Emphasis on Manure Plans Spreads Beyond Chesapeake

3/1/2014 7:00 AM
By Laura Zoeller Southwestern Pa. Correspondent

MEADOWLANDS, Pa. — Manure management is an evolving issue with wide-reaching implications for farmers and conservationists alike.

Teaching farmers best management practices is just one step in what promises to be a continuing debate in coming years.

The Washington County Conservation District recently provided a manure management conference for southwestern Pennsylvania farmers in the hope of forming a working partnership with them while helping them stay abreast of the changes and ahead of the regulations.

“Any farm using or producing manure must have a manure management plan,” said Stephen Gilkinson, an agricultural technician with the conservation office.

“These plans do not need submitted for approval, but must be kept on the farm, with up-to-date record keeping,” he said.

Gilkinson said the state is trying to keep the application of the law uniform across the state and consistent with what is coming out of the Chesapeake Bay watershed farther east.

“We’re trying to prepare farmers for what may be coming across the state in regards to regulations,” he said. “Already out east, there are requirements for inspecting farms for manure management compliance.”

Using their farm maps, participants created their management plans during the conference. The farm maps showed environmentally sensitive areas, or ESAs, such as streams, lakes, ditches and swales, along with potential problem areas like manure storage facilities and animal concentration areas, or ACAs.

Best management practices suggest that manure storage and ACAs should be kept away from ESAs.

Farmers first had to determine whether they classified as a concentrated animal operation, or CAO, based on whether the amount of land they own and rent was enough to provide adequate inputs and outputs for their animal density.

Those figures were based, in part, on the number and types of animals, the weight of each animal, how much property was able to receive manure, and how long each animal resided on the property throughout the year.

Any farm classified as a CAO is required to have an Act 38 manure management plan written by a specialist.

Tom Ulrich, agricultural and erosion and sedimentation technician with the conservation office, discussed the importance of soil tests and the distances that mechanical spreaders must stay from ESAs.

“If you don’t know the amount of phosphorus in your soil,” Ulrich said, “you are not permitted to spread manure within 100 feet of an ESA. If current soil samples indicate less than 200 ppm, you are permitted to spread within 50 feet.

“If your phosphorus levels are good and you have a permanent vegetative buffer along the stream you can go to 35 feet from the stream,” he said. “The amount of manure a farmer can spread on cropland and pastures also varies based on soil testing.”

Excessive amounts of nutrients in concentrated areas can cause leaching into waterways and ground water sources. For that reason, there are rules that govern manure storage as well.

Without a soil test, a farmer can apply only as much phosphorus as the crop that is planted there will absorb in one year.

“Field stacking of dry manure is permitted with some restrictions,” Gilkinson said. “The pile cannot be placed in the same location two years in a row, for example.

“It also should be placed at the top of a hill in an area with less than 8 percent slope and away from ESAs,” he said. “It should be able to be stacked 4 feet high and should contain no more than can be spread on nearby fields.

“Should it remain in the fields for more than 120 days, it must be covered,” Gilkinson said. “A field stack, ideally, should be on an improved pad made of concrete, or gravel and geo-textile fabric.”

Ullrich added information on pasture management to the discourse.

He said that by keeping dense vegetation, minimizing bare spots and keeping grass height at or above 3 inches during the growing season, farmers could help avoid nitrogen and phosphorus loss. An inability to maintain vegetation may result in the designation of the area as an ACA.

“Utilizing rotational paddocks cuts down on the amount of ground labeled as an ACA,” Ulrich said.

“Phosphorus is really affected by erosion,” Gilkinson said. “That’s one reason why erosion and sedimentation are such big concerns.

“When pasture gets low, consider creating a sacrifice area to minimize bare spots throughout the farm,” he said. “The fewer bare places a farm has, the less likely it is that runoff carrying manure and excessive nutrients will discharge into streams, lakes, etc.”

Ullrich added that mechanical spreading is discouraged during the winter months.

“Manure that is spread on snow or frozen ground is at high risk for wash-off in a mad snowmelt situation,” Ulrich said. “Therefore, ground must contain 25 percent crop residue and have a slope of less than 15 percent to be considered for winter spreading. All setbacks revert to 100 feet or more, regardless of buffers, as well.”

Gilkinson suggested simple management changes such as feeding away from streams to minimize congregation, as well as narrowing walkways in travel areas to minimize exposed earth.

He also suggested diverting upslope water from an ACA, installing diversion ditches, and examining, adding or replacing roof gutters and downspouts.

“Planting vegetative strips to use as filters, limiting animal access to surface water, minimizing the size of denuded areas and keeping the congregation areas as far away from water bodies as practical can also be extremely beneficial methods,” Gilkinson said.

“It is important to remember that the conservation office does not believe that farmers are necessarily doing bad things,” Gilkinson said. “We just want farmers to recognize what could be environmental issues and prevent them where they can.

“Our office is happy to assist any farmer who wants it with these and other conservation issues,” he said. “We can be reached at 724-206-9446.”

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