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Manure – is valuable on farm and ranch operations

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Published on March 21, 2020

“It might not be at the top of everyone’s list because it doesn’t make a lot of money on the farm, but I think there is a discussion to be had with livestock owners and feedlot operations about how we value manure,” says Dr. Rick Koelsch, biological systems engineer for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“Historically, the terms waste and manure have gone hand in hand. I think this is one of the worst things we have ever done in terms of how we manage manure because it sends the wrong message,” Koelsch adds. 

            He continues to explain why producers need to start thinking of manure as a worth product and not a waste product. 

The Golden Triangle

            Koelsch says there is a ‘Golden Triangle’ in the western states made up of three points and the interactions between them. These three points are corn, ethanol and the cattle industry. 

“I think there is an important leg in this triangle we don’t always remember and it is the leg between animals and corn ­– the flow of nutrients from manure,” Koelsch states. 

“If we are going to create a win-win situation in this leg of the triangle, from both a dollar perspective and a water quality perspective, we need to do two things,” he continues. “First we need to make sure we are plugging any ‘leaks’ of these nutrients. The second thing we need to recognize, is we need to utilize manure before importing outside fertilizer.”

Balancing out imbalances

Koelsch notes in an operation managing cattle, corn and other crops, nutrients arrive on the operation – mostly in the form of phosphorus – in three forms – purchased feed, purchased animals and purchased fertilizer. 

            He also says nutrients then leave the farm in three ways – animals, manure and crops exported off the farm.

“If we were able to quantify these ‘imports’ and ‘exports’ of nutrients, we want to make sure they are fairly even and there is no imbalance,” Koelsch states. “The ultimate goal in managing manure on a livestock operation, to protect water quality and to get peak economic value out of manure, is to make sure the imbalance is as close to zero as economically possible.”

“A producer purchasing 20 percent of their feed, or less, doesn’t likely need to export their manure. Twenty percent is really the breaking point. Producers with anything higher than this should consider exporting manure,” he continues. 

Targeting fields

            When it comes to knowing which fields to target to get the best value out of manure, Koelsch says producers need to target fields with less than 20 parts per million (ppm) phosphorus. 

“The best way to know when to return with manure to a field is to monitor for soil phosphorus levels and target it when it gets down to less than 20 ppm,” Koelsch explains. “Producers should also consider looking at wheat fields because wheat fields need a higher soil phosphorus level than corn or soybean fields.”

Benefits of manure

Koelsch notes utilizing manure is not only economically beneficial, but environmentally beneficial as well. One of the major environmental benefits of manure is the organic matter it offers to soil. 

“Adding organic matter to the soil in the form of manure has some potential for improving the physical, chemical and biological properties of the soil,” states Koelsch. “When added to soil, organic matter serves as food for the microorganisms in the soil, so it really ramps up the microbial activity occurring in the soil, which helps soil have less run off and less erosion.” 

According to Koelsch, an Iowa State University publication from 1907 says, “Manure is one of the most effective means at the disposal of the farmer to permanently improve his soil. No other fertilizer possesses to so great a degree the power of restoring worn soils to productiveness and giving them lasting fertility. It accomplishes this result, however, not only by the actual fertilizing constituents which it supplies, but also improves the physical properties of the soil, increasing the amount of humus, which is generally deficient in worn soils, improving its texture and increasing its water absorbing and water holding power. Its value to the soil can scarcely be measured for no other substance has equal power in maintaining permanent fertility.”

            Hannah Bugas is the assistant editor for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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