Managing the manure professionally
By Paul MacDonald
By Paul MacDonald
As one of the major pork producers
in the US, Christensen Family Farms has a lot of farms to over see and
a lot of manure to manage, which the company’s agronomy department does
with a high degree of professionalism.
As one of the major pork producers in the US, Christensen Family Farms has a lot of farms to over see and a lot of manure to manage, which the company’s agronomy department does with a high degree of professionalism.
|Dan Schmitz one of five agronomists employed by Christensen Family Farms. “We basically manage the manure all the way to the field,” Schmitz explains. “We work with what we call our co-operators (farmers) on how to best manage the manure for their cropping situation.”|
Each year, Dan Schmitz is looking for a few good manure applicators. Schmitz oversees the agronomy and manure management operations for Christensen Family Farms, a major US Mid-West pork producer with farms in five states—Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota and Illinois. At any point during the manure application season, Schmitz and his agronomist colleagues are managing up to 30 different custom manure applicators.
“Every year some people fall off the list and we try some new people out,” says Schmitz, who is based in the head office of Christensen Family Farms in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota.
Generally, they are looking for manure applicators with the same philosophy as Christensen: that manure is a resource and needs to be handled as such. “We’re marketing manure as plant food, and the people we work with need to understand that.”
Guiding all that they do—and illustrating that Christensen is serious about stewardship—is the agronomy department’s mission statement: “To provide uncompromising environmental stewardship for Christensen Family Farms and its stakeholders by delivering value in products, sound agronomic advice, and complete regulatory compliance and by identifying and responding to community values.”
Getting to the point of understanding what Christensen requires can be rewarding for the applicators the company is working with, considering Christensen has a lot of business to offer with its farms in five states. The manure from these operations has to be custom applied, although some is applied by company equipment.
|Manure being applied on a Christensen farm operation using a Houle tank. At any point during the manure application season, the agronomists from Christensen are managing up to 30 different custom manure applicators.|
“At one point, we were completely out of the manure hauling business and went 100 percent to contract applicators,” explains Schmitz. “It’s only been in the last few years—when the company made some acquisitions—that we’re now back into it because it makes sense with some operations.”
There are some company operations with nearby land bases and which already have the equipment, where manure application is done by company-owned equipment and employees. An example would be a company farm in southeast Illinois. They are able to reach about 2,000 acres of crop land within a two-mile radius by using a drag hose system and a custom configured low-till injector or Aerway injection equipment. “It makes sense for that farm, which is a large sow facility, to manage it themselves. And when staff isn’t applying manure, there’s lots of other work for them to do.”
But at other operations in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa, with 2,000 hogs here and another 3,000 hogs a ways down the highway, it’s far more efficient to use the services of custom applicators.
But regardless of the size and location, Schmitz and the four other agronomists at Christensen are engaged in managing manure and getting the most out of it—financially and land-wise. “We market the manure and line up the custom applicator to deliver the product,” Schmitz explains. “We basically manage the manure all the way to the field. We work with what we call our co-operators (farmers) on how to best manage the manure for their cropping situation.”
Christensen Farms offers pretty much a turnkey service in delivering manure to customers, right through to field application. Their objective, says Schmitz, is to deliver maximum value to the farmer. “It may not be 100 percent since we can’t dial in a specific nutrient blend, but we try to get the best fit with the farmer and a particular field.”
Managing the manure in such a detailed way means that they have established standards that manure applicators have to meet. They look for quality application, and that has to apply to every single equipment operator, says Schmitz. “The company owner may be on the same page as us, but if he has one guy who is not doing the job right, it can cause problems.”
As an example, they do not want equipment operators who figure they are just out in the fields to “dispose of” the manure and who may not pick up where they left off with their last load, figuring a few skips aren’t going to matter.
“They do matter,” says Schmitz. “Our message is they are delivering our product and we need to deliver it in an environmentally responsible way and in an agronomic way so it’s going to be good for the farm.”
Equipment operators are the final link in the manure management delivery chain, and Christensen Farms goes to great lengths to make sure there aren’t weak links. Many of the custom applicators have been working for Christensen for years and they know the program and understand the high standards. Still, every year the company has a training meeting for its manure applicators, attended by about 70 people from the applicator companies. They’ll talk about standards, upcoming changes in government regulations and equipment.
Equipment is a big area of interest. Schmitz, his colleagues and quite a few of their applicators spent a fair bit of time looking at equipment this past August at the Upper Midwest Manure Expo, held in Waseca, Minnesota.
“We don’t really have a specific formula for what equipment an applicator has to have to work with us, but we look at their equipment and how it’s going to fit a specific job.” The one exception to that is that applicators must have incorporation equipment since virtually 100 percent of manure is incorporated
In terms of matching the equipment to the job, with a sow operation with a higher proportion of diluted manure—and a resulting lower manure concentration in the pit—the best solution might be an umbilical system that delivers a higher volume per acre. “With a finishing pit, where it is more concentrated, it may be more feasible to haul the manure down the road a couple of miles.”
|Christensen staff go over the logistical details with their custom manure applicators, such as where to set up a pump, how the agitation should be done and where to route hoses.|
They also take a look at the “fit” between applicators and the operations they are working out of. An example: Company A may do a great job in the field, but may not clean up as well as application company B, which does an acceptable job in the field. A particular job might involve one of Christensen’s multiplier systems, and they need to be clean, so they opt for company B.
Even though Schmitz looks for a few new applicators every year, he’d rather not have to do that. They prefer to work with the same companies year-in, year-out and go to great lengths to make sure applicators know exactly what is going to keep them on the list. “We really take a collaborative approach with the applicator guys because we are dependent on each other,” says Schmitz.
Before the applicators even get to the farms, Christensen staff have done the spade work, determining the volume—and make-up—of the manure to be applied. They have also visited with the farmer or co-operator on whose land the manure is going to be applied. Sensitive areas, such as creeks, have been well mapped out. “Hopefully, if we’ve done our job, an applicator would have very few questions when they get to the field because we’ve got all this information together in advance.”
One of the agronomists or technical staff visits each application site twice daily, just to ensure things are going smoothly. Challenges that might arise on site could include coordinating application activities with farm staff. When applicators are going full tilt in the spring or fall, they can be operating around the clock and schedules have to be changed sometimes to make sure farm staff is available. Then there are logistical details, such as where to set up a pump, how the agitation should be done, and where to route the hose.
But from there on in, it’s all about execution. But that’s not to say what is being executed won’t change. “That’s not out of the question,” says Schmitz. “If we sent the applicator a plan in early September for an October job, the farmer might change his rotation and want the manure somewhere else. Then we’ll meet with the applicator, go over the new plan and note the changes.”
Since Christensen has been a growing company—it is now one of the five largest producers of pork in the US—it sometimes falls to Schmitz and his group to make changes to farm operations that are new to the company.
One farm that was recently brought into the company had odor issues with its manure operation. It had earthen basins for primary and secondary, and a two-stage anaerobic lagoon. Christensen took out the primary lagoon and put in concrete settling basins to collect the solids first, which were removed annually, rather than being sent to the huge earthen lagoon.
Schmitz says that in general Christensen Farms is always interested in looking at new and innovative ways of managing manure, but also wants to make sure that existing methods and technology are being fully employed. “For example, there’s a whole list of things you can do on a farm to control odor before you have to jump to new technologies. We take that approach: What are the things that we know today that aren’t being done that could be done to change the scenario before jumping to new technology?”
Schmitz has a handy analogy. “You can put OnStar on your truck, and that’s great, but if your transmission is giving you trouble, you’re not going to get very far.” Summing it up, he notes that taking care of the fundamentals can sometimes take care of a problem.
The five agronomists at Christensen are kept busy staying on top of government regulations. To simplify matters, they divide the states up, with any one agronomist covering, at most, the regulations in two states. This approach seems to work well since although states may have similar regulations, there can also be significant differences.
|Terra-Gator equipment at work on a Christensen farm. The custom manure applicators working for Christensen use a variety of equipment, but they must have incorporation equipment since virtually 100 percent of manure is incorporated when applied.|
The latest regulatory wrinkle they have to deal with is phosphorus indexes. “That’s a whole other layer of management that wasn’t there two years ago and it’s fairly intensive,” says Schmitz. “We need to not only run a phosphorus index that each state produces, but you need to use the NRCS’s RUSLE (Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation) II equation, so it’s really two layers of extra work.” Work, he adds, that has to be done by highly trained staff.
In term of manure application records, they have set up a Microsoft Access database and a GIS system, which Schmitz says was a painstaking process, though it has since paid off. “It’s now a real key tool for us. We have everything in a database and we can generate the reports we need from that. We’re constantly using it.”
Having these information tools makes manure management simpler, and it also helps in marketing the manure, though Schmitz says that is still somewhat of a slog with some farm operations. “To some degree, it changes given the geography you’re in. In a corn/soybean rotation like southern Minnesota, it’s real easy for people to see the value in manure, especially when you’re delivering concentrated product out of a pit. When you get into effluent with low concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus, it gets to be more of a challenge.”
But the value is there in manure. “In a corn/soybean rotation, you can pretty much count on a seven to 10 percent advantage for a manured field as opposed to a commercial fertilizer field—and the farmers know that.”