CHESTERTOWN, Md. — Ed Fry said in his third year of using liquid manure injection on cropland in place of surface application, the practice is “certainly an upgrade.”
Fry talked with farmers and ag service providers at a field day last week on his family’s Fair Hill Farms, showcasing manure insertion.
He said that agronomically, the practice captures more of the nutrients for plant use; environmentally, the nutrients don’t leave the field in surface runoff and odor is greatly reduced.
The field day was part of a grant-funded effort of Sustainable Chesapeake, Shore Rivers, University of Maryland Extension and other partners.
Funding was through the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bay Trust Fund to encourage farmers to consider manure injection in their fertilizer programs.
The project also incentivized the purchase of injection equipment, according to Kristen Hughes Evans, Sustainable Chesapeake executive director.
Custom applicators and other partners chose what equipment to purchase, she said, and are paid on a per-acre basis to inject manure. To date, she said, partners have purchased four manure injection units to implement the project.
“We have found that farmers who are interested in trying manure injection often want to see how it works on one or two fields before they determine whether they want to use the practice on the whole farm,” Evans said. “The custom applicator’s willingness to bring both types of equipment to their clients helps to build their customer’s confidence in the practice, and is one of the reasons why so many farmers have been interested in participating in the project.”
Since the project began in October 2015, 47 farmers in Maryland have participated, hiring custom applicators to inject manure on more than 8,000 acres.
Maryland Department of Agriculture also offers cost-share grants to farmers who inject manure of up to $45 per acre.
Based in Oxford, Pa., custom manure spreader Tim McMichael utilized the program in purchasing first a dragline injector and then later a rig with a tank attached to get to fields not suitable for the dragline.
Spreading manure for 22 farmers on the Eastern Shore, McMichael has covered more than 4,500 acres — not including this crop year’s applications.
McMichael said to stay competitive, the injection equipment has to keep pace with surface application.
“I need to be able to move just as fast as I can top spreading,” McMichael said. “Our windows are tight. I need to move.”
Along with hitting that tight application window, there are several variables to take into account, McMichael said including soil type and material in the manure.
Unlike modern corn planters, sensors showing when an injector is plugged aren’t reality yet, making it tough to see a blockage.
But McMichael touted the benefits, especially odor reduction. Surface application is still the dominant method but with more development in rural areas, it might be tougher to do.
“It used to be, ‘That’s farming.’ Man, those days are over,” he said. “We have neighbors to work with.”
Utilizing more ammonia from the manure was the main reason Dr. Rory Maquire, a Virginia Tech University associate professor of crop and soil sciences, thought injection would be attractive to farmers when he began research on the method about 10 years ago.
In Maguire’s on-farm trials, he saw 95 percent ammonia utilization versus 25 percent with surface application.
“That’s what I thought would get farmers’ attention before they started talking to me about odor and drift. Once we got into it, reducing the odors became a bigger part of it,” Maguire said.
Maguire said in the early years of his research, farmers had a lot of apprehension about the practice.
They said it wouldn’t work in stony soil, would concentrate salt in the injection slit and cause rooting and seed germination issues and was too slow and expensive.
After several years of trials and improvements in equipment, Maguire said there is a “really dramatic odor reduction,” stony soils don’t pose a great problem, and it’s not significantly much slower than the surface application.
“It’s incredible how far the technology has come,” Maquire said.
Mark Yoder, precision ag specialist for Hoober Inc, told attendees metering devices, though expensive, are available for application equipment and improve the uniformity of application.
Variable rate application is also a possibility, Yoder said, and farmers can integrate guidance and field mapping systems into the application.
Maquire said he recommends still using starter fertilizer when planting corn as the nutrients in the manure aren’t as immediately available but injecting manure reduces or can even eliminate the need for a sidedress nitrogen application.
“If you can put out all your fertilizer before and don’t have to come back and do a sidedress, that’s a big savings,” Maguire said.
Fry said that’s key for his family’s operation which is now completely USDA Certified Organic. Sidedressing with a commercial fertilizer isn’t an option so they want to get as much as they can out of the manure. But even if the farm had remained conventional, Fry said they would still use manure injection.
Fry added that an ultimate goal is to be able to plant directly over top of the injection slits but he’s not quite there yet.