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0408 PD: Creature from the black lagoon

Mike Gangwer Published on 27 February 2008

A recent article published on January 13, 2008, in the New York Times written by Andrew Martin was titled: “In the Farm Bill, a Creature from the Black Lagoon.” The premise of the article: Federal taxpayer dollars should not be spent on construction costs for a waste storage facility on a large livestock farm, especially those that are expanding.

The author says better use of these dollars includes conservation practices that reduce soil and sediment control, enhance irrigation water management or improve grazing land practices.

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We know that constructing a waste storage facility on any size livestock farm provides the landowner, the livestock producer, with additional management options. We are in the middle of winter here in Michigan. Manure that is surface-applied today remains on the surface for several weeks, at least, and it can be several months before spring work. We know that nearly all of the urea in urine is hydrolyzed into ammonium when in contact with soil (thanks to the enzyme urease), and then as one proton is lost the gas ammonia is volatilized into the atmosphere. While the wintertime, surface-applied manure nitrogen is somewhat stable from a volatilization standpoint, the risk for runoff is obvious, especially after a rainfall event later this spring, perhaps in April.

Here in the Midwest, the risks associated with surface-applying manure anytime during winter are apparent. When thawing takes place or spring rain falls, manure may be transported into surface waters. The option of storing manure in a waste storage facility is a good one: Nitrogen is retained and polluted runoff events are mitigated.

For landowners considering a waste storage facility, a plan is required. As most of you know, the plan is called a Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan (CNMP). In fact, it is a requirement for all landowners signing up for cost-share dollars through the Environmental Quality Incentive Program, or EQIP.

We fund only those facilities that mitigate a resource concern not meeting our environmental quality criteria. That is, if the inventory and evaluation of a headquarter site indicates a “leak” or noncontainment of manure, or if the application fields have intrinsic risk factors like slope gradients or concentrated flow areas, then these can be mitigated with the installation of a waste storage facility and land conservation practices like buffer strips. And the USDA-NRCS will help the landowner pay for it.

I have, on occasion, worked with landowners that are expanding and are building on new sites. The landowner asks if we can help pay for the manure storage facility. If the new facility is not tied to a resource concern, then the answer is no. Simply building an expensive storage facility on a livestock farm without connecting it to mitigating a water quality concern, either on the headquarter site or field restrictions, is fraudulent use of federal taxpayer dollars. The New York Times article, unfortunately, does not make this distinction.

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The question of herd size is immaterial. That is, if two farms sit side by side, one with a 100 cows and one with 1,000 and if both landowners walk into their USDA Service Center and ask for technical assistance, it is given. And if there are resource concerns on both farms that can be mitigated by the construction of a waste storage facility, and both landowners agree to install, operate and maintain these storages, then we will help pay for them. That is if there are dollars available and, to be sure, the CNMP correctly states that the resources, namely water, are protected by having these facilities built.

Obviously there is something else to consider: What are the landowner’s goals, objectives and management capabilities? Will the landowner stay in the livestock business? Will the landowner implement the items in the Schedule of Implementation (and not cherry-pick just the easy ones)? Does the landowner have the kind of equipment and labor resources to manage a different kind of storage system on the headquarter site?

How important are these questions? If your planner does not ask them and if you have not given them enough thought, there will be no winners after this system is installed.

The agreement by the federal government to help the livestock owner is an important one. The Farm Bill dollars in Title Two, the Conservation Title, are there to help farmers pay for conservation and engineering practices that will help improve environmental quality criteria, so that ultimately the public, and that’s everyone in the watershed and downstream, enjoys a nonpolluted landscape. The USDA recognizes the fact that individual farmers (in most cases) cannot bear the cost of these practices entirely on their own, so federal dollars are there to help. And that is the essence of the EQIP portion of Title Two.

One valuable component of EQIP is the nutrient management incentive payment. Why? This three-year fixed rate program helps pay for the management activities on crop fields after the manure facility is built. Many landowners sign up for this incentive payment that requires a record-keeping and reporting system, so that when manure is field-applied, the application method, rate, timing, form, source and placement are done according to acceptable strategies usually developed by a land-grant university, recorded in bulletins and stated in the 590 Nutrient Management Standard.

This follow-through by landowners was not included in the New York Times article either, but it should have been. The view from here is simple: We help landowners pay for storage facilities that protect public resources, namely surface and groundwater, and then help landowners pay for the cost of operating and maintaining that facility through the use of incentive payments, which provides correct management strategies for land application of manure.

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The public is investing money on these farms, large and small. Our responsibility is clear: Make sure taxpayers get a return on these investments and that the landowner has a system that improves farm economics, efficiency and environmental quality criteria. PD

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