Influential Women in Canadian Agriculture

The manure crystal ball

March 26, 2024
By James Careless
Women in AG

What trends affected the manure management industry in 2023, and are likely to affect it in 2024? How will the market value of manure change this year, and what ‘must have’ technology will manure managers need to have at their disposal?

To find out, Manure Manager picked the brains of three experts. They are:

  • Christine Brown, a field crop sustainability specialist at the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA).
  • Dr. Robb Meinen, assistant research professor and director of the Pennsylvania Nutrient Management Education Program, state extension specialist – nutrient and manure management, at Pennsylvania State University.
  • Kirsten Workman, senior extension associate (nutrient management and environmental sustainability specialist) at Cornell University’s CALS Pro-Dairy.

Here is what they told us.

Manure Manager: What trends dominated the manure management field in 2023?

Kirsten Workman: Maximizing nitrogen from manure, utilizing manure in no-till and cover cropped systems, GHG emissions from manure and water quality protection.

Christine Brown: High fertilizer prices and a focus on reducing nitrous oxide GHG emissions through better nitrogen management resulted in an increased interest in improved manure nutrient (especially nitrogen) utilization. This, combined with some cost share opportunities, has helped with advancing more technology to help with in-crop application and compaction reduction. Funding opportunities have increased the application of manure, compost and other organic amendments to non-livestock farms where they are also interested in the soil health benefits from manure.

MM: What trends do you see evolving in 2024? 

Brown: I think those trends will continue through 2024. S-CAP (Sustainable Canadian Agricultural Partnership) funding opportunities will continue for farmers. The Canadian federal government will focus on reducing methane and nitrous oxide emissions from agriculture and Ontario government policies will continue to include improving soil health.

Workman: Trends such as sustainability and public perception will continue to drive improvement in environmental management. I see equipment manufacturers continue to develop tools that help farmers and applicators do a better job while still being efficient with time and labour in their manure applications. I also see the technology around manure treatment, separation and nutrient partitioning evolving quickly in the next few years.

Robb Meinen: Work conducted in the past few years that explores manuresheds is helping researchers and agencies understand large-scale views of nutrient mass imbalances. Manuresheds are areas of cropland needed to assimilate manure nutrients produced from animals in an area. They can exist on different scales, from a single farm to multi-state regions and can include manure nutrients from all animal species in an area. 

One of the things we point out with manuresheds is that smart expansion of animal industries places new animal operations in areas where cropping systems currently use commercial fertilizer that can be replaced by manure nutrients. In the big picture this can be encouraged, or coupled with, relocation of feed mill capacities that make delivery of feed nutrients to the new farms more economic from the supply chain side. 

MM: How do you see the market value of manure/nutrients changing in 2024? Overall, can those with manure expect to get more money/value out of their manure? 

Meinen: The value of manure is appreciated now more than ever. As a result, I expect manure’s demand and value will remain high in 2024 and beyond.

Workman: I think co-products of manure management will improve the financial value of manure; energy, separated solids, and so forth. If fertilizer prices spike again, I can see non-livestock farmers valuing manure more and trying to acquire it from their livestock producing neighbors. Carbon markets may play a role from reductions in methane emissions from storages as well.

Brown: Fertilizer prices have come down since last year which will affect how much people are willing to pay for organic amendments. Industry is talking more about the 4R around all nutrients including manure and following those principles will help improve manure value. Fuel, equipment, and labour will affect application costs and could limit application to fields further from the source. Reducing the water content of liquid manure will help to improve the value.

MM: What are the new demands on farmers and nutrient managers in terms of technology? What are increasingly seen as “essentials” to keep up? Are there any spaces that people are watching re: investments in equipment? 

Workman: GIS (geographic information systems) and precision agricultural technology are becoming more and more important, especially as we pump more manure as opposed to trucking it. As a result, injection, constituent sensing, and pumping/hoses are all areas of future investments for farmers/applicators — anything that helps farmers maintain their field-based conservation practices while also maximizing the nutrient value of their manure. Most larger dairy producers are also being approached by alternative energy developers and weighing decisions about digestion, RNG, methane reductions, separation/treatment, covers, et cetera.

Brown: Equipment is expensive, and farmers are often interested in seeing how new technology/equipment will work on their farm before making the investment. I think farmers are looking to custom manure applicators more often to apply manure at the right time and with better placement or new technology.

Meinen: I think it is essential for anyone purchasing new manure handling equipment to carefully weigh the costs of technology with the benefits they will realize with its implementation. A large part of this is to school yourself. Technology is taking us to places we only dreamed of a few years ago. Variable rate application based on gridded crop yields and soil conditions can be accomplished as a result.

However, investing in this type of technology is not for everyone, since it probably takes a certain number of acres and a certain number of years for the investment in technology to pay for itself. For this reason, I think we’ll see professional manure handlers lead the way in technology investment. That is a good thing since we know professionals work across many acres and farms, making the real-world impact of new technologies more impactful.

MM: Are new workers entering the manure application field at a sustainable rate? Do applicators feel they have enough support? 

Workman: Like all parts of agriculture, attracting labor is very challenging. The long hours are not well-received by new workers who might not be familiar with the seasonality of the work, such as the long days and being weather-dependent.

Brown: Labor shortages have limited some custom applicators from meeting the demand. More support could probably be provided through labour policies, or thorough access to the same funding opportunities as farmers are eligible for, i.e. equipment modifications.

Meinen: I have led certification of commercial manure haulers and brokers in Pennsylvania since our program’s inception over 20 years ago. In the past few years, I have noticed that the number of newly certified individuals has been low. This indicates that less people are entering the professional manure handling industry.

We know that we are not producing less manure, so this also is indicative that existing professional companies are stable and servicing long-term animal operation customers. I cannot say if the average manure business is growing but I know of several that have. The ones that come to mind are those that provide a fair service, meet nutrient management planning requirements of the farm, and provide economic, agronomic, and environmental benefits that meet the farm’s goals.

MM: Currently, manure is only applied to approximately nine percent of U.S. cropland. Over the last two years, experts have sworn manure would take off in popularity due to the war in Ukraine causing fertilizer prices to rise. But has that happened? 

Brown: Fertilizer prices have gone down in the past six months. In Ontario there are fewer livestock farms, but the remaining farms on average are bigger. Other organic amendments from AD to compost to biosolids and “processed biosolids” that are CFIA registered are being applied to cropland that otherwise doesn’t have access to livestock manure. In the past few years, the demand for these products has been higher than supply. I’m not sure what [percentage] of Ontario cropland gets manure/organic amendments, but I think it is substantially higher than 10 percent

Meinen: Farms will apply the nutrient that makes the most economic sense. Those decisions involve more than just the price of nutrients –availability of supply, opportunity to apply nutrients in a desired time window and equipment availability. 

Liquid manure nutrients are more expensive to transport than solid, so the radius of lands that will receive manure from our liquid systems – especially dairy and swine – will always have an economic limit that is lower than the radius associated with dry manure products.

For liquid manures, injection technologies can help to get manure onto more acres. Manure injection greatly reduces nitrogen volatilization, which means the farm retains a higher percentage of applied manure nitrogen in the soil. In turn, this means that the same volume of manure can be used on more acres when applying at a balanced manure nitrogen rate. This should reduce fertilizer purchase and decrease the extra amount of phosphorus applied to that soil.

Workman: Because prices went back down relatively quickly, I think non-livestock producers who may have been interested were able to go back to fertilizer. However, as instability continues, I can see crop producers going back to manure again. If there are two years in a row of high fertilizer prices that could really tip the scales. In my work in Extension, this is an area of focus to help distribute manure nutrients over more cropland acres. We need to make sure our work showing the yield benefits, soil health and nutrient/economics are well-communicated to that audience.

MM: Finally, what other factors do you expect to affect manure management in 2024? 

Brown: Public pressure about contaminants such as microplastics and [Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances].

Workman: Public perception continues to be a challenge. We shouldn’t take it lightly and we need to educate the public on the benefits of good manure management. •