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Economics and technology restoring historic value of recycling manure as fertilizer (04/12/2006)
Talk about recycling, for thousands of years farmers used livestock manure as fertilizer for crops. However, in recent decades, commercial fertilizer took the lead because it was cheaper and easier to use. Manure often was viewed as an odorous waste.

Today, rising energy prices and new technology are restoring the reputation of livestock manure as a valuable crop fertilizer. "Turning the corner on viewing manure as a commodity rather than a waste has the potential to improve both the environment as well as the public image of livestock farming," says Wayne Anderson, agricultural liaison for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA).

"Historically, it was the primary source of fertilizer for crops," Anderson says. "After World War II commercial fertilizer became available to agriculture at relatively low cost, and to some extent manure became a waste by-product of a growing agricultural economy. Today, fertilizer costs have caught up and farmers are realizing the value of the nutrient and soil benefits."

"Years ago, hog farmers were giving the manure away, even paying to get rid of it," says David Ward, a Mapleton area farmer and member of the Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council. "Now they're being asked for it and getting paid. It's economically feasible now. It's a valuable resource and if it's managed properly it's a win-win situation."

"Manure is definitely being managed better today due to improved equipment," says Doug Albin, who farms near Clarkfield in western Minnesota. "We have greater ability to transport further, making more acres available for application at responsible rates. The economics today mean that farmers will practice best management and realistic application based on profit levels and yield goals. I hope that at some point we can use all our crop in Minnesota as either feed, fuel or fiber, and that we have enough livestock to produce enough organic fertilizer," Albin says. However, both Ward and Albin agree there are challenges using manure as fertilizer. The logistics of hauling and applying thousands of gallons or tons of liquid or solid manure exceed that of commercial fertilizers. The amount of nutrients in manure can vary, and the amount of time available for application is often very limited. "Timing can be difficult," Albin says.

"We could actually use more livestock from a nutrient point of view," Ward says. "With good equipment and trucks we are able to transport farther. Injection (into the soil) reduces odors and runoff, and conserves on nitrogen fertilizer by preventing loss by evaporation, but the narrow application window is difficult. It could be only three weeks for some individual farms and 60 days overall, primarily in fall after harvest." Winter and early spring are less suitable for injection because of frozen or wet ground.

"Some of the challenges can be met by better equipment and management practices," says Dave Wall, MPCA hydrologist and manure application specialist. "We are seeing improved manure storage practices. Many farms can store manure for over a year, allowing them to apply at more optimal times," Wall says. "Improvements in equipment that injects liquid manure several inches into the soil allows greater precision."

Anhydrous ammonia, a primary form of commercial fertilizer, is produced from natural gas. "Increasing (commercial) fertilizer prices have increased the potential value of manure," says Bob Koehler of the University of Minnesota Research & Outreach Center at Lamberton in southern Minnesota. His research suggests real numbers with up to $1.60 per head in swine finishing operations in fertilizer replacement value above manure application costs.

Koehler says this return can be achieved when highly concentrated swine finishing manure is applied at rates that provide recommended nitrogen levels for a crop such as corn, and where soil testing indicates a need for nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. "There are more uncertainties with manure, but it has significant value if applied in an efficient way. A high crop nutrient need, nutrient-dense manure, and accurate application are factors that contribute to manure value," Koehler says.

In addition to the economics of crop production, livestock manure also benefits the soil by adding organic matter. "One advantage of manure over commercial fertilizer is that all of the essential nutrients for plant growth are present and in roughly the right proportions," says John Moncrief, soil science expert at the University of Minnesota. "Manure also makes soil less erosive by making smaller soil particles clump together to form stable larger particles. This increases water infiltration and lowers the amount of soil particles in runoff. Research in Minnesota has shown that if managed properly it can be an environmental plus for water quality."

Preventing runoff from feedlots and fields where manure has been applied is a major focus of MPCA water pollution prevention efforts. "The MPCA works with livestock producers to ensure that all the benefits of manure are realized, while protecting water quality in lakes, streams, wetlands, and ground water," Wall says. "Testing manure and soil for another major nutrient, phosphorus, is important because phosphorus causes algae blooms in lakes, rivers and wetlands."

Beyond the age-old use of manure as fertilizer, new technologies are being studied and employed. Several dairy farms have installed digesters that process manure to create methane. This is used to generate electricity. In Benson, Fibrominn is building the nation's first power plant to be fueled by burning turkey litter.

"With the increase in large livestock facilities, much of animal agriculture has made the transition from the smaller enterprise to larger, management-intensive operations," Anderson says. "We have seen support businesses begin to flourish ranging from nutrient management consultants to manure brokerages linking manure suppliers with manure users. To be successful in the long run, businesses must manage all of their resources and processes in an efficient and productive manner, and this includes manure."

More information about the proper use and benefits of livestock manure as fertilizer can be found on several Web sites:

www.manure.umn.edu - Manure Education, Research, and Applied Information - University of Minnesota.

www.pca.state.mn.us/hot/feedlot-management.html - Feedlots - Nutrient and Manure Management - MPCA.

swroc.coafes.umn.edu/Bob/koehler_main_page.html - Livestock Industry Programs - Southwest Research and Outreach Center - University of Minnesota. 


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