By 2030, it’s estimated that there will be more than eight billion people on Earth (United Nations 2011). Food production will have to increase by at least 60 percent to keep pace. This illustrates the importance of not only improved farming methods, but also the need for better soil health and more focus on environmental sustainability.
The above statement isn’t just a stat, but the all-encompassing science-based approach of Alberta-based, Western Feedlots Ltd. The company, which has 100,000 head capacity on three sites, is being proactive when it comes to tackling the issues of today – and tomorrow.
Currently, Alberta only regulates manure applications based on nitrogen limits in the soil, but Western Feedlots wanted to take a closer look at phosphorus levels in the manure from various rations.
“We were trying to avoid over-applying phosphorus,” says Melissa McWilliam, farming and resources manager for Western Feedlots. “Typically the nitrogen to phosphorous ratio in manure is about one to one, but the crop actually needs a ration of about eight to one. If you apply manure based on nitrogen, you’re going to get an excess of phosphorous in the soil.”
The results may not be an issue today, but they could down the road.
“If you keep over applying manure, phosphorous tends to accumulate in the top six inches of the soil and that’s where it’s more susceptible to running off,” says McWilliam. “When you get a snow and melt event it might run off into the water systems.”
One example of Western’s proactive approach is a relatively recent phosphorous study they conducted. Western began hearing complaints when they were using corn DDGS (dried distillers grains) in the ration that the manure smelled worse and there was more volume because of the DDGS.
“We thought, let’s take a science-based approach and look at what’s actually happening,” says McWilliam. “We didn’t find a difference in the volume of manure, but we did find that because there was a higher phosphorus concentration in the corn DDGS, when the cattle ate it, they weren’t using that phosphorus and excreted it in the manure. This meant that the phosphorus content of manure from cattle fed corn DDGS versus our other rations was actually significantly higher.”
Even when Western uncovers specific information, it’s sometimes difficult to know how to proceed. “If we fed those [corn] rations that would impact our strategy of minimizing excessive phosphorus applications in fields, and would mean that we would have to potentially haul the manure farther. So how does it all fit in the picture of economics and being environmentally sustainable? It is kind of a messy jigsaw puzzle,” says McWilliam.
The company’s science-based approach has also helped feedlot adjust their fertilizer management strategies. Agronomists had told Western there wasn’t enough sulfur in the manure and a supplement was needed to meet crop needs.
“To see if that was true we did a large scale field trial where we had four different treatments and we did five replicates at each of our three sites,” explains McWilliam. “We tested different levels of sulfur applications on three fields that had been manured over a number of years. We found that applying sulfur made no significant difference to yield or quality because there was enough sulfur in the soil from the manure applications.”
Western had also been told that the nitrogen to sulfur ratio needed to be optimum for plants but found from its study that it appeared the plant was able to figure that ratio out itself. “It can find the sulfur,” says McWilliam. “Today we don’t put any sulfur down when we plant our crops. We save money and don’t have excess nutrients in the soil. It’s more sustainable for the environment and for our business.”
Sharing data and resources
Western believes in sharing its findings. The company holds annual farmer meetings at all three of its sites. Western shares not only information to those neighboring farmers that they sell their manure to for fertilizer, but they also offer their extensive soil-testing program through its contract agronomist. The company calls that the “full package.”
“We charge by the metric ton and we base it on dry matter. Spring manure tends to be wetter, and the farmers get spring manure at a discount so they’re not paying for water,” explains McWilliam. “The charge helps cover the spreading costs and some of the haul costs, but it doesn’t cover it all by any means. That’s part of the reason we do the education workshops. We want farmers to see the value in the manure versus seeing it as a waste.”
Currently that base charge covers the “full package”, whereby Western hires their contract agronomist, Agri-Trend to do soil testing.
“The soil is tested before manure goes on. Then we do an analysis of the manure. Based on that, we can do a specifically nutrient-tailored plan to that field,” says McWilliam. “Then the manure is applied. We stockpile it [on the farmer’s field] or we spread it direct. The year after the first crop comes off, post manure, we do another soil test just to see what changes have happened in the soil. Typically we see phosphorus and nitrogen levels go up, and the organic matter goes up too.”
In addition, Western keeps all the records for the farmers – even though they aren’t required to. “It just makes it easier for the farmers if we keep all their soil test records,” says McWilliam. “They have access to them, but that way when our government asks to see any of the manure application records, we’ve got a record of all the areas that have received manure and what the soil tests look like.”
This entire “full package” program is beyond what is required by current regulations, and it does cost the company money, but Western feels the service is just one of the costs of doing business.
Not all of the manure goes to neighboring farms though. Western has been able to save on commercial fertilizers by using the manure on their own 7,000 acres.
“We do a full rotation of wheat, barley, silage and canola, all with very little fertilizer inputs because we have such a great fertilizer resource right in our yard here,” says McWilliam.
Individual animal management
Computers are a big part of Western’s science-based approach. The company has long been a leader in IAM, (individual animal management) and the company-developed software, ParaDIAM, allows Western to track every animal in its feedlots.
Each animal has a CFIA chip that can be read with a wand each time its run through the chutes. Western can track which animal it is, where it came from, what it’s been eating, and how much it gains per day. They can also tell what manure came from which pens and which cattle were in those pens.
“This software is giving us the ability to see where we’re doing well and where we can improve. This information allows us to make adjustments in our rations or our management strategies in the pens themselves,” explains McWilliam.
Currently Western hires contractors to scrape the manure, haul it to its 7,000 acres of cultivated fields or to neighboring farm fields, where it’s stockpiled until it’s time to spread in the spring and fall. Western is constantly looking, however, for alternative methods for manure handling, including composting.
Composting could yield the feedlot great benefits, including decreasing volume and weight, so that the manure could economically be shipped out further to farmers who have a need.
A small-scale compost pilot was run last year and after just two turns (the manure wasn’t fully composted) the volume was reduced between 20 and 29 percent.
“If we can do that economically, then we would be able to potentially haul it further,” says McWilliam. That would be better for the farmers outside of our haul radius because they would be getting manure in fields that need it and it would be better for the environment as well.
Point of pride
McWilliam is proud to see the company getting its manure management up and running.
“I think we still have a long ways to go, but I’m happy with the all encompassing approach that we’ve taken, which includes educating famers on the best management practices. It’s all fine and dandy if we’re doing things properly at the feedlot, but then if it gets out into the field and the farmer isn’t incorporating it or is not handling it properly, then it can create environmental concerns.”
She adds, “My way of thinking is that manure is just another tool in your toolbox that you can use to help create a healthy soil and sustain it.”
Western Feedlots hopes it is helping lead the way for other feedlots in the Alberta area. If there is going to be eight billion people on this planet by 2030, there will need to be every tool at the world’s disposal.