It’s no drag
Drag hose systems have real benefits, but they’re not right for every area.
February 14, 2023 by Jack Kazmierski
Many custom applicators – particularly in the Midwest – know the benefits of drag-hose systems. Drag hoses allow an applicator to apply a large volume of manure and have potential payoff in terms of yield. Glen Arnold, field specialist, manure nutrient systems, and professor with Ohio State University Extension, says these systems are most popular in the Midwest “because our ground is favorable to that. Drag hoses do not like rocks, so if you’re in eastern Ohio or Pennsylvania, where they have a lot of rocks in the soil, you can rip the drag hoses when you drag them across the ground.”
But despite the niche popularity of drag hoses, which rose to prominence in the Midwest in the 1990s, not all growers know the benefits of applying manure via drag hose.
Arnold discusses the best ways to communicate the advantages of drag-hose systems, discusses some of the recent advancements in the field of drag hoses, shares why drag hoses don’t work in all areas and why some farmers might not want to do DIY drag-hose applications.
Manure Manager: What are the advantages of a drag-hose system versus a typical manure tanker application?
Glen Arnold: When you use a manure tanker, you typically load up a 5,000-gallon manure tanker, drive out to the field, apply that 5,000, then drive back to the source of the manure and reload that. So depending on the distance you had to travel, you would get perhaps two or three loads of manure done in an hour.
So if you got three done, you’d be moving 15,000 gallons of manure in an hour.
With a drag-hose system, when they first started, they were using a six-inch diameter mainline hose. Now, they’ve worked their way up to eight-inch hoses, and now we’re even seeing some farmers or some livestock producers, and commercial manure applicators go to 10-inch mainline drag hoses. The bigger the diameter of the hose, the larger the volume of the manure. So we see a lot of drag-hose systems that commonly apply 2,000 to 3,000 gallons a minute.
MM: When would it not make sense to use a drag-hose system?
GA: If the property is too small, it would be a waste of time to set up a drag hose because it usually takes a drag-hose operator more than a couple of hours to set up the hoses and the pumps. So if it’s a small field, and I’m saying a field under 20 acres or so, then they’ll spend more time in set-up and tear-down than they would the actual manure application.
MM: How does the stage of growth of a crop play into the decision to use a drag-hose system?
GA: Let’s look at corn as an example. We know corn wants nitrogen to grow, and with livestock manure, we can apply enough nitrogen for the corn to reach its potential. But with a drag-host system, we cannot go beyond the V4 stage of the corn crop. At stage [V5], our research shows that you lose a lot of yield from your corn when that drag hose begins to snap it off. It’s okay to flatten the corn with the drag hose, but you don’t want it to snap off. So V4 is the upward limit of where we feel comfortable using a drag hose in a corn field.
MM: Can this be done with a DIY approach?
GA: Most people hire a professional applicator to work with them. To buy a drag hose and to get established with the pump, the hoses and the equipment, you would probably be easily looking at probably a $150,000 investment. A smaller grower would probably be better off simply modifying their manure tanker and side-dressing their corn or top-dressing their wheat using their manure tanker. We have a lot of farmers who do that, but soil compaction is always a concern when you put a heavy manure tanker out on fields.
MM: What are the advantages of hiring a professional?
GA: Almost every commercial manure applicator has a story about the first time they went out and used their equipment and how something went wrong. If you make a mistake with those manure hoses, you end up with a bunch of what they call “Tootsie Rolls.” A Tootsie Roll has a twist on each end to keep it tight, and you can do the same thing with those manure hoses when you’re dragging them, if they’re not full of manure. You can get them twisted, and they’re a pain to get untwisted because they’re very heavy. Also, if you kink your hose by not making the proper turns, the manure hoses can burst.
MM: What are the benefits of using a drag-hose system?
GA: If we look at corn as an example, the number-one benefit is that you’re usually going to get about 10 more bushels of corn per acre using livestock manure as your nitrogen source, as compared to commercial fertilizer. Second, it’s an in-season application, so you’re going to put your nutrients on the field when there’s a growing crop that wants to use them. Then, I think the other advantage is reduced chance of soil compaction.
MM: How should growers calculate the cost/benefit ratio?
GA: You always need to start with the nutrient content of your manure. If it’s really low in nutrients, then it probably would make more sense to try to irrigate that on a growing crop, or surface-apply it when a crop is newly-planted. And don’t think that it’s going to replace your purchased side-dressed nitrogen that you would have bought. If it has sufficient nutrients, especially hog manure, which seems to be a lot higher in nitrogen than dairy, then you know what your fertilizer costs are per acre, and you know what you’re going to pay anyway to have that manure applied each year. For example, the price of nitrogen has almost tripled in the past four years, so the cost of growing crops has gone up quite a bit. So, when you look at at the nutrients you already have in your manure pit versus buying it, you have to just push the pencil and see what the numbers look like.
MM: What can growers do in order to potentially lower their costs when hiring a professional with a drag-hose system?
GA: In our area, the cost of having manure applied with a drag hose is about a penny per gallon, or maybe a little higher if it has to be hauled from further away. So if we wanted to put 7,000 gallons per acre, then that’s roughly $70 an acre. If you would have purchased nitrogen, then that would have cost you probably $175. That means you can have your manure put on there for less than half the cost of actually buying that same nitrogen. If your commercial applicator says he wants two cents a gallon, I think there’s certainly room for negotiation. The farmer can help a bit by planting the field to make it work out best for the applicator. We have farmers who know they want pig manure on a particular field, so they will plant that field at a 45 degree angle, because the applicator will lay his or her hose diagonally across that field. In other words, they divide the field into two triangles, they put the manure on one half of the field, or one triangle. Then they’ll do a crossover, and they’ll put manure on the other other triangle. If the farmer wants to make life easy for the manure applicator, he can plant his field this way. •