down a day or more ahead of a rain event. We rely on NOAA for the forecast,” he said. “And, we cannot spread on frozen ground. Even if our customers have a cover crop, we cannot spread manure from a CAFO on frozen ground. Our restrictions are tougher because our manure comes from a CAFO.”
Adding more challenge for M&W is the limited availability of trucks to haul the manure.
“There are lots of opportunities for dump truck drivers to haul rock and do things for State projects right now. It is always difficult to find enough trucks and in a good economy it is even worse,” he said. “Those jobs take priority over getting us trucks for manure hauling.”
The other growing problem is the need for getting the manure out of the Trillium barns and storage facilities.
“Trillium was a little nervous. The longer it stays in the barn the more composting happens and the more chances for spontaneous combustion,” Wood said. “We have storage facilities to hold the manure, but moving it around adds trucking costs.”
Wood will be watching the fields and the forecasts closely from now until planting time with hopes that application opportunities arise.
“A typical spring for us is 30,000 to 40,000 tons of application. That is a more frantic time because you have to be a step ahead of the planter or field cultivator. Now we are looking at 30,000 or 35,000 tons on top of that, our best hope is for a good, mild March and April that is not wet. We spent the winter stockpiling in fields,” he said. “A challenging fall is going to create a challenging spring.”
One benefit to delayed application of the poultry manure is the quick use of the nutrients by the crops.
“Right before planting you can take advantage of all of the nitrogen in the manure. We have customers who prefer spring application because of that,” Wood said. “The challenge in the spring is the potential for soil compaction and the logistics are a lot tighter.”
Northwest Ohio-based Glen Arnold, the manure nutrient management systems field specialist for Ohio State University Extension, said the challenge with manure application has been a statewide problem this fall and winter. Ohio State University Extension reported warmer and wetter than normal conditions at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) station at South Charleston recording 32 days with measurable rainfall totaling 9.91 inches in November and December. In these same two months the OARDC Hoytville location in northwest Ohio recorded 24 days with measurable rainfall totaling 6.04 inches. The OARDC weather station in Wooster recorded 24 days with measurable rainfall totaling 7.88 inches. Many parts of Ohio registered their wettest year on record in 2018. Many areas have had about 50 inches of precipitation where the normal is 35 to 39 inches. Columbus had 55 inches.
“We probably did not have 10 days of manure application time total in the months of November and December in my area of the state and we have had very few days in January and February where we have the correct combination of field conditions and weather forecast to land apply manure. Sometimes fields have been too wet. Sometimes they have been frozen too deep for manure to be incorporated,” Arnold said. “The wet weather has certainly caused major disruptions to the normal fall and winter manure application schedule.”
The situation impacts crop producers planning on the nutrients from the manure for their crops, the manure applicators and livestock producers running low on storage space.
“Many livestock producers are facing storage issues and have sought to transfer manure to other storage facilities as they can find them. The weather limited manure application opportunities and, especially for dairy farms, resulted in more manure and wastewater needing to be land applied,” Arnold said. “Commercial manure applicators I have talked with still have customers asking for help.
“Another issue is the wet weather prevented most livestock producers from getting cover crops established. This further restricts what field can be used for manure application unless the manure can be incorporated at application time or within 24 hours following application in the Western Lake Erie Basin. Had we known how wet the fall would be, many would have had cover crops flown onto fields needed for manure application. This seems simple in hindsight, but to get a good stand, incorporating cover crops usually works far better than aerial seeding them.”
The challenges may be even more significant moving forward based on which Ohio watershed the fields for application are located.
“In the Grand Lake St. Marys watershed, the winter manure application ban from Dec. 15 to March 1 is still in effect. Thus, no manure application would normally be allowed in January and February,” Arnold said. “In the Western Lake Erie Basin watershed, the application of manure to frozen and snow-covered soils requires there to be a growing crop in the field. This could be a pasture, alfalfa, clover, ryegrass or a rape crop. There must be enough vegetation visible to provide 90% cover of residue and growing vegetation, Radishes and oats would not qualify as a growing crop as both are typically winter killed. Manure can be applied to fields without growing crops if the manure is incorporated at the time of application or incorporated within 24 hours of application.”
When manure is applied, Arnold advises the applicator to print out the weather forecast at the start of the manure application and to take measures beyond the law to minimize risks.
“It is advisable to print out the weather forecast when you start applying manure so you have the needed proof if an unexpected storm drenches the area. Weather.gov is the most commonly accepted website for this forecast,” he said. “Although not required by law, winter manure application should follow the NRCS 590 standards, which limit solid manure application amounts to five tons per acre and liquid manure application amounts to 5,000 gallons per acre. These have 200-foot setback distances from ditches, streams and creeks and must be on slopes of less than 6% and less than 20-acre areas in size without additional buffers. For liquid manure applicators, examine fields for tile blowouts, monitor tile outlets before, during, and after manure application and any other situations that might allow manure to reach surface waters.”