Working With Custom Manure Applicators To Improve Nutrient Management Plans

The dairy industry in Wisconsin produces the equivalent of 12 billion gallons of liquid dairy manure annually. That’s enough to cover Lambeau Field (including the endzones) to a depth of just over 5 miles. Wisconsin’s 134 for-hire manure applicators apply approximately 6 billion gallons of liquid manure and approximately 800,000 tons annually. This is a 50% increase in liquid manure application by for-hire applicators since 2006, and more than a 300% increase in solid manure handling.

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Management of solid manure has become a much larger part of the industry, with the number of solid spreaders in operation nearing 100 in 2012, compared to less than 30 six years ago. Other areas where the industry has added significant capacity in the same timeframe includes greater than 140 semis for long-distance manure transport and the recent innovation of floating boats for storage agitation.

Given the volume of manure applied and handled by the custom manure applicators, they are the critical partners in implementing the nutrient management plans developed both by professionals and by farmers. Yet less than one of every three farmers served by a custom manure applicator (30.6%) are showing that applicator their Nutrient Management Plan (NMP), according to the every five-year survey of the industry conducted in late 2011 by University of Wisconsin Extension, in partnership with the Professional Nutrient Applicators Association of Wisconsin (PNAAW). This is an increase over 2001, when 22% of their clients were sharing a NMP with the applicator.

The survey also showed that 72.8% of the manure applied (4.3 billion gallons/560,000 tons) was spread in accordance with the written plan presented to the applicator, and that the industry injects or incorporates 51.5% of the manure they apply. The farmer or their agronomist makes 79% of the rate decisions, while the farmer asks the applicator for a rate recommendation only 15% of the time. Survey respondents noted that only 2.9% of their annual volume is applied to either frozen or snow covered ground.

In terms of rates, 54% of fields receive between 6,000 and 12,000 gallons/acre, while 8% receive more than 16,000 gallons/acre. Interestingly, the percentages in all categories are very similar to where they were in 2001.

When asked in the same survey what nutrient management plan writers could do to make the task of implementing the plan easier, several themes emerged:

• Communication: Put your cell phone number on the pages of the plan I get, send me the plan before the hauling season starts. Better yet, talk to me when developing the plan.

• Maps: Keep them simple, consistent – rate, field ID and setbacks, tell customers to show them to me.

• Field Planning: With the farmer, plan an early harvested crop in a field that needs manure so we have somewhere to go very early in fall. Plan applications in the same direction – not one field south, one north and the other 3 miles east.

When asked what farmers could do to make their job easier, several similar areas were identified, including:

• Have everything ready to go when we arrive – the plan, the pit, and the tractors, but especially the maps.

• Plan crop rotations to allow for off-peak application.

• Don’t pre-work the entire field.

• Have a back-up plan if some fields are too wet to spread in.

Many of the medium- and larger-sized farms in the state of Wisconsin are now inviting their manure applicator to the planning/strategy sessions with the agronomists, nutritionists and other key farm advisors to feed needs/quality, crop rotation, neighbor concerns and manure application. This type of approach pays large dividends, as problems later in the year can be avoided if the farm’s advisors are all working from the same playbook.

Keeping in mind the following facts and suggestions will make the nutrient management implementation process easier for the farmer, the crop consultant and the custom applicator.

1. A single sheet and a map. Provide each of your clients with multiple copies of a summary sheet that lists ONLY the fields to receive manure, acreage, manure rate, and if incorporation/injection is included as part of the nutrient management plan. A map showing the entire farm with those fields highlighted makes the applicator’s job easier. The CCA should also put their phone number on the field listing so that if the applicator needs clarification, he can do it quickly and effectively.

2. Maps and Marking. A sign at each field entrance with the field name helps eliminate errors. Many applicators now have GPS, and may be able to preload your maps or provide you with as-applied data files.

3. Go north in odd-numbered years. Well, not really. But if you can group fields by location (north this year, west next year), it may reduce costs by eliminating the down time of tearing down and setting up equipment. Consider as well the equipment – semis dumping into transfer stations usually dump only on the right, so think about the routing of equipment and what equipment will be used.

4. The rule of 2’s. Do not plan a unique rate for each field. If you can group fields by rate (high fields at 15,000 gal/acre, low rate fields at 9,000 gal/acre), mistakes are less likely to happen. Larger farms may have 3 rates.

5. How low can you go? Call the farmer’s manure applicator in the dead of winter. Find out not only what rates they prefer to use, but also what is the lowest they normally go and how low they actually can apply. It does no good to recommend 4,000 gallons/acre if their equipment can’t go below 8,000. Lower rates increase wear and tear and take longer, so they will drive the cost up for the farmer.

6. Remember the road. Those low phosphorus fields are prime targets for manure. But if the tanker can’t get there easily (low weight limit bridge, field access through neighbor’s yard), hold that field until a year when a dragline is available.

7. A manure sample in the bottle is worth two on the dashboard. Find out from your client when the applicator is pumping. Make sure a sample is taken, or better yet, do it yourself. A sample taken from the dragline after it’s being wound up at the end of the job is worse than no sample at all.

8. Use the off season. Manure applicators are available during the summer, and making an application before hay or winter wheat can buy your clients much needed fall flexibility, esp. in wet falls. This means thinking about the crops and crop rotation (topdressing alfalfa, adding wheat into the rotation, etc.)

9. Encourage your client to hire a certified applicator. A trained applicator is more likely to understand the regulations and helps insure that the 590 is implemented more effectively. More than half of Wisconsin’s applicators are trained, tested and certified by their professional organization.

10. Consider a partnership. Many manure applicators are looking for qualified drivers in the fall season. Creating an employee sharing arrangement with a local manure applicator may help you keep some of your more valued pesticide applicators by providing off-season employment.

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