Manure Application Regulations Cumbersome

The regulation of manure application in the Northeast is highly variable. In Vermont, producers are prohibited from field application during the winter months, setbacks are mandated, and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets (VAAFM) is currently reviewing rules that could potentially restrict application even further.

Ryan Patch, VAAFM senior agriculture development coordinator, said the agency has a number of rules on the books for managing storage and application of manure on the landscape. The first, the winter spreading ban, “prohibits the application of manure on farm fields from Dec. 15 to April 1,” Patch said. “There are exemptions for emergency situations, such as a failure of a manure pit.” The rules were codified in 1995 by the Legislature as Accepted Agricultural Practices (AAPs). Under a new law signed by the governor last June (Act 64), lawmakers have renamed them Required Agricultural Practices (RAPs), and have directed VAAFM to rewrite them “to reflect some additional requirements to meet new performance measures as it relates to water quality in farming,” he said.

Under the draft rules, all storage facilities built or changed since 2006 have to meet USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) standards. Field stacking of manure would be banned in areas subject to flooding and would be subject to a 200-foot setback from surface waters and water supplies meant for human consumption and 100 feet from ditches and other conveyances to surface waters. The AAPs, in contrast, only required a 25-foot setback and a vegetative buffer for medium and large farms.

In addition to the winter application ban, the draft would restrict manure applications in other ways. Applications would be prohibited on fields of 10 percent slope unless there are permanent vegetative buffers protecting surface water; they would also be prohibited on fields high in phosphorus, water saturated, or frozen or ice covered. Producers would have to keep application records.

The RAPs have to be finalized by July 1. Patch said there are many winter manure storage strategies that are still an option under the draft RAPs, such as stacking at appropriate locations or maintaining a storage facility like an earthen ground structure. “We have a lot of flexibility for farms to meet these standards,” he said. “We recognize that a 400-cow dairy and a 20-cow dairy have different needs in managing their herd.”

There are fewer 20-cow dairies in Vermont than there were before the 1995 rules took effect. But there are fewer dairies of other sizes, too. Between the 1992 and 2012 Censuses of Agriculture, the number of dairy herds in Vermont slipped from 3,185 to 1,075. The 66 percent decline is steeper than the national dairy farm reduction of 59 percent in that time. In 1992, over 53 percent of Vermont’s herds had 50 cows or fewer; that’s down to 41 percent in the 2012 Census.

“I think it’s important to know that there certainly have been changes in farm size and farm structure,” Patch said. “As farms expand or new farms start, there have been new standards put in place with regards to how structures are constructed, so certain structures when they were installed in the ’80s may have met standards then, but some of them have reached the end of their operational lifetime and need to be upgraded or expanded in size.”

But some of the draft proposals have Darlene Reynolds worried. Reynolds, who with her husband, Newton, milks around 650 cows in the town of Alburgh, is chair of the Farmers Watershed Alliance (FWA). Founded in 2006, the alliance is a voluntary board that helps farmers address water quality issues. Reynolds said FWA has been working with them on nutrient management plans and figuring out which critical areas on their farms require special protection, like cover crops or permanent vegetation.

Farmers are also finding innovative ways to use the excess on the farm. Some are double-cropping, increasing crop production and nutrient uptake. Others are building more storage.

Tensions surrounding issues

“It has been a little bit of tension between farmers and the Department of Ag, especially for the small producers,” Reynolds said. “We’ve found many different issues that have happened; some of them, farmers didn’t even understand that they were issues…They’ve gone from not really doing a whole lot of looking around to, in our area, doing surveys.”

This past year, FWA has also tried to influence VAAFM’s proposed regulations under Act 64. Reynolds said the 10 percent slope proposal is “a pretty tall order because we live in a mountain state, and that actually is going to take a lot of land out of production.”

Can they write the rules to both clean up the water and let farmers operate normally? “That’s a tough question. I’m hoping that farmers and the agencies helping to regulate us can work together. Am I worried? Yes, because you have to still farm; you still have to make a living at it, and it still has to be sustainable. I do worry a lot that the rules might make the economics almost impossible to continue farming.” The Reynolds are planning a new manure pit next spring; it will help them get into compliance with the requirements but will cost a lot of money, although they’ll get some help from state and federal programs.

She said, “I’ve sat in a room with scientists, people that are studying our lakes for years, and asked if we literally put a wall around the lake and never allowed any phosphorus to enter it, how long would it take to clean the lake? The answer that I got in that room was between 100 to 125 years…We understand that we all do our part to keep phosphorus off the land, but when you’re told that at the same time the public has a perception of you, it’s tough.”

Looser rules in the Keystone State

In Pennsylvania, the regulatory pressure isn’t nearly as stringent. “I think everybody’s kind of on the same page,” said Dr. Douglas Beegle, professor of agronomy at Penn State University. “I think the regulators, at least at the state and local level, have been fairly reasonable; they’ve made an effort here to keep it as local as we can. For example, our plans are reviewed at the local, county level; they’re not sent to Harrisburg or Washington.”

Every farmer in Pennsylvania that uses manure has to have a manure management plan that lays out what crops they grow and what the acceptable application rates, timing and methods are. Most farmers can write their own plans and for them the regulatory body is the local soil conservation district (SCD), which does not approve the plan but can conduct spot checks.

The plans for farms with high animal density – more than two Animal Equivalent Units (1 AEU=1,000 pounds live weight) per acre – have to be written by a certified planner. These are three-year plans that are reviewed and approved by the local SCD board. About ten percent to 15 percent of Pennsylvania farms fall under this category. The law was changed in recent years, and if manure is being exported, the plan has to indicate what the recipient is going to do with it. “In our original regulations, all a farmer basically had to say was, ‘I’m exporting my manure to Farmer X,’” Beegle said.

He said Pennsylvania, along with all other Northeastern states, adheres to a phosphorus index; it evaluates the potential for phosphorus loss and can restrict manure applications. The main criterion for the manure management plans, though, is nitrogen; applications are tied to how much N the planned crops need.

Beegle said the market varies for excess manure, and working against it is the tendency of large swine and poultry integrators to concentrate all of their contract growers in one area. “You have a lot of these farms with excess all in the same area, so that creates a problem for what you can do with your excess manure,” he said. “And we’ve had people get pretty innovative in this; there are at least two manure auctions that occur, where large poultry producers actually hold an auction, and farmers and brokers bid on their manure.” Manure brokers in Pennsylvania have to be certified.

Farmers are also finding innovative ways to use excess on the farm. Some are double-cropping, increasing crop production and nutrient uptake. Others are building more storage. “If they have year-round storage, or six months or three months, that’s all part of the overall planning process,” Beegle noted. “It’s a very comprehensive plan in that regard; it’s not just how much you can spread on this acre.”

Penn State, other universities, and USDA’s Agricultural Research Service have also been looking at practices like low-disturbance manure injection. Beegle said as farmers have moved away from tillage, more manure has stayed on the surface where it can volatilize or run off. Low-disturbance injection is more expensive and makes application slower, but several commercial manure haulers have bought the technology and offer it to their customers.

The researchers have also embraced the use of cover crops, which Beegle said may help resolve some of the Environmental Protection Agency’s concerns about Pennsylvania still allowing year-round applications. “We have a lot of small dairies in particular that can’t store their manure for a whole year,” he said. “One of the things we really stress is having cover crops, so if we’re spreading manure in the fall or even winter, we’re not spreading on bare ground. The cover crop can help reduce runoff in the winter, and a live crop, when it warms up, will be growing and take up nutrients.” All farms are required to have cover crops or residue if they apply in the late fall and winter. There are also setbacks and other limitations on when, where and how much manure can be spread in the winter.

The requirement that each farm have a manure management plan goes back to the early ’70s, but “really, until recently, it’s rarely been enforced,” Beegle said. That has changed with pressure from the federal EPA to meet the goals of the Total Maximum Daily Load requirements for Pennsylvania and other states in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. He said, “EPA wants some kind of documentation that farmers really do have (manure management plans); it’s not enough to say the law requires it. We’ve been doing a lot of education; we’re just trying to help farmers develop these plans, get into compliance.”

New York’s approach

New York also allows year-round manure applications. A 2011 proposal by NRCS to prohibit winter applications was rejected. It was opposed by New York Farm Bureau, whose deputy director-public policy Kelly Young said, “We still oppose a calendar ban on manure spreading, but our policy acknowledges that there are certain times in the winter and other times during the year when it’s not appropriate to spread, and all of our farmers aim to become more and more sophisticated on when are good and appropriate times to spread.”

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC) has just issued revised requirements for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, which are federally regulated and need National Pollution Discharge Elimination permits. As in most states, New York runs the program on behalf of the federal EPA. Young said the NYDEC is not proposing a winter spreading ban, nor is Cornell University, which “has guidelines for spreading in adverse conditions when things could be riskier…We’re supportive of that; we want these decisions to be science-based. Just because the calendar says it’s winter doesn’t mean that it’s a bad time to spread. If the ground can absorb those nutrients and we can avoid runoff, then it doesn’t entirely make sense to prevent that from happening.”

Young said nonpermitted applicators already face constraints. “It’s always illegal to pollute the waters of the state, so you always have to protect from doing that,” she said. Farm Bureau recommends dairy operators join the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets’ “Agricultural Environmental Management” program, which she said “helps work farmers through the thought process of making sure they’re considering all the aspects on their farm, and making sure they are taking care of their animals and taking care of their land in a way that is the most beneficial to the environment.”