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A new era for manure?

European design promises to put more manure where it can push the throttle on crop yields

If you’ve been around livestock production for the past 20 years, the concept of using drag hoses to apply manure won’t strike you as anything so very new, yet the arrival of the Vogelsang dribble-bar application system with its precision distribution is generating a lot of interest and anticipation.

The unit was on display at the 2014 Canada Outdoor Farm Show, with a field demo the next week at Embro, Ont., hosted by Husky (which is partnering with Vogelsang on the setup), plus Farm and Food Care and the Ontario ag ministry.

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The difference in this system is its precision application capability across widths that the company says can reach 36 metres. The applicator on this particular unit boasts 60 evenly spaced hoses on a 15-metre boom (four groupings of 15). That’s far wider than the innovative designs built by producers in the past 15 to 20 years, as well as the design that’s been a part of the AerWay spreading system (which also happens to be a Vogelsang unit).

But the hoses are not typical drag-type, either. They are rigid, and mounted to the boom to ensure consistent widths when applying. When the load is complete, the hoses can be inverted (thus preventing spillage or leaks), then folded into a narrower profile, making transport safe and convenient.

Among this configuration’s other features is a macerator which chops any solid material contained in the manure — bedding, animal hair — and removes them along with stones or larger foreign matter through a separate port on the bottom of the macerator itself. This is especially helpful in applying dairy manure, traditionally thought to contain too much solid matter to be effective in a hose distribution system.

The goal is a wider application window, plus the ability to put the nutrients where they will do the most good, such as into a standing corn crop.

Changing technology

crop with manure application

Manure is applied at ground level, reducing any damage from a topical application.
photo: File

The other selling point that separates this unit from the do-it-yourself innovations of the past 20 years is its precision ag technology. In fact, according to Walter Grose of Husky Farm Equipment, the cab-controlled accuracy from start to finish is better than gravity-fed distribution systems because the Vogelsang unit pumps manure upwards, providing better, more even and controlled distribution through the hoses.

“It’s so exact that we can actually set the rotary on the hydraulic loader to go through a laptop so that we can control our flow,” says Grose, the president of sales and marketing for Husky. “If you get to a spot in the field where it doesn’t require as much nitrogen, it can actually slow it right down, and we can control that from the tractor. We have all of that control already available.”

Grose was fielding questions at the Outdoor Farm Show and continues to get calls from growers who want to put the unit to the test. At a field demonstration held near Rockwood, Ont., at the beginning of October, one grower wanted to see if they could run enough solid manure through the unit that it would clog.

“That’s a question that everyone asks,” says Christine Brown, nutrient management field crops program lead for the Ontario ag ministry. “And the other thing that it allows is to determine how good these macerators are.”

Brown was at the Embro demonstration and has been following the progress of farmers’ queries about the effectiveness of this type of manure spreader. She’s quite enthusiastic about its potential and sees it as an important first step in changing the mindset surrounding the use of manure. Brown says she’s encountered naysayers throughout the industry, who claim change will “never work” or that it will “shut down the industry.”

“Over time when you see how it works and where the opportunities are, then slowly the mindset changes,” says Brown.

Brown says a key consideration is the type of livestock operation you have. That alone will indicate the complexity of the system needed. If it’s dairy manure, then it’s going to require the best macerator possible, she says. Hog manure, on the other hand, might not need as aggressive a system.

The move towards acknowledging the nutrient value of manure is already well underway, says Brown, but it’ll be the custom applicators who marry the precision ag/GPS technology for variable rate nutrient management that will have the biggest impact.

However that adoption happens, Brown says the technology may help prevent legislation being forced upon the agricultural community. Europe, she says, has a policy where farmers can’t apply any manure outside of the growing season — roughly from the middle of March to the middle of October. Perhaps the focus should be on embracing these types of technologies, as a means of avoiding such restrictive policies. And if it helps that there are environmental benefits, such as decreasing greenhouse gas emissions or reducing phosphorus contamination into nearby watercourses, or agronomic benefits such as reduced commercial nitrogen use or a yield bump, then those are added selling points.

Tough sell in some circles

Gord Green is the grower with the Embro farm where the demonstration took place. Although he’s intrigued by what he saw, he’s also quick to point out that the manure used in the demonstration was actually digestate from his dairy operation. The point of the demonstration, he says, was to show the flow through the system, not to plug up the works, and to see how the manure could be applied to a cover crop — in this case, oats.

“So there was virtually no fibre in the manure at all, which was fine for the initial demo, just to get the equipment running and to show what it’ll do,” says Green, who is also a member of the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association. “If I was using regular dairy manure with all kinds of straw and fibre in it, then I would have been concerned with how good a job it’d do, but they assured me that it’d be fine and there’d be no issue. With the digestate, you also don’t get the smell as bad, so as far as the demonstration goes, it wasn’t as offensive.”

manure spreader

The Vogelsang unit applying manure directly on to an oat cover crop at the farm of Gord Green, near Embro, Ont.
photo: File

Green also likes the idea of expanding the application window, particularly to apply manure on a growing crop instead of on bare ground. If a crop is better able to utilize more of the available nutrients, it means less of the manure going to waste.

“It is an interesting concept, and it’d be nice to try it here under Ontario conditions, and find out what some of its applications might be that would help improve what we’re doing,” says Green. Currently, he uses a tanker with a splash plate, which he acknowledges doesn’t do a great job of distributing the manure. “If we could do a better job at distribution, we would get a yield bump. Also with these hoses dropping the manure down into the crop canopy as opposed to spreading it on top, it’d allow you to spread on growing crops without causing the damage that a topical application could cause. So there’s potential there.”

Avoiding imposed legislation from outside of the agri-food industry is also key from Sam Bradshaw’s perspective. As the environmental specialist with Ontario Pork, Bradshaw has seen many farmers with their own solutions for applying manure into standing crops or to reduce odour concerns, but he believes this particular configuration holds considerable promise. He’s especially intrigued by the ExaCut macerator and its ability to shred and separate unwanted material, reducing the potential for plugged hoses. And he agrees the precision ag component — the ability to vary the application according to pre-set data from soil sampling and GPS capabilities — is another key to selling the technology within the livestock sector.

“Presently, a number of people in the industry believe that incorporating manure is often the best approach, and as Chris Brown said to me, a lot of custom applicators will say that will slow them down,” says Bradshaw. “Using this dribble bar equipment will interest them, as it’ll speed up their operation, expand the application window and gain precision and odour control. It’s beneficial to apply manure in the spring when the crop can use it, but when farmers are waiting for the soil to dry so they can apply manure, they’d rather be planting corn. This technology will allow manure to be applied after the crop is growing.”

More research needed

No matter how much anticipation there is with this technology, all four agree that more research on its capabilities needs to be conducted. It’s easy to see the environmental and agronomic benefits, but some of the economic metrics need to be determined: How do you make this technology pay?

For Walter Grose, it may be a matter of perspective, and a value statement on what an hour of someone’s time is worth. “Once they count the fertilizer value of the manure they have compared to commercial fertilizer that they’re buying, and with the potential to put it on in three different windows of application, I think you could find a huge advantage in doing that.”

Brown is involved in researching the use of this technology along with other designs, including those on Aerway units. She and others within the ag ministry have been testing the use of drag hoses, with and without injectors, as well as testing nitrogen rates in different standing crops. The really good news is that Brown believes application could work with a variety of crops, including wheat and edible beans.

“It could be applied to wheat at the same time as you’re putting your fertilizer on,” says Brown, noting that she’s worked with cereal specialist Peter Johnson on applying manure on forages and wheat. “I don’t think you could ever put 100 per cent of your nitrogen on as manure, but definitely two-thirds or three-quarters, especially with pig manure, and then probably at about the same timing. Maybe on really hilly ground, you wouldn’t do it — because if you get a big rain storm that phosphorus is still going to move. But on frost and placed as evenly as what that machine can do, it would be good.”

Brown has tried the same type of application on wheat in the middle of May when the crop was starting to elongate. They used a drag hose, in spite of Brown’s concern that the wheat wouldn’t come back up after being tramped (the farmer involved in the research wanted to try it anyway), and the crop came back fine. That work was also done using a Veenhuis unit, which also uses a dribble bar like the Vogelsang, although it does some shallow injection, and the Veenhuis unit itself is narrower.

“But they were good results, except that you can’t put 100 per cent of your nitrogen on as manure,” says Brown. “That’s because the soils are colder, so the availability takes a bit longer and the wheat needs that nitrogen sooner and the conditions are still cold. So that commercial nitrogen is still very important.”

The other crop that could have potential for this system, although Brown hasn’t tried it, is canola. In theory, she would want to plant the canola and then apply the manure right after. Since canola is such a high-demand crop for nitrogen, she believes it has potential, although the spacing and tire width issues might offer up some challenges. It might work as a post-emerge treatment, as well.

Edible beans might also respond well to nitrogen in the event of nodulation problems or an early issue with root rot diseases, Brown believes. In those instances, the beans could use more nitrogen, and this system could deliver what they need.

Back to the future

In 1999, Ron Van Bakel tested the use of a series of drag hoses mounted on a spray boom and attached to his manure tanker. By his own admission, the idea of applying manure through a hose wasn’t new, even 15 years ago. But he was able to reduce odour issues by applying the manure along the ground — and he did it into a standing corn crop in late spring.

Back then, Van Bakel’s design also provided some pleasant surprises as well. First, he noticed little or no leakage of manure into his tile drains, even with a rain shortly after application.

He also had the foresight to grow test plots to study the effects of manure on his corn. In 1998, he planted three plots and applied a combination of manure and commercial nitrogen fertilizer on one, a commercial fertilizer on its own on another, and manure on its own on the third plot. The 1997 crop on that field had been corn and each plot in 1998 was planted May 8 at 30,000 seeds per acre, then harvested on October 1. The results indicated a 10 bu./ac. benefit with manure alone (155.0 bu./ac. versus 145.8 bu./ac. with manure and nitrogen versus 148.1 bu./ac.with commercial nitrogen alone).

If there was a drawback, it was the size of his invention. At six to eight drag hoses, it took him a long time to spread manure. And in spite of his belief that he was doing “something good” for his soil, he also found that such traffic was, in fact, creating a fair bit of compaction, even in the middle of a relatively dry summer.

On the positive side, the drag hoses allowed Van Bakel to run manure out on to the field at a time when the corn crop could best utilize the nutrients in the manure.

Today, Van Bakel is no longer involved in livestock production; he’s now working in product development in the heating and ventilation business. But he firmly believes that the livestock sector has come a long way in reducing odour concerns. He also believes producers are more conscientious and are doing more to avoid just splashing manure on to bare ground.

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