Manure Manager

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No farm too small

Manure management is beneficial to farms of all shapes and sizes, but small farms require specific care when it comes to storage, sampling and more.


May 21, 2024  by Jack Kazmierski

All images courtesy of North Dakota State University

While larger farms see manure management as an essential and integral part of their overall operations strategy, sometimes smaller farms have trouble with the idea that manure has to be managed, and that it’s simply not going to disappear on its own.

Mary Keena, extension specialist at North Dakota State University (NDSU) says in her experience, some owners of smaller farms simply didn’t think about the need for manure management before acquiring animals.

She says people are almost surprised when they realize that they’re going to have to contend with manure on a regular basis. “I often hear things like, ‘What are we supposed to do with this stuff,’ or ‘I didn’t know they would make so much. Nobody told us,’” Keena laughs. “I hear that quite a bit. I think that manure is a bit of an afterthought for some people and it tends to kind of sneak up on them. They suddenly find themselves with two feet of manure in their corrals, and they don’t know what to do with it.”

In North Dakota, Keena explains, a lot of farmers have between two to five horses, and often manure management isn’t part of the planning process. It’s not something they think about before purchasing their horses. “They’re great animals,” she says, “And they’re a lot of fun, but then they poop. And nobody thinks ahead about what they’re supposed to do with all that manure.”

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The problem can be exacerbated in situations where these smaller farms are located close to city limits. “The neighbors will complain about the piles of manure,” adds Keena. “Not only are they unsightly, but they smell bad too.”

Plan ahead
The first step in a successful manure management strategy is planning. According to Keena, this means figuring out where the manure will be stored. “If you have a smaller farm,” she explains, “and you have your animals in a barn, during the winter, then you might be removing the manure and putting it right outside the barn door. But in the spring, you’re going to need to move that manure, because right outside your barn door is not a good storage area.”

Rather than handle the same manure twice, Keena recommends using a more permanent manure storage facility. “You only want to move it once,” she adds. “You want to take it out of the barn to a more permanent area where you can let it sit to burn down so you get a volume reduction, or you’re going to compost it in the spring and summer, and then use it.”

Site selection
One of the key considerations when choosing a location for manure storage is safety. “We want a place where we’re not going to pollute groundwater or surface water,” explains Keena. She recommends a non-porous surface, like a concrete slab or clay, and a place where there’s no risk that floodwaters can wash out the manure pile in the spring or summer.

Sarah Fronczak, Michigan State University Extension environmental management educator agrees. “Safe storage would be in a manure storage facility,” she says, “and that means a three-sided manure storage facility with an impermeable base of some sort. It’s even better if it has a roof.”

Neither Keena nor Fronczak recommend temporarily stacking or storing solid manure directly on the ground. As far as liquid manure is concerned, Fronczak says there are a number of options. “It could be an above-ground storage facility that is engineered to hold liquid manure, or it could be an in-ground pit of some sort,” she explains. “However, I don’t see a lot of these kinds of facilities on very small farms, because they don’t tend to produce a lot of liquid manure on smaller farms.”

Compost rows being turned with a pull-type turner. Turning compost is an integral part of the composting process.

Composting
Another key consideration is access. In other words, is the area that has been selected for manure storage easily accessible? You’ll need to get equipment in there in order to turn the pile of manure when it’s composting, so think about whether you’ll be able to get that equipment in and out with ease?

“If you can’t get into the area and turn that pile, then composting is going to be very hard to do, because turning is a huge part of composting,” explains Keena.

Depending on the size of the farm, you might be able to turn the manure with something as small as a pitchfork, or you may need something as large as a tractor. Either way, you’ll want to make sure you can access the area where the manure is stored in order to turn the pile regularly.

Easier said than done – composting is a science that requires the right amount of heat and moisture, explains Keena. The carbon-to-nitrogen ratio is another key consideration, and it varies dramatically, depending on the source of the manure. Keena is the lead author of a guide, published by the NDSU, which offers detailed advice on how to properly compost manure. The guide is available here: https://www.ndsu.edu/agriculture/extension/publications/composting-animal-manures-guide-process-and-management-animal-manure-compost.

Composting can also be an added source of revenue for smaller farms, explains Fronczak. “Different states have different rules about how you can package and sell compost,” she adds. “So I would recommend that farmers check with whichever agency is in charge of that in their state.”

Compost, or even the manure itself, can be sold to a variety of clients, including farmers and homeowners with a garden of their own. “Gardeners will come in and happily take a pick-up truckload,” says Fronczak, “And depending on the price of nutrients, you may or may not want to charge for that.”

Many smaller farms, Fronczak explains, don’t charge for manure because they simply want to get rid of it. “But we’ve seen a spike in the cost of nitrogen and phosphorus in recent years, and people have been selling a lot of manure,” she says. “So depending on what’s happening with the markets, it may or may not be profitable to do so.”

Application
If you opt to keep the manure and spread it onto your own fields as a fertilizer, you can do the job yourself, or you can hire a third-party to do the job for you. The latter is a common practice with larger farms. 

“You can hire the folks that spread for larger operations,” adds Keena. “Just keep in mind that their equipment tends to be bigger, so you have to consider whether they’ll be able to access the area where you’re storing the manure, with their larger equipment.”

It may also make sense to work together with a number of your neighbors when hiring a contractor. “Sometimes, it’s easier for applicators to have several smaller farms get together,” Keena says. “So if six of you want manure spread, it may only take them half-an-hour at each locations, but by working with your neighbors, you’ve now made a full day for them.”

If you’re doing it yourself, Keena says you can use smaller spreaders that are able to handle smaller quantities of manure. These can be pulled with something like an ATV of even a lawn tractor. 

Properly composting manure should reach temperatures between 130 and 160 F.

Excess manure
In a perfect world, smaller farms would be able to convert all the manure they produce into fertilizer or compost for use on their own fields. However, in some cases, animals may produce more manure than a smaller farm could possibly use.

“If you’ve determined that you have more manure or compost than your land needs, you can always partner with a neighbor, if that’s something that’s available to you,” explains Keena. “Does your neighbor have cropland, hay land or pastureland that they’re willing to let you spread the manure on? Or do you have a community supported agriculture program, or a produce grower who needs some product for their greenhouse or their fields?”

In some cases, smaller farms may be tempted to simply put the excess manure into a dumpster and treat is as garbage, but Keena doesn’t recommend doing so because it’s a valuable commodity.

“If you have to let your manure sit in long-term storage for a few years, then that’s what you do,” she says. “It’s not a big deal. But if you’re on the edge of a city limit, then that tends to be an issue, because people don’t want to see your manure pile sitting there.”

Fronczak notes that depending on the size of the farm, and where it’s located, sometimes landfills can be a smaller farm’s go-to solution. “I see that a lot inside of cities, or near cities, where they might have horse riding facilities, for example, and simply don’t have the land to spread manure on,” she says. “So they’ll have a dumpster and they’ll send the manure to a landfill.”

While sending manure to the local landfill may not be the best practice, for smaller farms that are closer to the city, it may be the only solution, just as long as the local landfill allows it. “It’s going to be less disturbing to your neighbours,” Fronczak adds, “and you won’t get called out for the smell and the bugs.”

If the entire process of managing manure seems overwhelming, Fronczak is co-author of the “Small Farm Manure Management Planning” report, which goes into detail about all aspects of manure management for smaller farms, and can be downloaded here: https://www.canr.msu.edu/resources/small-farm-manure-management-planning

Like it or not, manure is a fact of life, and a daily part of farming life. It doesn’t matter whether a farm is large or small, manure needs to be managed effectively, or it will get out of hand. Fortunately, there’s a wealth of information and guidance available to help farmers properly store, compost, spread and even profit from a commodity that simply can’t be ignored. •

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