Bedding Pack Out Pro
There’s no substitute for experience when spreading bedding pack manure from beef feedlots. But it can be a feast or famine business requiring careful management.
February 3, 2016 by Tony Kryzanowski
The triple beater design with mechanical, direct drive on MMI International’s surface manure spreaders keep mechanical breakdowns to a minimum when spreading bedding pack manure. Photo by Photo courtesy of Mary Berg
North Dakota is noted for its wide-open spaces. So it should come as no surprise that the cattle feedlot industry is big business in the state. Ranchers in the Medina area, west of Bismarck, have come to depend on custom corral cleaning and manure spreading companies like Randy’s Barnyard Service, but it’s a feast or famine business that requires careful management.
The Medina-based business is owned by Randy and Sherry Everding. They typically work within a 100-mile radius of Medina.
“I have cow-calf customers that only have five loads of manure and others have 400 loads,” says Everding. “It really varies.”
He says he spreads in the neighborhood of 75,000 tons of manure annually.
All of Everding’s equipment is geared toward surface manure application. The fleet at Randy’s Barnyard Service consists of three model 379 Peterbilt trucks, and one model 378 Peterbilt truck, as well as four MMI International manure spreaders. They vary from 17-foot, 18-foot and 19-foot, triple beater designs. He also has one 721 and two 621 Case loaders.
Everding says he has had experience with this brand of manure spreader since he started out in the business nearly 25 years ago. Trying to spread bedding pack manure properly, especially considering what some of the local ranchers mix in with it, can be a challenge. Some not only mix straw into the bedding pack, but corn stalks. What Everding likes about this brand is that the beaters are mechanical and direct-driven versus hydraulically-driven. They seem to handle the bedding pack manure better with fewer mechanical breakdowns.
In fact, Everding’s ability to reduce and spread the bedding pack manure with this technology has brought business back to him.
“I run triple beaters on my manure spreaders, which gives a finer spread,” he says. “Our farmers seem to like that.”
Many of his customers use the no-till field management method, so a finer spread is a good match for this style of farming. The amount of manure applied per acre is controlled by the manure spreader apron control mechanism in the truck cab.
“A lot of them want it spread thin and then they seed right through it,” says Everding. “According to the people at North Dakota State University, you lose some nitrogen, but after a while it balances out so that the farmers get the same benefit as if it was incorporated.”
Typically, Randy’s Barnyard Service will spread about 30 tons per acre, but essentially they will spread whatever the customer requests. Considerable work is being done by North Dakota State University to determine optimum applications rates depending on the crop being planted.
Everding brings considerable experience to custom corral cleaning and manure spreading as he bought out his dad’s partner in 1991, then his dad in about 2000. What attracted him to the business was the chance to make some decent money, given the demand.
He says that feedlots in his area tend to be smaller than other areas of the country and operate more on a seasonal basis. Most are family operations ranging from about 100 head to as many as 2,000 head. They typically raise cattle from fall to spring, and empty out the feedlot in summer.
There is also a fair amount of grain farming in that area around Medina of primarily soybean, corn and cereal grain crops, where a lot of the feedlot manure from Randy’s Barnyard Service finds a home. There are even some dairies in the region ranging from 300 to 1500 milk cows. Randy’s Barnyard Service has attracted some business from this agriculture sector as well.
Everding understands that downtime can be a nasty, eight-letter word for custom manure applicators, and given the seasonal nature of the feedlot industry in his part of the world, dealing with downtime is necessary. So he has developed a business model where he offers multiple services to the farming community, as there always seems to be an assortment of farm jobs that require an implement of some sort. During the slow season, his backhoe keeps him busy helping farmers install waterlines and sewer systems. North Dakota is also noted for its winters, so there is no lack of snow removal opportunities.
Everding also supplements his custom manure application business making his belly dump gravel trucks available to road construction and gravel contractors. He says that being diversified has been critical to his business’s health.
“I call it feast or famine up here,” he says. “You give ‘er heck and wait; give ‘er heck and wait. To keep employees around, you have to diversify.”
The critical time for pen cleaning and manure spreading is right before seeding and after harvest where he will sometimes work long hours for several months straight.
After the spring rush, it stays quiet for a while, but by mid-summer, he starts to pile a lot of the manure from feedlot corrals in anticipation of the busy fall spreading season. By moving and piling the manure-laden bedding pack in the corrals in advance of spreading, it allows the bedding to break down a bit so it is easier to apply later in fall. Often the manure is piled right in the corral because as is typical in that part of the country, the feedlot owners don’t keep cattle through the summer anyway.
“By that time of year, you can work six days a week, as many hours as you want,” Everding says. “My busiest time will be the end of July through to the end of November, depending on when Mother Nature decides to lower the temperature. We’re burned out by then anyway, running 70 hours a week all fall.”
They take December off, except for snow removal. By the middle of January, staff returns to the shop and starts to prepare equipment for the coming spring application season, which can start by about the first week of March.
Everding says the biggest challenge to growing his business is not lack of opportunity, but finding employees willing to work within the ebb and flow that occur in this line of work. He employs five people. He’s adopted a couple of strategies to encourage employees to stick around and return between the busy seasons. One is to voluntarily contribute to the government unemployment insurance program so that employees can make an insurance claim during the slow season and pay the bills. The company also provides medical insurance. As a further financial incentive, Randy’s Barnyard Service pays employees time and a half after 40 hours of work, which can amount to a substantial boost to individual income, considering the long hours worked during the busy seasons.
“Sometimes, that amounts to 30 hours of overtime, which is a hit on my pocketbook, but the employees smile when they get their checks,” says Everding. “We have oilfields in Western North Dakota and everybody would be running over there to get $35 per hour. But now the oilfield has slowed up big time. This is the first year that I haven’t actually had to scream and holler all over the United States for help.”
He has noticed a number of changes in how the business operates now compared to when he started in 1991. There were more small dairies in the area as Medina had a cheese plant, there was more manure spreading in the spring, and more farmland available for manure spreading in the summer. Back in the early 1990s, it was almost possible to operate year round because summer fallowing was still being done on some cropland. That’s no longer the case with the big focus now on intensive farming, where as many acres as possible are seeded. Consequently, Everding faces a lot more stress to apply manure within a shorter fall application season.
Also the manure spreading technology and methodology has improved quite substantially. Everding says in the early days, he’d do both the loading and the spreading and he’d be lucky to spread 40 to 50 loads a day. Now, if he doesn’t get 120 loads a day, “I’m hurting. What I’m getting paid per load is probably double what it was in 1991, but my parts and labor costs are way up. It seems that what used to cost $100 is now $1000.”
However, he says he has learned from experience that it pays to encourage his drivers to slow down, take their time, and avoid any issues with messes left behind in yards and on roads.
He started out with two trucks but that has grown to four trucks, and for efficiency, Everding says he spends more time operating the loader now to make sure production moves ahead smoothly, rather than behind the wheel of a spreader truck.
“I look after the loading and the piling because I get paid by the load, so it’s important to keep the trucks humping,” he says.
While the days are long, it’s a more tolerable way to work with one person looking after the piling and loading, while workers spend most of their time transporting and applying the manure in air-conditioned trucks.
Everding says he’d like to expand his fleet, and while more workers now seem to be available because of layoffs in the oilpatch, it’s still a difficult financial decision to make, wondering if there will be enough warm bodies behind the wheel over the long term if the oilpatch picks up again.