How are farmers evolving with the times?
Jeffrey Porter of the NRCS Animal Manure and Nutrient Management Team provides a national perspective on how advances in tech innovation are causing farmers to adapt, evolve and re-prioritize.
April 5, 2021 by Bree Rody
When the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Services (NRCS) started out, it was focused primarily on soil conservation. Since then, its moniker has changed entirely because it’s about much more than soil. Jeffrey Porter, the manure management team leader with the NRCS Animal Manure and Nutrient Management Team (AMNMT), says even within his more specific discipline, that’s starting to go broader as well. It’s keeping with the overwhelming trend in farmers having to wear multiple hats, he says – as landowners become more protective over their bottom line, knowing what to invest in, how to factor costs and how to evaluate new equipment and tactics can be a crucial juggling act.
Manure Manager spoke with Porter to talk about the evolution of the AMNMT, why it’s broadening its focus outside of pure manure and how farmers can make the right decisions for managing their farm holistically.
Interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and what led to you working with the USDA?
I grew up on a small farm in southwestern Indiana, and I’ve always had that passion for working with farmers and getting my hands dirty – I’ve always enjoyed things like doing the gardening, growing the crops and vegetables, raising livestock. I went off to college, went to Purdue and got my degree in agricultural engineering, which you don’t hear too many people calling it that anymore. It’s all ‘biological engineering’ now. After I got my masters, I wanted to see what I could do to work with landowners and farmers, to help them – helping people help the land is really what I’m all about. When I started working with the USDA, I was with a group called the Agricultural Research Service, looking at erosion models. That’s what led me to the group called the Soil Conservation Service, which is now the NRCS, because we’re more than just soil. We cover a lot of different research areas. As I worked through the different agencies, I’m now at almost 34 years, but with almost every position I’ve had there’s been some element tied in with livestock, and for the last 14 years, I’ve been on the Animal Manure and Nutrient Management Team. But again, it’s much broader. My job has been all about asking, ‘how do we help future generations? How do we make this sustainable?’
Could you elaborate on how the AMNMT’s mandate has become broader and why?
We used to be called the manure management team, but it’s much more than just manure. When we started back in 2004, we were working with groups that were solely focusing on the manure management side of things. Our main focus was on questions like “How can we store the material?” “How can we apply it more efficiently? How do we deal with nutrients in more effective ways?” But as we’ve moved on, we’ve seen that it touches other areas. For example, we’ve started to look at how we improve grazing, or how we improve feed management, what kind of impact does our feed have on the nutrients that are excreted from the animals and on things like methane production? We’re also looking at animal health with regards to diseases [like] avian influenza, [and] the potential for African Swine Fever. We’re looking at how we can help these landowners deal with all these animal health issues, how we can be more sensitive, how we can make sure things are installed properly – because there’s all this new technology, new land applications, new injection systems. Then we have some areas where we have very concentrated livestock operations, and because of the concentrations of these animals, we have more nutrients available than land that it can be applied to – so how do we do a good job of distributing the nutrients to where they’re actually needed? Here in the United States, we’re only land-applying manure on about five percent of our cropland.
That’s clearly a lot of moving parts – how are farmers managing with all of that, not just economically but also in terms of access, knowledge and education?
It’s very difficult because it always comes down to the dollar – at the core of everything is, “How can we implement this and still stay viable?” Landowners are trying to always weigh knowing that something is good technology or knowing that it’s something they’d like to do, but wondering if they can stay viable with it. Or, they’ll try to come up with a byproduct that can help pay for it. The other thing is complexity – if they implement something that is complex, do they have to hire someone else? What is the operational maintenance required for these new technologies? The other thing that it comes down to is also regulatory. We have certain regulations that are coming down such as discharge limits, certain limits on what your phosphorus or nitrogen levels can be. And applying manure during the winter is now a big issue, because many states now have limitations on when you can apply to frozen ground. Now, some take the approach of “I just have to do this,” but addressing these issues is very important to us.
What are some success stories you’ve witnessed around landowners using new technologies or techniques?
I actually don’t get to see the success stories that often. My position is at a national level. So what I do is, I receive requests from the state level – they contact us to see if we can review the technology and apply it. But one recent success story I was privy to is that here in North Carolina, we have a way of dealing with mortalities that uses forced air technology, then a grinder to grind up the mortalities and compost it in a shorter time than traditional composting operations. Not only does it shorten the time, but also the area required for doing the composting is much smaller, giving you a much smaller footprint than a traditional bin system.
Can you tell us a bit more about the review process?
Basically, we have a set of more than 170 conservation practice standards that cover the whole gamut of resources concerned. Of those, there are 20 to 25 that are manure management-related standards. We set up this process: Let’s say a tech provider goes to the state and says, “We would like to have this installed. Would you take this as acceptable technology?” If [the state] is not familiar with that tech, they contact us, we talk with the tech provider, we ask them to provide the information, and we ask for third-party verification so it’s as unbiased as possible. We compare that information with what’s in our conservation practice standards, we determine whether the practice or technology meets the criteria that’s outlined. We will then make the recommendation to that particular state to the best of our ability, whether it meets our standards or at this time there’s still limiting factors. It’s still up to the state to decide if they want to use that practice or not. We’re actually looking to take this process and maybe expanding it. This isn’t approved yet, but we’d like to expand it to look at all technologies, not just manure management but agronomic engineering. These technologies are coming so fast, we’re getting so many new technologies, we just need a process so that we can help landowners who are interested in installing them.
What are some of the biggest trends and most interesting innovations you’ve seen in requests in recent years?
We get such a big variety of things. Some of the ones in recent years are using soldier flies with your manure management, or using vermiculture. And we get a lot of requests related to innovative waste treatment technologies – a lot of landowners are looking at new separation processes these days, asking how they can be more efficient with separating particular nutrients. We call that nutrient partitioning, so we can more effectively land-apply the nutrients where and when they’re needed. In Wisconsin, we have an egg layer operation that has a real innovative composting process. They pelletize their manures and sell it as an organic fertilizer. They call it Chickity Doo Doo – when the pellets break, they have granules, and then they have dust. It’s been really interesting to watch the process as they’ve grown over time in selling their product. It’s now in all 50 states.
With farmers having to balance so much these days, where would you recommend they start to find unbiased views to evaluate big purchases and new strategies?
It is hard to find that unbiased view. Livestock groups are a great place – your poultry and egg associations, swine producer associations. And of course, there are a lot of trade shows, and especially today, everything is so virtual. You can participate from your living room if you’d like. They might be biased toward their favourite livestock type, but they’re going to be unbiased in their recommendations. Then, of course, if you work with the NRCS, we would definitely give them an unbiased view of our recommendations. We’re not necessarily the experts in every field, but we walk them through the process. We never say, “Do it this way,” it’s always their decision. We just guide them through. •