Manure spills are rarely a planned occurrence. Therefore, it is important to plan your emergency response methods in advance. Progressive Dairyman Editor Karen Lee reached out to three environmental experts to learn what dairy producers, farm employees and other manure handlers should be prepared to do in the event of a manure spill.

Lee karen
Managing Editor / Progressive Dairy

Robert Meinen

Five-step response plan

Robb Meinen
Senior Extension Associate

Penn State Department of Animal Science

In answering, it is appropriate to first discuss what constitutes a manure spill. Definitions vary between states and among agencies.

I prefer a simple approach and define a spill as an intentional or unintentional release of manure to the environment in an area where agronomic crops will not be harvested – or a release on cropland above an agronomic application rate.

This wide definition can include many scenarios, from a low-threat over-application of manure to a storage mishap that threatens to discharge considerable amounts of manure. This includes solid and liquid manures, though discussions often focus on liquid because movement risk is greater.


There are five steps recommended in manure spill response.

1.  Ensure human and livestock safety. Keeping people safe is paramount in emergency situations. Avoid turning environmental emergencies into human tragedies. If spills occur on the road, immediately call 911 for help in slowing and re-directing oncoming motorists.

Operators should keep safety triangles or flares in every tractor and truck. Avoid hazardous areas such as unstable equipment or confined spaces.

2.  Stop the flow at the source. It does no good to try to contain flow if a large amount of manure will soon overwhelm those containment efforts. This means taking steps such as shutting down equipment, closing valves or plugging leaks. If all manure is already discharged from the source, such as an overturned spreader, then this step is skipped.

3.  Contain and control the existing spill. Once manure is stopped at the source, the spilled material should be evaluated for risk to introduction to water sources. Prevent manure introduction to areas such as surface waters, wellheads and tile inlets.

Every situation will come with its own unique challenges. Some common containment and control measures include building temporary containment dams, plugging culverts and pipe openings, piling soil around standpipe inlets or using absorbent material like straw or sawdust to limit and halt flow. A shovel can often be the best tool to have on hand.

I encourage manure handlers to attach a shovel to each spreader so it is available for quick reaction. A shovel or front-end loader can be made to dig a hole downslope where you expect manure to run that acts as a sump area to collect manure.

4.  Notify proper authorities. Steps 4 and 5 are interchangeable in order depending on near-term risk and specific site action plans. Notification policy will vary across state lines. Farm nutrient or manure management plans may contain notification guidance.

In some scenarios, authorities such as rescue or regulatory personnel will take charge of the scene, but don’t be afraid to offer help and advice, since you may be most familiar with equipment. During this process, document details to help show you have responded reasonably. Taking photos with your phone may help to protect you later.

5.  Clean up the spill. Collect as much manure and absorbent material as you can and land apply it at an agronomic rate. A tank of water may be used to flush remaining residues to your containment or sump area.

Authorities may direct this step if a spill occurs on the roadway or near surface water. If you do not have vacuum capacity, contact local sewage haulers to help your emergency. At times, it may be appropriate to restore vegetation at the spill site.

Chery Sullivan

Manure spills: Prepare and comply

Chery Sullivan
Dairy Nutrient Management Program Manager

Washington State Department of Agriculture

In addition to environmental impacts, spills may have regulatory consequences. In Washington, if a manure spill results in a water quality violation, an investigation will be followed by enforcement.

The level of enforcement ranges from a warning letter to civil penalty, depending on the severity of the spill, the response of facility (including whether they self-report) and the history of facility compliance. We recommend all facilities that handle manure have a complete and easy-to-follow plan in place before a manure spill happens.

Before a manure spill happens …

Work with your technical service provider and create a spill response plan specific to your farm. Review these plans annually. Practice this plan.

  • Identify risk areas in your manure management system, including waste storage ponds, transfer lines, swales, drain tiles and field risers.

  • Prevent spills with a defined operation and maintenance program.

o Maintain 12 to 15 inches of freeboard on waste storage ponds.

o Regularly inspect manure storage structures for signs of leaks or problems.

o Regularly inspect valves, pumps, hoses and equipment. Aging underground lines should be pressure tested.

o Create safety check protocols to ensure valves and lines are closed.

o Make smart manure applications with attention to date, rate, weather forecasts and field conditions.

o Don’t apply manure to the portions of a field where runoff is likely.

o Check application fields, risers and areas prone to runoff; don’t wait for a downstream neighbor or a regulatory agency to find your spill for you.

  • Have a list of emergency contacts posted in plain sight and make sure everyone knows where it is. Make copies to place in trucks and tractors or create digital files to be accessed on smartphones. Contact numbers may include:

o Facility owner and manager

o Local spill hotline (If a spill happens on a weekend, know who to call.)

o Custom pumper or heavy equipment operator

  • Post a clear and concise, bulleted response plan in plain sight. Make sure staff know where the plan is and how to use it. A plan buried in a binder on a shelf will be difficult to locate when in a hurry and under pressure.

Once the spill is stopped at the source and contained, notify the proper authority immediately; they will have protocols in place to notify others who may be impacted by the spill. Self-reporting shows transparency and an ethical response on behalf of the dairy operator.

Working with the appropriate authority or technical service provider can help you avoid a containment practice that creates more damage than the spill. For example, damming a waterway may result in worse damage than the spill.

Follow the instructions from the appropriate agency or technical service provider to properly clean up the spill and restore the area without causing further impacts.

Spills happen and, when they do, a prompt response helps mitigate environmental impacts and reduce regulatory consequences.

Kevin Erb

Farmers’ tips and tricks for dealing with a manure spill

Kevin Erb
Director, Conservation Professional Training Program
University of Wisconsin Extension

Each manure spill or accidental release is unique – and that means what works well in one situation may actually make the problem worse in another.

After the spill is cleaned up and the site restored, I like to ask the farmer, “What would you have done differently?” Shared here, these “lessons learned the hard way” are worth keeping in mind. Names have been removed to protect confidentiality.

  • Someone should stay at the site until the cleanup is done. “We had a truck turn over,” notes one Indiana farmer. “A neighbor saw it happen and drove my guy a quarter-mile back to the farm to get the skid steer.

    In the meantime, a non-farm neighbor took a photo on their cellphone, posted to Facebook with the title, ‘They must have gone for a beer.’ It made it look like we were ignoring the problem.” The farmer says he now makes sure there is always someone outside the truck at a spill or breakdown, identified by a safety vest, so anyone passing by knows it is being dealt with.

  •  Downslope, upslope, downslope. When dealing with manure in a stream (anytime) or a road ditch or waterway (if rain is in the forecast), first place a dam or berm downstream or downslope to keep the spill from getting away.

    Then place a second one upstream or upslope to keep clean water out so you have less to clean up. Finally, place a third one downstream in case the first one overtops. Farmers have learned the hard way that by the time you get the second dam built, the first one may be nearly ready to overtop.

  • Keep an eye on things. An Illinois applicator had a spill on a Friday and contained it with a dam. There was no rain in the forecast, so he did not check on it over the weekend. A mile away, a neighbor fixed a blocked drain tile on Saturday, and the resulting water overtopped the dam, turning a small spill into one several miles long (and much more expensive to clean up).

  • Don’t park it in. While touring a Minnesota dairy, I noticed every piece of equipment was a certain shade of green, and nothing sat outside. Walking behind the barn, an old, rusted chisel plow sat next to the manure storage.

    I asked the farmer, and she pointed to a drain tile inlet about 200 feet into the field and told the tour group that one time, manure found its way into a chipmunk burrow and was draining the pit. It took 15 minutes to move the combine, grain carts, corn head and other equipment in the shed to get to any tillage equipment to work the field to stop the flow.

    The next Saturday, they went to an auction and bought the first chisel plow they saw. It sits next to the storage, always accessible if needed. Spill response equipment does no good if it’s in the back of the shed or in a pickup truck away from the job site.

  • Think about how others see your actions. Another social media video post showed the aftermath of a dragline break in Wisconsin. The driver did the right thing by immediately parking the tractor on the dragline to keep any more manure from coming out. But the citizen videotaping can be heard saying the tractor is being parked in that spot “to block the view and hide the spill.” Think about how your actions are viewed by the non-farming public.

  • Spills happen on Good Friday (and the day before it rains). Farmers and custom operators work long hours. When we are rushed, either by trying to get something done before an event or if the weather is about to change, that is when accidental spills seem to happen more frequently. Don’t take shortcuts, and do take the few extra minutes needed to get the job done right.  end mark

Visit Manure spill contact information for a list of requirements and contact information related to manure spills listed by state.

Sullivan suggests anyone interested in learning more about manure management in northwestern Washington can go to Improving water quality: Identifying sources and finding solutions to view an online water quality story map.

Karen Lee