Inconsistent applications, odor About three-fourths of U.S. counties have farms that must dispose of recoverable manure nitrogen in excess of their on-farm and pastureland requirements.

While the majority of these, chiefly poultry and livestock confinement operations, are located in Sunbelt states, utilization of manure as a supplement in crop nutrient programs has been less than optimum for a number of reasons, including inconsistent application, surface water pollution and odor problems.

The USDA's Economic Research Service notes that manure production has been increasing yearly, significantly more than has been used in farming and other fertilization programs.

New technology But, new applicator technologies can allow farmers to make more effective use of the fertilizer nutrients in manure and other biosolids, such as treated sewage, says Alan C. Koehler, worldwide marketing manager for Soilteq, Minnetonka, Minn.

"Whether the source is animal, human, or industrial, these products contain essential crop nutrients and can be valuable in the production of food," he said at the recent World Fertilizer Conference in San Francisco, sponsored by The Fertilizer Institute.

"In the context of a sustainable environment, we have an obligation to use first that which we generate as a by-product of living. The ever-increasing supply of manure is consistently produced, is readily available, and represents an opportunity for organizations that can put it to effective use. Our company has a slogan: Manure happens - use it."

Koehler says new technologies developed by Ag-Chem and Soilteq can offer dealers, custom applicators, and others the means of helping farmers to efficiently utilize manure and other biosolids in crop production.

"The commercial fertilizer industry is at a crossroads, and the time has come to decide if manure is a friend or enemy to your business. We contend you can put manure to work for you - and use it to establish a long-term leadership position for your organization."

Commercial fertilizer and manure "are in competition" to provide the nutrients needed by agricultural crops, Koehler says. The two "can co-exist in a nutrient management program that utilizes their complementary strengths and advantages."

In many cases, he notes, the manure supply may be free, or sometimes the animal producers may be willing or required to pay for removal. "Manure management can be a value-added service which can command fees from the grower for the product as well as for the professional application services. In short, it has potential to be a no-cost, or even income-positive product what can generate sales and service revenues from delivery and application."

Additionally, Koehler says, dealers can realize revenue from soil/lagoon/pit testing, spring nitrate testing, and nutrient management planning that incorporates as-applied data from both manure and commercial fertilizers into an overall fertility program that is agronomically sound, environmentally friendly, and cost effective.

"Growers may also need agronomic and planning expertise to select and document the appropriate application rates to comply with environmental regulations. It stands to reason that the fertilizer industry, with its existing infrastructure and relationship with the grower at the local level, is in the best position to be the service provider of choice."

In fact, Koehler says, manure has the potential to generate higher margins than other nutrient products. "The production infrastructure is in place - financed by others, for a change - and it generates a consistent supply of nutrients. The demand for these nutrients is stable and measurable; thus, manure can add more stability to the fertilizer industry than is currently realized from the production and sale of commercial fertilizers."

Still needed Because a load of manure is unlikely to provide all the nutrients to achieve the yield goal of a particular field, supplemental commercial fertilizer will still be needed, he says, and the dynamics of manure "can create demand for certain inputs and associated services.

"For example, poultry manure is high in zinc, which can tie up phosphorous. This can lead to an increased need for agronomic expertise to determine the appropriate applications of commercial phosphorous products to match soil and cropping conditions in poultry-producing regions.

"Some states have already established phosphorous thresholds, based on soil test levels, and more are moving in that direction. While a phosphorous-based nutrient management program will decrease the need for commercial phosphorous products, it will likely increase the amount of commercial nitrogen needed on acres to which manure is applied."

By using nutrient-balancing tools in spatial data management, software products like Soilteq's SGIS, in conjunction with an innovative on-board controller, the local agronomist can work with a grower to insure that the proper amounts of fertilizer have been applied to a field to meet the farmis business objectives and to accomplish environmental stewardship goals.

"Put simply, when one entity performs every nutrient application, it is easier to make the correct recommendations and insure compliance. Multiple product sales, multiple application activities, data management services, agronomic advice - all good for the grower, good for the retail service provider, and good for the environment. It's a win-win situation," Koehler says.