Nutrient recycling is fundamental to agricultural systems (Spiegal et al., 2020). Integration of animal and crop production represents an example of the application of a circular economy to manage nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and other nutrients (Figure 1) important to crop and livestock production. An integrated system recycles these critical nutrients from animal feed to manure to soils and back to animal feed. Nutrient additions to the farm, like animals, feed, and fertilizer (input arrow), are necessary to offset the nutrients leaving the farm in animal protein products (output arrow), as well as other nutrient losses in the system (Cela et al., 2014). The efficiency of this nutrient recycling process has both environmental and economic sustainability implications.
For many regions of the United States, such as the Corn Belt, animal agriculture remains in relatively close proximity to sufficient crop production to allow agronomic recycling of nitrogen and phosphorus (Gollehon et al., 2001, 2016). However, the sources of manure nutrients (livestock and poultry operations) and the consumers of nutrients (cropland) are often managed as independent businesses. In other regions, separation of feed and animal production by distance and business boundaries creates significant challenges for agronomic nutrient recycling (Spiegal et al., 2020).
The willingness of crop farmers to accept manure as part of their fertility program is dependent upon their perceptions of the benefits and challenges associated with using manure. Likewise, behaviors among farmers and agricultural advisors of information-seeking – “purposive acquisition of information from selected information carriers” (Johnson 1996) – must be considered as a precursor to content delivery. Thus, in early 2020, a faculty team from University of Nebraska, University of Minnesota, and Iowa State University collaborated to implement a survey of farmers and their advisors to guide multi-state outreach programming by identifying:
-Challenges that regularly prevent manure’s use in crop production and
-Perceptions of manure’s benefits that may encourage manure transfers from livestock farmers to crop producers.
What Did We Do
A draft survey was tested with three groups (a stakeholder advisory group, the national Livestock and Poultry Environmental Learning Community, and the Nebraska Animal Manure Management team) leading to the final product. The survey was delivered electronically through QualtricsXM survey application tool using a University of Nebraska-Lincoln licensed product. The survey included questions for the participants on the following subjects of interest:
1. Participant’s role in manure decision making.
2. Perceptions and knowledge of manure’s benefits. Participants were asked to rate the degree to which they considered manure to be harmful or beneficial for crop fertility, soil physical characteristics, soil biological characteristics, crop yields, and environmental quality.
3. Perceptions and knowledge of manure’s challenges. Participants were presented with a list of potential barriers which might prevent manure use in crop fertility programs and asked to identify which factors were barriers for their operations, or for their advisees.
4. The types of supporting resources which would be of most value for the participants’ decision making or advising on manure benefits and barriers.
Responses were received from 793 individuals across the U.S. and Canada. The results are heavily weighted towards participants from the Corn Belt and the High Plains regions of the U.S. (44% and 23% of respondents, respectively). Survey participants were 87% male and 13% female. Participants’ experience were reported as 29% with less than 10 years, 22% with 11 to 20 years, and 49% with 21 years or more. Participants self-identified as a crop farmer (13%), animal feeding operation (AFO) (7%), professional advisor for crop fertility or manure management decisions (60%), or some combination of these three roles (20%). Crop farmers indicated that they were an annual user of manure (73%), user of manure within the past 3 years (9%), or user of manure within past 4 to 6 years (9%). Only 10% were not users of manure. Those identifying as advisors suggested that manure management is a primary focus of crop fertility advising (20%), frequent part of crop fertility advising (39%), or an occasional part of a crop fertility advising (36%). Only 4% of advisor responses indicated they did not include manure in their advising.
A series of five questions were presented to identify real or perceived challenges among respondents that represent potential barriers to using manure in crop fertility programs. Lists of agronomic, economic, neighbor or rural community, regulatory, and logistical challenges were presented based on outcomes of the project team’s advisory group discussions and reviews of previous surveys (Battel and Krueger, 2005; Case et al., 2017; Herrero et al., 2018; Poe et al., 2001). Lastly, respondents were asked to identify the types of supporting resources preferred for information-seeking on manure use in cropping systems.
What Have We Learned
Perceptions and Knowledge of Manure Benefits. Both private sector advisors and crop farmers shared similar positive impressions of manure’s benefits for crop fertility, yield, and soil characteristics while being less positive regarding their impressions of how manure impacts environmental quality. Crop farmers and private sector advisors recognize the complementary role of manure and fertilizer in a fertility program at 74% and 76% frequency, and at slightly higher rates than all survey responses (71%). The complementary role of manure and fertilizer was also similar across regions (Corn Belt – 70%; High Plains-69%; all other regions – 74%).
The only audience factors that significantly (p<0.05) influenced participant attitudes toward manure benefits were that participants living in the corn belt were less likely to describe manure as beneficial or slightly beneficial for environmental quality (30%, compared to 46% for high plains, and 35% for all other regions). Similarly, we found that private sector advisors were significantly (p<0.05) less likely to describe manure as beneficial to environmental quality (27%, compared with 58%, 53%, and 30% for livestock producers, crop producers, or public sector advisors respectively). No statistical differences were observed for an influence of audience factors on attitudes towards manure benefits to any of the other characteristics of cropping system benefits (crop yield, soil physical properties, soil biological properties, and crop fertility). However, across all audience sectors participants were unlikely to indicate that they thought manure could be beneficial or slightly beneficial for environmental quality (Figure 2). This data suggests that respondents do not associate improved soil physical and biological characteristics with reduced risk for nutrient transport via runoff, erosion, and leaching. Manure and inorganic fertilizer were perceived as complementary to each other by 71% of respondents, while only 17% believed these two products compete.
Barriers to Manure Use. As with perceptions of benefits of manure use, audience factors had little effect on the perceived barriers to manure use. There was an observed tendency for more advisors to include most factors as barriers to manure use; however, this tendency was only significant (p<0.05) for six potential barriers: compaction, cost of manure transportation, odors, risks posed by manure application to food crops, accessibility of custom applicators, and use of public roads (Table 1). The overall ranking of barriers to manure use can be found in Table 2. Cost of transportation (68%), odor (58%), timeliness of nutrient availability (55%), concerns related to the field conditions for manure application (50%), and access to labor for manure application (48%) were most frequently indicated as barriers for manure use. Interestingly, several of these factors correspond to those where a difference in the level of concern was observed between advisors and producers (Table 1). However, when considering barrier ranking by agronomic role, 4 of the top 5 barriers are similar between farmers and advisors (cost of transportation, odor, timeliness, and labor availability). Farmers rate concerns with weed seeds as a top 5 barrier, while advisors do not, leaving concerns with field conditions for application as the 6th most selected by crop farmers. This similarity of ranking, even where statistical differences exist, indicates that there is agreement on what are the most significant barriers, but some difference in the perceived seriousness or scale of the barrier. In general, crop farmers less frequently indicated factors as barriers to manure use than did advisors.
Table 1: The frequency survey responses identified selected barriers for manure use. Letters indicated statistical differences in how participants with different roles in agronomic decisions perceived barriers of interest at the alpha = 0.05 level.
|Comparison by Role in Agronomic Decisions||Animal Feeding Operator (n=66)||Crop Farmer (n=120)||Private Sector Advisor (n=311)||Public Sector Advisors (n=196)|
|Compaction from application||36%a||41%a||59%b||40%a|
|Cost of manure application||55%a||67%ab||84%bc||85%c|
|Odors an air quality impairment||44%a||56%ab||75%bc||79%c|
|Manure application to food crop||15%ab||13%a||20%bc||22%c|
|Accessibility of custom applicators||20%a||19%ab||40%b||3%ab|
|Use of or crossing of public roads||15%a||11%a||21%b||13%a|
Table 2: The frequency all survey responses identified specific factors as barriers for manure use (n=793)
|Potential Barrier||% Who perceived as a barrier||Potential Barrier||% Who perceived as a barrier||Potential barrier||% Who perceived as a barrier|
|Transport||68%||Water Quality||35%||$ of Manure||25%|
|Odor||58%||Interference with Reduced Tillage||34%||Accessibility||25%|
|Timeliness||55%||Neighbor Concerns||34%||Legal Issues||25%|
|Field Conditions||50%||Equipment $||34%||Flies||20%|
|Labor||48%||Regulation $||32%||Interference with Specialty Crops||19%|
|Low or Inaccessible Nutrients||47%||Traffic||31%||Risks to Food Crop||15%|
|Low or Inaccessible Nutrients||47%||Traffic||31%||Risks to Food Crop||15%|
|Compaction||44%||Planning & Zoning||31%||Road Access||14%|
|Imbalanced Nutrients||44%||Harm to Local Infrastructure||28%||Foreign Materials||9%|
|Setbacks||37%||Presence of Applicators||27%||Harmful to Soil||3%|
Preferred Sources of Educational Materials. Among three broad groups of respondents (farmers, advisors, and educators), all identified their peers as an important source of information. Brief factsheets or news articles are identified by educators as their top resource they would use (81% of educator responses and 65% of advisor responses). Recommended research articles also ranked high among all three groups. At this point in time, social media (short videos, podcasts, and Twitter and Facebook) is a preferred resource for a smaller portion of these audiences (26% or farmers, 15% of advisors, and 47% by educators).
Table 3. Most valued resources for agronomic decision making
|Resource Type||Farmer (n=197)||Advisor (n=438)||Educator (n=95)|
|Recommended research articles||49%||53%||55%|
|Brief fact sheet or news articles summarizing current science||52%||65%||81%|
|Decision support tool||34%||39%||43%|
|Short videos or podcasts summarizing current science||20%||12%||36%|
|Scripted visuals and text for your use on Twitter, Facebook, other||6%||3%||11%|
|Network of farmers (or advisors or educators) with whom you interact and share experiences||62%||61%||62%|
|Scripted PowerPoint presentation for use in educational programs||—||—||38%|
The intent of this survey was to help our project team and others better understand the characteristics of animal manures that are considered beneficial and barriers to future manure use. Recognition of these benefits and hurdles will be critical as the need to transfer manure nutrients from existing animal feeding operations to crop farms, many with limited previous history of using manure, expands. Matching educational and technical services to the perceptions that impede manure transfer will be necessary.
Future outreach programming should be designed to:
- Continue to build general awareness of the agronomic and yield benefits of manure.
- Focus on assisting AFO managers and advisors with communication of specific messages such as 1) desirable rates/plans to best meet crop N and P needs, 2) field-by-field estimation of manure’s fertilizer replacement value and nutrients contributing the greatest value, and 3) complementary manure and fertilizer recommendations for optimum yields.
- Focus on connecting improved soil health with improved water quality.
- Help farmers articulate among themselves and to their rural communities the water quality benefits of organic fertilizers when applied to meet agronomic needs of the crop.
- Challenges associated with manure that frequently become barriers to manure use should be addressed through research and outreach. Specifically, the authors wish to suggest that four challenges are commonly regarded as significant barriers to manure use and require focus to overcome:
- Transportation Costs: Businesses providing manure hauling and land application services will be important when transferring manure to fields more distant from manure sources, and educational experiences addressing the current costs of transporting manure and the comparative economic benefit achieved by individual fields will be important.
- Odor: A farmers’ desire to be a good neighbor is counter to their willingness to create odors for their neighbors. Farmer and advisor education and planning for reducing odor risks is critical. Technology options to forecast, assess, and address potential nuisance odors may help alleviate odor concerns resulting from manure application.
- Logistical Barriers: Three logistical issues ranking highest include 1) timeliness of manure application; 2) time/labor availability; and 3) field conditions restricting manure application. Business services for transporting and land applying manure as well as manure brokering services can address many logistical challenges. Alternative application time windows, such as side dressing a crop with manure, will also be valuable.
- Agronomic Issues: Manure application comes with a history of agronomic concerns such as compaction, poor uniformity, and potential for weed seed and herbicide resistance concerns. Many issues are likely to be regionally and manure source specific, thus the need to adapt agronomic education to local needs. Education and business services that encourage technologies such as precision manure application and related technologies, designer manures, and manure treatment may have value based upon regional needs. A 4Rs strategy (right rate, source, time, and place) for manure, similar to what is being promoted in the fertilizer industry, may be beneficial.
Amy Millmier Schmidt, Associate Professor, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
-Mara Zelt, Schmidt Lab Project Director, University of Nebraska-Lincoln;
-Daniel Andersen, Associate Professor, Iowa State University;
-Erin Cortus, Associate Professor, University of Minnesota;
-Richard Koelsch, Emeritus Professor, University of Nebraska-Lincoln;
-Leslie Johnson, University of Nebraska-Lincoln;
-Siok A. Siek, Undergraduate Student, University of Nebraska-Lincoln; and
-Melissa Wilson, Assistant Professor, University of Minnesota
Funding for this project was provided by the North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. Key partners in survey deployment were the American Agronomy Society Certified Crop Advisor Program, the Fertilizer Institute and Manure Manager magazine.
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