Seed & Chemical
Manure offers cheap, sometimes free, fertility
By Treena Hein
Like tax increases, one other thing farmers can count on is rising fertilizer costs. To minimize fertilizer wastage, growers do things like regular soil testing, grouping fields together for different treatments if test results warrant, and using the corn N calculator on GoCorn.net. More growers are also investigating two cost-effective alternatives to chemical fertilizer: manure from nearby livestock farms and free municipal sewage bio-solids.
Some farmers are of the opinion that their peers with manure should be giving it to them for free. However, in the view of Sonke Claussen and others, “Manure is definitely a commodity with a dollar value attached to it, if you can apply the manure right, timely and technically.”
Most farmers find it tough to put a value to manure, notes Claussen, who is co-owner of Claussen Farms Custom Farming in Brucefield, Ontario. “We’re buying manure ourselves and paying for it according to commercial fertilizer nutrient values, less application or transport costs,” he says. “We think all poultry manures and composts are worth buying, but with solid dairy and beef manure, it’s often a tough call.”
Whether a grower uses his own livestock’s manure, purchases it or gets it free, increasing numbers of farmers are finding it more economical and convenient to hire a custom operator such as Claussens than to buy and maintain adequate spreading equipment. It is quicker, which keeps neighbours happier, and while the operator is on-farm, the owner can get other things done. As well, the grower can have a paper record of what was spread and when, with many companies also offering records in a digital format.
Farmers with acreage that is located some distance from their barns are also among those finding it cost-effective to hire companies to haul and spread manure. “We have tractor-trailer delivery for those fields that take too much time for the farmer to drive to with a tractor and tank,” says Henry Van Iperen, an application technician and consultant with Bartels Environmental Services in Ancaster, Ontario.
Like others, Bartels offers a variety of manure and digester management services, as well as soil sampling and nutrient management planning. For application, they employ a dragline system or Nuhn quad train, which has flotation tires.
Besides tight timing in the spring, many growers shy away from the added impact of heavier equipment on their land. “Many of my customers own manure tanks but will not use them in the spring for compaction reasons,” observes Frank Boere, president of Boere Custom Irrigation of Kerwood, Ontario.
Boere says dragline systems are advantageous that way, and also provide accurate liquid manure spread patterns. With his six-inch, lay-flat hose, he can spread manure up to 3.5 kilometres (a little more than two miles) away from a pit (a transport truck is used for greater distances). “The drag hose is laid out in such a manner that it will cover up to a 60-acre piece of land in one set-up,” Boere explains. “The drag hose is connected to a tool-bar applicator with three nozzles that spread 48 feet wide and only 24 inches from the ground with a very accurate triangular spread pattern.”
The flow meter displays total gallons spread and gallons per minute, and the targeted gallons per acre is achieved using a speed chart.
Heed these tips
To ensure all goes smoothly with custom manure application, remember the importance of good communication. Because most custom jobs must be done in a timely manner, Claussen says “I always tell my customers to call me as soon as their land is ready or they want some services. We’ll then talk back and forth often, and nail down a date. We may have to look at the field, as well.”
Services can be delayed by weather. Also note that companies sometimes attempt to group farmers in one area together to maximize efficiency.
Instead of beginning the communication process in the spring, however, Claussen strongly recommends having discussions far ahead of that point in time. “We prefer to meet at least twice with the farmer during the winter to do long-term planning, so that we can move forward quickly in the spring and everyone is on the same page,” he says. Having winter meetings with written plans also allows for time to analyze factors such as a nutrient management plan, choice of crop varieties and type of tillage, and relate them to how much manure can be spread and how.
At the time of service, farmers should be provided with a detailed written report from their provider. “We summarize what has been spread, how much, what location, conditions that day, and might also list things we think the farmer should follow up on,” Claussen says.
Another factor that may come up is the value for services provided in relation to cost. “Most of our customers understand from the start that we take pride in the quality of our work and we try to do the job right and on time, and so we are not the cheapest on the market,” notes Claussen. “However, sometimes there must be some discussion of this.”
Claussen stresses that farmers should view the decision to hire custom services as the first step in building a long-term working relationship. “It takes about two years to fully establish a partnership, so to speak, for farmers to fully understand the process,” he notes, “and for trust to be built on both sides.”
Pricing the job
The choice of spreading system, the type of spreading (on-field or injected) and the location of fields are the main factors affecting total service cost. The industry standard cost is 1 cent per gallon top spread and 1.1 cents for in-ground injection.
Bartels’ Nuhn quad train tankers hold 12,000 gallons and have a 14-foot injector. He charges an hourly fee instead of a per-gallon rate. If the manure has to be trucked to the field, there is an hourly fee per truck, and Bartels’ trucks each hold 9000 imperial gallons.
Van Iperen offers the scenario of a farmer with 100 acres, five kilometres from the main farm, who wants a dragline used and 500,000 gallons of manure in his pit to be injected into the field. Using industry standards, the estimated costs are as follows: For dragline application, the spreading cost is 1.1 cents per gallon X 500,000 gallons = $5500. Two trucks are required to keep the dragline supplied at approximately $125 per truck per hour. If each truck holds 9000 gallons, 56 truckloads will be needed in total.
At 2.5 truckloads per hour, this equals 23 hours of trucking time, for a total trucking cost of $5750. The total cost would therefore be $11,250 plus HST. If the farmer would like the quad train system, the cost would be approximately $250 per hour for the tractor and quad train. Two trucks are again required to keep the spreader supplied. At two loads per hour, it will take 28 hours to truck the 56 loads. Thus the spreading cost would be $250 X 28 hours = $7000, and the trucking cost would also be $7000, for a total cost of $14,000 plus HST.
Boere notes that cost is one of two important advantages top-spreading holds compared to injection. “The cost to inject manure with the drag hose system would be approximately 40 per cent more, and a lot of farmers are not willing to pay for that,” he says. “Also, it is hard to inject manure at the low rate per acre required by most nutrient management plans.”
However, using a dragline to have liquid manure spread means farmers should till soon afterwards to save nutrients, particularly nitrogen, from volatilization. The cost of Boere’s services is $10.50 per 1000 gallons up to 1.5 kilometres from a manure pit. Greater distances of up to 3.5 km cost up to $15.00 per 1000 gallons.
Farmers can also get sewage bio-solids distributed on their fields free of charge by companies like Brantford-based Wessuc Inc. The company operates over a large area, from Barrie to the Haldimand-Norfolk region.
Previously, Ontario Ministry of the Environment regulations stipulated that farmers could receive only one application during a five-year period, notes Matt Jolley, Wessuc’s land application co-ordinator. However, as of January 2010, bio-solids are now applied on a nutrient-specific basis and regulated under the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. Within a five-year period, there is a maximum amount of nutrients that can be applied, explains Jolley. So, soil testing for macronutrients and micronutrients, which has always been legally required to receive bio-solids, is now more important than ever.
The quantity of nutrients contained in sewage bio-solids depends on whether they are in liquid or solid form and can also differ among loads. Based on an application rate of 135 kg per hectare (120 lbs per acre) of anaerobic liquid sewage bio-solids, Jolley says that each acre of a field will generally receive 120 pounds of nitrogen and 50 pounds of plant-available phosphorus, in addition to micronutrients. However, potassium levels are generally quite low.
Neal Miller, who farms corn, soybeans and wheat at Miller Farms in Jerseyville, Ontario, has been receiving bio-solids from Wessuc once every five years since the mid-1990s. “I have the soil sampled every other year,” he says. “It’s a lot of free nutrients, which is pretty valuable.”
The application is more controlled and consistent now, he says. “There are flow meters now, and I am provided with an application map, and so we spread fertilizer accordingly.”
Miller has many neighbours and “no one really likes it,” he says, referring to his application practices. “The liquid doesn’t smell so bad, but the semi-solids are too smelly and would upset the neighbours, so I don’t use that.”
OMAFRA’s list of brokered manure and sewage spreading firms is located at: www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/nm/nman/brokerlist.htm