Is manure more valuable than hogs?

Published 9:08 am Monday, October 27, 2008

Liquid gold keeping farmers financially afloat or a vile, foul-smelling gunk that is a threat to the environment. What is hog manure?

The downward trend in hog prices and the dramatic rise in fertilizer costs have turned conventional wisdom on it’s head. Hog manure, long considered only a nasty byproduct of the pork-production industry, has suddenly become a financial lifeline. Whenever plans for a new swine confinement barn are announced, neighbors complain about what the smell of concentrated hog manure will do to the quality of their lives.

Common sense can solve a lot of problems, said an area expert. Gyles Randall is a soil scientist with the University of Minnesota’s Southern Research and Outreach Center in Waseca. A good management plan is essential for hog producers, and many legal hoops are placed in the way of those seeking permission to build a hog confinement barn. Randall said a critical element in mitigating manure odor is location.

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“You don’t want to get too many confinement barns in a small area,” Randall said. “Odor becomes a problem when there is too much density.”

Overcrowding of confinement operations can also result in too much manure being spread over a small area of farmland, increasing odor problems. Timing is another key element in solving manure related odor problems.

“The goal for every operator is to only empty their pits and apply the manure once a year,” he said.

Modern technology plays an important role in odor mitigation. In recent years, more manure has been injected directly into the soil. In years past, manure was spread on top of the ground, increasing the intensity of odor problems.

“Ninety percent of manure is now injected, and that has to be a primary objective for producers,” Randall said.

Some feed company salesmen have claimed that adding supplements to hog feed can limit the smell of manure, but Randall isn’t buying it.

“The proof is not in the pudding. I’m skeptical.”

Public perception is often not in line with reality, and other factors can affect how hog confinement operations are judged by their neighbors.

“Sometimes there have been problems between neighbors in the past, and confinement operations become a focus for these problems,” Randall said.

Dan and Midge Boettger of rural New Richland have raised hogs in Waseca County for 35 years. Their operations raise 15,000 hogs annually. When they were preparing to build their first confinement barn they went around to all their neighbors, to explain what they were doing and why.

“Before the hogs arrived we had an open house at the barn and invited all the neighbors,” Midge Boettger said. “We told them that what we were doing would add value to the area economy, creating jobs in southern Minnesota.”

Waseca County requires a manure-management plan prior to giving approval of the construction of confinement barns. The Boettgers use their confinement generated manure on their own land, and admit it has helped offset high fertilizer costs. “I hate to admit it, but the manure is worth more than the pigs,” Midge said.

Chris Sonnek deals with difficult public perceptions every day of his working life. He owns and operates Custom Manure Injection of New Richland, which uses two tractor drawn wagons to remove manure from the pits of area hog producers and inject it into cropland. His company has been in business for 12 years and has contracts with 30 hog producers.

The manure wagons, often jokingly called honey wagons, carry 12,000 gallons of liquefied manure per load and distribute 25 to 30 million gallons a year onto area fields. Sonnek also sees a disconnect between perception and reality when it comes to hog manure smells.

“With careful management practices it’s really not a big problem,” Sonnek said. “Producers need to have their ventilation fans running when the pits are emptied. Then there’s little danger to people or animals.”

Sonnek, who also farms, credits the valuable nutrients in hog manure with compensating for high fertilizer and feed costs. Contracts between hog producers and crop producers to spread manure on their lands have become increasingly valuable.

“In some cases the crop producer will pay my costs and also pay the hog producer for the manure.”