Brad Mattix really wanted around 36,000 tons of poultry manure from Trillium Farms to sell and to spread over more than 4,000 acres of farmland in Marion and Crawford counties.
“The microbial activity benefits the soil and the yield potential is much better. Once we added this to the soil for five or six years, we were consistently out-yielding fields with commercial fertilizer. The only commercial fertilizer we use now is nitrogen. We showed Trillium Farms our plans and what we wanted to do,” Mattix said. “They said they would prefer us to do all of it.”
And, by all of it, the folks at Trillium Farms meant 135,000 tons of poultry litter from 12 million hens in facilities in Croton, Marseilles and Mt. Victory each year — a suggestion that would give the most ardent supporter of the value of manure a reason to pause.
“That made us wonder if we were going to get in over our heads but we came up with a battle plan to do it,” Mattix said. “We are spreading in 11 counties and it may be 12 this year.”
There was some significant investment necessary to take the large step into manure application for M&W Farm Supply that now buys, resells, and applies the manure from Trillium Farms. To handle the challenging task, along with the sizable farm operation, Mattix added a giant manure storage facility that is 120-feet by 448-feet with a 67-foot peak.
“It is big. We had it full at one time. The facility up at Croton can hold everything for a year, but we try to sell it as quickly as we can because we don’t want to bring it here unless we have to. Sometimes we have no choice with the weather. It is different moisture than everything else and we want to keep that separate if we can,” he said. “It was a big investment. We put that building up and we have three pull type spreaders that can apply anywhere from 20 to 25 tons of manure. Then we have a five-wheel floater as well. I am going to be renting a couple of others this spring because it looks like the weather is not going to be very easy on us.”
Mattix also hired Tim Wood to oversee the manure operation and work closely with the Ohio Department of Agriculture to make sure that the manure would be applied properly.
“I think it is really important that we mind our Ps and Qs and we make sure we do each field right. The problem with dissolved phosphorus is an issue for all farmers in Ohio because regulation is only going to be more not less. We just have to do things right and follow the rules to do things in the most environmentally friendly way we can,” Wood said. “We deal with a set of regulations that we do not spread manure within 100 feet of an occupied residence, house well, creek or stream or any moving water and a road, generally. Those are the basic tenants of the rules. ODA keeps a close eye on those things to make sure we are doing it right. Every one of us counts on the water we drink and our lakes and streams and it is important that we not pollute them.”
Wood takes great care in not only understanding the challenges associated with manure, but also the many benefits.
“Manure is an excellent source of not only N, P and K but food for microbial activity as well. You improve soil in all kinds of ways with manure that you don’t necessarily get with commercial fertilizer. It is almost the perfect diet for microbes,” Wood said, “It is basically an organic form of fertilizer, which makes most of the folks happy to hear. It doesn’t always smell the best, but that goes away in a day or two and you are creating the full circle of returning those nutrients to the earth.”
The agreement between Mattix and Trillium Farms was finalized last summer and things went very well.
“We do everything we can to be a good neighbor. We ask the neighbors to give us a call if there are problems with flies or smells,” Mattix said. “We try to have a good connection with everybody. We encourage them to call us if there is ever and issue because we don’t want to give ourselves a black eye. So far, our complaints are very minimal. We had one call about flies and we went and sprayed for them. We had one call about the smell. Out of all those tons on all of those acres, ODA was really happy to see that was the only issue.”
The first key to successful manure application is making sure the equipment is ready to run.
“We check everything that needs to be checked with the equipment,” Mattix said. “We check everything over and over in preventative maintenance because we can’t afford to break down when we need to be running. I have a crew that works on the farm and I have five other guys that do the manure side, plus a bunch of part time help in the busy season. Fall is the busiest, but spring is the most chaotic because of the weather.”
The next step is to wait for the proper field conditions, in coordination with when the farmers need the manure to be applied.
“We try to apply it as locally as we can. We want to make sure the ground is dried out and firm. We always let the farmer know what we are thinking to make sure it is OK with them,” he said. “It is a lot harder in the spring because of the conditions and it depends on if you are putting it on no-till ground as well. Our goal is to put 20,000 or 25,000 tons down in the spring because we know we need to get rid of some of it.”
The manure is tested for nutrient content and based on soil test recommendations supplied by the farmers.
“The biggest thing is making sure that when we put manure down, the farmer has soil samples. We have to have soil samples and sometimes it takes the guys a while to get them around for us,” Mattix said. “I will not put manure on something if the soil tests show it doesn’t need it. We go off the manure analysis based on the phosphorus levels. Trillium Farms does such a great job of managing their manure. They try to do everything they can to keep it consistent and to keep the moisture levels low to reduce odor and fly problems.”
Every field is handled individually, based on the specific conditions, the plan for the field and how the farmer manages it.
“We usually put it on one time in front of corn and add enough to carry the bean crop. We have a couple of customers only putting a small amount on their bean ground, but most guys do it before corn,” Mattix said. “There are so many advantages to using manure. Those trace elements are a big benefit that people do not think about. If you consider all of that, it is a lot cheaper than commercial fertilizer. It ends up being about the same cost if you are just considering the N, P and K.”
The dry poultry manure is broadcast on the fields.
“Most of the farmers end up incorporating it, but whenever the manure is not worked in, we have to
increase the setbacks three times as much to go by what the ODA says,” Mattix said. “For most people, just light tillage is worth it to get the manure they need out there. Some guys chisel it in or some guys use a Turbo-Till. Incorporation does help to eliminate the odor sooner too.”
Once the necessary requirements are in place, things move quickly.
“Tim does a good job with the kinds of chaos we run. When it is time to spread manure, it can be a fiasco around here. When we are spreading we can end up running 80 to 85 tons an hour per machine. The hardest thing is getting the manure there to keep up the spreaders. We can’t get the manure out of the barns fast enough to keep up with the spreaders,” Mattix said. “We have D&D trucking to do a lot of our trucking and we hire out some local people as well. One day this year we hauled out 126 dump trucks and we still couldn’t keep up with the spreaders.”
Despite the daunting challenges, things went well going into to last winter.
“The ground has been frozen all winter. We were able to spread some on New Year’s Day and then we had some in early April in an area that didn’t catch as much rain. We got 6,000 tons on the ground,” he said. “That tells you how the weather has been cooperating this year.”
Moving forward, M&W Farm Supply will be offering soil testing services and variable rate manure application to more accurately meet the nutrients needs of crops in specific areas of the field.
“We are in the process of starting to offer our own soil sampling for the farmer. We will then be able to offer variable rate application as well,” he said. “With variable rate, the computer varies the application of the manure based on the prescription written for the field. You may get into an area where grandma and grandpa used to raise livestock and there is no reason to put manure on. We soil sample based on soil type zone and our software writes a script for each field. It is amazing technology.”
With close attention to the little details with their very large amount of manure, Mattix and Wood have set the foundations for doing things the right way for the farmers using the manure and the environment.
“You have to make sure to record everything and all of the logistics to keep everything running as efficiently as possible can be a challenge, but we really recognize that we need to do it right. If we do this wrong, we will make it harder with regulations for everyone and I refuse to be that guy,” Mattix said. “We won’t spread a bunch of river bottom ground two days before we know a big rain is coming. This is a giant amount of manure, but with common sense and good communication with the ODA, we know that we are doing it right.”