Expanding your herd means expanding manure storage

When expanding the livestock herd, consider the additional manure volume, time to haul and days of the year to accomplish the task.

I hope you’re fortunate enough to have someone wanting to continue the family farm. If so, together you are probably also talking about expanding the livestock herd, making upgrades and improvements to meet the future. It’s always exciting to consider the prospects of expansion, more cows, new milk parlor, more efficient systems, more income and just seeing the family grow and progress.

When the herd doubles, or triples or quadruples, so does the manure. More manure means more hours and days to haul it. Often smaller farms have weekly or monthly manure storage systems. This necessitates hauling during all seasons of the year. Ask yourself, how stressful is it to get the manure hauled with the current livestock numbers and weather conditions and what are the prospects for finding more time and more appropriate weather when you expand?

This conversation generally leads to plans for expanding the manure storage. If you currently have one month of storage and double the herd, there will only be two weeks of storage. If the herd is doubled and the storage is doubled, the system is back to one month of manure storage but will take twice as long to empty. If the manure storage is expanded to six months and the herd is expanded, it now has to be hauled twice a year but will take a much bigger window of opportunity to do so. Do the crop rotations, soil types, time and labor lend themselves to this expansion on your farm? First, is there sufficient land base to appropriate haul manure based on agronomic nitrogen and phosphorus soil limitations and or regulations in your state? A good rule of thumb is to have two to three acres per milking cow when replacements are also housed on the farm for long term sustainability.

Manure storage is often seen as an investment with minimal or no return to investment. Yes, it is a big expense. The frequency of hauling is reduced, but it takes longer when it is hauled and that requires a week or more of favorable weather conditions to achieve which seems increasing harder to find. To speed up the process often a new, bigger manure spreader is necessary.

There can be some financial efficiency gained with larger manure storages. Manure can be hauled within a shorter time frame (maybe five days every few months rather than an older system requiring five hours every day or week). When the hauling is done, tillage can incorporate the entire field shortly after application, preserving the nitrogen fertilizer value, protecting all nutrients from runoff and more quickly reducing odors. Remember, doubling the herd plus doubling the manure hauling equals increased odor risks in the neighborhood. Neighbors who used to be friendly may not be as congenial with the livestock expansion if it generates more frequent and longer times of odor events.

Farms on daily or weekly manure hauling schedules generally do not incorporate immediately after application, losing valuable nitrogen. Even when it is incorporated, the time lag and variable weather and temperature from the time hauling begins to the time a field is finished can be days, weeks or months. With the volatility of manure nitrogen to temperature and rainfall, it is risky to estimate a single nitrogen credit the following season across the entire field. Therefore, some areas are probably receiving more nitrogen fertilizer than they needed and others may be shorted. Either way, the potential savings on nitrogen fertilizer cannot be realized with this method of manure application in a manner that also ensures maximum corn yields. So the investment in additional manure storage will have some return on investment if and when the nitrogen credits to the crop rotation are achieved and fertilizer is reduced. Additionally, if more road-worthy equipment or custom applicators are hired, the manure may be transportable to fields farther away, better utilizing the phosphorus and potassium creating a potential fertilizer saving on those nutrients as well. Other non-tangible advantages include reducing the risk of runoff, neighborhood complaints and even potential environmental damages.

If and when time is short on a farm (when isn’t it?), manure from larger storage systems may be most efficiently hauled out by a custom applicator. If the custom applicator can come twice a year and haul for several days, the cost per gallon or ton of manure hauled will be more reasonable and quicker and lead to quicker incorporation.

Not to dampen the enthusiastic spirits of the next generation coming into farming, but considering the entire system from herd health and efficiency and including manure management should be done up front.

This article was originally posted in Hoard’s Dairyman, June 2012.