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0107 ANM: The farm’s response to environmental issues

Peter Wright Published on 02 January 2007

We live in changing times. Farming like your grandparents, your parents or even like your older siblings did may not be possible anymore. Agriculture still has not completely come to grips with the vast changes environmental concerns will thrust on the industry. We can’t even predict which environmental issue will overwhelm us next. There are so many possibilities: sediment, nutrients, biological oxygen demand (BOD), pathogens, antibiotics, hormones, heavy metals and others. Then there are the air issues: ammonia, PM2.5 (particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns), VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and any kind of odor.

Other forces are also involved, interacting with the increasing environmental issues such as new technology, cost control, price fluctuation, labor issues and safety. We could go on and on. The first thing we need to do is accept the fact that change will come and continue to come at an increasing rate.



When change is thrust upon us we all react in a way very similar to the “grief-cycle” psychiatrists describe in dealing with death. It can also sometimes explain our own reactions to events that are forced on us. Let’s look at the typical phases. Remember, we all are different and will go through these stages at our own speed and maybe even repeat some of them.

The first phase is shock. The first reaction of a farmer who hears about an environmental issue is the same as our body goes through when it goes into shock. We may not react outwardly, but a feeling of numbness sets in. We know we are going to feel the pain, but our brain hasn’t caught the signal yet. Time and information will move us through this phase.

We then often move rapidly into the second phase, denial. Sometimes we can stay in this phase for awhile and even rationalize it. In 1972 when the clean water act was implemented, the agricultural industry stayed in denial for twenty years. Education will move us out of this phase.

When reality starts coming closer we naturally get mad. The third phase is anger. Once our minds accept the fact this change will take place, anger usually erupts. We may jump back and forth between anger and denial. We may direct this anger at inappropriate targets like our family, employees, neighbors, advisors or regulators. We may direct our anger at appropriate targets like our government. (If you believe we get the government we deserve, eventually we can only blame ourselves.)

Time is the best cure for anger. The mourning phase is fourth. This is where depression hits. Empathy, time and the hint there are solutions will move us finally to the fifth phase, recovery. When our optimism takes over we see there can be solutions and we move to implement them.


In real life these phases can come on top of each other, and in our changing world we may be simultaneously under the influence of two or more events that put us into this cycle. You will need to deal with these emotional issues before you can set up a management system as sophisticated as the management methods you use to control the production functions of your farm.

We need to recognize that technology is not going to be the sole solution. A bigger manure storage, a low compaction spreader, a more complex treatment system or the latest bacteria-promoting enzymes will not be the whole answer. Not to say technology won’t be part of the solution, but the total answer will come as we engage the human element.

Put together an environmentally aware advisory team. You will need competent advisors in a number of areas in order to evaluate your farm’s environmental situation and to determine the best course of action. If you have an advisory team, be sure they have kept up with the environmental issues of your farm. If you don’t have an advisory team, look for experts who also have a good grasp of the whole agricultural industry including the environmental management that is and will be required.

Your nutritionist must balance production with costs. They need to recognize the total cost of feeding excess, not just cost of the wasted feed. It also includes the cost of treatment or extra land application due to the higher nutrient values.

The veterinarian is obviously involved with pathogen management on the farm. But they also need to know the impact of cattle health on the environment. Cow comfort is vital whether you keep the cattle in the barn or on pasture. Fast growth and quick heat detection are also important to keep the amount of maintenance manure minimized.

Your banker needs to know more than the bottom line. They need to know what types of practices are part of the cost of doing business and how to make the manure end of the business a profit center. Information on how to value the manure handling operations when assessing the total value of the farm is critical in controlling debt. One of your advisors should know where to find grant money or low-interest loans.


A lawyer who knows the environmental regulations and can help determine areas where you are at high risk or out of compliance is invaluable. You may even need a lawyer to negotiate you through some specific environmental incident.

Comprehensive nutrient management planners who know the regulations and the regulators should be on your team. Most should provide an additional value on crop production issues. Crops take up nutrients depending on yield and nutritional and energy value to meet the cows’ and the farms’ needs. They need to be able to work with the nutritionist to provide the forage needed to reduce nutrient imports and work with the engineer to determine storage requirements and other production area pollution control systems.

An agricultural engineer that can prescribe the practices needed, yet control costs, should be on your team. This is someone that can help you inside the barn and out in the fields to work with the contractor and regulators to meet the standards for the practices that will protect you and the environment.

Public relations will need to be a defined role on each farm. Each change will need to be communicated to the community. Continuous education should be provided to neighbors in order to avoid having to deal with mistaken impressions or unwarranted concerns.

You will need to evaluate your farm for environmental impacts it may have. You will need to set priorities, sometimes among competing issues. Will you plow down manure to control odor and then risk groundwater pollution from excess nitrogen? Will you discontinue spreading on days of high likelihood of runoff and then risk odor problems from your manure storage?

You need to also consider other holistic factors. The process of evaluating your farm should include an element of whole farm planning. Whole farm planning is a process that considers environmental as well as quality of life issues along with economic and production concerns. Farmers need to integrate information, goals and plans for their land, water, farming business and neighbors’ air.

Whole farm planning is an opportunity to promote conservation and water quality protection, integrate economics with environmental concerns, promote sustainable agriculture or include quality of life as a consideration in farming decisions.

Whole farm planning involves four steps. The first step is setting goals and determining a long-term vision for your family’s quality of life and your vision for the future of your farm. You need to consider these goals in light of the human, environmental and economic resources you have to work with.

This leads to the second step in whole farm planning which creates an inventory of your resources and deficiencies. Then, in the third step, you identify and evaluate management alternatives and implement an action plan. Make sure your action plan is based on the goals you identified in Step 1.

After implementing the plan, the forth and final step is to monitor progress toward these goals, making adjustments as you need to. If the plan you are following isn’t helping you reach your goals, it may be time to redo the plan or redo the goals. An important element often missing from environmental farm plans is inclusion of the farmer’s personal goals and vision for their farm. A whole farm plan provides the opportunity for the farm family to explore their real goals and make a plan to achieve them.

You will need to evaluate your farm and the watershed your farm is in to get a good inventory of the environmental issues of concern and how your farming practices may influence them. Using your local Soil and Water Conservation District with whatever local tool they have to evaluate your environmental risk is one step you should make sure you do.

Get local help as you work through the watershed issues, as you may not be aware of all the specific local concerns. If the watershed where your farm is located is a drinking water supply, your (and your community’s) main concern may be pathogen control. If recreation fishing is the primary use of the water from your farm, the main environmental concern may be aesthetics, including sediment control and biological oxygen demand (BOD) reduction.

Your whole farm nutrient balance is another topic you should get your dairy nutrition and agronomy advisors to help determine. Knowing the total nutrient balance and the excess nitrogen and phosphorous amounts on your farm is vital in looking for long term solutions to nutrient management. Your manure spreading plans and the need for export of nutrients can be much better addressed once you understand the total nutrient balance.
The on-farm inventory of specific issues should examine specific potential concentrated sources like runoff from barnyards, silage leachate from bunks and milking center washwater. These potential pollutant sources may not be where the largest total volume of pollutants leaves your farm, but they are the most visible and the most likely to be regulated.

Silage leachate is a particular concern due to its potency and the likelihood of it occurring at times when the receiving waters are particularly vulnerable. High BOD silage leachate from just-harvested haylage or corn silage entering low flowing streams will kill fish very dramatically. Barnyard runoff, as long as the cattle aren’t directly in the water, is less likely to create a dramatic fish kill since the runoff is usually driven by a rainfall event that will dilute the high concentrated flow. Milking center washwater pollution never creates a dramatic fish kill since it occurs on such a regular basis that any fish in danger have either already died or fled.

Regulators don’t need to see a fish kill in order to require CAFO farms to prevent any discharges from these concentrated sources. Working with an agricultural engineer to eliminate or contain and treat the concentrated sources on the farm should be a high priority.

The manure handling system on the farm, from collection to storage or treatment and spreading or export, needs to be coordinated with your whole farm goals. Besides the obvious environmental issues, the health of the animals, production facility efficiency, the cost of manure handling (and therefore the profit from the whole farm enterprise) and your standing in the community will all depend on the choices you make.

Society has recognized animal agriculture can lead to excess nitrates in the groundwater, pathogens in the drinking water and excess nutrients, BOD and sediment in surface water. To avoid these problems, manure will increasingly be spread on dry soils in fields where the chance of runoff and leaching are low.

Manure storage will be standard procedure on most farms in order to avoid spreading manure on wet (and compactable) soils. Yet, when manure is stored, it starts to decompose anaerobically. The byproducts of incomplete anaerobic decomposition are very smelly. Society objects to bad odors as much as, if not more than, it objects to dirty water. Given the need to reduce impact on the environment and on neighbors’ noses, treatment for odor control will become much more common on farms.

There are additional advantages to treating manure besides odor reduction. These include:

•reduction in mass; less total material to haul to far-away fields and less soil compaction
•nutrient reduction; reduced amounts of nutrients means less land required for disposal
•pathogen control; eliminating animal and human pathogens from manure would improve biosecurity
•byproduct sales; processes that produce feed, energy or salable organic matter could help pay for the treatment process (or in some cases add an income stream)

Farms vary greatly in their resources and manure management concerns. Some farms have access to more capital, skilled labor, management ability, nearby land resources, water resources and markets than other farms. Some farms are under more severe constraints to control odors, nutrients or pathogens. There are also a wide array of manure treatment systems being promoted to the farm community by different companies and individuals.
Learning about the different treatment systems available is an excellent first step in solving some of your manure handling problems. As you are being presented with the sales talk, make sure you ask these questions:

•What is the mass flow through the system? Where does the material go and in what form?

We know (except for nuclear reactors – not yet proposed for manure treatment) matter is neither created nor destroyed. The moisture content of each of the manure streams in the treatment process needs to be determined and controlled. Find out where the solids are, what forms they are in and what the solid concentrations will be.

You need to know the solid content of the material to determine the best way to handle it. Separated solids that are 18 percent solids are a lot bigger problem to deal with than separated solids that are 30 percent solids and ready for composting.

Beware of promises of a dischargeable liquid. Discharging a treated liquid into surface water will require a permit and extensive continuous testing.

•Where do the nutrients go?
They have to go somewhere. If phosphorus (P) removal is involved, find out where the P goes and how much is left for you to deal with. If nitrogen (N) removal is proposed, it is important to find out what form the N will be in. The preferred form is N2 gas, which has no environmental concerns. On the other hand, ammonia (NH3) and nitrous oxides (NOx) do have negative effects on the environment, and emissions may be regulated in the future.

Find out the form of the nutrients. While some processes convert the nutrients into forms more available to plants (soluble P, nitrate, ammonium), these soluble nutrients can be lost to the environment more easily than organic forms. Find out the concentration of nutrients in any material to be applied to cropland. Check your CNMP and consult your crop advisor on recommended application rates.

If your plan has not been updated with a phosphorus runoff index, you should have that done as soon as possible. The P index is a risk assessment tool which will evaluate the potential for each of your fields to lose P on an individual basis. When calculated for your fields, the P index may have implications for limits on the amount of manure P you are allowed to spread on certain fields.

•Are pathogens reduced by the treatment system?
If any material is applied to cropland, find out if there is a significant reduction in pathogens. If solids are sold, the same information may be needed for potential consumers. A three-log reduction or 99.9 percent drop in pathogen levels is desired.

•Are there any additives which need to be added during the treatment process?
Expensive flocculating compounds to remove P may need to be purchased on a continual basis. Amendments needed to increase the solids content for composting can be budget busters. Other additives to increase digestion efficiencies may require permits and may place the operation outside of agricultural regulations and into industrial regulations.

•Will the treatment process be continuous? If the treatment system is shut down, where will the manure go? Is storage included?
You may have to handle significant amounts of untreated manure, and even the treated manure may have to be stored. There may be changes in the nutrient content and form of the treated manure as it is stored.

•Will you need to pretreat the manure supplied to the treatment system in any way?
Often temperature and solids content are important to the treatment system. This may require modifications in the bedding used and the amount of wash water included. There may be limits on the amount of chemicals (footbaths) allowed and the ability to handle shock loads (dumped milk).

•What are the costs of each component as well as the overall system? Who pays for what? Who is responsible for maintenance costs or for byproduct sales? What is the life expectancy of the equipment? What are the site requirements? How large an area will be needed?
Some processes have a small footprint while some are very large and can take up tens of acres.

•Do you have the right soils and topography for an earthen structure? What will the energy needs be? Will energy be produced? How much and how will it be used?

Who will deal with the utility if needed? Can “waste” heat be utilized? Can this be used on the farm? How much heat will be available during each season of the year and what temperature will it be?

•Who will design the system, provide startup assistance and advice and service over the life of the project?

•What has been the experience of other farmers?
Perhaps the most important question of all to ask is whether a given treatment system has been installed on another farm like yours. If the answer is yes, contact the farm and find out whether or not they are satisfied with the system. How long has the system been operating? If they could do it over again, what would they do differently, and what would they do the same? If you can’t find any farm that is using the proposed treatment system, let the buyer beware.

Not only do you have to recognize the changes that need to be implemented and determine the best way to manage them on your farm, but you also need to get your coworkers or employees to adopt them. (They may have to go through the grief-cycle as well.) This may mean making personnel changes. The manure management system on your farm will become more complex and more important to the total operation of your farm.

Selection and training of the people that will run the system will become more important. You will need to look for people that have the knowledge, skills, abilities and motivation to use both their bodies and their minds in a sometimes unpleasant environment. They may need to be compensated more than in the past. Especially with labor costs, you get what you pay for. Take advantage of existing training sessions not only for the owners and middle management but also for the workers who will be operating the manure management system and representing you to the public and regulators.

Written standard operating procedures (SOPs) will need to be prepared, explained, managed and updated for the manure management employees you use. Without written expectations it is difficult to be sure both you and the employee know what their job expectations are. It is not safe to assume that just because you know the importance of controlling the environmental impact of your farm, your employees know it and will act the way you want them to as they do their jobs.

You may even need to hire someone that is specifically there to deal with environmental issues (including neighbor relations). The skills needed to run a successful dairy farm in the future will include the ability to deal appropriately with the public. If you can’t or don’t prefer to do this you may have to look for this skill in someone on your management team.

Your response to environmental emergencies will play a big part in the public perception of the farm. Having an emergency action plan, making all the workers aware of it and practicing it may be part of the responsibilities the manure management team on your farm takes on.

In conclusion, although the environmental issues have become more complex (and will become even more complex in the future), some farms will continue to thrive. These farms will recognize they need to continually improve environmentally while staying profitable and set up a management scheme to achieve this. Determining your farm’s goals, inventorying your resources and challenges, setting priorities, implementing them and then managing the results will be the steps successful farms need to do.

Smart farm owners will use outside help as they work through these issues. Careful selection of advisors will be essential in this process. These advisors will need to continually improve as well.

The sustainable farm of the future that has an integrated manure handling system with reduced impact on the environment and cost control is the goal we all have. Some farms will be successful in doing this. These farms may even turn their manure systems into an additional profit center for the farm. ANM

References omitted due to space but are available upon request.

—From 2005 Dairy Manure Management Conference Proceedings