Moving manure: It can be a "drag"
November 5, 2009
FRANKFORT, IN (DTN) – Commercial agriculture’s critics idealize farms that raise both crops and livestock and use the manure as fertilizer. Here in central Indiana, Meadowlane Farms lives that idea, though not in the Jeffersonian-yeoman, small-plot fashion the critics worship.
Meadowlane feeds 33,000 hogs a year and grows 1,700 acres of corn and soybeans. Thanks to a single-minded devotion to efficient and environmentally-sound manure management, it’s 90 percent free of commercial fertilizers. It also runs a profitable business applying manure on other farmers’ fields.
To Meadowlane’s owner-operators – Mike Beard, his son David and his son-in-law Chris Pearson – manure isn’t a problem to be disposed of. It’s a soil nutrient and maximizing its value informs everything Meadowlane does from the feeding and watering of the animals to the techniques for returning manure to the soil.
The returns on this obsession are not only economic but environmental. Meadowlane has won awards from the state government, including the “Indiana River Friendly Farmer” award and the “Governor’s award for Environmental Stewardship.” It is cited on the Conservation Technology Information Center website for its sound practices. The National Pork Producers Council has posted a Youtube profile referring to Mike Beard as a good environmental steward. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nv-8ScYwKCc)
Yet despite the recognition, Mike insists most farms these days are good environmental stewards, as they’ve come to realize that practices like controlling fertilizer use and preventing chemical and nutrient runoff are good for the bottom line as well as for the environment.
Commercial agriculture’s detractors, he said, “have a 20-year-old view of agriculture.” They’re attacking practices that are no longer common. “We don’t think we’re any different from – excuse the conceit – most well-run agricultural businesses.”
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Where the Beards do differ from other hog farmers is in their eagerness to tell commercial agriculture’s story, using their own farm as exhibit A. They welcome visitors, and the visitor quickly learns why: Their technology minimizes odor. Only when inside of one of Meadowlane’s six hog barns does the nose know it’s visiting a hog farm. Visitors are also impressed by the farm’s use of buffer strips and other conservation techniques.
“We think we can make the best case for animal agriculture and agriculture in general if we highlight some of the things we do to protect wildlife and restore natural habitat,” Mike said.
But it’s the management of manure that most impresses the visitor. It starts with the feed, which the Beards’ wean-to-finish contract operation adjusts to create an ideal balance of nitrogen and phosphorus in the manure.
It continues with the regulation of the animals’ drinking water. To hold down the amount of water mixed with the manure, Meadowlane uses a device called a “cup waterer,” which prevents the crafty pig from manipulating his drinking fountain into “always on” mode. The manure drops through slats into pits beneath the barns, which creates much less odor than storing the excrement in lagoons.
Before applying manure to a field, the Beards do soil tests and manure-nutrient tests, using the results to calculate the precise amount of manure needed to produce the targeted yield per acre. During the application, they have autosteer and flow meters in the tractors to prevent overlap and excessive flow.
Among the most important technologies they employ are draglines. Instead of spreading the manure on the fields from honey wagons, they pump the manure from the pits (or from one of their eight tanker trucks) through hoses as long as a mile and a half and inject the manure four to six inches into the soil with knives mounted on a bar behind the tractor.
This cuts odor drastically and prevents the wastage of time that occurs when a honey wagon has to return to the manure source for a refill and then tries to resume spreading exactly where it left off. The dragline method can be used in a minimum-tillage field, Dave Beard said.
A dragline system like Meadowlane’s, including electronics but excluding tractors, tankers and pumps, can cost as much as $365,000 new, Dave said – expensive enough that only an operation of considerable scale can make it pay. Dave rigged up most of the pumps and is proud of his handiwork.
“We’ve gotten flows up to 1,350 gallons a minute on a half mile of hose,” he said.
Meadowlane is hardly alone in using this technology. More than a quarter of custom manure applicators nationwide use drag lines, said Mike Brumm, who taught animal science at the University of Nebraska for 27 years and is now a swine consultant in Mankato, MN. Some of them can pump manure from a pit to a field six miles away.
Injecting the manure from draglines is “tremendously better for odor, nitrogen retention and runoff,” Brumm said. It’s also more economical, because when manure is applied on the surface of the soil from a truck or honey wagon, “30 percent of the nitrogen will be lost to the atmosphere.”
“Last year, when anhydrous was a thousand dollars a ton, manure was worth big money,” Brumm said. “It’s worth less with anhydrous at three hundred, but it’s still big money.”
Back when 41-year-old Dave Beard was growing up the Beards were dairy farmers. They got out of the dairy business during a herd buyout in the 1980s and took up farrow-to-finish hog production. But they had so many disease problems with sows that in 2002 they switched to wean-to-finish.
The year before, they’d signed up to provide pigs under contract with TDM Farms in North Carolina.
“Our piglets oink with a drawl,” Dave said. The decision to go contract pushed them into expansion mode. As they plotted new barns and more pigs and calculated how much manure would result, they realized there was “no way” they could handle it as they had in the past. Today, using draglines, pumps and tankers, their 33,000 pig-per-year operation produces five million gallons of manure, which they apply on their own land. They apply another 40 million gallons of manure for other farmers.
As Mike Beard reckons it, the environmental benefits of what Meadowlane does are numerous. Less commercial fertilizer made from natural gas is required, and fewer nutrients are applied altogether thanks to the reduction of waste. Minimum tillage reduces soil erosion, and “we try to buffer away from creek beds to keep pesticides and nutrients from leaching into the water.”
But that doesn’t mean Mike considers himself an environmentalist. “Lord, no,” he said.
He will answer to “conservationist.” And as he thinks of the environmentalists’ critique of monoculture agriculture and their promotion of more integrated crop-and-animal farms, Mike realizes that “in a sense, we’re confirming what they preach.”