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Can pig farmers be good environmental stewards?

Environmental stewardship is probably not the word that comes to mind when you think about pig manure.

Environmental stewardship is probably not the word that comes to mind when you think about pig manure. I mean, let’s face it, poop has the ultimate “yuck” factor. Can pig farmers turn “yuck” into something good for the environment? By answering the most frequently asked questions (FAQs) about pig manure, you can decide for yourself if pig farmers are good environmental stewards.

Photo by Wanda Patsche
Pigs on slats

Let’s start with where does all the manure go? Modern pig barns allow pigs to stand on cement slats. Slats have elongated, slotted holes where the pigs’ manure falls through into cement 8′ pits. In the upper midwest, this is the most common way to store pig manure. 

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Are pits safe? When barns are constructed properly, pits in barns are very safe. When using cement pits, the cement prevents manure from leaking into surrounding soils.

What about the smell? Yes, manure does have an odor. Barns use ventilation fans which allows pigs to have clean air on a continual basis. On our farm, our pig barns are located on the same farm as my home. I only shut my house windows a few days a year because of odor.

How is the manure removed from the pits? Removing manure from pits is accomplished by using a manure pump. Before it’s pumped, an agitator (stirs manure) is used to help put the manure in a more consistent state (mixes solids with liquids). Agitation makes the application more precise when applied to the soils. The pump puts the manure into the spreader, which is then pulled behind a tractor and applied to soils. This normally occurs after harvest season.

Are there any dangers in removing manure from the pits? Yes, farmers need to be very careful and vigilant when removing manure from the pits because of possible precarious pit gases. These gases can be lethal to both pigs and humans if not handled properly. To prevent problems, farmers ventilate their barns well when removing the manure from pits. Online resources are available to farmers and can be used as reminders during the manure spreading season. 

How often is it removed? Most farms have enough storage for a year. Sometimes, farmers will plant a shorter growing season crop so they can apply manure to those acres if they don’t have enough pit capacity for a year.

Photo by Wanda Patsche
Manure spreader

How is the manure actually applied to soils?Once manure is pumped into the manure spreader (pulled behind a tractor) the tractor and manure spreader drives through and applies the manure to the field. Manure is pumped through tubes on the back of the manure spreader and is applied directly to the soils. At the same time, there are two discs for each tube that immediately cover and incorporates the manure into the soil. Covering manure results in reduced odor and conservation of nutrients.

Isn’t there just too much manure for the amount of land available? It’s a requirement that farmers have a Manure Management Plan in Minnesota, which is overseen by the MPCA (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency). Farmers are required to have enough acres of land available to spread manure for the amount of gallons their farm(s) create. If they personally do not have enough farmland, farmers work with neighboring farmer(s) so they are able to apply manure to their lands.

How do farmers prevent applying too much manure to their fields? Regularly, farmers take soil tests and manure tests. Between the two tests, there is a determination on the amount of manure needed to replace soil nutrients.  Farmers use consultants to assist them in understanding the proper amounts of applied manure. Once a rate is determined, a flow meter (on the manure spreader) accurately places the correct amount of manure in the soils.

Is manure leaking into our streams and rivers? Farmers are very careful when spreading manure. There are buffer strips between fields and rivers and streams. There is no incentive to waste valuable nutrients by having them leak into rivers and streams. 

What if there is an accidental manure spill? Pig farmers have an emergency action plan, which includes steps to take if there is an accidental manure spill. 

There is real value in pig manure. In fact, on our farm, the manure we spread on our soils is an asset on our balance sheet. In addition, in our opinion, pig manure is superior to commercial fertilizers. And it’s natural. When you think about it, using a hog’s waste to  replace soil nutrients is the ultimate recycling program. 

So I ask you, do you think pig farmers are environmental stewards? No question about it. It’s a resounding yes! To get the real pig farming experience in applying manure via a front row seat, please view this!

This post was written by Wanda Patsche and originally published on Minnesota Farm Living. Follow Wanda on Twitter: @MinnFarmer.

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