Forage 2022: Revisiting the fundamental fertilizer |

Forage 2022: Revisiting the fundamental fertilizer

There are a lot of advantages to using manure instead of synthetic fertilizer, especially as prices continue to rise. Photo courtesy BigHorn Ag Services, LLC.

As commercial, synthetic fertilizer prices skyrocket, packing another wallop to farmers and ag producers across the nation, some producers are looking at ways to better use the original fertilizer – manure. 

Fertilizer prices are the top issue for farmers headed into the 2022 planting season, according to a paper published by American Farm Bureau Federation economists. “All major crop production nutrients have experienced increased prices when compared to September 2020: ammonia has increased over 210 percent; liquid nitrogen has increased over 159 percent; urea is up 155 percent; MAP has increased 125 percent;  DAP is up over 100 percent; and potash has risen above 134 percent,” the paper states.  

Some might call the pinch a pile of … ahem. But that same pile might provide options this year. 

Bo Frasch of Miles City, Mont., owns Frasch Feedlot Services. The majority of his work is cleaning feedlots and spreading manure for clients. He says he has seen a lot of changes this year. “I’ve been about twice as busy as normal; it’s been about two seasons in one this year. I don’t know how many thousands of tons I’ve hauled and spread already.” His typical busy season is August to December, but this year he has been working since January and is booked solid until at least April. “A lot of that has to do with the drought and the open winter and the fact that I can still get in the fields,” he says. “But as far as what I’ve seen, people are trying to utilize what they have. A lot of people are after the phosphorus and the organic matter this year.” 

Frasch says he thinks fertilizer prices have a lot to do with the increased demand for his services, and he has people hauling manure to fields a lot farther away from the feedlot to utilize the nutrients. One of his clients is trucking 18 miles from the feedlot to an irrigated farm, and will use it in place of commercial fertilizer on irrigated alfalfa pivots this year.  

“It makes sense financially this year to these guys,” says Frasch. One of his projects near Billings, Mont., was a smaller feedlot that had stockpiled 40 years of manure. This year they opted to hire him to spread it on their dryland wheat fields. He’s seeing this in more than one case, people opting to spread, not just pile.  

“People are taking that extra step this year – spreading and hoping for moisture. And they’ll see the benefits of this for the next 2-3 years on alfalfa and hay ground, whereas commercial fertilizer is kind of a one-and-done for the year,” Frasch says. 

While utilizing manure for fertilizer is becoming a more enticing option for farmers, there are some factors to consider.  

Mario de Haro Martí is an Extension educator for the University of Idaho Extension in Gooding County in the heart of Idaho’s “Magic Valley,” where intensive agribusiness production comprises almost half the economy. His research and Extension interests include agricultural waste and nutrient management and agricultural air quality. 

He says there are two factors to evaluate when using manure for fertilizer. The first to test the manure, sampling from several different piles, to determine nutrient content. Nutrient content depends on many factors, including animal species, livestock diet, handling and storage, and water content. For example, swine and poultry manure tends to contain much higher levels of nitrogen than beef and dairy. It is recommended that several samples be taken from different locations and different stockpiles, and professionally analyzed for content. Manure often has high contents of sodium chloride, which can be an issue if you overapply.  

Second, de Haro Martí says you have to know the composition of your soil – what type it is and what nutrients are already there, along with what the crop needs are. 

“Alfalfa requires a lot of phosphorus and some potassium, and manure will offer those macro-nutrients as well as abundant organic material,” he says. “Alfalfa is a nitrogen-fixing plant, and is very versatile. It requires some nitrogen in the soil, but if it doesn’t have enough, it can fixate it.”  

Manure application also pays out over time. de Haro Martí says there are rules of thumb, but a lot depends on organic matter in the manure, soil type, climate and precipitation. “Clayey soils tend to grab nutrients better, whereas sandy soils tend to leach more,” he says. “On average, phosphorus and potassium are almost 80 percent available in the first year, and nitrogen between 15 and 20 percent the first year and 15-20 percent each year after that.”  

Nitrogen is normally the lowest percentage nutrient, and often needs to be supplemented each year. “But it’s important to test the manure and the soils every year to see where you are at,” de Haro Martí says. 

The other thing manure adds is microorganisms not usually present with synthetic fertilizers.  

“Sometimes the crop needs something in particular in your area,” he says. “But, having manure available, I don’t see why people would use synthetic fertilizers.” 

While de Haro Martí says he definitely sees a peak in manure interest when prices go higher, the systems he works with are so technologically forward they tend to rely on similar standard operating procedures year after year, and manure management is always a part of that equation. “We are constantly working to use manure in a way that is an asset more than a problem, as it is full of nutrients and organic matter.” He sees the same challenge in his region as producers everywhere – transportation, with fields closest to the source sometimes receiving an over-application, and those farther away struggling to pencil out costs to get it there. 

An added benefit of manure is the input of organic material into soil. “You add carbon and it builds the soil health, the fungal communities, and you have a more buffer in your soil to absorb changes in the climate and farming activities,” says de Haro Martí . 

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