More than manure stinks here
By Trent Loos
In the past two weeks I have been fortunate to be a part of two different meetings on the subject of soil health. One of them was on the East Coast and the other was a celebration of manure in Nebraska at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s (UNL) Manure Demonstration Day. They both made me think that we need to do a much better job of singing the praises of that plant food excreted by the 9 billion animals we produce every year.
On the eastern shore of Maryland at the Maryland Commodity Classic, Dean Cowherd with the National Resources Conservation Service of Maryland made a statement that truly sticks with me: “There are more microbes in one teaspoon of healthy soil than there are people on the planet.”
Wow! I think that is a mouthful when you think about healthy living things and how we manage them. Far too often we allow people to fall prey to the notion that “sterile” is better, and nothing could be further than the truth.
Then I headed to Lexington, Nebraska, where the folks at UNL put on a tremendous display of the benefits of applying the greatest source of plant food on the planet: animal manure. In a radio conversation with Amy Schmidt and Charles Shapiro, the comment was made, “And where would plants be without animal manure?”
That is a true story. Let’s just take quick look at the plant food requirements of U.S. agriculture.
U.S. farmers spent $367.3 billion on agricultural production in 2013, an increase largely due to higher prices from 2012 of about 2 percent.
In 1980, farmers grew 6.64 billion bushels of corn using 3.2 pounds of nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) for each bushel produced. In 2010, they grew 12.45 billion bushels using 1.6 pounds of nutrients per bushel produced.
Once again, these numbers share the true sustainable spirit of the American farmer who is producing more with less. More food using fewer resources is good for the planet.
U.S. nitrogen and potash supplies largely depend on imports. More than 50 percent of nitrogen and 85 percent of our potash supply was from fertilizer imports into the U.S. in 2011, the latest full year of available production data.
In the calendar year 2012, the U.S. imported 10.74 million tons of nitrogen, 0.49 million tons of phosphate and 5.78 million tons of potash. Imports of nitrogen were largely unchanged from 2011 levels, while imports of phosphate and potash declined 22 percent and 20 percent, respectively.
For nitrogen, the United States both imports and exports, though it ends up a significant net importer. As the largest importer of nitrogen in the world, most of the nitrogen imported into the United States is in the form of anhydrous ammonia and urea.
Experts estimate that 40-60 percent of world food production is attributable to fertilizers. The 9 billion animals we raise produce lots of plant food. Obviously in some situations we need to be able to transport our manure cost effectively to the regions that grow plants but it is happening more and more every day.
To put this into perspective, a feedlot steer produces 14 pounds of nitrogen annually. Our corn fields require 150-300 pounds per acre of nitrogen annually. That means for every acre of corn we plant, we need 20 cattle on feed in a feedlot producing manure that can be recovered and used on fields. That means we need 1.8 billion cattle on feed just to supply the nitrogen needed for the 91 million acres of corn planted this year.
In closing, I am simply reminding you there is no waste on the farm because management strategies allow us to use all the resources available to produce more food with less imported inputs. While utilizing “organic” fertilizer is an age-old practice, the up and coming technologies for nutrient management are evolving and improving at a rapid pace and will only improve food production in the future.
Trent Loos is a sixth generation rancher that travels the country to promote the people in agriculture through his public speaking and radio programs. He writes columns for several publications and his work may be found at www.LoosTales.com.