Manure Management
Manure Management

Manure Management

by Ralph J. Rice of Jefferson, OH
photos of Ohio Amish farms by Lynn R. Miller

Manure management is a hot topic for environmentalists, farmers, public health officials, concerned citizens and neighbors of manure producing facilities. These concerns are valid and a certain amount of planning is necessary. Research projects range from composting to power generation from manure wastes.

I understand the necessity of manure management and don’t mean to make light of such an important environmental concern, but let us not forget to use common sense. The main problem is animal numbers. The more animals confined in a given area, the bigger the problem with waste disposal. It is a sad state of affairs in today’s agriculture when a once valuable commodity, becomes an undesirable by-product.

The negative press created by agribusiness mis-managers makes a difficult problem for small farmers too. Our society has become complacent, choosing not to address the problem makers, choosing instead to try to legislate the problems away. This legislation must be applied fairly to all without regard to financial prominence or the lack of it. The governing bodies that oversee this process are at times much more fair than the misinformed public, fed by a biased media.

Until recently, most of my manure management efforts were spent managing the bits that stick to the soles of my shoes and boots. I’m careful to rinse my boots and stamp off my work shoes, but every now and then I pick up a hitchhiker that rides just long enough to travel into my truck or worse, onto the kitchen floor. After forty years of tracking this black gold from place to place, I have learned to be creative in making it disappear. A well-aimed garden hose will take care of a pick up truck floor mat. A wet broom will clean up a soiled sidewalk. The best method for discretely scraping one’s shoes is to scrape them on the edge of the flowerbed. The offending pieces can then be kicked under the nearest plant to fertilize and nurture it. This same process can be repeated indoors. Look around checking for a disapproving spouse, then bend down scoop up the evidence that proves your shoes were not left outside, and deposit it at the base of the nearest houseplant. A word of caution, pick a new plant every once in a while so as not to get too much of a good thing. We all know the importance of application rates!

Manure Management

The problem of manure management on our small farm is one of minor inconvenience. We are in the process of switching our whole farm to grass based system utilizing sound pasture management. The animals spread most of their own manure throughout the year. I confine them during calving season for short periods of time due to my off farm work schedule. We also accumulate some manure from our draft horses, a few confined hogs, a heifer or two not large enough to be with the bull, and the remnants from daily travel to and from the pastures. This manure accumulates when outside temperatures are warm, so it is easily composted. We mix it with autumn leaves and straw, this mixture once composted, is applied to our “resting” garden spot on top of the clippings of a recently mowed green manure crop.

Our biggest accumulation of manure occurs in the coldest winter months. I don’t like to apply manure to snow covered frozen ground. Manure thus applied is sure to lose most of its goodness during the runoff from the melting snow. Instead, I allow the cow/calf pen to become a “dry pack” by bedding daily with clean straw. The cattle’s hooves mix and pack the manure to a tight yet absorbent mass. This pack makes a nice dry bed and gives good footing to newly born calves on unsteady legs.

The amount-generated daily by the draft horses and a few pigs is mixed with the dry matter from the chicken house and piled in a corner of the feedlot. This pile is flattened daily by the cows and adds to a bedding area created by them. This whole system works well until the weather warms and the snow melts. I keep the sloppy, slushy mess pushed up into a corner and cordon it off from the animals. The runoff that drains off my feedlot has to run six hundred feet across a hayfield to reach a stream, so it creates no problem what so ever. The manure that makes up the pack is left under its covered shed roof until temperatures warm. Once spring is upon us, the manure is all mixed and composted for hayfield applications after the first cutting has been removed, or sheet composted on corn ground before plowing.

We farm using good, environmentally sound, farming practices. Our farm plan includes a covered manure storage area adjacent to our feedlot. We can easily push the manure into this area for composting. The runoff will be contained and our only problem, the slushy spring mess, will be corrected.

I contacted the local USDA office to check on a cost-sharing program to build our manure storage facility. We met here at the farm, checked the site and filled out the scorecard part of the paperwork. The men who visited our farm had high praise for our farm’s design and even more for our farming practices. They were very helpful by offering suggestions, even designing the facility to USDA’s specifications. I was hopeful when they left that we could recapture some of our investment in the new facility. Much to our surprise however, we scored very low by the USDA’s scoring method. We are too good at farming to be able to get any money for improvements. You see, to score high your cows must be trampling the bank of a stream. We have created buffer zones, riparian strips along our steams to catch any runoff and provide habitat for wildlife. Another way to score high is to have raw manure leaking into a ditch or stream causing a potential health hazard, from the waste of too many animals confined in too small an area. In other words, we reward bad farm practices and managers with up to seventy-five cents on every dollar spent to correct problems. We will pay them to fence off streams and create riparian strips. The farms that make the most stink, breed the most flies, and command the best prices due to volume buying, get the largest amount of tax dollars and are encouraged by payment to keep farming poorly.

Small farmers must help lobby against this type of thinking. Incentives should be paid for farming practices that benefit farmers, neighbors, animals, wildlife and indeed our whole environment. Many of the large farms that cause problems for local communities, sell their goods miles and miles from the people supporting their bad farm practices. Small farmers selling directly to local customers are the new American family farmers. This link to community will make better farmers, informed consumers and affluent small towns by trading local goods and services. Money will flow into an area instead of out of it, but it starts by good farming practices. Money must be made available by grant or loan, but always with sound farming practices in mind. To reward someone for farming badly is poor business and counter to most taxpayer’s wishes.

Programs subsidized by our government and supported by citizens should follow the will of the people. If farm subsidies cease and large farms or poor managers fail, a sad day will be felt by a few. As corporate farms and farmers are unable to line their pockets with taxpayer’s money, they will fade away allowing small farms to once again spring forth, creating and stimulating local economies.

Manure Management

The small farm movement that looms on the horizon of this country is unsettling to seed, fertilizer, large machinery companies and many politicians. With independent farms come independent farmers, men not afraid to think outside the box and not motivated by debt or greed. They will have the ability to manage their own affairs, their own animals and farms. These farmers and their ideas are America’s future. I encourage anyone with foresight to get involved in this path to our future. The small farmers of this country are a force to be supported, not reckoned with, a sales opportunity, not a liability. When the current supporters of mega farms and their corporate sponsors finally realize that small farmers are once again here to stay, they will have to shift their thinking, support and loyalties to our side, if they want to survive. Large companies will need to spend time and money helping to stabilize open pollinated seed instead of trying to enslave us with patented genetically modified and hybridized seed. They will need to spend research dollars on sustainable farming practices instead of poisons that kill weeds, bugs and people. Machinery companies will need to once again make a full line of equipment, from tillage to harvest, which is designed for animal power or small farm tractors. Enterprising entrepreneurs see this already. Niche equipment makers are surfacing throughout our country, such as; The Pioneer Equipment Company and I & J Manufacturing, both located near this author. Small farmers on four to forty acres are making their farms profitable. America is moving from commodity based to community-based agriculture, as consumers demand fresh wholesome food.

Our current large farm structure supported by GMO seed companies, petrochemical companies and their fertilizer counter parts, the USDA and greedy politicians, their pockets lined by supporting this nonsense will soon become waste products. They, along with large farms and indeed the very lives of farm managers will become a rotting, stinking quagmire, a product created and supported by themselves, bringing full circle the need for manure management!