By Nancy Allen
Several state agencies are trying to educate local farmers about federal guidelines on spreading manure in the winter due to a rash of complaints about farmers spreading on frozen or snow-covered ground.
Wintertime manure application is legal in Ohio, but could be banned if problems continue, a state official says. The practice already has been outlawed in a few states due to manure runoff on frozen ground causing water quality issues.
The USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service has set Practice Standard 633 that details how wintertime manure application should be spread to prevent water pollution. The standard includes limits on how much manure can be applied to frozen ground, spreading away from waterways and creating breaks between where manure is spread on a field.
According to an Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official, farmers in the local watershed either aren't following the guidelines or until the matter came to a head recently, were not even aware of them.
Between Dec. 6 and 23, Rick Wilson of the Ohio EPA said he received more than 50 calls alleging guidelines were not being followed in the Grand Lake Watershed in Auglaize and Mercer counties. Wilson, who specializes in investigating agriculture pollution incidents, said he did not investigate any of those calls individually, because the callers did not indicate any pollution had occurred, only that guidelines were not being followed. There are no consequences if the guidelines are not followed, only if not following the rules leads to water pollution.
Wilson did sample water in tributaries on the south side of Grand Lake on Dec. 27. Though he has not compiled all the results, he said it was clear the samples were nutrient-laden due to manure runoff.
"I think we need to demonstrate whether or not the provisions in the standard are being followed," Wilson said. "In order to do that, we need to monitor runoff in areas where the practice occurs."
A meeting on the issue held in Chickasaw last month attracted more than 140 farmers, some of them pulling in with their manure spreaders in protest. The meeting was sponsored by Mercer and Auglaize soil and water conservation district offices.
Some farmers charged they are unfairly being targeted by overzealous Lake Improvement Association members who were reporting anybody spreading manure. The LIA in recent years has directed its efforts to improving water quality in Grand Lake.
Nearly all the calls to the Ohio EPA came from LIA members and most of the calls were about manure spreading in Mercer County, Wilson said. Most of the watershed is located in Mercer County.
David Hanselmann, chief of the state's Division of Soil and Water Conservation, said state officials are currently working with Mercer and Auglaize county SWCDs to ensure they are addressing winter manure spreading guidelines with farmers.
The local SWCD officials say they are getting the word out, speaking at farm organization events, last month's producer meeting, adding information to their newsletters and placing copies of the newsletter at local elevators, cooperatives and contract feeding companies.
"We've been trying to hammer it," Mercer SWCD Administrator Nikki Hawk said. "We don't want to see it outlawed, because it might be too much of a financial burden to producers, so we want to see the standard followed."
Auglaize SWCD Chairman John Schwarck said their office too has been talking to farmers about the issue.
"In my opinion this is going to be a serious problem ... and this is because our livestock people are getting bigger and bigger," Schwarck said. "It's a problem for the farmer and a problem for the public."
John Rausch, program director for animal manure management at the OSU Extension in Columbus, said it is important for farmers to follow the guidelines for wintertime manure application because continued pollution violations could result in the U.S. EPA banning the practice in Ohio.
The reason farmers usually spread manure in the winter is because they lack the storage capacity to get them through the winter, he said. In the fall after harvest, there is a limited window when manure can be incorporated and assimilated into the soil through natural breakdown when temperatures are milder.
"It's not worth it to take those kinds of risks, especially when the outcome has the potential of impacting all animal agriculture by a ban," he said.
Rausch said for many producers it would be economically challenging for them to find ways to store manure through the winter if wintertime manure application was banned.
"The cost of manure storage facilities is significant, even though there are some cost share dollars to support it," Rausch said. "Cash flowing a capital expenditure of that nature would be difficult if they don't have good profit margins to begin with."