Waste management on large farms requires planning
Proper management will bring rewards
CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) -- How simple life seemed before this little acronym became part of our lives. (If CAFO is not a familiar part of your world, it is the result of U.S. federal legislation that addresses waste management on large livestock farms. It involves following a comprehensive plan that sets guidelines for soil erosion, soil nutrient status, manure handling, and wastewater disposal). As we speed along toward implementation deadlines, many livestock managers are struggling with the challenges of compliance.
And as if we haven’t seen enough change, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has just recently issued its version of CAFO regulations, which will now send each state scrambling to be sure that their programs are in line with the new federal guidelines. Early reports indicate this means only minor changes for many states, but those that were trying to phase in gradually will end up tightening their regulations quickly. The cost of compliance on most farms will not be cheap, so consider some of the following tips that are designed to lessen the burden of CAFO crop production/manure spreading compliance, and help maximize forage production and quality.
Yes, soil testing is very basic, but the information is only as good as the quality of the sample. Be sure that samples are taken at appropriate depths since tillage practices today have been greatly refined. Sampling depth should coincide to a degree with tillage depth.
Always avoid sampling too close to the row if starter fertilizer was used on the last crop, and don’t over-sample headlands where fertilizer/manure applications tend to get overlapped. You’ll pick up higher readings there and possibly skew the results.
Sample all fields thoroughly so that varying soil types and topographies are well represented, and always mix the sample well before filling the laboratory sample bag. Sampling frequency will vary from state to state, but most plans call for soil samples to be no older than three years.
Site-specific sampling involves breaking large fields into smaller blocks to better define problem areas and further refine management programs. This approach often works best where variable rate application is planned.
BUILD BETTER PROGRAMS TO MAXIMIZE YIELDS
High yields usually mean lower cost per unit of production that is always a good thing. But higher yields can also justify increased nutrient applications. When trying to find a home for what seems to be an endless supply of manure on many farms, higher yields are imperative.
Intensively managed, high yielding forage grasses can justify many more tons of manure per acre than fields producing average yields. Best management practices need to be incorporated into all crop programs. Management needs to rise to new levels to avoid weak spots in crop programs. When details are overlooked, yields and profits can suffer.
ANALYZE MANURE FREQUENTLY
Most CAFO planners are happy if manure is analyzed once per year. But this may not be adequate to truly define the nutrient content. Sampling several times during the course of the year, or during the various phases of storage unloading can pay big dividends. It’s important to have an accurate manure analysis so that spreading rates are correct. The goal is not just to find a home for manure, but also to feed the crop properly to maximize yields. Build a good profile of the farm’s manure analysis, and always sample all sources on the farm.
Here is an area of the crop program that has seen a major overhaul in the past few years. Concerns over rising soil-test phosphorous levels have led CAFO planners to greatly downsize the role of starter fertilizers in many crops. Old beliefs about phosphorous never leaching have been thrown out the window.
Today’s research shows that very high phosphorous levels in the soil can actually inhibit crop growth and lead to lower yields. The theory is that most U.S. soils were naturally low in phosphorous many years ago and that US crop species are not well suited to grow in a high phosphorous environment. Recently there has been a great deal of research that indicates that starter fertilizers need very little phosphorous to maximize yield if the soil test level is adequate.
Try taking advantage of some of the new “designer” crop starters with low phosphorus analysis. You may save on input costs and actually raise yield at the same time.
INCREASE ACRES OF INTESIVELY MANAGED GRASS
If ever there were a group of crops that fit the CAFO plan perfectly, it would be forage grasses. Consider some of these advantages of grass production; most of which are very CAFO friendly.
- Strong performance on a wide variety of soil types and drainage
- Very favorable forage quality profiles when coupled with sound management practices
- High N requirements, especially if cutting management is intense, thereby justifying higher manure appropriation rates
- Manure spreading is performed soon after cuttings and this leads to less winter application
- Low maintenance- few insect and disease pests, and high yield potential
- Good longevity- most grass stands can be kept productive for many years
- Provide great protection against soil erosion
To satisfy the CAFO requirements for reducing soil loss, there is little doubt that cover crop usage will increase. Cover crops help reduce erosion, improve soil health and structure and add organic matter to soils. They also can reduce weeds and recycle unused nutrients, especially nitrogen. All of these things can lead to increased productivity, quality, and profitability as well as helping the environment. Crop cover programs can be kept quite simple and there are a number of species to choose from to fit your cropping scheme.
This will be high on many people’s lists as we move ahead with CAFO cropping. Many states are encouraging the exportation of manure to acres where there is a real need. Cash croppers are often thrilled to get manure spread on their production acres.
This will require some adjustment of hauling equipment to get the job done and some compromise concerning who pays for what. But when you consider that a ton of as-produced dairy manure contains approximately $5.00 worth of plant nutrient value, these challenges should be easy to overcome. You will probably need a current soil test on any land that is targeted for manure exportation.
This has always been an important part of the cropping system anyway, and with CAFO it becomes even more so. Spreading dates and rates of application must be recorded, as well as field location. Good maps are essential so that applicators can be sure to avoid hydrologically sensitive areas. And don’t forget weather and rainfall data. Most states want to see detailed rainfall records kept, and correlated to manure applications. Since most well managed farms have been doing much of this already, this should be an easy one to bring up to CAFO standards.
One thing is for sure, we’ll never grow crops again like our parents and grandparents did. But adjusting to this new way of life can bring plenty of rewards, not only for the environment, but for the forage production program as well.