Springtime has arrived. This means if you’re driving down some country roads, you may be experiencing a little “dairy air.” These warm temperatures bring on not only school vacations, and increased ice cream consumption, but also one more thing – manure! Dairy farms produce two things all year long: milk and manure. To people not familiar with dairy farming, the aroma of manure might be concerning and considered a nuisance, so let me try to explain a few things.
Yes, manure comes from cows, but did you know that manure is 80-90% water? It’s true. What you see farmers spreading in the fields is mainly water, which is typically the result of rumination in cows, but it can also include spillage at the water tub area and rainwater. What you see spread in the fields may also include some bedding material such as sawdust, straw, or sand – all organic materials that increase the health of the soil.
So why do farmers have to apply manure in the springtime? Well, it’s because some farmers choose to store their manure all winter long when conditions are not always optimal for applying manure onto the fields. Most fields in Upstate New York are snow-covered or frozen during the winter, and as they thaw in spring, there is a chance that nutrients could runoff the surface of the land, rather than slowly soak into the soils like farmers would prefer. Waiting until spring allows farmers to utilize the manure in their fields, ensuring nutrients stay in the soil to provide an optimal planting and growing season.
You see, many farms have a plan. A plan for their cows; a plan for their crops; a plan for the manure and even a plan for every field on their farm. Farmers develop management plans which allow them to keep track of the nutrient levels in the soil of each field on their farm. This helps them keep track of how much manure should be applied in that field and how often can be applied.
If a farmer can’t apply the manure, where is it stored? Manure can be stored in a manure storage unit and on the large dairy farms in your area, also known as a CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operation), those storage units are designed and developed by professional and certified engineers resulting in a structure that meets NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) standards.
Every farm is different, and every farmer has a choice to determine what works best for their family operation, and this even includes managing the manure that is produced on the farm. Some farmers choose to spread their manure daily while others choose to have multiple months’ worth of manure storage. Other farms even choose to have multiple storage units, some not even on their home farms. Some farms are even choosing to inject the manure directly into the soil instead of applying it on the surface.
By directly injecting the manure into the soil, the chance for runoff is reduced and it can decrease the smell during those warm spring days. Farms that choose to use off-site storage, transport the manure from the home farm through a series of underground hoses to the storage unit. This process decreases the number of trucks and tractors on the road while also reducing odors. Farmers work hard to apply nutrients to the land when the time and weather are optimal, all while being closely regulated and monitored.
To learn more about manure injection management, check out this link: Cornell University Cooperative Extension - Agronomy Fact Sheet
So, the next time you smell that fresh country air on a warm spring day, remember that everything that is being done on the farm is for a reason and a farm family is working hard to ensure their fields have the nutrients needed to produce a healthy crop to feed their cows which produce milk for your table. These farm families live in the same communities as you and I, and they have their work cut out for them this time of year preparing the land for growing high-quality crops. At the end of the day, manure matters.