Managing manure so everyone wins

Manure is (and always has been) part of livestock production, but in recent years it has been increasingly viewed as an asset instead of a liability. Experts emphasize, however, that to get the full benefits and minimize the drawbacks of manure application for the benefit of all parties involved, planning and preparation are extremely important.

“It has to be a sustainable operation for the applicator, the livestock producers and the crop producers,” said Eric Dresbach, president of W.D. Farms, LLC, during a presentation at the Conservation Tillage and Technology Conference in Ada this spring. “Everybody has to win and nobody can win big.”

W.D. Farms handles manure management, including agitation and pumping, transportation and application, consulting and brokering, manure crises management, and trucking in a 200-mile radius around the Pickaway County operation. The goal for every job is to make sure everyone wins and Dresbach offered some tips on how to make that happen.

“Communication solves problems. If you don’t talk about it we’re not going to fix it. Make sure biosecurity is being addressed. Is agitation needed? All of these things need to be figured out in March not in May when everyone is running 100 miles per hour,” he said. “What do I need as an applicator? How many gallons? What fields? When will manure storage be full? Who is paying? Cropping schedule? I need a current soil sample. That is another challenge. I need to identify roads and driveways that are to be used and talk about any concerns you may have ahead of time. Some places won’t let us work on weekends. Some places only want you to drive 15 miles per hour in the driveway. Are there tile blowouts? What tillage has been done? This is not just satisfying the regulatory people. It is about doing things right.”

When W.D. Farms rolls onto a farm, a goal is to be as close to invisible as possible, but that takes extensive preparation ahead of time.

“As an applicator you want to be invisible to the farm. Cities like me because I do my job and they hardly ever see me — no odors, no complaints,” Dresbach said. “We do not interfere with day-to-day operations of the farm. The crop farmer needs the applicator to provide even application, do no harm by not causing compaction, don’t make neighbors mad, and be low maintenance. Everyone needs to have realistic expectations and express them. We have a written contract and written responsibilities. Black and white beats ‘I think’ every single day. Don’t assume. The phones work in both directions. With communication and respect we can all be successful.”

Once the basic plan is in place, the success of the job then depends on getting an accurate assessment of the situation, said Kevin Elder, chief of the Division of Livestock Environmental Permitting with Ohio Department of Agriculture.

“Every manure is different. It agitates differently and different additives change the characteristics of the manure. We only require one sample a year per storage structure, but I would recommend a lot more than that to be efficient with the value of that manure. If you don’t have a good test, everything else will be junk. You’ll either underestimate and have yield losses or you could very easily over apply and have application violations,” Elder said. “Make sure you know what the crops and soils need as far as nutrients. That means soil tests and manure tests. If you don’t have a good idea what the soil and plants need and what you are applying, you are behind the 8-ball to start. Assumptions are not good. You should always use the Tri-State Fertility agronomic range for the crop.”

The specifics of the application situation then become a priority.

“Make sure you know the weather forecast is, what the soil condition is, and the available water holding capacity if it is a liquid manure,” Elder said. “A lot of times your limits may be the water-holding capacity

Eric Dresbach, president of W.D. Farms, LLC, gave a presentation bout manure management at the Conservation Tillage and Technology Conference in Ada this spring.
Eric Dresbach, president of W.D. Farms, LLC, gave a presentation bout manure management at the Conservation Tillage and Technology Conference in Ada this spring.

of the soil at the time of application. A lot of our spills or discharges are because our soil is not able to hold onto what has been applied. There are charts in the NRCS 590 Conservation Practice Standard that tell you how much capacity the soil has to hold onto additional water. It gets down pretty quickly to around 5,000 gallons. You need to understand what those limits are. This is probably one of the most common sources of surface runoff or transmission to the tile.

“You also need to know the setbacks and restrictions to apply the manure properly. Knowing setbacks and following them is one of the most important things to do to prevent discharge. Make sure you are aware of cracks in the soil and know if it is tiled and where the outlets are so you can look at those. You don’t want it running through macropores to the tile and you don’t want it running off the surface. It is not going to be using the nutrients the crops need if it is getting away from you. Usually, if you can keep the nutrients in place you’re not going to have problems with violating the law and penalties.”

Once the manure application process is underway, the situation needs to be carefully monitored to ensure what is supposed to be happening is actually happening.

“One example is double applying with a dragline when going around corners. You need to be aware of that. Maybe you need to change directions so you’re not running close to surface water when you’re making the turns,” Elder said. “We want to get the crop farmer, the livestock producers and the custom applicator to prepare and think through the process of what they need to do and what can go wrong.”

Incorporation is a very useful practice for keeping the nutrients in the manure where they are supposed to be, Elder said.

“What is incorporation? It means placement and mixing with the soil. If there is no surface movement of residue you can’t call it incorporation,” he said. “Manure is naturally very soluble. If water runs off it will carry that solution. If it is incorporated, it binds with the soil. Make sure it is incorporated.”

And, Elder stressed, do not apply manure on frozen, snow covered ground.

“Frozen snow covered ground — just don’t do it,” he said. “Application on a surface that cannot absorb those nutrients, which frozen snow covered ground is — that is probably the most likely chance of losing the nutrients and causing water pollution.”

While there are plenty of challenges in appropriate, legal and efficient manure application, the benefits are worth the extra effort and there are plenty of positive examples of the right way to manage manure. Elder pointed out that there have been tremendous improvements across the board in Ohio’s manure management in recent years.

“We have had a lot fewer problems, a lot fewer discharges, and a lot fewer complaints as we have gone through the years of training and improving manure management. We don’t have the same the situation we had 15 years ago. There is a lot better management,” he said. “But no one is going to be perfect. There will always be accidents. We try to take those things into account. That is part of why we train people to be prepared for those situations — repair any blowholes and use some common sense. Do something to stop it so the problem doesn’t continue. It is a lot easier to fix things first than to capture manure as it floats down the river. It is awful hard to contain that situation once it’s loose.”

If anyone has questions concerning how to handle a situation or an emergency, Elder encourages people to contact the Ohio Department of Agriculture or email him at

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