Can pig farmers be good environmental stewards?

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. 

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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Comments (23)

  1. Submitted by Jason Walker on 09/25/2014 - 11:27 am.

    Pastured hog production and soil health

    As an employee of the Sustainable Farming Association, I would invite Ms. Patsche to attend our upcoming Midwest Soil Health Summit to continue learning more sustainable methods of hog production. While it is commendable that farmers like the Patsches are committed to environmental stewardship, the manure spreading she describes is good for the environment only in comparison to, say, dumping the manure in the river.
    A more sustainable approach to hog farming that focuses on soil health and putting hogs on pasture – which would be beneficial both to the Patsches’ profitability and row crop production – can be a true win-win for family farms such as this. Plus, pastured pork tastes much better than confinement, grain-fed pork.

  2. Submitted by Joe Smithers on 09/25/2014 - 01:31 pm.

    Jason Walker

    Jason, what experience do you have with soil health? None I assume since you didn’t realize manure is good for soil health as any soil scientist or consultant will tell you. You have also never raised a hog or been around one in your entire life if you also don’t know that when it comes to pasture hogs will never keep it a pasture and it will turn into a large muddy wallow which is terrible for the environment. By holding the manure in pits they are able to place it where it will do the most good and improve soil health. Swine manure has many beneficial nutrients that improve soil health. Pasturing would ruin more soil more quickly than you can imagine. Commercial fertilizer is not healthy for the soil and is only there for the crop while manure is something that improves soil for several years after application. It’s been proven. The public has already decided what tastes better and the majority of the public likes non pastured pork. A few may like pastured pork and that is fine but the majority of people have decided what they like already. Ms. Patsche has already found the most sustainable way to raise pork and doesn’t need anybody to tell her otherwise. She has more experience in the matter than you ever will. They don’t pasture pork anymore because it was proven to not be sustainable and bad for the environment long ago. You need to step past the 50’s into todays world to realize that. Pasture raised pork is only sustainable in niche markets and the majority cannot be raised in that way anymore because it simply isn’t sustainable in the long run in todays world.

  3. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 09/25/2014 - 03:12 pm.

    It’s not just manure in there…

    It’s important to be aware that things administered to the hogs (in particular, antibiotics) are excreted in the feces, and there provide a strong selective pressure for antimicrobial resistant bacteria to survive, while the more easy-to-kill antimicrobial susceptible bacteria are destroyed. Moving the manure to fields then exposes whatever is grown on those fields to contamination, furthering the spread of antimicrobial resistant bacteria through the food chain and the environment.

    In part this will be lessened by phasing out antibiotics for growth promotion purposes, as outlined by a recent FDA directive (guidance for Industry 213), but there are still antibiotics administered to most swine raised in the US, including for prevention, control, and treatment of disease. Many of the antimicrobials used are closely related to drugs critical for human health– including penicillins, cephalosporins, and tetracyclines. Although manure may be a good option for replenishing the soil, we should be aware that it is contains traces of whatever was fed/administered to the animals in the past year.

  4. Submitted by Tim Pratt on 09/25/2014 - 03:41 pm.

    I’m wondering what farmers are doing to capture the methane for decomposing manure. According to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture methane capture:
    ■Turns manure into a source of renewable energy
    ■Improves air quality by reducing odors and greenhouse gas emissions
    ■Protects water quality by reducing the potential for pathogens to enter surface or ground water
    ■Generates energy that can be sold
    ■Generates heat or other energy for on-farm use
    ■May qualify for carbon credit payments
    ■Aids manure management by making solid-liquid separation easier
    ■Results in potentially higher-quality manure for use on crops (more nutrient-rich and fewer weed seeds)

    Source: http://www.mda.state.mn.us/protecting/conservation/practices/digester.aspx

  5. Submitted by Joe Smithers on 09/25/2014 - 04:20 pm.

    Wow

    Dimitri you make it sound as if it is radioactive material coming out of a hogs hind end you blew that so far out of proportion. Very little chemical or antibiotic is present in manure if any at all. Manure is manure plain and simple nothing else as terrible as you try to make it sound. It’s good for soil health and plants. Nothing is being spread throughout the food chain as you believe and there has never been any evidence of that occurring ever.

  6. Submitted by Joe Smithers on 09/25/2014 - 04:23 pm.

    methane

    Tim many farmers are beginning to capture methane. It isn’t something they are financially capable of doing on every farm overnight but it is happening on some farms. A few local dairy farms utilize a manure digester to create energy from the methane and apply the rest to crop land.

  7. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 09/25/2014 - 05:01 pm.

    Joe– as a scientist, I choose my words carefully. Pretty sure I did not use the word radioactive. The things I did describe are well described in peer-reviewed studies. So please forgive me for not believing your claim of “there has never been any evidence of that occurring ever”.

    Specifics as to what I wrote:
    -25%-75% of antimicrobials fed to animals are poorly absorbed, excreted in feces. Chee-Sanford, Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 2001. 67(4): 1494-1502

    -Increased fecal indicators and antibiotic-resistant Enterococci were found downstream from swine facility, vs. upstream samples. Sapkota, Environmental Health Perspectives, 2007. 115(7): 104-1045

    -Not just the resistant bacteria, but also the drugs enter the food chain: Sulfamethazine (commonly used agricultural antibiotic, not commonly used in humans) was detected in corn, lettuce, potatoes after 45 days growing in manure-treated soil. Dolliver, Journal of Environmental Quality, 2007. 36:1224-1230

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 09/30/2014 - 11:10 am.

      Thank you

      As a scientist, as well, I would have to agree with your position. Antibiotics (and other chemicals) are a very real problem in the meat production industry. There is strong evidence that antibiotic use in beef cattle, pigs, and poultry are driving up the incidence of resistant infections in humans. Even if an antibiotic isn’t commonly used in humans, or in humans at all, that doesn’t mean that the use of such an antibiotic will necessarily cause no harm. Bacteria are sturdy little buggers–if they survive a pit of antibiotic-laden pig feces, they’re gonna survive a lot of other things. Further, even if the unsupported claim that antibiotics and other chemicals break down outside of the pit were true, it doesn’t mean that the bacterial that were pulled from that pit magically forget how to survive antibiotic exposure. It’s not necessarily the antibiotic that’s dangerous (though antibiotics are not without their own dangers, let’s not forget that), it’s the bacteria that are now impervious to a wide range of antibiotic categories.

      Even if we ignore the use of antibiotics and subsequent selection of resistant bacteria, not all pig farmers (or dairy farmers, or beef cattle farmers, or poultry farmers) responsibly care for their animals or the waste they produce. It is not unheard of to pump the poo onto frozen fields, which is a HUGE problem because frozen ground doesn’t hold the fertilizer. Instead, the manure flows off the fields in the spring with the snow melt and into water systems. This causes pollution of lakes and streams with excess nutrients and any chemicals that are also found in the manure. This causes algal blooms, bacterial blooms, and drops in oxygenation and sunlight penetration of the water. The result–poor water quality, increased risk of water borne infections, and dead lakes.

      So, it is true, pig farmers CAN be good environmental stewards, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are. Manure can be an asset, but it takes great care to make sure it’s not also a pollutant.

  8. Submitted by Joe Smithers on 09/26/2014 - 09:29 am.

    Scientist

    Dimitri none of the articles prove your point. The first one shows that yes antimicrobials are found in feces in pits, the second one shows that antibiotic-resistant Enterocci were found in water downstream from swine farms but has nothing to do with proper land application, the third one was a green house study and not a real world study where anything that might be present in manure would be degraded in the natural environment when applied at proper agronomic rates. I was unable to read the entire third study since I do not have a membership to the Journal of Environmental Quality but I would question how much manure was applied to the soil in the greenhouse and what conditions existed in the greenhouse. I don’t find greenhouse studies to be very comparable to real world trials.

  9. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 09/26/2014 - 02:34 pm.

    You said: “Very little chemical or antibiotic is present in manure if any at all”

    I provided evidence that antibiotics are found in manure.

    Tell me again how that doesn’t prove my point?

    Perhaps you’re drawing some sort of odd distinction between “feces in pits”, vs manure on the field. Well, the article describes quite clearly that there is no difference– you mix up the faces, pump them out, apply them to the field. Where in this process do you imagine that the antibiotics (which you readily admit are in the pit) manage to vanish?

    Sorry you couldn’t read all of the last article– as for it being not applicable because it was a study performed in a greenhouse, I think it’s kind of entertaining that at first you were claiming “there has never been any evidence of that occurring ever”, and now you’re specifically asking for “a real world” study, where antibiotics magically disappear because you say they do.

    I keep up with this field fairly closely; there are hundred of similar studies, many under real-world conditions, documenting spread of antibiotic-resistant organisms in to the food supply, the environment, and into the consumers of the food. The three I cited for you I happened to have open on my desktop as I was preparing a talk on this. I’d be happy to provide more, but I suspect there is no changing your mind. I’d also note that you have not provided a single counter-example of science that proves your assertions

  10. Submitted by Joe Smithers on 09/26/2014 - 03:40 pm.

    antibiotics and chemicals

    None of the studies compared pit manure to land applied manure at all. In fact none of the studies looked at manure applied to actual crop land. Thus no study has ever shown chemicals or antibiotics are present in soil after land application and taken up by crops. While the third does suggest they are able to be taken up by crops I seriously question how manure was applied, rates, kind of manure, and how much chemical and antibiotic was in the manure as compared to real world manure from hog pits. The third study has not been substantiated by a real world study so I am inclined to not rest all of my beliefs on it. You’ve linked all 3 independent studies together to try to prove a point and it doesn’t work. Had one study looked at a real working farm and sampled the manure and then sampled both the soil and the crops to see what was still present in the soil and had been taken up by the crops that would be believable. To date no such study has been done that I am aware of. Antibiotics and chemicals will degrade when exposed to sunlight and atmosphere even more quickly than it would in your fridge so I would expect very little if any at all would be viable and able to affect anything else once it applied to crop land. I guess I don’t feel I need to provide counter examples since the burden of proof of this happening is on you.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 09/27/2014 - 09:22 am.

      Burden of proof

      When you make a definitive statement such as “Antibiotics and chemicals will degrade when exposed to sunlight and atmosphere even more quickly than it would in your fridge” you are indeed required to provide cites to back up your claim. If not, readers are entirely justified in treating such statements as your unverified opinions and assigning those statements validity (or not) accordingly.

  11. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 09/26/2014 - 04:15 pm.

    Game, Set, Match

    I’ve been watching this debate unfold on the forum for the past day and thought I would wade in to say Mr. Smithers looks like he’s just been body slammed into the concrete. Smithers’ best option at this point is go into the fetal position while he gasps for air.

    Reading the postings, Mr. Drekonja provides sound scientific reasoning backed up by peer reviewed papers. Mr. Smithers, on the other hand, makes sweeping generalizations backed up with…nothing but a little unsubstantiated rhetoric. “The public says” isn’t much of a valid data point.

  12. Submitted by Joe Smithers on 10/01/2014 - 04:22 pm.

    Ouch

    I guess I didn’t realize nobody gave it a thought that chemicals or antibiotics stored in a temperature controlled environment with no access to atmosphere or sunlight wouldn’t last longer than if they were left out. I guess I’ll just leave every antibiotic I get from the vet outside because it will last just as long. So much for a body slam. It isn’t unsubstantiated rhetoric it is proven and practiced by anyone who uses chemicals or antibiotics. Dimitri should know that if he is a scientist. Indeed his third study may show some evidence but until it is shown in the real world it will be nothing more than a study. I read the studies and they didn’t really prove much of anything other that it might be possible under certain conditions but that doesn’t mean it IS happening.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 10/01/2014 - 06:09 pm.

      Science via anecdote

      Fortunately we’ve come a bit farther than that these days.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 10/02/2014 - 07:43 am.

      Facts Figure

      If you have studies that back up the many claims you’ve made on this forum, then by all means cite the source so people can review them for validity. Otherwise you’re just another person who’s standing out in a field waving his hands to try and get attention. Quite frankly, if it comes down to a contest between an attention monger and a scientist who has done real studies, I’m going to go with the logical person every time.

      You don’t seem to understand the type of forum you’ve landed on. The type of rhetoric you used here works great over on the Star Tribune forums, where everything goes and people can make any sort of claim that suits their world view. But at MinnPost you’re talking to people who are policy wonks. Here data, reason, and logic are king, and as such you need to step up your game and cite your sources. Otherwise you will, rightfully, be slapped down for not having your act together.

      Hopefully you’ll be back sometime and with a better game plan. We need more intelligent people in the public sphere, not knuckle draggers.

      • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/02/2014 - 03:35 pm.

        MinnPost logic

        “Here data, reason, and logic are king…” Usually. And this time it’s true. The argument he’s trying to make is like saying “if you shoot someone in a cold, dark environment, they’re less dead than if you shoot them in a bright sunny field, and I don’t care about any proof otherwise.” The fact of the matter is that those chemicals and antibiotics have effects even if they’re not direct. It doesn’t matter whether you should keep them in a refrigerator before using them. The problem is that, even assuming all those antibiotics and chemicals simply *poof* after use (they don’t), the bacteria that survived exposure retain their resistance after they’re no longer being exposed.

  13. Submitted by Joe Smithers on 10/02/2014 - 04:09 pm.

    data, reason, and logic

    I doubt it is any different on the Star Tribune forum. I’d like to read more of the third study since that is the only one that may be useful but unfortunately I do not have a membership. Dimitri has shown that chemicals, bacteria and antibiotics are excreted in feces but I would still question the relevance of the study without being able to read the entire thing to see how the soil was treated with manure and what conditions existed in the greenhouse before I’d equate it to conditions and manure application on cropland in current use. I guess that’s where my common sense kicks in. I’d also question how a greenhouse study can compare to conditions in Minnesota where we have winter. The study might be relevant in areas where soil is not frozen for 3 months out of the year and more spring manure application takes place than it is here. Until I see such a study I will still be skeptical of this one. Many trials need to be done to declare there is proof of chemicals, bacteria and antibiotics being taken down the food chain. One study is not proof. We have seen e coli in food delivered to stores but you need to look at how that occurred before you begin to think that all manure applied to crops will cause them to be contaminated.

  14. Submitted by Joe Smithers on 11/07/2014 - 11:21 am.

    studies

    Here is a study that backs my point. Hormones are degraded in runoff. Wisconsin Discovery Farms. http://www.uwdiscoveryfarms.org/OurResearch/ManureManagementConsiderations/AssessingHormonesinManure.aspx

    A real study in the real world. Who would have thought of that?

  15. Submitted by Joe Smithers on 12/12/2014 - 09:14 am.

    more info

    Here is more info that supports my position.

    http://www.extension.umn.edu/agriculture/manure-management-and-air-quality/manure-pathogens/best-management-practices/#biologicaltreatment

    Pathogens are reduced by UV exposure and the highest risk of pathogen exposure is through runoff to waters. Reducing runoff reduces the chance of exposure. The data from your study would need to be made publicly available in order to know if it is valid or not.

  16. Submitted by Joe Smithers on 12/19/2014 - 12:58 pm.

    yet more info

    This recently published study shows that manure from cows NOT treated with antibiotics caused a proliferation of antibiotic resistant bacteria in soils. Totally opposite of what you are saying.

    http://www.pnas.org/content/111/42/15202.abstract

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