4 Manure Management Options for Your Farm

With the joy of keeping livestock comes the annoyance of managing manure. Here’s how to do it well on any scale.

by Lisa MunniksmaNovember 22, 2016
PHOTO: Mike Slichenmyer/Flickr

If there’s one constant in farming, it’s poop—and a lot of it. A single horse creates 50 pounds of waste per day; a beef cow up to 92 pounds; a feeder pig 9½ pounds; a sheep 4 pounds; and a laying hen 1/4 pound, according to the Midwest Plan Service’s “Manure Management Series.” Talk of manure management is often left to large-scale farms, but even on a few acres or with a few animals, you need a plan for managing manure. As a farmer, responsibly managing your livestock waste is one of the most important actions you can take for the health of your livestock, crops, family, land, water and community.

“A proper manure-management system utilizes the benefits of manure, for on- or off-farm use, without polluting the environment or offending neighbors,” says Athena Lee Bradley, manager of Northeast Recycling Council Manure Management Education Project and author of the NERC handbook Manure Management for Small and Hobby Farms. “Best-management practices on small farms are practical, cost-effective and easy to implement.”

There are several manure-management system options on the farm: on-pasture management, composting, stockpiling for use on personal property and stockpiling for removal. No single option will work in every situation, and most farmers will find a combination of these to be the most time- and resource-efficient.

1. On-Pasture Manure Management

The most low-maintenance manure-management system is keeping animals on well-maintained pasture, which also benefits animal and soil health. Managed, intensive grazing requires constructing temporary fencing and moving animals to new grazing areas, but the effort results in better use of manure nutrients than allowing uncontrolled grazing.

“Intensive grazing—managed pastures—will generally have healthier, dense plant growth and thus better utilize the plant nutrients contained in the manure,” says Mark Rice, water-quality and waste-management extension specialist for North Carolina State University. “The dense vegetation will also help reduce the potential of manure to run off the pasture during rain events.”

Yet even in an unmanaged grazing situation—allowing animals to range a large area rather than to rotationally graze small sections of land—manure fertilization helps return to the land what has been taken out in the grazed forage.

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Responsibly grazing any area that adjoins environmentally sensitive areas—waterways (even the smallest creeks), wetlands and well heads, to name a few—is key to manure-nutrient management. “Farm animals should not be able to enter streams or rivers. In most cases, even ponds should be fenced off and a tank used to water the animals,” according to Rice’s Livestock and Poultry Environmental Stewardship Small Farm Fact Sheet: “Small-Scale Farmers and the Environment: How to be a Good Steward.” “Establish grass strips, or buffers, to help filter runoff from barns or pastures and from where manure is stored or applied to land.”

Also ensure your property can handle the livestock you plan to keep on it. “Overstocking is the primary cause of water-quality contamination on small livestock farms,” Bradley says. “Check with the local extension service for the recommended stocking rates for the type and numbers of livestock your farm can support.”

2. Composting

Chances are pretty good that you’re already composting on some level on your farm, even if it’s only kitchen scraps. If you have animals in a confined area—chicks in a brooder house, horses in stalls at night or cattle in a sacrifice area, for example—remove the waste and put it to use. When done properly, composting speeds the breakdown of organic matter into a form useful to soil microbes and plants alike, reduces odors and volume, and kills parasites and weed seeds.

“Composted manure is safer than raw manure as a soil amendment. It is low in soluble salts, so it will not burn plants. It can be applied directly to growing vegetable crops. Compost is less likely to cause nutrient imbalances. It is typically pH-neutral,” according to Bradley’s Manure Management for Small and Hobby Farms.

The basic premise of composting is to achieve a balance of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and moisture through adding the right mix of ingredients with regular aeration. This equation creates heat and speeds the breakdown process. There are several means of managing compost (hot, warm and cool) and several systems to contain the compost (static piles, windrows and three-bin units are typical small-farm options).

“The most efficient composting system is the one that adapts to your needs and operational procedures,” says Mario E. de Haro-Martí, dairy and livestock environmental education extension educator at the University of Idaho. “Evaluate what you are [able] to do with your machinery, time, space, personnel and economic resources you have.”

A small tractor or skid steer with a bucket loader is ideal for turning and moving compost. Farmers without access to this machinery can still set up a small-scale composting system that can be managed by manpower. Hogs and chickens allowed to free-range a compost area are also useful for turning and adding nutrients to compost piles.

3. Stockpiling for Personal Use

Unlike composting, stockpiling is simply a means of storing the waste until you’re ready to use it.
A simple pile behind the barn isn’t environmentally acceptable, as rainwater will carry away the nutrients, potentially polluting groundwater and drinking water.

“The [storage] spot must be compacted and sealed so that rainfall landing on the pile cannot leach pollutants into the soil and groundwater. Sometimes gravel in a packed pad works well, or stone dust is used. The area approaching the pad needs to be firm, also, to prevent rutting in wet periods,” according to Fred Kelly, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service New Jersey resource conservationist, in his Storing Manure on Small Farms: Options for Storage extension publication.

If you have many animals or plan to stockpile the manure for a lengthy time period, consider adding reinforced containment walls. You want stockpiled manure to stay dry; therefore, some form of roof is necessary for a stockpile, even if the “roof” is only a tarp secured around the edges. The stockpiling area needs to have a slope of 1 to 3 percent so runoff from the roof and any leaching can be directed through a grass buffer, according to Kelly.

Spreading manure is not as simple as loading it into a spreader and heading to the field. Have your soil and manure tested to determine the ideal spreading rate so your crops can utilize all the nutrients—those not used will get washed away.

Take field and weather conditions into consideration along with the potential for crop and forage pathogen contamination to schedule spreading. In wet weather, keep equipment out of the fields as much as possible, putting off manure spreading until soil compaction and tearing aren’t concerns. In winter, manure spread on frozen fields is more likely to wash away before it gets incorporated.

Regardless of the weather, manure should never be spread around waterways, wellheads and active floodplains or on steep slopes. According to de Haro-Martí, you should keep at least 100 feet away from water sources when spreading on flat ground.

In regard to pathogen concerns, stockpiling doesn’t offer the same high-heat benefits of composting. The goal of stockpiling is to hold the manure in a convenient place, not manage the pile to maximize nutrients and reduce pathogens.

“Some pathogens can be spread with the manure to fields and pastures. Most of the time, this is not a major concern if the crops you grow are for animal consumption (e.g., alfalfa, corn silage, et cetera) or the pasture is for animals as opposed to recreational activities,” says de Haro-Martí. “In addition, you can add manures to land that will be cropped for human consumption or recreational activities, but the 190 days pre-harvest or use restriction should be followed. For that reason, and because nutrients take time to degrade, too, we recommend fall manure applications so you have the whole winter and growing season to degrade the manure, absorb the nutrients and let nature take care of pathogens. The mix of temperature changes, desiccation and predatory microorganisms kills most pathogens.”

Spreading raw manure also carries the risk of spreading internal parasites. Most parasites will not survive a long period of very hard freeze or extreme hot, dry weather. After spreading, harrow the pasture to break up manure clumps and expose as much area as possible to the elements. Allow poultry to range the area, too, to break up manure clumps and dine on the parasites contained inside. Keep livestock off the pasture for several weeks to allow parasites to die off.

4. Removing Manure

If your livestock produces more manure nutrients than you can use on your farm, removal is an option. You’ll need a stockpiling facility, as above, but you’ll also need a means of hauling it. This is a service for which you could hire a manure hauler, which can be costly, or you can be creative and find ways to move it off-farm for free—possibly even to make a little cash.

Well-composted manure is valuable to gardeners, landscapers and farmers without livestock, especially if your compost is weed-free. You can package it in old feed sacks or allow people to haul off truckloads from the farm. Depending on the demand in your area, you might be able to charge for it.

Even raw manure—especially horse manure—is valued by mushroom growers. There might be a demand for it in your area if you live near the mushroom-growing industry, such as in California, Florida and Pennsylvania. Haulers will pick up your manure, and some will pay for it.

“Advertise: Craigslist, local garden shops, free local circulars, local chat groups, et cetera,” Rice says. “I [saw] an ad where someone had one horse; they stated in their ad that if you brought a container, they would fill it and call you to come pick it up. Ask around to see what people want.”

Taking your manure to the landfill is an option, but it’s a bad one. There, the manure’s nutrients will go unused and have the potential to leach into waterways and groundwater—not to mention the limited landfill space the manure will occupy. Not all trash handlers will accept animal waste in their regular collection service.

Your Manure Management Plan in Action

Deciding on the best management strategy for the manure created on your farm can be a daunting task, especially if you’re new to farming, if farming is not your full-time commitment, or if you live in an area with complex nutrient-management laws.

“There are local technical experts from the USDA-NRCS, university cooperative extension and private consultants who can work with a small farmer to develop a manure-management plan, and lots of information on this subject is available on the Web just with some rudimentary searching,” Kelly says.

If you’re weighing the necessity of a manure-management plan for a farm of your scale, the answer is yes—even if you only have a few animals, a manure-management plan is an important element to your overall farm plan.

“Without a manure-management plan—even a simple, basic one—a farm with livestock, no matter what the size, is open to liabilities: complaining neighbors due to odors, concerns over water contamination; potential water contamination from run-off into groundwater, wells, aquifers, streams, et cetera; unhealthy animals from parasites and unhealthy living conditions; and risks to farm families from potential groundwater or well-water pollution,” Bradley says. “Moreover, without a plan, farm operators miss out on the opportunities to turn a waste material into a useful product for use on the farm or for sale.”

Manure-management regulations are stricter in some states and counties than in others. The only way to know the regulations your farm must follow is to ask. Check with the nutrient- or manure-management specialist in your state and county cooperative extension, your county planning and zoning board, your state agriculture department, and your state department of environmental quality, de Haro-Martí suggests.

Whether you improve your farm’s manure-management protocol because your local laws require it or because you wish to farm more sustainably, you’ll see the benefits. Proper manure management results in happier soil, water and neighbors, and ultimately makes your farm more productive.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2013 issue of Hobby Farms.