“What is my manure worth?” This is a common question I get once a producer understands what I do and my role with Nutrient Advisors. As any good consultant would answer, I say, “It depends.”

Everyone wants a black and white answer to tell their banker, or their neighbor, or their brother who runs the grain operation. 

The real value truly depends on a lot of variables. A large part of my role is to help our clients know and understand those variables, and also which variables are in their control and which ones are not. So often, it feels like the livestock producer and the crop-producing neighbors are against one another and are constantly battling over the value of feed, manure and land. Throw in the fact that the general public assumes all manure is a waste and has to be heavily regulated, it may seem that we have a real mess on our hands.

The truth is, we all want the same thing. Agronomics, economics and environmental protection all benefit from 4R nutrient management. All three of those platforms have incentive to put the right product, at the right rate, at the right time and at the right place. If we can accomplish all of that, then we end up with the highest yields with the highest profits, the cleanest water, and our manure has the highest value because all nutrients are being utilized and, therefore, valued. 

When considering the value of a specific manure product, we have to consider how many of the 4Rs we can hit. Variables such as moisture, nutrient concentration and consistency should be factored in. Costs of logistics, source location in association with cropland, and existing fertility of accessible land need to be acknowledged. Another variable is the financial situation of crop-producing neighbors, as markets certainly impact the desire and ability for them to build fertility and invest in the land. Most of these variables are out of our control and are market and situation based.


Now, consider these other variables that can be controlled: quality of the product, debris and foreign objects, timing of logistics, payment plans, variable rates and product segregation.

Let’s consider the following example. A large dairy with a flush system and three-cell lagoon wants to pump manure onto a neighbor’s land in the fall. They have pumped on the same neighbor’s land for the last 20 years. The neighbor’s fertility is high, and he only needs to apply nitrogen for his planned corn crop. The land is also sandy soil. The dairy says, “It’s the closest field, and we only have a mile of hose. We’re going to apply 25,000 gallons per acre. The custom pumper will be here Oct. 20, and we’re going to mix all three cells together.”

In this scenario, the farmer only needs nitrogen. He would like to apply it in the spring since the soils are sandy. He would rather apply manure to another field that he has 2 miles away because that one has low fertility, and he needs all nutrients there. He would also prefer to apply 10,000 gallons of dairy manure in the fall because he would like to leave room to apply more nitrogen in the spring and summer with his herbicide and a side-dress application. 

As you can see, the dairy and the farmer have very different objectives, and the proposal from the dairy does not meet the 4Rs, not even close. It is not the right product or the right place. It is not the right rate the farmer wants, nor is it applied at the right time. The only value in this proposition to the farmer is the value of nitrogen and probably not all of the nitrogen because of leaching potential. 

What could be done to increase value to both parties? The dairy could invest in another mile of hose to deliver manure to the farmer’s fields farther away that need all nutrients applied. In addition, they can cover twice the acres at a half rate so the farmer can still side-dress more nutrients in season. The dairy also agrees to pump in the spring on the sandy soils so there is less time and risk for leaching. Now we have a proposition where the dairy is spending more money, but they are delivering what the farmer wants and needs. In return, the farmer is willing to pay the whole pumping bill because he needs and values all nutrients and he’s getting them where and when he wants them. 

Consider another example: A feedyard aggressively scrapes and cleans their pens in dry conditions. They are able to segregate their manure products and keep their dry pen scrapings separate. This product is very concentrated in nutrients, very consistent and very dry. It is coveted among manure products. The feedyard also hires a custom applicator with the latest and greatest technology in solid manure application. An organic farmer, who farms 10 miles from the feedyard, can only use manure for fertilizer, has variable low fertility and desires a variable-rate manure application based on a grid soil sample. He also wants to do this in the spring before destroying his cover crop. As you can imagine, this is a high value situation. The feedyard has a high value, consistent product that they can deliver where, when, and how the customer wants it, and it is being used to grow a high value crop. 

There are many variables in the control of the producer in this example. Most often, the willingness to invest in what the customer wants provides greater returns and highest value.

When the livestock producer and the end users of manure know and understand their specific objectives, that is where the value of manure is maximized for both parties. The synergy between livestock production and crop production is what is most needed to garner the most value from manure. With the right strategy and attitude, the use of livestock manure should be a great competitive advantage for all sectors.  end mark

PHOTO: Manure is full of nutrients and organic material. To maximize its value, understand the needs of the end user. Photo by Karen Lee.

Andy Scholting