Manure Manager

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The art of relocating a feedlot


When Wes Dvorak and his wife Teresa moved back to the family farm and joined the North Dakota family business six years ago, the young couple took on a big project

When Wes Dvorak and his wife Teresa moved back to the family farm and joined the North Dakota family business six years ago, the young couple took on a big project – relocating an entire feedlot operation.

“Historically, we were strictly a cow-calf operation, selling calves straight off the cow and only occasionally backgrounding our calves,” says Wes. “As the frequency of backgrounding increased, we realized that our current feedlot wasn’t adequate. Our cows were wintered along the creek in an area that frequently flooded each spring. And, the small feedlot was situated at the bottom of a hill where winter snowpack melted, flowed through the feedlot and into the creek.”

Wes and Teresa decided to expand their operation and in 2005 they began working with the North Dakota Department of Health, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and its (Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

The solution turned out to be to relocate the feedlot, along with the feed storage areas, to a hillside field with a six percent slope.

“The slope allowed the engineer to begin with a clean slate instead of having to design the feedlot around existing buildings and water and electricity lines,” says Wes. “It also has excellent drainage for those times when we get rain and when the snow melts.”

The layout

The 14.5-acre hillside feedlot was designed for 995 head. The pens range in size from 50 head of calves to 300 head of calves, and slope away from the feed bunks and mounds to create proper drainage and provide a dry place for cattle to lie.

“The cow could calve in a clean, dry area instead of along the creek as previously done,” says Wes.

One of the pens is specifically designed to allow cows access to water and windbreak during the winter, but also allow them access to cropland for fall grazing and winter-feeding purposes.

A new 48-foot by120-foot pole style barn was also erected. It is designed to be multipurpose – used for calving during spring as well as for machinery storage. The Dvoraks also took advantage of the surrounding oil industry and used drill stem pipe and sucker rod to build a portion of the fencing.
“Ritchie waterers were placed in the fence line between pens,” says Wes. “Each pen has a 12-foot heavy-use pad at the bunk line and an 18-inch concrete curb to separate manure from the feed.” 

Construction

When it came to construction, there was little that could be salvaged from the first feedlot – just some windbreak material and some concrete feed bunks.

“Otherwise, everything else down in that old facility was made out of wood,” says Wes.

Because the Dvoraks did all the construction themselves, it took place in two parts. They built most of the new feedlot in the first year, but put in the final four pens and second feed alley about a year and a half later.

“It’s definitely challenging to do it yourself,” says Dvorak. “It all depends on your other commitments and your resources. For example, because of the oil industry we had oil field pipes and the oil field sucker rod, so it was just a matter of cutting it up and putting it in the ground and welding,” he says, 500-plus pounds of welding rods later.

In the end, without including labor, the cost of the entire feedlot came in at between $200 and $300 per head. And the Dvoraks were able to tap into some cost-sharing programs to make the relocation affordable.

“At that time, the NRCS EQIP program paid 60 percent,” says Wes. “It definitely helped out, especially with these environmental rules being impressed upon us. It’s good that they stepped up and helped out in the cost sharing of relocating our feeding area.”

Simple manure management

The manure handling is efficient and straightforward. Behind every pen is a drover alley that also acts as a dirty water channel. Any liquid from the feedlot runs off into the channel and down to the holding pond.

On its way to the holding pond is a 24-foot by 24-foot concrete pad/solid waste separator.

“The pad has four-foot-high concrete side walls on two sides,” explains Wes. “On the side that is parallel to the holding pond, there’s a culvert that goes from the solid waste separator into the holding pond. And in front of that culvert, we just have a simple man-made screen to slow up and filter off a lot of the solids. Only the liquid portion goes into the holding pond.”

The liquid eventually travels about 1,000 feet from the feedlot to the holding pond that’s 200 feet long by 150 feet wide and about 12 to 13 feet at its deepest. It was designed for 365 days of storage with the liquids evaporating each year, eliminating the need to pump.

The entire system is gravity fed, which saves the Dvoraks money.

“Afterward we just clean off the pad after big rain events and in the springtime we just keep our dirty water channels free and clear,” says Wes.

In case the holding pond ever needs to be pumped, the plan is to use a traveling irrigation gun to pump the liquid onto adjacent cropland or pasture.

Moving solids

The solids are scraped into piles in the pen in the winter. When the feedlot dries out in the spring, manure is hauled to make room for the cattle and is stacked in windrows. Wes says the goal isn’t so much composting as reducing the manure volume.

“By turning the piles a minimum of three times within two months with a front-end loader, the manure volume is decreased at least 50 percent with this process,” he says. “The manure is then hauled to cropland in the fall with a truck-mounted Harsh model 19.5 manure spreader with horizontal beaters.”

Each year, the manure is analyzed for nutrients and application rates are calculated based on nitrogen needs. Application rates are generally between 22 and 30 tons/acre. Spreader calibration is also done each year because manure weight, texture and field landscape tend to have a big influence on application. 

Crops

Adjacent to the feedlot, the cows winter on a 135-acre field.

“The only time the cows come into the feedlot is just to get water and minerals but otherwise they’re out on the cropland. We have a portable windbreak for them and feed them in turned tractor tires.”

The Dvoraks move the feeding area by moving the tires throughout the 135 acres on a three-year rotation.

“We just let the crows spread the manure for us,” says Dvorak. “And every year we seed a crop into that, like wheat or barley for hay, or corn.”

He adds, “At calving time or when the ground softens up, we’ll pull the cows off the cropland. We don’t want a lot of compaction in the field. Typically, they’ll be off that cropland sometime in March. From there they’ll get put into a calving pasture.

Fertilizers

Dvoraks have not only cut down on their fertilizer purchase, but also  eliminated it for the cropland that the manure was applied to.

“We were able to spread roughly 130 acres. That was the sole nutrients that we put down on the corn crop and got excellent production on it. And the last couple of years we’ve had tremendous hay yields on the rest of our crop and hay land so this year we’re selling quite a bit of hay to the guys down south that are in a drought.”

“We do raise some wheat, which we sell as grain,” Wes adds, “but I would say 85 percent of what we grow goes back into the feed lot.”

Tweaks

The Dvoraks are happy with how the new feedlot is working for them, but there is always room for improvement. Down the road, they would like to switch to vertical beaters on their manure spread.

“This would also allow us to spread loads faster with a wider spread pattern and in some cases at lighter application rates,” says Wes. “I would build all the feedlot fences from super steel, which is four-feet-wide by 24-feet-long heavy-gauge windbreak steel – rather than sucker rods welded to the oil field pipe. The upfront costs are more, but it’s a huge labor and maintenance saving in the end.”

For now, the expansion is complete – as far as the farm’s concerned. As for the Dvoraks, they have three-year-old twins, a 20-month-old toddler and another baby on the way.

The couple says that anyone considering expanding or building a feedlot should plan ahead.
“Not only on your facility design, but if you were planning on putting in a feedlot, and it’s going to be larger than what you currently have, you have to have an overall business plan for filling that feed lot,” says Wes.

The couple is pleased with the final product.

“As a young couple joining the family business, the building of the feedlot allowed us to add an enterprise to the current operation without having to add acres.”