While many of Gary Cross' neighbors exited livestock production in favor of grain farming only, he remained diversified. Cross, Hartsburg, IL, owns confinement hog facilities to finish 33,000 head/year and until this past April, fed 4,000 head of cattle annually.

He's made heavy use of his facilities' output in his 5,000+-acre grain-farming enterprise.

“I'm kind of the manure king around Logan County,” jokes Cross. “Folks like to tease me a bit about spreading a lot of manure.”

Tease no more.

As petroleum-based fertilizer costs have skyrocketed, manure has become a hot commodity. “Back when potash and phosphate were relatively inexpensive, I never got calls about using manure, but now I do all the time,” says Cross, who had a good vantage point to evaluate soil fertility options as a fertilizer retailer back in the 1980s.

“Everything (parcel) a quarter-mile or less away from livestock buildings was really high (in nutrient content),” he says. “It's a tremendous way to feed next year's corn crop.”

Using manure as fertilizer is not rocket science but there are a few management issues that can't be overlooked, says Cross, including careful sampling and nutrient analysis, safe hauling and application techniques that avoid compaction.

AGITATE AND ANALYZE

Cross typically agitates his 8-ft.-deep manure pits in early October when weather is warm enough that open facility curtains ensure good ventilation. Once the liquid manure is stirred well, 4-5 pit samples are pulled from different pit openings.

Cross says he's surprised that nutrient sample results vary as much as 30% among barns and even within a single pit. “It almost always boils down to how much water loss (into the pit) there is,” he says. Seasonal changes in water use, waterer type and events such as water line breaks can dilute or concentrate nutrients, he adds.

APPLICATION RATES, METHODS

Cross applies manure only to corn acres in order to get maximum benefit from the usual high nitrogen (N) content in the manure.

“I target 1.2 lbs. N/bu. of corn produced and normally apply about 200 lbs. N/acre in the form of manure and then another 50 lbs. in liquid N with chemicals,” says Cross, who won first place in the National Corn Growers Association corn yield contest in 1993 and finished second in 1990, 1991 and 1994.

Cross used to grow corn and soybeans on a two-year rotation until a few years ago when higher corn prices enticed him to raise more corn. The 50-50 split made it simple to inject liquid manure onto his bean stubble as fertilizer for the next year's corn crop. Then he would wait a year to apply manure, using the carryover potash and phosphorus for the bean crop.

Raising his corn acre percentage and going to a corn-corn-soybeans rotation has complicated application a bit. “The equipment I have is not conducive to injecting manure on standing corn stalks,” he says. “I don't have a rolling cutter ahead of the knives so it was nice to always have enough ground with bean stubble instead of corn stalks.”

One option he's tried to get manure onto the previous year's corn ground is to chisel plow the stalks first and then come through with his honeywagon to inject the manure. “But you make fairly severe ruts, so in the spring I have to disk to level it off before I can spray or plant.”

Getting rid of the disk step would save time and fuel. “Ideally I'd rather inject it in the fall between the rows right after the combine and then chisel or moldboard plow in the spring before planting to corn,” he says.

On ground with less than 1% slope, Cross will wait until weather turns cold and apply liquid manure right on top of the ground. “There's no erosion there so legally I can put it on frozen ground.” Then he plows in the spring before planting.

TRANSPORTING LIQUID MANURE

Cross has established an interesting system for transferring the liquid manure from the various manure pits to fields 8-9 miles away. Several years ago he bought a semi tanker used for over-the-road transport. To reload manure from the semi to his injection wagon in the field, Cross uses a portable 20-ft., square, plastic tank used in firefighting and for containing other liquids like hazardous waste. The tank is moved from field to field as needed. The manure is unloaded from the semi tanker into the portable tank via gravity flow. Cross then pumps the manure into the wagon.

Cross says he's fortunate to have access to a high volume of manure to nurture his corn crop. “Like anyone else who uses manure, I've realized that if you agitate and analyze it and put it on properly, it can be an economic benefit as fertilizer,” he says.

BUYING TIPS

Other farmers often call Hartsburg, IL, grower Gary Cross for advice on whether or not to buy an available pit load of liquid manure. He's been using liquid manure in his grain farming operation for nearly 20 years.

“The easiest and fairest way (to evaluate the economics) is to get an agitation system and analysis and compare what it costs to buy a comparable commercial fertilizer. It is very simple,” he says. “If you can buy it for $.01/gal. and you put 5,000 gal./acre, that's spending $50/acre. You have to ask, ‘how does that equate if you spent $50 toward dry fertilizer?’”

Tom Deters, marketing manager for FS Total Livestock Services, Effingham, IL, says delivery timing is an important issue to work out between manure sellers and buyers because each face time constraints.

Sellers must empty pits at the appropriate time in order to maintain pig flow, and buyers must work within Mother Nature's timetable. “Farmers have a short window from harvest until the time when the ground is too wet and they have to worry about compaction,” says Deters.

Deters recommends that sales agreements dictate the delivery or application date. Sellers may want to include a drop-dead date when their pit must be emptied.

By the same token, the buyer may want to include a not-before date to allow time for harvest.

Deter's company often acts as a facilitator between crop growers and livestock producers in manure transactions. “Sometimes it is easier for us to monitor what's happening on both sides and step in and say, ‘It is time to apply this field,’” he says.