Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Soil Health – Impacts on Hydraulic Properties

Of late, there has been greater interest in soil health, agricultural sustainability, and improving the robustness of our soils to occurrences of drought or heavy rainfall. These concepts often have one thing in common, a focus on increasing soil organic matter as a way to improve soil tilth and structure. This is the case because research has shown that soil organic matter is related to many important soil hydraulic properties, including porosity, hydraulic conductivity, and soil water retention.

Manure application is often credited with improving soil physical properties and associated benefits such as reduced runoff and erosion (Gilley and Risse, 2000; Wortmann and Wlaters, 2006). In most literature the phrase “improved tilth” is cited in manure application studies. Celik et al. (2004) found that five years of manure or compost application increased hydraulic conductivity, porosity, and that available water holding capacity increased by 85 and 56% for the compost and manure application treatments respectively as compared to the control. Many other studies have reported similar increases in soil water retention (Hafez, 1974; Unger and Stewart, 1974; Salter and Williams, 1969; Mbagwu, 1989; Schjonning et al., 1994; Benbi et al., 1998) from the application of feedlot or barnyard manure. Martens and Frankenberger (1992) measured seasonal changes in gravimetric soil water content and found that application of hog manure increased soil water content 3% during the growing season when compared to the soils that didn’t receive the amendment. These improvements in soil water holding capacity and storage have been attributed to several factors including soil aggregation and structure improvements, an increase in total porosity, the direct effect of the addition of high specific surface area material, and even changes in soil texture (Khaleel et al., 1981; Sweeten and Mathers, 1985; Boyle et al., 1989; Haynes and Naidu, 1998).

A comprehensive study by Miller et al. (2002) evaluated the impact of long-term cattle manure application on the hydrologic properties of a clay loam soil. They found that manure significantly increased soil water retention, increased ponded infiltration rates by more than 200%, and saturated hydraulic conductivity increased, but found that manure had little to no effect on the unsaturated hydraulic conductivity of the soil. Similarly, Bhattacharyya et al. (2006) found that manure application increased infiltration rates. They attributed the changes to a better pore size distribution, which appeared to infer an increase in larger pores, but which isn’t clearly articulated within the manuscript. Based on this sampling of literature, it appears there is a general consensus that manure application has neutral to beneficial impacts on soil hydraulic properties, but questions as to the cause of these modifications remain.


In general, these changes are similar to those that would be suggested with increased soil organic matter content, as these studies suggested that manure leads to improved tilth, greater porosity, hydraulic conductivity, and increased soil water holding capacity. In the next Manure Scoop we’ll take a look at the evidence to support that manure is building soil organic matter and then do some back of the envelope math to evaluate what this may mean for Iowa soils.


Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Manure Application Logistics - Rate and Cost


As we get to the heart of land application season my thoughts always drift to the same concepts. How can we do better at moving manure from farmstead to field, quickly, safely, and environmentally consciously? Manure has long been considered a valuable input to the soil for crop production and in its broadest sense manure management is the science of figuring out the most appropriate use of animal manure and how to get the most benefit for the least expense while protecting air, soil, and water quality. When it comes to manure utilization it seems like every year is a discussion of how we can get 10-billion gallons or so of liquid manure applied quickly, safety, accurately, and as cost effectively as possible. There are several ways to do this: bigger equipment, more people in the manure business, extending application seasons either by planting crops with different harvest windows or developing technologies that allow application during the season.

Today I’m going to focus on just one little aspect though – nutrient delivery rates with drag line systems for dairies and pig finishing manure. My costs are all approximate as lots of factors can influence cost, but right now we are going to take a look at why application rate may be important.

Say we have two farms, one a dairy and the other a finishing swine farm, who each generate the same amount of available nitrogen for land application every year. Let’s say this is a 4800-head swine farm so it will generate about 1.75 million gallons of manure a year or about enough manure from 695 acres (approximately 60 lb N/1000 gallons). At this farm we’d have an application rate of about 2500 gallons per acre. At a dairy the manure would have closer to 10 pounds of N per 1000 gallons so we’d apply right around 15,000 gallons per acre and would be dealing with closer to 10 million gallons of manure.

For illustrative purposes, I’m going to ballpark $500,000 in equipment costs (pumps, hose, drags, and a toolbar) but that is all dependent on what you are using. In the case of swine manure let’s assume we have a 30-foot bar and can drive through the field at 7 mph, this means they can cover an 0.42 acres per minute and to get 2500 gallons per acre the flow rate would be about 1060 gpm. This means to get all 1.75 million gallons applied would take 27.5 hours and assuming the crew was about 50% efficient it would take about 55 hours overall. Just for fun in estimating, let’s assume run time costs about $500 an hour (tractors, fuel, wear and tear, etc.). If we figure a 5-year equipment life and that 1.75 million gallons is about 10% of the total gallons they apply every year, then or cost for manure here would be about $37,500 or about $0.02 a gallon of manure applied or about $0.36 per pound of N applied.

Now let’s take a look at the case of the dairy. Here we are covering the same number of acres and would have the same number of sets so let’s assume that setup time was again 27.5 hours, however we have lots more gallons to apply so the application will take a bit longer. In this case we can probably pump around 3000 a minute if everything is set up well so we’d take about 57 hours of application time so with setup time we’d have about 84 hours in application time. As we are applying more gallons this might represent 50% of the annual gallons this crew would apply. If you work this about we have about $42,000 in variable rate cost related to application time and about $50,000 in equipment depreciation for a total of $92,000. This would work about to about a $0.01 per gallon application cost or about $0.88 per pound of nitrogen applied.


So when you think about what your manure application, remember there is a lot that goes into that per gallon price and application rates can play a big role in that, but it’s important to also think in terms of fertilizer benefit you are providing. 




Dragline manure application getting set for its next field.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Manure Logistics - Available manure application windows and application capacities

I often get asked the question what does the future of the manure industry look like. I typically give a little thought and then reply, a lot like it does now, we’ll continue to try to get better at finding ways to more quickly and accurately apply the manure nutrients so we can better capture the fertilizer value. I say this because I mean it; manure can be a great fertilizer resource on a farm and when we think about, livestock production is a critical component of sustainability as the majority of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium we feed ends up in the manure and needs to be recycled.

Today I’m going to stop and consider this number a little for you – we are going to focus on liquid manure in Iowa. There is somewhere around 10 billion gallons of manure produced annually (give or take a billion here or there depending on rainfall and the accuracy of my animal populations, the production systems I assume farmers are using, and general variation). It’s a bit hard to fathom this number but I’m going to try a couple ways.  The first is if we think of a 40-acre field the manure would be 767 feet tall, or just a little more than the 801 Grand (previously The Principal Building which as far as I can tell is the tallest building in Iowa. Of course Iowa really has around million acres so if we tried to put or manure on all of them each acre would only get around 500 gallons (or you know a little less than 0.02”).

As interesting as that is, today I wanted to take a look at slightly different topic, manure application logistics. So we know we are working with approximately 10-billion gallons of manure and if we look in the fall we have approximately 75-days between October and mid-December and then another 30 days of potential application in the spring. So we are looking at somewhere around 105 application days in a given year (give or take depending on the exact day we start applying and the number of days unsuitable due to soil and weather conditions). That means to get all our manure applied we need to apply somewhere in the neighborhood of 100-million gallons per day!
So what does the typical logistics of application look like?

If we think about a drag-line system, when it’s flowing we are probably in the neighborhood of 1500 gpm for a flow rate; however, there is some setup time involved as we move to new fields. Just for fun let’s figure that we are somewhere around 50% efficient with this system, that is it is running half the time and being reset the other half of the time. If this is true we’d average around 750 gpm or about 45,000 gallons per hour. Assuming 12-hours days (some companies run longer but I need some time to clean and move from farm to farm) we’d need about 18,500 days to finish all the manure in Iowa! Luckily there are lots of companies out there to help with this big task.

Figure 1. Manure application with low-disturbance injectors into covercrop.

Similarly, if a manure tanker is used (let’s just say it is a 7300-gallon tank and we get it 95% full with each load). Let’s say we are hauling three loads an hour then every hour we are moving 20,000 gallons. To finish hauling all the manure in Iowa in those 105-days we’d need somewhere around 400 manure spreaders going not stop 12 hours a day.


Luckily Iowa farmers and commercial manure applicators have recognized this challenge and continuously are purchasing new and better equipment to help ensure they are moving manure from farm to field as cost effectively and responsibly as possible.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Following up - How Uncertainty Impacts Manure Application Rate Decision Making

I received a question the other day about my blog post from mid-July dealing with uncertainty in manure application rate selection. If you recall, I talked about the concept of insurance Nitrogen (N) and why it wasn’t advisable. That’s where I said something a little controversial, with uncertainty in inputs to our decision, such as manure nitrogen content, the ideal nitrogen rate goes down (just a little bit, but still down). This week I was asked how I made that conclusion and if there was different uncertainty from different types of manure.

Since the second part is a little easier, I’ll start with that one: Is there uncertainty for different types of manure (swine, solid cattle, liquid dairy) or are they all equally variable? The data I have suggests the coefficient of variation (standard deviation divided by the average) in nitrogen content of hog, dairy, layer, and beef manures were about 23, 40, 30, and 33%.

Keep in mind this only focuses on uncertainty in the actual nutrient content of the manure – there are actually numerous things that cause uncertainty in what we actually apply. Things like the amount of volatilization that occurs during agitation and application, the availability of nitrogen in the manure, how accurately we are hitting the desired application rate, how uniformly we are applying manure, and even when we apply the manure relative to crop need. Some of these we can control, some of these we can reduce the impact of by picking the right type of equipment, and in some cases we can get a better idea through sampling, but there will always be some uncertainty remaining (You can read more about dealing with uncertainty here, the value of manure sampling here, and about rate control here I know I hit on these 4R topics a lot, but while achieving the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is going to require more than just the 4R’s, they are R’s that impact the value we get from our manure helping make manure a more valuable commodity for our livestock producers.

Now the hard part of this question, why did I say uncertainty lowered the ideal manure application rate? The simple answer I created a model, liked the assumptions I made, and believed it. However, I recognize that is a very unsatisfactory answer to a curious farmer, a consultant that wants to give better information to a farmer, and even this extension engineer who is trying to provide the answer. So I looked back at my work and thought, there has to be an easier way to say this is true. Then in that moment a light bulb, I should be able to do this graphically (and who doesn’t like a picture!).

So a little bit to help to get us started, I need to go over two pictures then we’ll work on putting them together (excuse my lack of graphical design). The first is the Maximum Return to Nitrogen graph; the one shown in figure 1 is for Southeast Iowa for corn in a corn-soybean rotation with estimated nitrogen prices of $0.30 a pound and a value of corn at $3.50 per bushel. In case you haven’t seen the Maximum Return to Nitrogen Tool before you can find it here http://cnrc.agron.iastate.edu/About.aspx, but briefly its six states’ (Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin) approach to recommending nitrogen application rates. There are three lines plotted on the curve: the first (blue) is the gross return to nitrogen – this is the price of corn per bushel times the estimated number of bushel we’d expect from different nitrogen application rates (this is based on years of data and numerous research plots in those regions). The second (green) is the cost of fertilizer, it is the fertilizer price multiplied by the number of units of N we applied. Finally, we get the third line (red) which is the difference between the gross return and a fertilizer cost. This line shows us the point (the highlighted diamond) where that unit of nitrogen resulted in just enough corn yield to cover the cost of buying that last bit of nitrogen.

 Figure 1. Maximum return to nitrogen for corn in a corn-soybean rotation for Southeastern Iowa.

The second picture I’m going to show you is a normal distribution. I know what you are thinking the same thing my dad, Mr. Manure, would say, “That’s Greek to me.”(now you know where these terrible jokes come from!). Essentially there are a few key points from this figure we need to know. If you were told to guess one value to pick on this curve you’d want to pick the one at the peak, or the mean (its where you’d be most likely to be right) denoted with the Greek letter µ. The next is the shape of this curve (how wide or narrow that bell curve looks) is controlled by the standard deviation, denoted with the Greek letter σ. A big standard deviation leads to short, wide curves and while small standard deviations lead to narrow, high peaked curves. This standard deviation gives us our uncertainty – you see, about 68% of the time we’ll be within one standard deviation of the mean (the light blue area in figure 2), 95% of the time we’ll be within two standard deviations (the light blue and the dark blue in figure 2), and 99.7% of the time we’ll be within three standard deviations.

Figure 2. Illustration of a normal distribution.

Now the fun part – the math I did to get my original answer. I simply put this normal distribution onto our Net Return to N curve and looked for the point on the net return curve where the area under the net return to N curve of the left-half of the normal distribution and the right-half of the normal distribution are equal (the math intensive part is they have to balance when weighting this area by the probability of that N application rate occurring).

Figure 3. Normal distribution overlaid onto the maximum return to N curve (for most of Iowa, corn in a corn-soybean rotation).

What the uncertainty does is basically flatten out the yield curve. Say you are trying to put on 140 lb N/acre. There is a chance you hit this rate, there is also a chance that you only put on 100 lb N/acre and similarly there is a chance you actually put on 180 lb N/acre.

If you think about what happens at low application rates (below MRTN), there is a chance that there was more N in the manure than you anticipated. This would work to your advantage because we are in an extremely sensitive part of the yield response curve where just a little more nitrogen results in a lot more yield. If you think about, this is exactly what MRTN was designed to say; if we are below MRTN the benefit of a little extra N is worth it.

If you are on the right side of the curve (above MRTN) it works the opposite way. A little less N only causes minimal yield drop because the yield curve is relatively flat here, but a little more wastes the value of the nitrogen and gives you essentially no yield gain. Again, this makes sense because it is effectively what MRTN was designed to tell you.

Also, it’s reasonable any uncertainty we have is going to make us less profitable than if we know perfectly what we put on. It’s like playing the lottery, if we knew the winning number beforehand we could be sure to pick it every time. Even if we were trying for the right amount there is some probability that we missed that “ideal rate” and as a result either over applied nitrogen or under applied just a little.

Why did I say it was slightly more profitable to under apply than over apply? The difference between the two rates is marginal (about 5-10 pounds an acre). What I think is that as you get close to the MRTN rate even though you are a little below MRTN, the yield curve has already flattened out quite a bit. This puts us in a situation where if we are just a little low it doesn’t really change our yield, but if we are over that amount it’s costing us $0.30/lb N that could have been used elsewhere. I tried to show you why this would happen pictorially in figure 3). If you place a normal distribution over the Net Return to N (with the red dot representing the ideal point), you’ll see that the net return fell off a bit more quickly on the right side of the distribution then on than it rose on the left side of the distribution. This would mean if we have uncertainty, our ideal rate is actually to the left of the MRTN with no uncertainty.

However, you’ll also note the shape of the distribution matters. If it was narrower, the MRTN with and without uncertainty might be the same point. If the uncertainty is bigger, it might even move us to the right, that is a higher application rate than MRTN. This would happen if our distribution is wide enough that our uncertainty curve (that normal distribution) encompasses part of the yield response curve where yield responds rapidly to increases in nitrogen (figure 4).

Figure 4. Maximum return to nitrogen for corn in a corn-soybean rotation for Southeastern Iowa with normal distribution with high uncertainty overlaid on the curve.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Dealing with Uncertainty in Manure – Insurance Nitrogen (Just a little bit extra?)

There is uncertainty in every decision we make; all we can do is try to make the best decision we can based on what we know. When it comes to using manure as a fertilizer there are five main sources of uncertainty, these are:

  • Nitrogen need of the crop (due to every growing season being different)
  • Nutrient content of the manure
  • Availability of the manure nutrients to the crop 
  • Nitrogen volatilization during application
  • Application variability and rate uncertainty
How do we deal with this uncertainty? What we really want to do is try to minimize each of these sources, in some cases this may be practical, in others it might be impossible. For example, manure sampling gives us a good indication of the nutrient content of the manure, but as we all know manure isn’t always consistent, so it isn’t a perfect indicator. One way we often hear people handling this is by adding a little extra nitrogen, some insurance nitrogen, but is that really the best approach?
I was wondering about this a little while back, and started to do some calculations to find out how this uncertainty impacted our manure decision making and this lead me down a trail called the ‘value of information.’ Essentially, it asks if you can now make a better decision because of something you learned from it, how much extra value does that add. So I did that for manure sampling (http://themanurescoop.blogspot.com/2014/10/economic-value-of-manure-sampling-and.html) and was pretty happy, but then someone said, even if I sample I may be more confident about what’s in the manure, but there is still some error in that so maybe I should still be putting on a little insurance nitrogen. So I took some time to think on this.
Some background, this is based off higher nitrogen and corn prices than we currently sit at, something like 2013 corn prices but luckily I scaled then so actual profit isn’t shown and as long as the nitrogen to corn price ratio didn’t change the results should be relatively similar.

What I did was use the Maximum Return to Nitrogen calculator (http://cnrc.agron.iastate.edu/) to estimate what my profit would be per acre after field activities and subtracting the value of the nitrogen applied to the crop above the MRTN rate (because that was nitrogen you could have used elsewhere). What I found is that uncertainly in how much nitrogen always lowered our profit as compared to if we had perfect knowledge. Probably because there was always a chance of putting on too much nitrogen or too little nitrogen, where if we really knew the perfect amount we could hit the nail on the head. However, the interesting thing I saw was that if we did have uncertainty, the ideal nitrogen rate was just a little lower than when we had perfect knowledge. There were a few other things I saw though, the chance the manure might have higher nitrogen content worked to our advantage at low application rates, because there was potential that in the area where corn yield was really sensitive to nitrogen application rate that we actually put a bit more on than we were trying to. However, once we got towards that maximum profit zone we didn’t peak quite as high, because the uncertainty meant we were never quite hitting that nail on the head as we always might be a little short or wasting a little.


Figure 1. How does uncertainty change how we should think about nitrogen application? Comparison between perfect and uncertain nitrogen concentration in manure in a corn-soybean rotation (as a note 23% uncertain is what I say using the industry average for your manure is)

Figure 2. How does uncertainty change how we should think about nitrogen application? Comparison between perfect and uncertain nitrogen concentration in manure in a continuous corn rotation.


So what’s the takeaway from all this? The more we know the more accurate we can be in hitting the nail on the head and maximizing our profit – but you already knew that (I mean we say hindsight is 20/20 for a reason), so no surprise there.


The more interesting part was looking at how putting on that insurance N (just a little extra) impacted our maximum profit. Essentially what I saw was that a little extra just doesn’t help us handle that uncertainty. Extra N actually hurts us as we are at a spot on the yield response curve that is relatively flat and the risk of wasting extra nitrogen hurts our profit more than the risk supplying that extra N. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

How much manure from a dairy cow?


Happy dairy month!


As you all probably know June is dairy month and that means it’s time for a dairy manure story around here. As I got to thinking about what to discuss - I was working on a manure budget for the state of Iowa (how much manure to do we have, how much manure can we use, and how has this changed with time) and I started pondering about all the changes to agriculture and what it means for manure. Things like moving away from pasture and to confinement operations, adding storages, injecting manure when it is land applied all help us collect a larger fraction of the manure produced and better use it in our crop production systems. However, there is a deeper question, and that is, how has the amount of manure we got from a cow changed?
There are lots of things that could go into this, the production system we use, whether we scrape or flush manure, how much if anytime the cows spend on pasture or a loafing lot, but we are going to take a look at is how much manure the cow would excrete. Using the ASABE Manure Production standard (ASAE D384.2). To get some estimates of milk production the average annual milk production, in terms of pounds per had was obtained from the Survey of Iowa Agriculture for years 1924 through 2016. Over this time period milk production per cow has increased by almost 500% (figure 1); at the same time manure production per cow increased, but only by an estimated 40% (figure 2). This means that the we went getting about 0.1 pounds of milk for every pound of manure to more than 0.5 a pound of milk for every pound of manure, that’s a significant change.


Figure 1. average milk production per cow per year in Iowa.


Figure 2. Average manure production per cow per year in Iowa.

However, we can take a deeper a look at what some of these numbers mean for manure. For example, most of the weight of manure is water – but what about solids, nitrogen and phosphorus? Again we became more efficient here, with cows decreasing the amount of solids, nitrogen and phosphorus they excrete per pound of milk produced by 70-80%.  The actual excretion of solids, nitrogen, and phosphorus did increase, but only by 50% for solids, 16% for nitrogen, and 45% for phosphorus. If we do just a little more math and make some estimate about how much nitrogen is lost during storage, land application, and the availability of the nitrogen, we can make some estimates about how the manure’s nutrient content has changed (figure 3).


Figure 3. Estimated manure nutrient content.


While not entirely accurate as in the 1920’s through the 1960’s slurry manure systems were minimally used as animals were kept on pasture or raised in barns with bedding material and manure was handled as a solid. However, this work does provide some useful insight to understanding how this industry is changing, with animals that are much more efficient than they used to be, making more milk for every unit of manure we now manage. So next time you have a glass of refreshing milk, take a moment to ponder what the next 100 years will bring and what that could mean for how we manage manure.


Friday, May 19, 2017

Compost, Stockpiling, and Fresh Manure – What is happening?

Handling systems affect manure nutrient levels and forms by influencing gaseous emissions, exposure to runoff and leaching, and as a result can influence a manures ability to supply crop nutrients when land applied. Traditionally, on feedlots in Iowa, pens are cleaned periodically and then the manure is stockpiled, either near the lot or in a field and then eventually land applied. In some cases, lots might be scraped frequently and the manure land applied almost immediately. So what difference does each of these make to the manure properties?

 Freshly excreted manures are often very wet, which is especially true during wet periods of the year, like after rainstorms or snowmelt. These wet conditions generally make long-distance transport difficult or almost impossible. This also requires field be available for land application throughout the year, and as such, has generally fallen out of favor as it means the ground can’t be used to support crop production throughout the summer. Though in some cases, through the use of varied rotation, usually including some hay ground, land application can be accomplished. As a result, stockpiling manure becomes more prevalent. In this practice, manure is cleaned form the pen surface and then heaped into stacks, or stockpiles, to await reloading, hauling, and spreading. Stockpiling is generally a passive process but helps in matching manure application timing to better align with typical crop production practices. A third alternative is composting. Composting is an aerobic treatment where the manure is managed so the pile continues to have oxygen in it, providing conditions for microbes and bacteria to break down the material. Composting uses mixing to make a more uniform pile and causes the material to heat, often killing pathogens within the manure and inactivating weed seeds.
Figure 1. Stockpiled beef cattle manure.

When looking at the results, there are two things to look at. The first is the nutrient concentrations and the second is the mass balance.  When it comes to the concentrations, this tells us how far we can afford to move the manure. Higher concentrations mean we can afford to haul it a bit further as it is more nutrient dense. The results indicate that both stockpiling and composting increase the nutrient density relative to fresh manure. Much of this change is due to water loss, so we just aren’t hauling around as much water.

However, if you look at the results a bit closer, you’ll see we actually end up with less nitrogen and phosphorus to land apply from both stockpiling and composting. This occurs because some of the nutrients are lost due to volatilization of the nitrogen during the storage process.  Some of the loss of is due to dust and rainfall runoff during stockpiling and composting for phosphorus. Taken together, these results would show that if we need to transport manure long distances, composting might be a good option, but if we are using the manure on farm and want all those nutrients, stockpiling might be a better choice for your operation. Of course additional factors like consistency of the manure, killing pathogens, or inactivating weed seeds might be additional factors to consider. (these results are a summary of Larney et al., 2006 – Fresh, stockpiled, and composted beef cattle feedlot manure: nutrient levels and mass balance estimated in Alberta and Manitoba).
Table 2. Nutrient concentration of fresh, stockpiled, and composted beef cattle manure.

Dry Matter
Water
Total Carbon
Total Nitrogen
Inorganic Nitrogen
Total P

lb/ton
lb/ton
lb/ton
lb/ton
lb/ton
lb/ton
Fresh
698
1302
216
11.2
2.6
3.2
Stockpiled
856
1144
212
13.2
3.8
4.6
Composted
1280
720
208
18
1
6.6

Table 3. Mass comparison of fresh, stockpiled, and composted beef cattle manure.


Initial Mass
Final Mass
Dry Matter
Water
Total Carbon
Total Nitrogen
Total P

lb
lb
lb
lb
lb
lb
lb
Fresh
1000
1000
349
651
108
5.6
1.6
Stockpiled
1000
636
272
364
67
4.2
1.5
Composted
1000
328
210
118
34
3.0
1.1




Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Manure Application Uniformity



Maybe you have seen some tweets and pictures about manure application uniformity testing over the past years, or hopefully seen some information about upcoming field days where uniformity is going to be a key topic. You might be wondering why we are making a big deal about this, but when it comes to using manure as a fertilizer effectively, understanding how uncertainty impacts your decisions is critical for making the best management decision.

So why should we worry about manure application uniformity? Nitrogen for crop growth can come from multiple sources, the soil organic matter can mineralize and in doing so release mineral nitrogen for the plant. The remaining nitrogen needed to support crop growth comes from applied fertilizer. Years of research have gone into characterizing how crops would respond.  If you take a look at the Nitrogen Rate Calculator it will give you an idea of how a corn crop (in this case corn following soybeans) responds to the addition of nitrogen. What this graph (figure 1) shows is how the addition of nitrogen causes corn to respond. What the figure demonstrates is that we want to apply somewhere around 150 lb N/acre, if we are less than this the yield goes down, if we apply more than this we see minimal yield improvement.


Figure 1. Corn response to added nitrogen for Iowa conditions for a corn crop following soybean.

So what does this all have to do with manure application uniformity? When we are trying to hit 150 lb N/acre does that mean we just need to average that for the field? Probably not, it’s about getting a condition where it’s uniform over the whole field (yes, there might be some soil variations and every field has a bit different response to nitrogen, and weather conditions matter so some year’s crop response to nitrogen is much more drastic than others, but for the sake of argument, let’s work with this curve to see what it means).

For fun as we think about the math behind this problem, let’s assume we have corn planted on 30-inch spacing, our manure toolbar also has 30-inch spacing, and that corn roots only get their nitrogen from the manure application band that was placed next to that corn row. Then let’s figure we applied 150 lb N/acre from liquid swine manure that tested 50 lb available N/1000 gallons, so we were applying 3000 gallons an acre.
Now think about two pieces of equipment, one has a knife-to-knife coefficient of variation of 35% at this application rate, the other has a coefficient of variation of 10%. In both cases let’s figure an 8-knife setup. To give you an idea what this looks like in terms of nitrogen application rates achieved by the different knives and the impact different levels of uniformity have on crop yield let’s run through an example. Both of the tools in this example hit the right application rate on average, but how they do it, in terms of evenness across the toolbar is very different. What I want you to start thinking about is what would this mean for your crop yield from row-to-row and nitrogen leaching.

Table 1. Nitrogen and manure application rates for two pieces of application equipment that that achieve different levels of manure application uniformity.
Knife #
N Application
(lb N/acre)
N Application
(lb N/acre)
Application Rate
(gallons/acre)
Application Rate
(gallons/acre)
% of
Desired Rate
% of
Desired Rate
1
100
150
2000
3000
67
100
2
135
160
2700
3200
90
107
3
165
170
3300
3400
110
113
4
210
160
4200
3200
140
107
5
220
150
4400
3000
147
100
6
180
140
3600
2800
120
93
7
120
120
2400
2400
80
80
8
70
150
1400
3000
47
100
Average
150
150
3000
3000
100
100
St. Dev.
53
15
1060
302
35
10
COV
35
10
35
10
35
10


So let’s do a nitrogen example, using figure 1 (the nitrogen response curve) you can make an estimate of the corn yield that would be achieved from each of the knives (and if you assume a maximum yield of around 200 bushels an acre) can figure out what the field level yields would be.  So if you work through this math, you can find a few interesting results (table 2). Even though we were putting on the same amount of nitrogen on in both cases, because of variation from knife-to-knife we get different average yields per acre. In the case of corn following soybean, yields increased by 2 extra bushels per acre yield from the improved distribution and in the case of continuous corn about 4 extra bushels per acre. But there are other things to notice, the coefficient of variation in corn yield is always much lower than that in the nitrogen application rate. The soil supplies some of the nitrogen and this dampens out the response making everything a bit more uniform, but one thing to keep in mind is that early in the growing season the response might be more visually drastic than what final yields end up showing. Overall I think this asks an interesting question -how good is uniform enough, how does application uniformity uncertainty compare with other uncertainties in crop production, and how does this information help us make better manure decisions?

Table 2. Impact of nitrogen application uniformity on crop yield in corn-soybean (CS) and continuous corn (CC) rotations for machines with coefficients of variation in their application of 35% (left) and 10% (right)
Knife #
Corn Yield (CS)
(bu/acre)
Corn Yield (CS)
(bu/acre)

Corn Yield (CC)
(bu/acre)
Corn Yield (CC)
(bu/acre)
1
187
194
162
179
2
193
195
175
182
3
196
196
183
184
4
198
195
190
182
5
198
194
191
179
6
197
193
186
177
7
191
191
170
170
8
178
194

146
179
Average
192
194
175
179
St. Dev.
7
2
16
4
COV
4
1

9
2


To learn more about this topic and how you can get the most benefit from your manure make sure you register for one of our four field days, get a free lunch, get your manure questions answered, and learn how to set yourself up to maximize the benefit of manure on your farm this fall.