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  • Writer's picturePrecision Ag Reviews

Precision Profile: Spreading the Value of Accurate, Economic Dry Manure Application

Name: Jim & Mitchell Palmer Location: Elm Creek, Neb. Size: 2,000 acres Crops Grown: Corn, Soybeans, Wheat, and Sunflowers Valuable Tech Tools: Topcon Athene SL2; John Deere 2630; Precision Planting 20/20

Precision Pain Point: Measuring the economic value of dry manure application to manage nutrient management costs

Spreading the Value of Accurate, Economic Dry Manure Application

It’s often said that farmers can’t manage what they don’t measure. Given rising input costs, the ability to apply for concrete numbers rather than casual conclusions is critical to economic, efficient nutrient management.

But dry manure, while an affordable organic alternative to commercial fertilizer, is notoriously challenging to manage, let alone measure. “It’s such a variable product, even load-to-load,” says Jim Palmer, who farms 2,000 acres of primarily irrigated corn and no-till soybeans with his son, Mitchell, in Elm Creek, Neb.

For years, the Palmers invested as much as $140 per acre to have 3,000 tons of dry manure custom spread across 200-300 acres with little or no record of load weight or application rate. “There could be as much as a 5-10-ton variance between what we wanted applied and what actually went into the field,” Jim says. “If we were 10 tons long, we know we didn’t get enough applied where we wanted it, let alone the pass-to-pass consistency.”

While grid samples taken every four years provided a snapshot of the biological benefits of dry manure, the Palmers needed more reliable data to justify the annual expense.

The realization led to an investment in advanced application technology that has reduced spreading costs by almost 50% to $70-$80 per acre and created more financial flexibility in their overall nutrient management strategy.

Quantifying Consistency

In 2019, the Palmers purchased their own spreader, a 950 Tubeline, and added Topcon’s Athene SL2 system, which combines dry rate control with load cells that provide real-time product weight readings and on-the-go calibrations as-applied maps. They run the system through a John Deere 2630 display in one of their three Deere 8R series tractors that pulls the spreader.

One of the first benefits Jim noticed was far more accurate readings of the floor chain percentage changes throughout each manure load to manage application rate based on moisture content and spreader speed. They typically spread about 25 tons per acre at 6-7 miles per hour and can correlate application rates with the density of the manure for more consistent coverage.

“We can go from 45,000 pounds to 60,000 pounds in the same pile, based on moisture. If we load up the spreader and it registers 45,000 pounds on the scale, but it’s lighter manure, we’ll lower our rate because we’re applying dryer material,” Jim says. “But when it’s closer to 60,000 pounds, we’ll up our rate because it’s carrying more moisture and a heavier load. Adjusting our flat-rate application based on weight allows us to spread manure more efficiently throughout the field.”

When the Palmers had manure custom spread, an inconsistent application was particularly evident at the edge of a field if the implement turned but didn’t adjust floor chain speed. The result was a thick mat of manure that was virtually impossible to plant into.

“It was sometimes 6 inches thick, and it took a lot of work to get corn or soybean seeds into the ground and for those plants to emerge,” recalls Mitchell. “Now we’re much more consistent and don’t see spots where we can tell the chain sped up. That’s a huge benefit because the only thing that would grow out of those thick spots were weeds.”

Spreading Savings

The Palmers have been variable-rate applying commercial fertilizer for more than a decade, utilizing Precision Planting’s 20/20 monitor to execute prescriptions on their mounted Deere 12-row planters.

While they rotate manure applications, covering 500-acre sections of the farm every four years, in 2021, they variable-rate spread manure on 200 of those acres, going from 10 tons per acre to as much as 40 in the same field, based on recent grid sample data.

With soil types ranging from sand to heavy ground, some areas recorded barely double-digit parts–per-million phosphorus while others were close to 100. So while the Palmers wondered if they’d sacrifice nitrogen credit by not applying a flat rate of manure across the entire field, they didn’t see a negative impact on yield.

The Palmers estimate they are annually saving at least $100 per acre in dry fertilizer costs and, over the course of four years, will save $300-$400 per acre in commercial fertilizer expenses alone to maintain the same nutrient levels in fields they spread manure.

“The price of fertilizer is always going to go up,” Mitchell says. “But when we look at soil test results that show a field is low in phosphorus, it’s a relief knowing we’ll be able to elevate those levels with a targeted manure application. We don’t have to worry about a huge commercial fertilizer bill for the next three years to get those nutrient levels where we want them to be.”

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