Manure Manager

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Coping with COVID-19

The pandemic has had a significant impact on manure application training programs across North America. How have they adapted to the unique challenges posed by the coronavirus?


March 1, 2021
By Mark Halsall

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A manure spreader in operation in central Iowa. Photo courtesy of Rachel Kennedy, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

The people who apply manure on farmers’ fields aim to do so in a way that protects the natural environment and provides a sustainable future for agricultural operations. This requires some training, which – prior to March 2020 – was widely available through different manure management courses offered by jurisdictions across North America.

“Was” being the operative word. The pandemic has led to many manure management and applicator courses being cancelled or postponed. Even though mass vaccinations are on the horizon, the picture for 2021 is still far from clear. Some programs were able to switch gears successfully in response to COVID-19 social gathering restrictions and develop online options for manure handling training.

Officials in three jurisdictions in the United States and Canada discuss how the situation has unfolded in their areas.

Ontario
Manure handling in Ontario falls under provincial legislation. It requires some farmers and others who manage manure, fertilizers and other nutrients to follow a set of rules and regulations that govern things like application rates, separation distances from wells, surface water and groundwater, and how to prepare a nutrient management plan.

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Under Ontario’s Nutrient Management Act, those who operate manure application businesses must have a prescribed materials application business (PMAB) licence; those who apply manure must have a nutrient application technician licence; and those who receive, store or deliver manure need to hold a broker certificate. 

All of these require completing a one-day course and passing an exam at the end of it (the PMAB licence and broker certificate course are offered over two days and usually people take both).

The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) administers the licencing and certification for the nutrient management program, while the University of Guelph, Ridgetown Campus developed the course materials and carries out the training. 

Matt Wilson is the nutrient management lead for OMAFRA. He said the manure-handling courses concentrate on the regulations set out in the Nutrient Management Act.

“We say right up front in the course that there are going to be other things that you need to get trained on to actually do the application work,” he said.

One measure OMAFRA was able to take in response to COVID-19 restrictions was to extend the date for licence renewals to April 30, 2021, so that fewer people would need to take the manure management courses and exams in 2020.

Manure management courses in Ontario are normally spread across the province, with each region having at least one in-person course scheduled per year. But that changed with the pandemic.

Fortunately, the team at the University of Guelph, Ridgetown Campus was able to respond swiftly and put together a virtual training option in surprisingly little time, according to Wilson.

“That’s really helped, obviously, when we weren’t allowed to bring people in to take a course. They could do it online,” Wilson said. 

“Ridgetown has been very accommodating. They’ve done their best to make sure everybody that needs to take a course can do that. They actually put together a course people could do over the phone if they didn’t have access to the internet or if they weren’t comfortable using it, like some Old Order Mennonites here in Ontario who just don’t use technology,” he added.

Wilson said the plan for 2021 is to continue to offer the manure management instruction online. He noted that while the exams for the courses were administered online in 2020, the situation “was not ideal.” The hope for the coming year is to offer in-person exams in a fashion that follows all social distancing protocols.

Iowa
In Iowa, state law requires all commercial manure operators, as well anyone who hauls, transports, or land-applies manure from a confinement feeding operation with more than 500 animals, be certified. (Producers with smaller animal feeding operations may spread manure without being certified, but still need to conform to manure land application and separation distances.) Manure application businesses are also required to hold a business licence.

Each type of manure applicator is required to take a two- or three-hour training course or get recertified every year. The courses, which were developed by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach (ISUEO) in co-operation with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), are normally offered in January and February and are held at about 70 different county offices around Iowa. A half-dozen dry manure applicator certification workshops are held each February in various locations around the state. 

Manure applicators can also get certified by arranging to watch the certification video in a county extension office at a later date or by calling their local DNR field office to schedule time to take the test.

Since 2015, an e-learning option featuring expert speaker videos has also been available for manure applicators who prefer to receive the training online. 

According to Rachel Kennedy, ISUEO program coordinator for the manure application training program, the in-person workshops, certification videos and online courses cover a broad range of material including:  

  • DNR rules for certified manure applicators and manure land application procedures and separation distances;
  • Water quality, soil management and nutrient management issues;
  • Safety issues; and
  • Biosecurity issues.

The impact of COVID-19 on the manure application certification program in Iowa was limited in 2020 due to the fact that all the scheduled in-person training sessions took place in the first two months, just prior to the pandemic. 

Kennedy said in December that in-person manure applicator training courses would proceed as planned in January and February 2021. Participants would be required to follow all ISUEO guidelines for face coverings and social distancing. 

“Online is [also] an option for everyone,” she said. “We are working with DNR so we can continue to train our applicators in a safe environment.”

New York
In New York, dairy farms with more than 300 milking cows are required to have a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) permit, which requires at least one manure application decision-maker to get manure applicator training during the five-year term of the permit.  

Commercial manure applicators who operate their own business outside of a farming operation are encouraged to get the training, but are not currently required to do so.  

Karl Czymmek, a senior extension associate with the Cornell University PRO-DAIRY program in Ithaca, N.Y., developed the first version of the course in 2008 at the request of a dairyman to help farm staff develop a general understanding of the environmental issues and concerns at the farmstead and in fields.  

Czymmek said that, over time, this evolved to focus more heavily on land application of manure and was made a requirement for some farm staff on CAFO farms in CAFO permits issued in 2017. 

Since then, almost 750 manure applicators across the state have received the training in live sessions. Czymmek noted that even though commercial manure applicators in New York aren’t required to take the course, many of them have.

Czymmek said his two-hour course is designed to educate manure handlers on all permit requirements related to protecting water quality and keeping manure in the soil on farm fields and not moving off-site. 

The course addresses issues of human health and safety and examines how to reduce risk, as well as how to react in the event of a spill resulting from a truck accident or other problems that might arise during manure applications. 

“I think farms that are managing large or even small volumes of manure need to know what they would do if there was a spill,” Czymmek said. “It’s absolutely a core part of managing manure.”

Czymmek noted the impact of COVID-19 on the training program wasn’t that great, since many people had already received the training required by the five-year CAFO permit before the coronavirus hit. 

Czymmek also developed and distributed a video of the training session prior to the pandemic. “Many farms and CAFO planners have the recording and it can be viewed by anyone who missed a live session as well as new farm staff,” he said.

“When the permit made training necessary, my initial goal was to make sure I took care of as many of those people that I could as early as possible in live sessions, and I’ve been able to do that,” Czymmek said, adding the manure application training video offers another option for meeting the permit requirements. 

While he doesn’t have any training sessions on his docket so far for 2021, Czymmek is open to the idea of presenting the course to manure applicators in New York in a webinar format through a platform like Zoom, if a request comes in over the next few months. 

He’d also consider delivering the course in person to small groups of manure applicators if asked to do so, as long as necessary COVID-19 protocols and precautions can be met. •