Managing Livestock Waste in the Winter

Where has the summer gone? The calendar and the cool mornings are reminders that fall will soon be here. Fall is a great time of the year for many reasons. It is a time to plan for what comes next: winter. If your farming operation includes livestock, developing a low risk winter manure management plan should be a priority.

Over the past several years, manure application has come under some scrutiny, particularly when applied during the winter on frozen or snow covered ground. Producers should take additional precautions when applying manure under less than ideal field conditions and this is especially true during the winter.

Protecting water quality should be a primary objective when applying nutrients. As winter is approaching, the time is now to take action to avoid the need to apply manure during the winter time. In Ohio sudden changes in weather are typical especially late fall/ early winter and late winter/early spring. Sudden weather changes can increase the potential of manure to move off-sight and this may lead to manure runoff from farm fields and polluting nearby creeks, streams and waterways. This impacts the environment, the public’s image of production agriculture and reduces available nutrients for the next crop. Ultimately, any manure entering streams and watercourses is a violation of the state’s agricultural pollution abatement laws.

Best Management Practices identified by the USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Practice Standard 633, Waste Utilization can help avoid these situations. By following the guidelines in this Practice Standard, manure nutrients can be efficiently recycled and the risk of pollution significantly reduced. However, producers should keep in mind that manure applied in the winter has a higher risk of moving off-sight than will manure that has been incorporated under ideal conditions. Application of manure to frozen or snow covered ground is not recommended and should be done only when deemed necessary due to extreme situations.

Such situations typically arise from a lack of storage capacity or inflexibility in spreading schedules due to limited storage. A rule of thumb for those with manure storage to adopt and follow is: check your manure storage structures before fall harvest. If there is not enough capacity remaining to hold manure for the next six months, then hauling manure should be a priority.

For operations that have a frequent hauling schedule (daily to monthly) or less than six months of storage, manure must be applied or stockpiled during the winter months. Planning now for these winter events is critical. Identify those fields with the lowest risk of manure moving off-site and plant a cover crop early enough to achieve at least 90% cover by the end of the growing season. Contact your local OSU Extension or SWCD office for assistance.

If manure application is necessary on frozen or snow-covered soils, only enough manure should be applied to address storage limitations until non-frozen soils become available and only when ALL of the following criteria are met:

  • Application rates are limited to 10 wet tons/acre for solid manure more than 50% moisture and 5 wet tons for manure less than 50% moisture. For liquid manure the application rate is limited to 5,000 gallons/acre.
  • Applications are to be made on land with at least 90% surface residue cover (e.g. good quality hay or pasture field, all corn grain residues remaining after harvest, all wheat residue cover remaining after harvest, well established cover crop).
  • Manure shall not be applied on more than 20 contiguous acres. Each 20 acre block should be separated by a break of at least 200 feet.
  • Utilize fields which are furthest from streams, ditches, waterways, surface inlets, etc. and are least likely to have manure move in a concentrated flow toward and into our water resources.
  • Increase the application setback distance to a minimum of 200 feet from environmentally sensitive areas and areas of concentrated flow such as grassed waterways, surface drainage ditches, streams, surface inlets and water bodies. This distance may need to be greater when local conditions warrant (e.g. — fields with more slope).
  • Manure applied on frozen or snow covered ground should not exceed the nitrogen need of the next growing crop, or the crop removal rate for P2O5 for the next crop (not to exceed 250 lb/ac), or the crop K20 needs (not to exceed 500 lb/ac) or 10 wet tons < 50% moisture; 5 wet tons > 50% moisture; or 5,000 gallons of liquid manure per acre. Application rates are based upon the most limiting of these options.

For fields with slopes greater than 6% manure should be applied in alternating strips 60 to 200 feet wide generally on the contour, or in the case of contour strips on alternating strips at rates identified above. Application rates, cover and set-back requirements also apply.

There are additional measures farmers can take to minimize the need for winter application of manure. For some, increasing storage capacity may help, and cost-share assistance may be available through the local USDA-NRCS or SWCD offices. Technical assistance is also available to help implement the Best Management Practices for recycling manure nutrients.

Others may need to modify crop rotations to better manage manure application windows. A manure management plan with manure storage should not plan for routine winter application. Winter manure application should only be used because of extenuating circumstances, and only apply enough manure to address storage limitations until non-frozen soils are available.

For those without long-term storage, winter application and/or stockpiling manure may be necessary. However, prior planning to identify those fields to receive manure is necessary and adequate cover is achieved prior to winter.

Although some states have prohibited manure application on frozen or snow-covered ground, it’s still permitted under very careful management in Ohio. However; producers are at risk of losing this sometimes-necessary option if pollution problems resulting from wintertime application of manure continue.


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Joe Christner came to Holmes SWCD in 2001 with experience and knowledge drawn from 20-plus years of dairy farming. He grew up on a small farm near New Bedford, Ohio. His background interest and involvement in agriculture from the time he was a young man give him an empathy and understanding of the needs and concerns of today’s farmers. Joe can assist you with conservation plans for your farming operation, including nutrient management planning and record keeping.  He will provide information on cover crops in your rotation which will improve soil health and reduce erosion. Water quality, soil health, and conserving the resources needed for the next generation and beyond is very important to Joe.  He and his wife, Nina, have two daughters and five grandsons.  He is involved in many areas of service at New Pointe Community Church.Contact Joe at 330-674-2811 or jchristner@co.holmes.oh.us