By Matt Reese
The investment is high, fickle weather determines the schedule and well, sometimes, the job just stinks, but Zach Parker, owner of Zippy’s Manure Service, enjoys finding the right balance with manure application and fulfilling a critical role in Ohio agriculture.
Parker provides a way for farmers in north-central Ohio to maximize manure’s benefits and minimize the challenges. Too much manure results in environmental issues and the loss of valuable nutrients; too little does not meet crop needs and is inefficient. Parker operates in a carefully balanced middle ground.
“I started my business back in 2017 and I do custom manure hauling. I’m based in Crawford County and my furthest client is about 32 miles away,” Parker said. “I do a number of hog facilities and a couple of dairies where we haul the manure from the barns to farmer’s fields. We apply the manure however they want it done. We’re trying to work on incorporating more manure instead of using the splash pan, just because incorporating keeps the neighbors happier and there are nutritional benefits for the farmers to better utilize the nitrogen.”
Parker continually upgrades equipment and this fall he was in a Fendt 822 using a 6,000-gallon manure tank with Dietrich sweep injectors. He switched from a 6-inch lagoon pump for the dairy operations to an 8-inch pump.
“We went from about 5- to 7-minute load time on the 6-inch, down to about a minute to 90 seconds with the 8-inch now,” Parker said.
In general, 2023 was a good year for Zippy’s Manure Service in terms of opportunities for application.
“It’s been a very good year so far working with the Mother Nature. We’re probably a little bit below normal rainfall. We’ve been having some bigger rains, just not very often and I know right now we’re pretty dry,” he said. “This fall with injecting the manure in the drier soils, it is a little bit harder to get the manure in the ground where we would like to see it. We’d like to try to get it in that 3- to 6-inch depth and I’m probably pushing a little bit closer to that 3-inch depth because the ground moisture is not there to be able to get the row units deeper in the ground.”
Along with the weather, manure application also has to be done around the cropping schedule.
“For most of my clients right now we basically just go through in the spring and pull some manure out of each of our facilities, just to make sure they have enough room to get them by until later in the summer after wheat,” Parker said. “The bulk of our work is usually in the fall after soybean harvest and some corn ground.”
In recent years, an increasing amount of the manure applications are followed by cover crops.
“I would say more so the dairies are doing the cover crops just because they have the option of planting cover crops for making feed in the spring. It gives them more options,” he said.
The type of manure obviously dictates the application rates.
“It’s the gallons per acre we struggle with on the swine manure. It’s a little bit more watery, so we have to watch our higher applications on that just to make sure it stays on the field where it needs to be. Dairy manure usually has a lot more bedding in it and you can hold it on the ground a lot easier, so we can typically put a little bit more on per acre,” Parker said. “I always recommend soil testing often and pulling manure samples. That way, if you’re growing corn for that year and if you’re putting swine manure down, you don’t put 10,000 gallons an acre down because that’s just way too much nitrogen and you’re not going to be utilizing it. I always just recommend applying what the ground needs based on the kind of crops you’re trying to grow and what bushels per acre you’re trying to achieve. When I pull the manure samples, I pull one towards the beginning of the manure application from the barn, one in the middle and then one at the end to give us a better sample.”
The duration of a visit to a site for Parker depends on a number of factors.
“I’m usually at a farm for about 3 or 4 days. It just kind of depends on what Mother Nature decides to throw at us. Typically, that 3- to 4-day mark is pretty common for a lot of the hog farms and then the dairy is pretty similar, but it just depends on how many gallons we need to move. That’s the biggest deciding factor for a dairy, just because the volume is usually a lot more than a hog facility,” he said. “The other thing is how far we are hauling the manure. Hog farms seem to be trying to utilize some of the H2Ohio money and they are going a little bit further away than what the dairies are.”
Parker’s service area falls within the Lake Erie watershed and the initial focus of the H2Ohio program.
Specifically for manure incorporation and utilization, H2Ohio offers:
• $35 per acre for dry manure or litter
• $60 per acre for all liquid manure
• $15 per acre bonus for fields that have a field average of less than 25 ppm Mehlich-III.
To comply with H2Ohio, all manure applications must be completed by Nov. 1 and the application may be achieved through nine different methods and timings.
Additionally, in the Western Lake Erie Basin, surface application of manure is prohibited:
• On snow-covered or frozen soil:
• When the top 2 inches of the soil are saturated from precipitation; or
• When the weather forecast in the application area calls for >50% chance of rain exceeding one-half inch in a 24-hour period.
These restrictions on the surface application of manure do not apply when:
• The manure is injected into the ground;
• The manure is incorporated within 24 hours of surface application;
• The manure is applied onto a growing crop;
• If there is an emergency, the director of agriculture can provide written consent.
Farmers (and manure haulers) are responding to the rule changes and opportunities with H2Ohio. Field survey research results of farms in the Lower Maumee Watershed (just west of Parker’s area) conducted by the Ohio Agriculture Conservation Initiative released in 2022 found:
• Livestock manure represented 12% of total on-farm nutrient sources
• 91% of fields surveyed were fertilized using appropriate setback distances to critical areas for manure application, according to USDA-NRCS 590 standards
• 20% of fields surveyed were using subsurface manure application
• 77% of fields surveyed incorporated the manure
• 26% of fields surveyed had subsurface manure applied into vegetative cover or an actively growing crop, which helps keep nutrients in the field.
“We do quite a bit of work for the H2Ohio program, especially with the hog farms. It seems like they’re a little bit more involved typically, but with that being said, the dairies that we do work for, they do have their own drag line setups so that might be part of the reason why we don’t do as much H2Ohio work. With the hog barns, we definitely do a lot of the injecting to meet the qualifications for H2Ohio,” Parker said. “The big challenge I see moving forward with the H2Ohio program is that it’s designed to try to get people to go a little bit further away with the manure and try to manage their ground a little bit better, but some people just want stick close to the farms and just keep doing what they’re doing and not really changing their practices. Overall, though, I’m pretty excited moving forward just to see what might become of the H2Ohio program.”
Parker also has to balance biosecurity needs, especially for hog operations.
“We work a lot with biosecurity we have to follow with hog farms,” Parker said. “We have to consider that if we’re going from one producer’s facility to another producer’s facility, and there is some biosecurity that we’ve got to watch too between the barn to barn with the same producer, depending on the health of the pigs.”
Another ongoing challenge is finding labor.
“In this line of work that I do, it’s not considered a full-time job. It’s seasonal, so to try to find someone part-time that’s willing to put in 12-plus hours a day, seven days a week depending on what the weather will let us do and things like that. It’s always a challenge,” Parker said. “It always seems like once you find the right person, then you usually don’t have to worry about it. But a lot of those people come from an agriculture background, so they’re typically working around their fall harvest and working on their own family farms.”
Parker has also learned how to find the right balance with non-farm neighbors who have concerns about the nature of his work.
“Over the years, I’ve learned to get very educated in what I’m doing and try to answer the public when they have questions or complaints about what I’m doing to the best of my ability,” he said. “I know not everyone likes to see me go by their house 300 or 400 times in 4 or 5 days and I know we sometimes stink and we may be in their way. We have a lot of negatives, but I have found out if you’re educated and you do the right things and you explain what you’re doing in a professional manner to help other people understand what we’re trying to do and accomplish, it keeps everybody a lot happier.”