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Return to roots of stewardship and common sense

Angela Rieck-Hinz Published on 29 October 2010

The general public is increasingly concerned about air and water quality, especially as it relates to manure management. In response, governing bodies pass laws and regulatory agencies develop regulations that livestock farmers are forced to follow.

Sometimes these regulations are simply common sense, sometimes they are needed, and sometimes the regulations do everything in the name of protecting air quality and water quality – but actually accomplish nothing.



This process will not change, but we can take a different approach to be more successful in addressing air and water quality concerns. This approach requires livestock producers to return to their roots of stewardship and common sense and not just doing something because a regulation requires it to be done or there is no regulation, so they think they can proceed in any manner that best favors their goals.

Most producers know the benefits and challenges of using manure as a crop nutrient source. However, in the everyday challenges of farming, they sometimes forget to apply the basic principles of stewardship to these benefits and challenges.

Stewardship means a lot of things to many people, but in terms of manure management, stewardship is the responsibility to collect, transport and land-apply manure to meet crop needs for nutrients while minimizing impacts on resources, all while using the best management practices available. Following best management practices is the key to good stewardship and requires employing all of these practices to meet stewardship objectives. These best management practices apply to all operations, whether there are 5,000 dairy cows or 15 cows.

Soil sampling

First and foremost, manure is a valuable source of many of the nutrients needed for crop production. Manure, like any commercial fertilizer, should only be applied in the amounts needed to supplement the nutrients already present in the soil to provide only the amount needed by the crop. This requires taking soil samples at least once every four years or as required by state regulations.

Manure nutrient analysis

The same applies for manure samples. Using book values for manure is not acceptable in this day when feeding inputs are changing constantly. Collect manure samples according to your state’s guidelines, have them analyzed and keep a record of the data so you can determine not only if things have changed over time, but why the nutrient analyses may have changed. Manure sample analysis may also provide an indication as to the availability of the nutrients.


Manure application

Manure application includes everything from determining the correct application rate, to managing uniformity of application, to choosing the best method of application. Schedule time prior to your primary manure application season to calibrate application equipment, check equipment for good working order and make changes in application to address uniformity across the field. Application is not only about getting on the right rate but making sure that rate is uniformly applied across the field. Manure application should also address having the appropriate application method to reduce erosion potential, reduce odors and conserve nutrients. Make sure you are using the best available equipment to meet your needs. Follow all required setback or separation distances for land application.

Diagnostic tests

Several tests exist that help producers manage nutrients. These include the late-season nitrate test, cornstalk nitrate test, N-sensing and others. These diagnostic tests will not tell you how much nutrient to apply, but will give you an indication of nutrient supply to the crop. These tests differ by state so consult your University Extension office to determine which tests work best in your state.

The Phosphorus Index

Many states have adopted the use of a Phosphorus Index, and this tool varies widely from state to state. In many cases, it is possible to use this tool not only as an index of risk of losing phosphorus from fields, but may be used as a predictor of fields with greater potential loss for phosphorus. If we know which fields might be more subject to phosphorus loss, we may be better able to manage manure by changing application practices, changing the rate or incorporating new or more conservation practices to reduce loss of phosphorus.

Conservation practices

In many places, the implementation of conservation practices may be the single biggest factor in preventing nutrient loss from fields. Take time to review your conservation practices or to implement conservation practices on your farm. Conservation practices include buffers, contour strips, reduced tillage, terraces and many other practices. Often one practice is not enough, but used in combination with other conservation practices and stewardship practices, they can help reduce nutrient run-off from fields.

Adequate storage

Adequate manure storage on a dairy farm is often a big challenge. Herd sizes often increase with no increase to the manure storage capacity, or storage is lacking due to the expensive nature of designing and building adequate storage. The days of letting manure run off of the outdoor lot into the environment are over. Tough choices will have to be made about operations and the need to add storage, expand storage, move the dairy and stay in business. Many states have cost-share dollars available to assist with building storage. Explore those opportunities in your state. Develop a long-term plan to address storage and begin working towards that goal.

Management (storage, animal housing, application)

Best management practices are key here as well. Manage storage to keep manure in the storage facility (conserve nutrients) until land application. Manage animal housing to improve manure handling and collection. Manage application to reduce the potential for runoff of nutrients. Watch the weather. If rainfall is predicted or it’s windy, wait until another day to apply manure. Employ practices across storage, housing and application that will reduce or mitigate odors.



No one really likes to keep records because it takes time, is cumbersome and if there are regulations to follow, it can be very tedious. One agency may want one set of records and another agency a different set of records. Records don’t really contribute to the bottom line, but they are invaluable in proving that you are managing manure to the best extent possible. Records may be required for regulations, but in reality they should also be supporting your financial analysis on your farm and providing an indication of places where improvements can be made. PD

Angela Rieck-Hinz is an extension program specialist for Iowa State University Extension and is the coordinator of the Iowa Manure Management Action Group (IMMAG). You can read more about manure management issues by visiting the IMMAG webpage at