Nutrient management planning – good for the environment and the bottom line
By Lilian Schaer
Nutrient management consultants are an invaluable resource for farmers needing a nutrient management plan when they’re looking to expand or build new livestock facilities.
But their services and advice can also make a difference where construction isn’t at play, from helping lower fertilizer costs to reduced paperwork and understanding manure storage and application options.
For Gary Van Ankum, a nutrient management consultant with Clean Field Services in Drayton, figuring out how much manure to apply, when and where is one of the most important tasks in nutrient management, and although there is a free online tool available for farmers to do this work themselves, it can be a daunting task.
“How much manure to apply is a very important factor and a consultant can help determine those nutrient loading rates and what are responsible methods for spreading the manure,” he explains. “We can talk about things like set-backs and buffer strips to keep manure from getting into water courses.”
He has, for example, made recommendations to help clients construct permanent vegetative areas around their manure storages to manage run-off, and can provide advice on where farmers might be able access cost-share funding for environmental improvement projects.
Most of his clients come to him for nutrient management strategies when they’re building new or expanding existing barns, and that’s where he can provide advice on the type and size of manure storage, as well as how to minimize environmental impact, such as covering solid storage to keep run-off out of surface water.
“Although the regulatory minim is 240 days, most farmers today prefer to have close to a year’s worth of manure storage so they have the benefit of flexibility on timing of manure application,” he says, adding that this is important to avoid application on frozen or snow-covered ground, or causing unnecessary soil compaction by hauling manure over unfit or wet soil conditions.
Farmers are busy people, adds Matt Robillard from Soil Solutions Plus in St. George, and hiring a consultant to take care of the nutrient management planning means they can focus on their business and let someone else worry about paperwork and regulations. He likens it to hiring an accountant and relying on their expertise and knowledge when it comes to providing tax advice.
And there is financial benefit too, according to Tiny Van Pinxteren of DMBC Inc. in Strathroy: good planning can reduce operating costs while improving soil health, which in turn makes fields more resilient and higher yielding.
“A nutrient management consultant can significantly reduce the operating cost in the field by finding the best efficiencies among crop rotation and manure availability,” says Van Pinxteren. “This can keep the costs of fertilizers under control.”
For one client, Van Pinxteren was able to lower fertilizer costs by more than 50% without impacting corn yields simply by re-evaluating the nutrient value of his dairy manure. For others, the introduction of yield maps, soil sampling and variable rate application can significantly reduce fertilizer use.
Van Ankum recommends manure testing to his clients as a way of illustrating the monetary value of the nutrients in the manure and getting information that’s farm-specific instead of simply using average values for nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus.
According to Robillard, manure testing is key to understanding its value. Most of his clients that are growing and expanding have manure testing programs as part of their management approach.
“Farming is a business and every business needs to manage their assets and lower their costs to stay competitive,” Robillard says. “Every farm that I work for is different, from feeding programs and housing to manure storage systems and application equipment and every one of these can change the composition of your farm’s manure away from the average. Manure testing is a small cost to understand how not average your operation actually is.”
For example, sampling helped one of Robillard’s clients understand the nutrient value of the hog manure he’d been buying, letting him drastically reduce his commercial fertilizer use. Another client discovered a mistake in potassium application and was able to eliminate unnecessary fertilizer use.
Whether it’s the 4-R program for commercial fertilizer or good manure stewardship guided by a nutrient management strategy or plan, nutrient management consultants can help farmers save money and make the best use of their farm’s resources.
More information about manure stewardship and long-term nutrient management options is available at https://www.farmfoodcareon.org/timing-matters/.
This article is provided by Farm & Food Care Ontario as part of the Timing Matters project. The Canadian Agricultural Partnership is a five-year commitment by Canada’s federal, provincial and territorial governments to encourage innovation, competitiveness and sustainability in Canada’s agriculture industry.