It's finally springtime, and after a long winter, many people want to get outside and get busy with outdoor projects. That includes local farmers.
For them, spring means that after a long winter of mostly barn living, and their animals can finally get out, kick up their heels and enjoy the spring grasses and sunny weather.
However, we have to get through the spring rain and snowmelt season first. And with the thoughts of flood waters come the question of what each of us can do to help prevent pollution and environmental hazards from flowing down or leaching into our local rivers and lakes.
Farms and farmers are an important part of these thoughts and actions. The decisions farmers, especially those with cattle, make regarding animal manure can have huge impacts, either negatively or positively, on water quality.
There are usually two ways that livestock are raised: either open grazing (in a pasture where there is enough grass to feed them) or in feedlots (which, according to the State of Minnesota, is an area where livestock are fed and housed long enough to produce a manure stockpile).
In Carlton County, according to Ryan Clark, ag water quality certification specialist for the Carlton Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD): "Most farms could be classified as a feedlot since livestock are not grazing year-round and must be fed stored hay and/or feed during the winter. The manure from this scenario is stockpiled until it can be spread on the fields."
Most local farmers, however, would describe their livestock area as the "wintering area," "barnyard" or "lot area."
Whether livestock are open grazed or kept in feedlots/barnyards, serious consideration must be given to protecting the quality of ground and surface waters, which is one of the most important concerns for most environmental professionals. According to Melanie Bomier, water quality technician for Carlton SWCD: "E. coli is used by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) as an indicator species. E. coli indicates that the water may be contaminated with fecal waste, and these wastes may also contain pathogens that can cause illness."
Bomier added: "It would be very expensive to test for all possible disease-causing pathogens, so we measure for E. coli instead. High E. coli levels don't necessarily mean the water will make you sick, but it does indicate that we need to take a closer look at where it's coming from."
In some areas of Carlton County, E. coli levels are higher after rainfall events which, Bomier suggests is "running off from somewhere," which could include from pastures and barnyards.
Both open grazing and barnyard methods have positives and negatives when it comes to handling animal manure, and farmers may need a little assistance in analyzing the situation and making choices or changing operations. The following are a few of the best management practices (BMPs) and regulations that farmers, whether they have just a few or many animals, should consider in relation to manure storage and dispersal.
Open grazing, according to advocates, is better for animals and humans than feedlots/barnyards. However, open grazing can also do consistent and considerable damage to the environment, especially for those farms in which pastureland is adjacent or close to a waterway, river, pond or lake.
Open-grazed livestock defecate wherever and whenever, and their manure is usually dealt with gradually by Mother Nature. Where pastures are fenced so that livestock have access to drink from lakes, rivers, streams or ponds, there is a big chance that much of the fecal waste and bacteria will end up in the water, either by livestock directly dropping it or the rains washing it to the river or lake, etc.
Although the farmer has the right to use the water resources within his pasture lands for his livestock, he also has the responsibility to protect the quality of that water.
In many cases, controlled access to the water source can prevent much of the animal manure from contaminating the water. Controlled access means that fencing is generally used to restrict livestock access to that water.
The ag professionals at Carlton SWCD and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) can help farmers look at their pasture and water situation and identify the best choice for protecting the water as well as making sure the cattle have the best possible access to food and water and the farmer is able to reduce the cost and inconvenience of drastic changes to their system.
The open pasture method can also be used during the winter, according to Clark, by "outwintering, where the cattle are fed stored hay out on the pasture during the winter. The manure, then, is applied to its final placement by the animals. These farmers will rotate or alternate areas on their pasture where this out-wintering occurs to evenly spread the manure nutrients. This pasture-based winter feeding eliminates the need to store and haul manure."
In the use of feedlots or barnyards, the manure has to be manually moved, stored, and eventually dealt with, and there are a lot of regulations to follow. In fact, the MPCA has ruled that any feedlot with 10 animal units (AU) in any area outside of shoreland must be registered with MPCA. (One AU equals 1,000 pounds, based loosely on one beef cow, and shoreline is defined by land 1,000 feet from a lake and 300 feet from a stream or river.)
"This regulation involves an inspection to ensure no runoff conditions exist that would pollute surface waters," Clark said. "MPCA will work with a violating feedlot to come up with a plan to address runoff issues, and SWCD and NRCS have funding options for these projects and practices."
Clark also shared the following BMPs for typical feedlot/barnyard situations that require manure spreading. "Farmers should avoid winter hauling and spreading of manure at all costs. This can lead to manure runoff problems when the snow melts." (This is under the assumption that there is sufficient manure storage space available.)
He added that farmers should "store manure until appropriate timing for crop uptake of manure nutrients. They should apply manure in the fall or the spring when soil temperatures are below 50 degrees or in the growing season when crops are actively growing."
When it comes to application, Clark said that farmers should "apply manure at agronomic rates for specific crops, i.e. in regards to pounds of nitrogen and phosphorus per acre required for crop production." And they should "incorporate the manure into tillable ground by injection or tilling in as soon as possible when conventional tillage is used. This practice will reduce the chance of environmental loss of nitrogen."
Most farmers who have feedlots or barnyards have had manure pits constructed. These are ideal for storing manure, which is considered a hazardous waste, until it can be safely applied to pasture or cropland. However, just like anything else, manure pits can reach the end of their design life or may not be needed anymore if a farmer decides to stop raising cattle or sell his property. MPCA requires that within one year of ceasing operation, farmers must remove all manure in the pit, apply it to land at the agronomic rates, and fill the pit in with dirt.
The ag professionals at Carlton SWCD and NRCS are available to help farmers with the huge undertaking of dealing with abandoned manure pits. They can provide financial and technical assistance to farmers and landowners who want to properly fill in these pits. They will inspect the site, check original designs on file, create a closure design and calculate quantities and cost estimates.
They will also walk the farmers through all of the paperwork and regulations, and help them to find financial assistance from NRCS and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to help fund the cost of the closure.
Kim Samuelson is Carlton SWCD's elected supervisor for District 4. For more information about the Carlton SWCD and any of the staff's or supervisors' work with natural resources, call 218-384-3891. Find more information about Carlton SWCD on Facebook and at carltonswcd.org.