Thursday, May 31, 2018

Manure Sidedressing

As the warm summer heat pushes the corn taller, it seemed a good time to discuss sidedressing manure. Today, I want to look at three potential reasons people may want to sidedress manure:  storage management, nitrogen management, and equipment availability.
So, what is sidedressing manure?
Sidedressing is the application of fertilizer to an already established and growing crop. In the case of sidedressing manure, it simply refers to the fertilizer source being a manure. This can be done using either tanks or dragline application methods, though equipment must clear the emerged corn and move mostly between rows, giving only a short window.
Storage Management
Sidedressing opens up an additional spring window for manure application and thus potentially a chance to reduce storage pressure by having more room available going into fall. However, there are a few things to consider. Sidedressing with manure has a relatively short window. It probably isn’t a good idea to rely on it as your only land application window, as the weather during this short window can be unpredictable. From a nutrient management perspective, if we miss this window we can still get nitrogen applied using other sources and other equipment to provide it fertility, but that doesn’t provide an opportunity to use the manure.
Nitrogen Management
Sidedressing nitrogen allows it to be placed just before corn uptake is maximized and in so doing the risk of losses from earlier spring rains or long warm falls is reduced. There is some risk the weather during the sidedress window will not be suitable for manure application, but as other forms of nitrogen can be applied at larger growth stages, there is still options available to successfully manage the crop.
In terms of manure, though we often think of it as an organic nutrient source, much of the nitrogen, approximately 70% in the case of liquid swine manures, is available as ammonium. This fraction is immediately available for crop uptake and means this type of liquid manure is a good choice for sidedress fertilizers.
Equipment Considerations
While both tanks and dragline application methods can be used, the equipment needs to be set up so it will fit between the rows. For tanks, this means having tire widths that can move between the rows and injectors. For dragline application, it means making sure application is finished during or prior to the V4 stages so the corn plants are still springy enough they can bend over when the hose crosses over them.
If you’d like to try sidedressing manure with a dragline, consider planting corn at a 45-degree angle to the field, so it follows the natural pattern applicators would use with draglining.
Finally, if you are sidedressing manure, be sure to let us know, we’d be glad to come watch, collect some pictures, and even some crop performance and water quality data if you are willing. Let me know at or 515-294-4210.

Figure 1. Manure sidedressing using a dragline application method.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Prepping for the Manure Applicator Training Advisory Meeting

Generally, when I’m writing it is about the science of manure, but I thought today I’d write something a little different. Today is the Manure Applicator Training Advisory meeting for the 2019 Iowa Manure Applicator Training Program. Every year we get to interact and share information on manure with about 5000 individuals in this program, help them understand the current state of the industry and the science, and hopefully encourage them to make the best possible decisions on how to utilize their manure.

I consider it a great privilege to help provide this program. Manure is an important topic in Iowa and one that touches on technology and machinery, agriculture and the environment, human and animal safety, soil science, and so many more. There is great diversity in the topics each individual farmer or manure applicator will find important, and the challenge is how do we take what we know about them and their farms, there application companies, current and future regulations, and provide them with knowledge that they find useful, interesting, and engaging.

While I by no means have it figured out, we have been working on engaging, exploring active learning. Last year one activity we explored using active learning was compaction. Those present were divided into teams and set around to discuss and answer four questions related to compaction and how it impacts the manure business. This provided a great chance to stretch their legs, but also some peer-to-peer discussion and a chance for sharing of their experience. You can get an idea of what was happening in the photo below, and while discussion may have started slow, as we went along it picked up and we got plenty of great comments. As we are planning for the upcoming year I thought it would be fun to look back on the activity and see what we heard.

 Figure 1. Groups discussed and provide answers to each question, spending 5-7 minutes discussing and summarizing.

The four questions we asked were: 1. What causes compaction? 2. Why do we care about compaction? 3. What are your or your client’s expectations about compaction? And 4. How can we reduce compaction (primarily related to manure application)? For each of the questions we compiled the answers as a “wordle.” For those of you like me who may not know, a Wordle is a toy for generating word clouds from test that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the text, or this case the answers provided at all the different sites. The important thing is that the give a quick and elegant way of providing a visual clue summarize what people were talking and discussing in their answers to the questions. So let’s take a look at what they had to say.
Figure 2. What causes compaction?

Figure 3. Why do we care about compaction?

Figure 4. What are you or your client’s expectations about compaction?

Figure 5. How can we reduce compaction?

My goal here won’t be to dissect these answers, but you can see that there were themes that emerged and we’ll try to focus more on those, how they relate to the science we do know on compaction, and more importantly how the mitigation strategies they mentioned rely on that science. Overall, though the activity proved worthwhile, provided a few smiles, and we well received, so something we’ll continue to pursue and work on.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Human Waste Treatment compared to Livestock Manure Management

A while back I wrote about why human and animal waste are treated and managed differently. In many respects, this was an economic rationalization why we chose to do things so differently with the same goal in mind, protection of water quality. The foundation behind it was right, but it stopped short of the question I get more often, which one is more effective.

While it’s important to keep in mind that there are good reasons to manage them differently, I’m going to make a simple comparison between the two systems. Granted there is a lot more we could focus on than just BOD (biological oxygen demand, the amount of oxygen needed to break down the waste which tells us something about the risk of a fish kill) and the amount and forms of nitrogen that comes out of each system.

To recap what was covered in the first post, there are significant differences in how human and animal wastes are managed.  Human waste (assumed here to be domestic waste only, no industrial in this post) is typically treated and discharged to receiving waters.  Animal manures are typically stored and land applied.

Several factors influence the difference in approaches including:
      • Wastewater characteristics
      • Regulation
      • Economics
The following table compares typical waste characteristics and volumes for a 10,000 population city) and a 10,000 head hog farm, for both total volumes produced and the characteristics of it.

Table 1 – Human and Animal Waste Comparison (1,2)
10,000 Population City
10,000 Head Hog Farm
1,250,000 GPD

456.3 MG/yr
125 gpd/capita
12,000 gpd
4.4 MG/yr
1.2 gpd/head
1,900 lb/d
693,500 lb/yr
0.19 lb/d/capita
3,030 lb/d
1,105,500 lb/yr
30,350 mg/L
300 lb/d
109,500 lb/yr
0.03 lb/d/capita

700 lb/d
255,000 lb/yr
7,000 mg/L

80 lb/day
29,200 lb/ yr
0.008 lb/d/capita
95 lb/day
76,500 lb/yr
2,100 mg/L

Oxygen Demand
3,470 lb/day
1.1 lb O2 per lb BOD and
4.6 lb O2 per lb nitrogen
6,550 lb/day

1.1 lb O2 per lb BOD and
4.6 lb O2 per lb nitrogen

Regulation and Estimated Nutrient Loss

All wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) must meet the requirements of their discharge permit as part of the Clean Water Act.  Typical permits include limits for BOD, solids, ammonia, pH, and disinfection to kill pathogens.  Focus on the harmful effects of nutrients (total nitrogen and phosphorus) in watersheds (depressed oxygen levels, algal blooms, fish kills) has led to increased regulation of nutrients for many treatment plants, often requiring advanced and expensive treatment processes.  Most treatment plants land apply treated solids and must meet regulations with limits on pathogens, nutrient loading rates and application practices. 

While this definition of the process is helpful, what we typically want to know is how many pounds of BOD, N, and P we are allowed to discharge per person. That is what is the actual effect we have?  Looking at the city of Ames wastewater permit, our municipal treatment facility is allowed 2018 lb/day of BOD, and 284 lb D of NH3-N lb of N per day. For fun let’s say Ames has a population of 66,000. This is 11 lb BOD/per person per year and 1.6 lb NH3-N/person per year discharged.  They don’t mention nitrate, but it’s probably about 9.4 lbs NO3-N as very little is denitrified using the current technology they have (though this is subject to change).

Most animal operations, once they hit a size threshold of 1000 animal units, are subject to an NPDES permit if they propose to discharge. Iowa law actually doesn’t allow confinement farms to discharge, so on the point source side the regulations are pretty stringent and the number would be zero except in extreme weather conditions. However, land application of animal manures is an important part of nutrient transport. Let’s work off a pig space, so at 1.2 gallons per day and N content of 60 lb N per 1000 gallons of manure. This works out to about 30 lbs of N per pig space per year, so about 0.2 acres fertilized with the manure. We lose about 30 lb N per hectare as nitrate leaching when we grow row crops, so we are losing about 5 lb N per pig space per year, so about half of what we lose per person. Losses of NH3-N in water and BOD in water are very minimal do to the effective treatment of soil.
Figure 1. Water quality is important to all Iowans. Different treatment approach can both help achieve desired water quality objectives.

Final Thoughts

1.      If we didn’t recycle manure as a fertilizer would the nutrient load to streams increase, decrease, or stay the same?
2.      If we say there are no point source losses from collection to storage (a mostly true assumption) how much does manure contribute to the nutrient loading?

If we treated manure like municipal waste, the nitrogen loss actually goes up as we just replace the manure with other synthetic fertilizer (meaning non-point source losses stay similar, though some change is possible). We’d also have additional nutrient loss; though we may remove most of the BOD and almost all the ammonia in the manure, we’d still have nitrate released from the treatment plant into our streams and rivers.

The other interesting take away was that while the two approaches for treatment were drastically different, they both seemed to be equally effective at removing BOD and ammonia from water, but have some difficulty with nitrate though losses per pig space are estimated to be about half of that from a human.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Real Scoop on Manure

Recently an article was published in The Storm Lake Times titled Nitrate levels expected to rise with hog numbers. The topic of nutrient management and the role animal production is multifaceted, rarely having any easy answers, and almost always having complex interactions that need to be carefully considered. Here we will take a look at some of the implications animal agriculture has on nutrient management and as a result, its impact the concentrations of nitrate and phosphorus in the Raccoon River. As animal agriculture looks to expand, an important question is, ”How will waters of Iowa be impacted?”

An important starting point for any conversation on manure nutrients is, how effectively they can be used as a fertilizer resource. Most manure in Iowa is managed this way. In terms of nutrient losses, most university studies have indicated when appropriate application timing guidance is followed, and when similar nitrogen application rates are selected, nitrogen losses via leaching will be similar to those from commercial fertilizer sources. For example, the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy science assessment team summarized all the research comparing both swine manure and poultry manure to spring applied commercial fertilizer and found nitrate-N leaching losses were similar as were corn yield. Similarly, in terms of phosphorus management, given the same soil conditions and runoff shortly after application, Iowa State University research shows using manure, instead of commercial phosphorus fertilizers, actually reduces phosphorus loss from that first runoff even by about 50%! The best research we have says, under appropriate management strategies and rate selection, the nitrogen use efficiency is not largely impacted fertilizer source. Rather, it is more controlled by crop rotation selection, soil properties, and weather conditions of a particular growing season and it will actually improve phosphorus management.

A second important question is, “Will the addition of new confinement operations result in too much manure?” While there are many ways to define and assess what too much manure is, an important starting point to the conversation is, “What crop land is available to which the manure could be applied as a beneficial fertilizer?” As a state, Iowa currently obtains between 25-30% of the nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium we need for crop production from animal manures, with the rest of the required fertility coming from other commercial fertilizer sources.  This does vary by county, but currently all counties harvest more nutrients in the crops they produce than are available in the manure produced within that county.  Figure 1 below shows how the amount of manure nitrogen available for crop production compared to the amount of nitrogen removed with non-legume harvested crops (i.e., doesn’t account for nitrogen removal with soybean or alfalfa).

Figure 1. Percent of nitrogen available in animal manures relative to the nitrogen removal with harvested, non-legume crops.

In the recent article, one of the comments made was that CAFOs can change an area’s nutrient balance by importing feed for the livestock. While this does have the potential to create nutrient imbalances, it is only a piece of the puzzle. The Manure Management Plan (MMP) was developed to make sure, even if feed for the livestock was being imported, sufficient land was available to appropriately use the manure. While it can still serve as an indicator, it is one of many indicators of how nutrient management is working. Manure management plans ensure the same thing in a more measured and complete way.

We all know our land resource base is finite. No matter what, Iowa is only going to have an area of 55,857 square miles (or just under 36 million acres); of this, about 26.2 million acres, or about 73% of the state, is farmland. How we choose to use this land can have profound impacts on our ability to produce food, fuel, fiber, and the impacts we have on the environment. Because of this, it was suggested adding animals would cause more row crop production to produce the feed for these animals. Yet, as a state, Iowa counties show very little correlation between the amount of land that is planted to corn and the amount of manure produced in that county.

Figure 2. Relationship, or lack thereof in this case, between the amount of manure produced in a county and the percent of cropland planted to corn within a county.

In terms of nutrient management, this is only a piece of the puzzle as there are some additional differences between manures and other commercial fertilizers that may make their nutrient losses a bit different. In particular, manure is a complete fertilizer, in that it contains all the macronutrients crops need, but not necessarily a balanced fertilizer. That is, the nutrient ratios in manure may not be balanced to crop removal. Historically, manures have been relatively high in phosphorus as compared to plant available nitrogen. The Iowa Phosphorus Index has been used in Manure Management Plans (bill passed in 2002 and implemented in 2008) and uses information about how much phosphorus is currently present in the soil, how much will be added, and its risk of transport to an Iowa water body to determine if manure application should be limited by supplying nitrogen or phosphorus. This is a risk based approach that focuses on water quality in making a manure management decision. With this said, changes in farming and feeding practices in the swine industry have reduced the amount of phosphorus in swine manures relative to its nitrogen content making its nutrient content approximately balanced for corn-soybean rotations and reducing the risk of phosphorus build-up.

So what’s all this mean? While there are certainly challenges to managing manure that make it a unique fertilizer option. Farmers strive to get value from this manure in their operations, and in so doing typically make application decisions that result in nutrient losses to water similar to those of other fertilizer option. Though it may seem like Iowa is livestock rich, it’s important to remember that adequate land to utilize our manure researches exist. Livestock operations play a vital role in Iowa’s agriculture economy and continue to strive to do so in ways that decrease environmental impact, that are more sustainable, and more importantly these farms continue to strive to do better.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Manure Scoop – More on Variable Rate Manure Application

Last time we started the conversation on precision manure application and some of the challenge of variable rate manure application, this time we’ll dive into an example and see how the economics play out.

Precision agricultural methods and variable rate application can improve nutrient management and help reduce environmental impact. We talked last time about doing this with nitrogen and the challenges it presents, but as manures also provide phosphorus and potassium. These nutrients and their need for upcoming crops can be well predicted by soil sampling. This means grid soil sampling can be used to tailor phosphorus and potassium recommendations across the field and put down a sufficient, but not an excess amount anywhere. In some cases, this may allow us to cover more acres with manure and save the purchase of commercial fertilizer for those additional acres.

The process of soil sampling and developing the “to apply” maps are similar to what would be done for commercial phosphorus or potassium fertilizers. The first main difference from commercial fertilizer is you get a guaranteed analysis, whereas with manure you have to sample, sample, sample to get a handle on its composition. This could range from testing every load to taking a composite sample, the key being you have to trust the analysis to have less variability than the rate change over the field. In some cases, this may be easy, if the manure was well mixed as it is loaded and stockpiled it will be more uniform than if it was loaded from different areas of a pen. Getting a handle on this variability is critical to make variable rate application a success.

A study by ISU on variable rate manure application showed it wasn’t unusual for fields to span four to five soil test phosphorus classes within a field. By varying the manure application rate across the field they were able to positively impact yield similar to what was obtained with a fixed application rate, not apply manure to areas that were optimal or high in soil test P and in so doing, save manure to be utilized in other areas. Moreover, the variable application rate decreased soil test variability, reducing soil P in areas that were high (and as a result more susceptible to phosphorus loss) and increasing phosphorus content in areas that were low, and the phosphorus in the soil positively impacted future crops.The variable rate allowed for better manure management by conserving manure where it wasn’t needed and placing it where more value could be obtained while also reducing the risk of phosphorus delivery from the field to water resources.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Variable Rate Manure Application

With the very idea of the topic, questions begin to emerge:  what, why, and how to use the technology. We will try to walk through a few of these questions to address what we do and don’t know. With today’s technology, including things like GPS location guidance, flow controllers, or weigh scales on manure spreaders it is possible to make maps of how many gallons per acre are applied.
In terms of solid manure, where decisions are often made based on phosphorus management, grid sampling can be used to determine current soil phosphorus levels. A map is generated of how much phosphorus we want to add to hit a certain level and this prescription map used to determine manure application rates on the go. Some current equipment even has the capability of using these prescription maps on-the-go to change the rate as you move through the field. This is effectively how variable-rate of application other commercial fertilizers has been done for a while, but there are some additional challenges with manures.
However, the question when using manure as the fertilizer source substantially increases these questions. Things like how accurately do we know the manure nutrient content, how variable is the nutrient content during application, how accurately can you hit rate, how uniform is the application, how good is the application method, and we are left with questions about if we can control these variables accurately enough to make variable rate application pay . If we try to extend this to nitrogen, it can get even more complicated as we now need to consider additional factors such as the quality of injection/incorporation throughout the field and its impact on ammonia volatilization and the variation in nitrogen mineralization and variability. This is to say, getting a firm grasp on these details would be the first step towards working towards a variable-rate manure application.

In terms of variable rate nitrogen application with manure, the first step would be determining what we parameter we want to vary nitrogen application rate based on.  Some ideas that have been proposed, include previous year’s yield maps, soil type, or soil organic carbon levels. Two weeks from now we will take a closer look at each of these potential methods, why they may be considered, and science available behind how well it works.