Manure management needs to be nutrient management

Spreading manure
Manure being spread on a field.

One constant on a dairy farm is manure production. Manure management involves the handling, storage and use of that manure.

Manure vs. nutrients

Even a grass or pasture-based dairy operation has a significant volume of manure not deposited on pastures that must be managed.

A question that is becoming increasingly important is: how are the nutrients contained in manure accounted for and managed as that manure is applied back to the land?

The importance of this question was driven home to me when I attended a session at the March Conservation Tillage Conference taught by Peggy Hall, OSU Extension field specialist in agricultural and resource law.

Legal developments

In her presentation, Hall highlighted some legal developments pertaining to agriculture nutrient management and water quality.

One of the legal cases she presented was the Community Association for the Restoration of the Environment (CARE) vs. Cow Palace LLC. Cow Palace is a large dairy operation in Yakima Valley, Washington, that according to newspaper articles, has about 11,000 cows.

Manure storage

CARE filed suit alleging the dairy was violating the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) with its application, storage and management of manure constituting open dumping of solid waste in a manner that posed imminent and substantial danger to public health and the environment.

The RCRA governs the disposal of solid and hazardous waste and CARE alleged that manure was a solid waste.

Crop amendments

To this point, there has been an agricultural exemption in the RCRA consistently granted by courts that have viewed manure and crop residues not as wastes but as fertilizers or crop amendments.

However, in this case, a federal judge agreed with the CARE allegations and ruled against the dairy. The judge based the ruling on the improper management of dairy manure. The manure was being over-applied.

Manure nutrient management

The dairy was not following its manure nutrient management plan. The manure storage lagoon was leaking, allowing nutrients to be leached into groundwater. The dairy also composted some manure and it was found that it was not being utilized as a fertilizer but was discarded and knowingly abandoned.

Improper dumping

In summary, the dairy was found to be treating manure not as a nutrient resource but as a solid waste with improper dumping. The settlement agreement in the case requires the dairy to take a number of actions to address issues that include:

  • Double lining all manure storage lagoons
  • Fund the installation of 14 new monitoring wells
  • Fund a drinking water outreach program
  • Allow US EPA inspections and provide reports, documents and sampling results related to the dairy nutrient management plan
  • Provide data to the plaintiffs on nutrient removal and how nutrients are being used
  • Show that manure applications are part of a nutrient management budget
  • Install concrete aprons
  • Use and maintain a centrifuge manure separator
  • Pay attorney fees and court costs I’m not saying that something like this is going to happen to dairy producers in Ohio.

Manure quantity

What I am saying is that we need to be aware of current issues and trends and be proactive to ensure this does not happen here. Manure has to be managed as a nutrient resource following good agronomic practices with regard for environmental protection.

Occasionally I get phone calls asking for fertilizer recommendations where the caller has applied manure but has not accounted for those manure nutrients.

They don’t know the quantity of the manure applied per acre and they don’t know the nutrient percentages in the manure applied. In addition, they do not know what the soil nutrient levels are, they don’t have a current soil test. It’s difficult if not impossible to give a good answer in this situation. Moreover, in today’s environment, this is a recipe for a potential problem. To manage manure as a nutrient resource requires at least five steps:

  • A current soil test for each field
  • A nutrient analysis of the manure that will be applied
  • A realistic crop yield goal
  • A calibrated manure spreader or manure application equipment
  • Application of manure in a timely manner under proper field conditions that ensure the nutrients are used by the crop and not moved off-site in a way that could harm the environment

Each of these factors could be explored in much more depth, but essentially a nutrient management plan takes all of these factors into account. Proactive manure management requires developing a nutrient management plan and following that plan.


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