Manure Manager

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Perfection Injection pioneers manure injection in California


Given its reputation as an environmental leader, one might expect that California would be among the first adopters of new custom manure application technologies.

Given its reputation as an environmental leader, one might expect that California would be among the first adopters of new custom manure application technologies. However, some areas are just learning about such techniques as manure injection overtakes flood irrigation on farmland.

Businesses like Perfection Injection are pioneering manure injection in California’s Central Valley. A couple of years ago, company owner, Bob Borba was the owner of a dairy struggling to make ends meet during the economic downturn. One of his major expenses was hiring tanker trucks to surface apply his manure. He sat down to scope out the pros and cons of manure injection as an alternative and just couldn’t come up with a good reason dairies located in that area of Northern California between Fresno and Sacramento wouldn’t be interested in injection over surface applying their manure.

Why this type of manure application has not been widely practiced in the Central Valley area becomes more of a mystery when one considers the intensity of agricultural production and variety of crops grown year-round in that highly fertile area. Farmers will sometimes harvest as many as three crops in a single year, starting with a corn/oats forage mix in winter from October to April, then a crop of corn that comes out in August or September, and sometimes adding a crop of sorghum as a third rotation.

“We’re very diverse out here, you know, dairy, trees, almonds, vines, everything that you can imagine except oranges,” says Borba. “In terms of our manure injection business, we’ve known that there are valuable goodies in what the cow excretes, and we have turned that into a heck of an opportunity and manure management solution.”

Unlike states further north, the manure injection business is only down for a couple of months in winter when it is simply too wet. Other than that, Perfection Injection is open for business. Among the biggest challenges faced by the company is to overcome the ingrained practice of disposing of dairy manure through flood irrigation. However, with dairy expansions resulting in more highly concentrated manure in storage, as well as the high cost of commercial fertilizer, Borba feels it is only a matter of time before more dairymen realize the benefit of taking greater advantage of what they have in the organic fertilizer stream provided by their dairy cows.

“If you over apply on a third of your land parcels by flood irrigating and under apply on the remaining two-thirds, and then have to go out and purchase commercial fertilizer, it makes no sense,” says Borba. “Why not apply it agronomically, save on the commercial fertilizer, and build up your organic matter?” He adds that by injecting the ammonia into the soil, he has been able to build up his organic matter from 1.6 percent to 2.2 percent per pound, meaning that the beneficial microbials are able to work a bit better.

Injection also satisfies agencies such as the water quality and air quality boards because injection removes the potential danger of over applying by using surface flood irrigation, a process that increases the potential for leaching. A properly injected field produces no odor.

Borba’s goal, now that he has made a significant investment in a fully equipped, Hydro Engineering manure injection setup, is to convince enough customers of the extra value provided by manure injection over tank spreading in this particular area and make it pay. Last year, the company injected about 110 million gallons and this year it expects to do 150 million. Perfection Injection works primarily for larger dairy customers, those with 200 acres or more of land surrounding their dairy operations.

Borba has first-hand experience of how much it costs to properly handle manure based on his own 1,200-head dairy farm, which is of about average size for that area of California. He conducted his own experiment of tank spreading his manure without it being worked into the soil and discovered that 70 percent of the ammonia was lost to the air after only a few days. It didn’t make sense to be paying $110 per load to have it tank spread a mile away from the dairy with that amount of potential fertilizer loss. There were also odor problems and dusty roads that resulted in a number of complaints from neighbors, not to mention soil compaction in fields by the tanker trucks. Nor was it a particularly accurate system for applying the manure where it was most needed. That prompted him to consider manure injection as an option on his own farm and as a custom manure application business for surrounding dairies.

“I was talking with a friend, Alvin Azevedo, who is also in the dairy business and well known for his proactive approach for managing manure. We started thinking that there has got to be a better way,” says Borba. “He showed me an advertisement with that drag hose and it was like ‘wow.’ It was just one of those ideas that we thought we had to push and I told him that if he wasn’t going to run with it, I would.” As it turned out, the opportunity dropped into Borba’s lap, and he’s now in his second year of business. He researched drag hose setups and manufacturers. It was an easy decision, he says, to go with Hydro Engineering, knowing that company owner Tom Hoffman invented the drag hose idea; with Hoffman’s over 20 years of experience, Borba felt he couldn’t go wrong. What’s really helped him learn the ropes and establish good customer relations is mentoring from another custom manure injection owner, John George, who owns JAG Pumps & Application Equipment in Iowa, as well as from Hoffman.

Borba’s equipment fleet includes a Peterbilt truck with a flatbed, equipped with a 65-foot boom to extract the manure from deep pit lagoons, as well as two John Deere diesel engines. One powers the hydraulics and the other pumps the manure slurry through manure injection hoses to surrounding fields for injection. Perfect Injection has over 1.5 miles of six-inch hose, which is connected to a booster pump. Its purpose is to boost the flow rate once it drops below 1,500 gallons per minute to maintain consistent flow to the field. Their optimum flow rate is between 1,400 and 1,700 gallons per minute. A five-and-a-half inch hose extends from the booster pump to the injector bar connected to a tractor in the field, giving the company the capability to apply manure within a two-mile radius of the storage pit. To inject the manure eight inches into the soil, the company uses a 24-foot injector bar. Two Case Magnum tractors are used on site. A Magnum 190 tractor, called the humper tractor, is used to move the drag hose around as needed, and a Magnum 275, equipped with front and rear duals for better flotation and a creeper gear, injects the manure on the field. It is also outfitted with accompanying flow control equipment, and Timble computer software in the cab for tracking location and application rates. The computer software automatically adjusts the application rate by adjusting the tractor speed, depending on where the tractor is located on the field. The creeper gear allows Perfection Injection to travel at a slower speed if necessary, and provides it with the capability to apply anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 gallons per acre with a 24-foot bar simply by adjusting their speed. As the manure is injected, the trench is sealed to minimize odor and loss of nutrients to the atmosphere.

“We also have an onboard nitrogen tester,” says Borba. “If the material is concentrated and the producer chooses to back off, we just speed up.” When combined with the GPS navigation technology located in the cab, he says Perfection Injection is able to avoid over applying. Once they begin applying, they prefer to run around the clock because once the storage pit agitation is in motion, it is important to keep it in motion to maintain slurry nutrient consistency. Two Houle 52-foot, agitation pumps are connected to Case 71 series tractors to agitate the pits. The application rate is carefully determined through discussions involving the producer, his crop consultant and Perfection Injection, with one of the outcomes being the generation of GPS maps showing recommended application rates based on the tested nutrient content of the manure slurry.

If the company is required to cross a road with its drag hose, Perfection Injection will pay to bore a hole under the road to accommodate the hose, and it will be there for the next service call. By taking this approach, transporting the manure slurry doesn’t damage roads in the vicinity of the dairy farm.

Borba says there are both agronomical and manure management benefits to opting for manure injection. Firstly, he says farmers are going to achieve better nutrient uptake from their organic fertilizer than with surface flood irrigating. Secondly, manure injection also allows farmers to manage their storage capacity better because manure injection allows them to better balance their applications with the amount of manure slurry in storage.

“We have noticed that we are more accurate than tank application of the manure, we are cleaner and we are definitely Natural Resource Conservation Service compliant,” says Borba. “Every producer that we do work for praises the idea that we are quiet, we are not destroying dirt lanes, there is no soil compaction, and we are under the radar as far as exposure to neighbors.”