Ranging further afield with fracs
The use of frac tanks is growing in popularity as more manure is being applied further from home
June 7, 2017 by Tony Kryzanowski
Custom manure applicators often describe their work in colorful ways, using such terms as “traveling circus” and “hopscotch system” to explain what they do on a day-to-day basis. Lately, many have added a new term to their vocabulary and that is “frac tank.”
Over the past 10 years, many custom manure applicators have added these portable, on site, storage and transfer tanks to their fleets and, while not something they necessarily deploy on every job, it has become a handy and valuable tool in their arsenal.
Taking Wisconsin as an example, in 2003 there were five frac tanks being used by custom manure applicators in the state and 68 semi transport trucks transporting or both transporting and applying liquid manure. In 2014, there were 34 frac tanks and more than 400 semi trucks. The growth of the use of semi trucks concurrently with frac tanks is important because it shows that at the same time as more frac tanks have been deployed, higher volumes of liquid manure are being transported over longer distances with semis.
The term frac tank comes from the oil industry where a large, typically rectangular, holding tank is commonly used in the field to hold water or down-hole chemicals. Today, they are being re-purposed by many custom manure applicators as a storage and transfer system, regardless of whether they deploy a drag hose system, tractors and tankers, or trucks to land apply manure. While their use has opened up and helped to maintain business opportunities, it definitely is not business-as-usual when one becomes part of a service call.
There are extra costs related to delivery and set up of the tank as well as extra staff to monitor the inflow and outflow from the tank. There is also a learning curve required to integrate this portable storage device into regular workflow.
After renting a frac tank on a couple of occasions, Circleville, Ohio-based, custom manure applicator, WD Farms Inc., recently purchased and modified a Salty 21,000 gallon frac tank that was used for holding water while in service with the oil industry. Owner Eric Dresbach says he has made a total investment of about $30,000 to both purchase and modify the tank.
“Once we started the drag hose business, we had to have that shock absorber between the trucks and the drag hose,” Dresbach says. “Long distance delivery and a drag hose system is what drove the purchase.”
Over a period of eight days, hydraulic cylinders along with external reinforcement were added so the tank could be loaded onto a regular semi for transport from site to site. A 200-horsepower International engine with a Cornell pump was attached to the back so delivery trucks could self-load into the tank and fittings were changed on the front so that a booster pump for the in-field drag hose system could be connected. Eric says all this was accomplished by the hard work of his son, David, and other employees. The tank comes equipped with a set of stairs instead of a ladder for safety, and three sight gauges at different levels so that operators can monitor tank volume.
They land apply approximately 60,000 gallons per hour from the frac tank with their drag hose system.
“It’s not unusual for us to move cow manure out five-to-eight miles,” Dresbach says. “In Ohio, you can’t lay a hose out that far logistics-wise. When using the frac tank, the farmer gets more benefit from manure because it is more spread out and it’s giving us more gallons per hour.”
One of the primary factors driving more frac tank usage is the potential to attract more business. Jake Buttles, owner of Buttles Custom Ag LLC, located about an hour west of Green Bay, Wisc., says his investment into a couple of frac tanks over the past few years has brought him about 30 percent more business.
They have an extensive and varied manure hauling and application fleet that includes two drag hose systems. Buttles Custom Ag land applies about 200 million gallons annually exclusively for the dairy industry. Buttles has two, 21,000-gallon frac tanks that he sourced from the oilfield and customized with such features as hydraulic rams on the front so that they can more easily be loaded onto transport trucks. They use a dump tank and frac tank combination, where trucks unload using a gravity flow system into a smaller 4,000-gallon dump tank, and then the liquid manure is pumped into the larger frac tank usually within 25 feet of the dump tank.
“With this system, where we use gravity flow to unload trucks into the dump tank, we’ve reduced our truck unloading time from about two-and-a-half minutes to about a minute,” Buttles says.
They use frac tanks for about 45 percent of their service calls, typically on jobs when the field where the manure is being applied is more than four miles from the lagoon and the customer wants to minimize field soil compaction.
Buttles adds that with changing farm practices, like dairies planting longer maturity corn, they have a shorter application window. So, using a portable storage and transfer unit like a frac tank provides them with the opportunity to apply more volume within tighter application windows in both spring and fall.
Dresbach adds that just-in-time application is also becoming an issue for him as some of his customers are moving toward planting two crops annually, such as wanting to plant triticale soon after harvesting the corn crop. These customers demand that manure is applied right after the corn harvest so that the second crop can be planted within a few days.
What Buttles likes about his frac tanks is that they help to maintain continuous flow on the land application end, regardless of how many delivery trucks he may have available on a daily basis. It also removes heavier tractors and tanks from roads, and with tank portability, it provides him with the ability to find alternative access points to a farm, should he run into a road issue. However, there is more set up time required with the additional set of equipment, and more training required with new employees so that they understand the overall workflow when frac tanks are in use.
Besides the ability to generate more business, other factors fueling frac tank growth include larger farms generating higher volumes of liquid manure with a limited amount of land around the farm available to land apply the manure, more extreme weather resulting in fewer potential application days, precision farming, road weight limits, and implementation of nutrient management plans.
Kevin Erb is a conservation professional training coordinator with the University of Wisconsin Extension branch who works regularly with custom manure applicators in the state and throughout the Midwest. He says greater proliferation of frac tanks has not only contributed to manure delivery and application efficiency, but also to hauling safety.
Erb explains that over the last 15 years, Wisconsin has witnessed many more semis hauling manure on roads, either for direct land application or delivery to portable, on-site storage and transfer devices like frac tanks.
“The real safety aspect (of frac tank use) is that we don’t have equipment going in and out of fields,” he says, meaning that less mud and manure is being tracked onto roads and there is the potential for fewer accidents when trucks turn into fields.
Custom applicators queried about their frac tank investments, and particularly those serving the dairy industry, said that they have felt pressure from farm customers to provide the frac tank option. Precision farming and implementation of nutrient management plans have sometimes resulted in application of fewer gallons-per-hectare, meaning that the extra volume of liquid manure that the farm generates has to find a new home, usually farther from the farm.
Also, while many farm customers like the idea of drag hose application systems because it reduces land compaction, there is only so much drag hose and pump power that can be economically and safely deployed to reach farmland more than three miles from the farm. So, by offering portable, on-site storage and transfer, custom applicators can still offer the drag hose option on farms farther away from storage lagoons. In many case, custom applicators report that their farm customers are willing to absorb the extra cost if it means less soil compaction, quicker and more timely application, and more precise application of nutrients per hectare.
Another factor contributing to the proliferation of frac tanks in custom manure application is the availability and cost of frac tanks, with some basic tanks available at auction these days in the $5,000 to $7,000 range due to the oil industry downturn. But, because a frac tank may not be required on all jobs, it may make more sense to simply rent a tank, as needed, and charge the customer accordingly.
A number of frac tank management issues must be considered once one has been put into service. The first is transportation of the tank to the field location. It must be legal to transport the tank on both developed and less-developed rural roads. The second issue is finding an appropriate location for the frac tank.
“When it comes to frac tanks, it’s not just something you put down anywhere,” Erb says. “You really need to be thinking about what’s going to be the traffic impact, what’s the liability, and if you are in the ditch or right-of-way, do you need a permit from that township or county to have that tank located there for a day or two.”
Another important consideration is making sure that the tank is designed and set up in such a way, perhaps with a V-bottom, so that it can be emptied easily once a job is finished and the tank needs to be transported to a new location. Solids, particularly sand, can accumulate in the bottom of the tank, increasing weight and decreasing available capacity.