Megan Dresbach with W.D. Farms filled up to continue spreading manure in Preble County this spring after a long period since last fall with very limited manure application opportunities.

Getting the most out of manure

By Matt Reese

With staggering increases in commercial fertilizer costs and growing concerns with supply chain issues, locally sourced manure has taken on some additional appeal for crop producers in 2022. The additional soil health benefits of manure are icing on the honey wagon.

But, while the interest in using manure on crop ground may be growing, since last fall the windows to actually get out and apply manure have been extremely limited outside of recent chances for sidedressing corn and following wheat harvest.  

After a soggy autumn, frozen frustrating winter and saturated spring, Megan Dresbach with W.D. Farms based in Pickaway County was finally able to get in fields in mid-May.

“Field conditions are right, finally,” she said on May 13. “It has been a long-awaited spring for that to happen.” 

She was in Preble County applying hog manure at 6,000 gallons an acre ahead of a yet-to-be-planted corn crop. The process is a balancing act of maximizing the nutrient value for the crop and not overapplying based on soil test levels and analysis of the manure.

“We pull a daily composite sample and we have been working with this customer for a while so we have several years of data here. When you apply manure, it is a good guess on an average. It is not commercial fertilizer and you can’t know exactly what is in it. We do a lot of calculated guesses on what it has. Of course, phosphorus is the limiting factor. We look at the soil tests and what the manure has in it and the farmer then can come in and apply whatever else he needs. We like to say manure is a good base layer. A lot of times it can be the only thing the crop needs, but that is up to the farmer, the agronomist and the nutrient management plan,” Dresbach said. “I’m running a JCB 8330. These tractors are unique because they have a highway speed of 42 miles per hour. That makes a big difference in our operation when we travel several hundred miles from home. We can leave the tractor hooked to the honey wagon and the chisel plow and then have a pick-up follow with the pump and the load tube. We can move in one shot. We run GEA honey wagons. This is a 7,300-gallon and the reason we do that is the semis hold 6,500 gallons and we can unload the semi in one shot. Behind it, we have built some chisel plows that are unique because they have a hitch pin. Sometimes we do have to broadcast depending on the product and the crop we are applying to, so we have options and it is easier to pull a hitch pin then to have something hanging on the back of the wagon. We are unique in the tools we use. We like to have different options and we don’t like to spend a lot of time changing things around.”

Technology is valuable in the process for tracking and verifying exactly the amount applied and where it was applied. 

“When I am applying, the GPS gives the farmer a better idea of exactly where we have applied and followed the setbacks instead of on a hand drawn maps. Little things like that can make a big difference,” Dresbach said. “It all goes back to the 4Rs — the right rate, the right source, the right placement, and the right time. We have been doing that for years and when that come out as the industry standard, we didn’t have to change anything. Our farmers give us the soil test with the phosphorus levels, we pull a daily composite sample from the manure so I have an idea of what each customer barn has, and we can make an agronomic decision.”

Used in the right way, manure can be extremely valuable for the farm, soil and water quality. 

“People do not aways realize that manure can actually help water quality. The issues you see in the news are when the manure leaves the field. We do everything we can with the 4Rs to have that manure stay in the field,” she said. “The manure in the soil adds organic matter and that makes the soil healthier. When a healthy soil is working the way it needs to, it helps water infiltration and that is actually better for water quality because the field is retaining the water and the nutrients are not leaving.”

Marv Ulmet, territory application specialist for Bane-Welker Equipment, has seen the growing interest, driven by the growing value of manure.

“Manure management systems people are using today have also driven up the price of what I call commodity manure,” Ulmet said. “Producers are out looking for this type of product to apply to their farms not only for the nutrient value but also the soil health. With the introduction of watershed management and a lot of our issues with water, everyone is pointing to ag. We have to be good stewards and work with our watershed people. Make sure you are following your best management practices, consulting your nutrient management plans and those around you to help you make the right decisions for manure management.”

Part of proper management is using the proper equipment, which depends largely on the specifics of the situation.

“The difference of weight and consistency of the product and even the building the manure is stored in can affect what type of equipment they need to go with. Commercial applicators may go from a light litter to a heavy cattle manure and we have to meet their needs whether it is a rear discharge or a side discharge, tractor pull unit or a truck mounted unit,” Ulmet said. “A lot of it is about convenience and optimizing the power on your tractor. If we’re out in the field and we have a high horsepower tractor for tillage, that is a very good way to utilize hours on your tractor and get that material applied as well. Truck mounted units are for smaller operations, or operations that may be doing a lot of road travel or maybe you’re in a full no-till situation and you don’t need the high horsepower.”

The capacity of the equipment is another consideration.

“Most manufacturers work in cubic feet and most manure people give us a weight and then we have to figure out how to convert all of that to see what works for that producer,” he said. “We are seeing more people trading out of manure equipment for something newer and larger so they have fewer breakdowns. Those top producers are looking to make sure they are very efficient at what they do in the timeframe they have to do it.”

Plus, the newer equipment works better with the new technology to ensure, and document, the job is done correctly.

“We use mapping to document application rates to back up our stories and make sure it is readily available for our regulatory agencies if needed. Rate applicators are all part of it and it works hand in hand together,” Ulmet said. “With regulations in Ohio, we need to stay away from frozen soils. And I love no-till, but when it comes to incorporating manure, that is a best management practice and a best neighbor practice.”

With ongoing research (including more Ohio work on sidedressing manure on corn and use on double-crop soybeans), improving precision technology and high dollars at play, there are growing opportunities and challenges with effectively getting the most out of the often-under-appreciated value of manure. 

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