What Are the Barriers and Benefits of Manure Use in Cropping Systems? (part 1 of 2)

What Are the Barriers and Benefits of Manure Use in Cropping Systems? (part 1 of 2)

Animal manures can be a “valuable asset” or a “pain in the assets”.  The right amounts in the right location can be very beneficial to Nebraska’s crop, soil, and water resources.  Too much manure or manure in the wrong place is an environmental concern. Our ability to place manure where its benefits are maximized and to manage manure so that its challenges are minimal is important to agriculture’s sustainability.

During the winter of 2020, 957 farmers and their advisors shared their perspective on the benefits and barriers to manure use. This article focuses on their perceptions of manure’s benefits and a later article will target their thoughts on the barriers. Understanding farmers’ and advisors’ experiences and knowledge of benefits and barriers is critical to using manure as a valuable asset!  We invite you to learn more about:

  • Why recycling manure nutrients is important;
  • Who responded to this survey; and
  • What are farmers and their advisors saying about manure’s benefits.

Why Is This Important?

Recycling of nutrients
Figure 1. Recycling of nutrients is critical to an environmentally sound agricultural “circular economy”.

Recycling of nutrients is critical to an environmentally sound agricultural “circular economy”. Animal agriculture must recycle the nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) in manures, typically as a soil fertility amendment, to be environmentally sustainable. With feed supplies commonly originating from cropland not managed by animal feeding operations, recycling should involve manures being transferred to crop farms, possibly with little or no history of manure use. Agriculture’s “circular economy” is an essential foundation for a sustainable future. 

Who Responded to Our Survey?

A faculty team from University of Nebraska, University of Minnesota, and Iowa State University is addressing the need to expand the acres receiving animal manures. The project team with the guidance of a stakeholder advisory group of farmers and advisors, implemented a survey of perceptions of animal manure’s benefits and challenges. American Society of Agronomy’s (ASA) International Certified Crop Adviser (ICCA) Program, Manure Manager magazine, and others promoted this survey among farmers and their advisors. The current survey, requiring less than 10 minutes to complete, remains open for additional response at http://go.unl.edu/manure 

Map of survey participants
Figure 2. Region of US and Canada represented by survey participants (N= 957).

Responses have been received from 957 individuals from the U.S. and Canada (Figure 2). Our survey responses represent those individuals who have a history of manure use. For example, 73% of farmers responding use manure annually. Our results provide insight to manure’s benefits and challenges from frequent users.

What Are Manure's Benefits?

Five characteristics identified as “Potential Benefits” by our project’s stakeholder advisory group were evaluated for survey participants’ perceptions and understanding (Figure 3a/b).

The agronomic and yield benefits of animal manures are commonly valued as beneficial. Ninety nine percent of farmers and advisors labeled manure as beneficial or slightly beneficial to meet crop fertility needs. Manure was seen as beneficial or slightly beneficial for improving crop yields by 92% of responses. Most of those responding believed they were either Very or Moderately Knowledgeable of these topics.

Farmers and their advisors share a strong recognition of the value of manure to soil physical and biological properties. Most believed they were moderately knowledgeable on manure’s value to soil health. The survey and other experiences suggest that some additional work is needed to help farmers connect manure to the soils that will benefit the most from the organic matter in manure.

Farmers and their advisors have a mixed opinion of manure’s benefits to environmental quality (described primarily as water quality). Roughly equal responses described manure as either “beneficial” (37% of responses) and “harmful” (32% of responses) to water quality.  A history of over applying manure and managing it as a waste product, is likely responsible for negative impressions of manure and water quality.  Possibly, less well understood are the water quality benefits that accompany agronomic manure application rates, current practice for many animal feeding operations.  If manure is applied at agronomic rates, farmers need to be sharing the water quality benefits resulting from substituting manure for fertilizer with our rural neighbors and policy makers. 

Perceptions and level of knowledge
Figure 3. Perceptions and level of knowledge about factors commonly believed to offer benefits to crops or soils.

Next month, we will look at the barriers to expanded manure use.

The authors wish to thank the Manure Manager magazine, ASA ICCA program, The Fertilizer Institute, and our many partners in Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska for promoting this survey.

Interviews with the authors of BeefWatch newsletter articles become available throughout the month of publication and are accessible at https://go.unl.edu/podcast.

This article was reviewed by Mary Keena, North Dakota State University Extension; Robert Meinen, Penn State University; Joe Harrison, Washington State University