Manure Spreading Costs

Peter Wright
Sr. Extension Associate, Cornell Cooperative Extension

Handling manure on a dairy farm can be a costly and difficult task. It can also be a source of return if manure is spread efficiently and it replaces purchased fertilizer. As economic and population pressures grow and as agricultural enterprises increase in size, agricultural management is challenged to provide both an economical and environmentally correct way to handle manure. Increasing non agricultural rural residents are less tolerant of both water and air pollution. Environmental agencies are looking closer at the potential discharges from farms. These factors cause many farmers to feel pressured to improve their manure handling systems. Yet economic forces continue to prevent them from justifying extra costs.

A survey of dairy farms in western New York revealed that the average farm in the survey area had a net cost of spreading manure of $77 per acre per year with a range of a net return of $37 to a net cost of $225 per acre spread per year. Costs were higher for farms with less than 400 cows and for farms that did not store manure. There is potential cost reduction in both better fertilizer management, use of more efficient equipment, and the use of alternative handling methods on smaller farms. Both the spreading cost as well as the resulting fertilizer savings are within the scope of management to control.

Information from the survey was used to assign both fixed ownership costs as well as variable costs that included repairs, labor, and fuel. Table 1 summarizes types of equipment, average time used, and estimated costs of manure spreading equipment. The average time used to spread manure was 2.94 hours per cow year. There was a wide range in the time per cow from 0.57 to 12.5 hours per cow per year. The longest time was from a farm that spread manure from a small herd over extensive acreage as phosphorus fertilizer. Lower spreading times could be because of more efficient operations, the use of higher speed trucks, or from spreading most of the manure close to the barn. Efficient operations include the use of storage, trucks, and irrigation.

Table 1. Cost Of Manure Spreading

EquipmentNumber Of FarmsAverage Time Used: Hrs/YrRange hoursCost $/HrRange $/Hr
Trucks6495100-1,46032.0032 or 45
Irrig. Equip.2135100-17034.0034

The cost per hour of spreading with a truck is less than the hourly cost of spreading with a tractor and spreader. It is also faster, so more manure can be moved per hour. One disadvantage of using a truck is their limited use on snow or saturated ground. Daily spreading on most farms requires the use of a tractor and spreader.

Spreading costs on various farm sizes can be related to annual costs per cow as shown in figure 1. Substantial unit costs are involved with frequent manure spreading on farms with less than 400 cows. Ibis cost decreases to around $50 per cow per year for larger dairies.

Figure 1. Calculated manure-spreading costs.

Actual value of manure spreading was calculated by taking the cost of fertilizer on non manured fields, subtracting the cost of fertilizer on manured fields to show the fertilizer savings by using manure, and then subtracting the cost of spreading on fields.

Figure 2 shows that the net value of manure is negative for farms less than 600 cows. That is, hauling the manure costs much more than its fertilizer value on these operations.

Figure 2. Net value of manure spreading calculated by subtracting fertilizer cost applied to manured land and the spreading cost from fertilizer costs for non-manured land as reported by western NY dairies.


Although there is a wide variety of spreading equipment in use, and a wide variety of farm situations, there are some trends in the data collected. Most farms have a net cost from their manure spreading operation. They are spending more to spread the manure than the fertilizer value that they are crediting the manure with. Using Nutrient Management Plans to fully use the manure to reduce fertilizer costs and using manure storage as well as equipment more efficiently could result in a significant savings on most farms.

Spreading costs can be reduced by better management

Spreading costs can be reduced by accurately analyzing the nutrient value of the manure and then by reducing fertilizer purchases appropriately. Several farms could significantly reduce their costs now with their present manure handling method.

Reducing costs by spreading the manure close to the barn without regard to its fertilizer value may not be environmentally responsible.

Larger farms have lower manure spreading costs than smaller farms.

There are efficiencies of scale in the manure spreading operations on the dairies surveyed. A number of factors may contribute to this. Apparently the larger tractors and spreaders, the trucks, and the irrigation equipment used on the larger farms can move more manure at a lower cost. Larger farms are more likely to have storage systems with the lower costs associated with them. Larger farms may have more management expertise to utilize their manure as a fertilizer.

Farms with storage have lower spreading costs.

Spreading farm storage results in a greater volume of waste to spread because of the addition of precipitation falling in the storage facility. The efficiencies of a continuos large scale spreading operation and the use of more efficient trucks and irrigation equipment reduce the total cost of spreading from storage. Daily spreading has excessive time and repairs associated with it.

Custom manure spreading may be economical on many smaller farms.

By using a custom operator, equipment costs per cow can be reduced, since the equipment is spread over all the cows that the custom operator works with. The timing of the custom operation may be a problem unless the operation moves north and south with the seasons or unless odor control and irrigation allows spreading during the growing season.

Alternative manure handling methods should be explored.

Technologies that would allow more storage, with once per year unloading, would benefit most farms. An average farm in the study should be as well off paying up to $77 per cow per year minus fertilizer savings (if any), for alternative manure handling methods. Odor control must be considered as part of any alternative manure handling system.

Several manure handling and treatment systems may meet these requirements. A manure handling system that included long term storage with manure applied utilizing trucks, tankers, or a drag hose system with incorporation capabilities would meet these criteria. Smaller farms would need to hire a custom applicator to keep their equipment costs down.

Methane digestion while generally not economically positive for small farms, would provide a positive return for larger farms while deodorizing the manure. Smaller farms may be able to take advantage of a neighboring digester that was large enough to give a positive payback. Smaller farms may absorb some of the cost of running their own digester as odor control and to allow them to hire an efficient custom applicator to reduce their overall manure handling costs. Manure that didn't smell bad could be applied to the land with irrigation systems on growing crops through out the summer. This would allow a much wider window for custom applicators to operate in.

Wetland systems or Sequencing Batch Reactors could be used to treat the manure. Manure treated in both these systems would have a significantly reduced odor as well as reduced nitrogen content. Phosphorus concentrated in the solids could be exported off the farm. These treatment systems may cost the farm but they may also reduce the existing spreading cost by allowing more efficient irrigation of the treated effluent in an environmentally appropriate manner.

With lax environmental standards and the perception that any manure handling or treatment method needs to have a positive return there is no need to consider any other method than daily spreading of manure. However, as environmental regulations restrict the spreading of manure to appropriate times for nutrient management and reduce the allowable nutrient loss to the environment, these alternatives will become economically justified. When manure storage is mandatory manure odor control will become more important. When nutrient losses are controlled spreading close to the growing season and at phosphorus loading rates may increase the cost of alternative manure handling methods. The prudent farm manager will prepare for these types of regulations.


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