If you’re a livestock confinement operator, sign up for a free manure management assessment.
A 1,400-pound dairy cow produces about 18 gallons of manure a day. A 150-pound hog, one gallon. A 20-pound turkey, a tenth of that. Use it right, and it is an asset. Get it wrong and you’re in the cross hairs of regulators.
Now, a federal grant program can help you manage manure efficiently while minimizing environmental risk. Participation is confidential, and it’s free for most U.S. confinement operators.
“The beauty of the program is you don’t have to be large to participate,” said Patrick Splichal, technical director of the program. He works for SES Corp. out of Merriam, Kan.
Comprehensive Livestock Environmental Assessments and Nutrient management plan (CLEAN mp), has been available for about two years, and 29 Missouri growers have taken part. Hog producers in northern Missouri make up most participants. Others include poultry, sale barn and dairy operators across the state. Their sizes range from 10,000 hogs to 100 milk cows.
“No matter what your size, the plan helps you make good use of manure,” Splichal said. “It saves on the cost of fertilizer, it’s good for the environment, and it makes you a good neighbor.”
In the past, farmers sometimes considered manure a waste to be hauled away. With today’s high fertilizer prices, manure has turned to gold. It holds the three nutrients most needed to boost crop production—nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. If you raise crops as well as livestock, you can spread it as fertilizer. If you don’t grow crops, you can sell it to a neighbor.
Missouri leads the pack
A Jefferson City, Mo.-based organization, the Environmental Resources Coalition , received $3.8 million to administer the four-year CLEAN project west of the Mississippi. (Another organization administers CLEAN in eastern states.) Missouri Corn Growers Association created ERC a few years ago. ERC, in turn, contracts with SES Corp. to provide technical services for CLEAN.
Missouri producers account for one-third of applicants in the western U.S. Splichal estimates that Missouri farmers have reaped about $150,000 in benefits. Kansas applicant numbers take a close second place.
In each state, the Department of Natural Resources or a comparable regulator requires larger producers to develop a nutrient management plan as part of a permitting process. In Missouri, this includes operations with more than 1,000 animal units, which roughly translates into 2,500 hogs, 700 dairy cows, 1,000 feedlot cattle or 100,000 broilers. The Missouri DNR has issued National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits to approximately 550 livestock operations.
Small operations vastly outnumber permitted facilities, so many more livestock producers are eligible for CLEAN.
Competent and confidential
“Missouri is a big livestock state, and we’d like to get more applications,” Splichal said. He speculates that some haven’t taken part because it’s free to farmers. “They think, ‘What’s the catch?’” Splichal said. “’If it’s free, is there a value?’” The value varies according to the size and type of operation. It might cost the program $10,000 to assess a California mega-dairy, compared to $4,500 for the average Missouri hog facility, he explained.
Missouri by the Numbers
Source: 2007 USDA Census of Agriculture
Steve Cromley, a certified agronomist at MFA Incorporated in Columbia, Mo., manages MFA’s Technical Service Provider program and has handled nine nutrient management plans and four environmental assessments. He suspects that some producers resist applying because “they tend to be private about their enterprises.” He and Splichal stress that assessments are confidential. Regulators see only group data; producer names aren’t disclosed.
CLEAN covers nutrient management and environmental assessments, but does not pay for construction, manure handling equipment or other expenses that may be needed to implement recommendations. Grants are available to cover those costs through the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
Growers don’t receive CLEAN funds directly. If CLEAN accepts your application, it goes out for bid to technical service providers (TSPs) in your area. All TSPs must be certified through NRCS and experienced in manure management. The TSP winning the low bid receives the funds.
“A farmer can’t select the TSP, but he is guaranteed that the TSP is certified in manure management and meets our guidelines,” said Mark White, executive director of ERC. “Who better knows your state regulations than your local TSP?”
How the process works
While a nutrient management plan comes at no charge to growers, it will cost you a little time to fill out an application form, which can be completed online or as a hard copy. You need to gather soil tests and records to facilitate the plan. Once you’re accepted, a TSP is assigned to visit you and assess your facility.
In addition to the nutrient management plan, you can also request an environmental assessment. Nutrient management plans account for 60 to 65 percent of CLEAN applicants; environmental assessments, 15 percent; the remaining percentage has applied for both, Splichal reported. “It’s not a surprise that nutrient management assessments have been more popular since large operators are required to have them,” he said. Nutrient assessments also cost more to conduct, he added.
In a nutrient assessment, the TSP considers whether you capture and contain manure responsibly. Most confined livestock operations store manure in a lagoon or in under-floor pits and remove it in the spring or fall to apply to fields. The plan assesses whether you adequately pump out manure frequently enough to allow enough storage capacity for wet weather.
Soil tests help you avoid too much build-up of nutrients, particularly phosphorus, on individual fields. “We usually work with a farmer to keep records for five years so he knows how much to apply,” Splichal said. “Many producers spread manure in the same fields closest to the barn year after year. The assessment helps you understand where you need it.”
Assessments can help crop growers save on fertilizer purchases. “We determine the amount and nutrient value of the manure produced on the farm, and balance its application with fertilizer application,” Cromley said. “We determine where nutrients should be applied in order to maximize crop production and minimize environmental risk.”
Splichal admits that farmers don’t like paperwork. “But at the end of the day, keeping records benefits you,” he said. “It also proves due diligence—if someone accuses you of a spill, records showing where, when and how much you applied or removed can protect you. Our surveys show that most participants like the program.”
In an environmental assessment, the TSP uses a checklist of best management practices including size of operation, type of animals or crops, land use, erosion control, how dead animals are handled and record-keeping. The TSP boils this down to a two- to three-page report that lists strengths, challenges and recommendations. Generally, environmental assessments require TSPs to spend less time on site than with a nutrient plan.
Prepares you for future rules
Beyond preparing you for a permit, a CLEAN assessment might also ready you for new environmental regulations coming down the road.
“Looking ahead, the big issues in agriculture look to be nutrient in nature,” said ERC’s White. Translation: farm chemical standards are already in place, and more nutrient standards are on the way. He said the Missouri DNR will release new clean water standards for nutrients next year. “By setting standards, states could place limits on the amount of nutrients allowed, and place lakes and streams on a list if they exceed those limits,” he concluded.
CLEAN funds are available through Oct. 2011. For more information, call 1 (800) 897-1163 or visit www.cleanmp-west.org. *Source: Midwest Plan Service’s Manure Characteristics
EPA to study atrazine again
Keith Witt, a corn and soybean grower from Warrenton, Mo., was disappointed recently when the Environmental Protection Agency announced a new evaluation of atrazine, a herbicide sold under various brand names and used by corn growers to control broadleaf and grassy weeds. After EPA completes the evaluation of atrazine’s effect on humans, the agency will decide whether new restrictions are needed.
“I use atrazine because it works, and it’s the most economical herbicide you can find,” said Witt, president of the Missouri Corn Growers Association (MCGA). MCGA estimates that atrazine saves Missouri farmers an average of $20 an acre on corn compared to switching to other herbicides, he added. “Scientists have already researched atrazine in 6,000 studies. Do we need to start from scratch?”
Witt has been using atrazine for more than 30 years. “We’re using a lot less than what Dad used per acre,” he said. Farmers today use less as they find atrazine more effective when combined with other, newer herbicides. New application methods also improve efficiency.
Until EPA’s recent announcement, the federal agency was scheduled to re-register atrazine, meaning that after years of study, atrazine’s continued use would be cleared for the future. Steve Owens, assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances, explained EPA’s action in an October 2009 news release.
“One of Administrator [Lisa] Jackson’s top priorities is to improve the way EPA manages and assesses the risk of chemicals, including pesticides, and as part of that effort, we are taking a hard look at the decision made by the previous administration on atrazine,” Owens said.
Activist groups are moving to slow down or reverse atrazine’s re-registration. For example, a recent Natural Resources Defense Council news release “urged the phase-out of atrazine, more effective atrazine monitoring, and the adoption of farming techniques to prevent it from running in waterways.”
Missouri became ground zero for farm-based atrazine research in the late 90s, when MCGA formed the Environmental Resources Coalition. The ERC’s Watershed Research, Assessment and Stewardship Project (WRASP) aimed to improve water quality while increasing farm profitability.
“We took the information gleaned in WRASP and designed best management practices which ensure atrazine and other products applied by farmers stay on the land and are utilized by the crop,” said Gary Marshall, chief executive officer of MCGA.
Mark White, executive director of ERC, added that if atrazine’s use were eliminated, it might cost Missouri farmers $60 million a year. “Atrazine is one of the most important herbicides in the region and the most widely used in the world,” he said. “It’s inexpensive, safe and effective.”
Before the ERC project, White said, ideas suggested to limit atrazine runoff weren’t based on sound science. The five-year WRASP project tested run-off levels from fields within two Missouri drinking supply reservoir watersheds that DNR had placed on its 303(d) list for exceeding the maximum contaminant level for atrazine. Then, ERC tested different farming practices to learn what would control run-off most effectively. Here’s what the research found.
• The most effective way to keep atrazine in the field was to incorporate it with a tillage tool.
• Timing of application was the next best practice. One example: using atrazine later in the season as a post-emergent application.
• Also effective: Using reduced rates and splitting application between pre-emergence and post-emergence.
The least effective management practice: Using atrazine as a pre-emergent application in a no-tillage system. Adjusting application rates and timing are better management practices with no-till.
Best management practices promoted by the ERC study helped reduce atrazine levels in two lakes, and eventually the DNR removed the lakes from its 303(d) list, White said. He added that farmers have adopted split- and post-application practices most widely, since incorporation with tillage tools is at odds with no- and minimum tillage practices. He pointed out that atrazine helps make no- and minimum-till practices more practical, and less tillage prevents soil erosion that contributes to some chemicals and nutrients running off into rivers and streams.
A study released by the U.S. Geological Survey reveals that these best practices may be working. It showed declines in pesticide levels, including atrazine, in Corn Belt rivers and streams from 1996 to 2006. Atrazine concentrations declined more rapidly than its estimated use, according to Skip Vecchia, senior author of the report.
“The steeper decline in these instances may be caused by agricultural management practices that have reduced pesticide transport, but data on management practices are not adequate to definitively answer the question,” Vecchia said. The EPA uses USGS findings on pesticide trends to track the effectiveness of changes in pesticide regulations and use.
Paul Tracy, director of agronomy for MFA Incorporated, said atrazine stands as a proven key to a total weed control program. “With the new seed products out, Liberty Link, Roundup Ready and others, and a move toward multiple applications, farmers have greatly reduced dependency on atrazine and are using it much more judiciously,” he said.
Find Environmental Resources Coalition on the Web at www.erc-env.org.