Costly fertilizer makes manure more valuable

When discussing unique ideas for job creation in rural Iowa, one of the things you may want to do is follow your nose. Manure is a valuable resource that saves farmers money and opens up doors for new business opportunities.

As prices of commercial fertilizer for crops have increased, more farmers are turning to the use of manure as an alternative fertilizer. This is good news for the 42,000 livestock producers in the state.

Key Points

Manure is a resource that saves farmers money by reducing fertilizer purchases.

As fertilizer prices increase, livestock manure has become more valuable.

People treat manure with respect; applicators are trained to apply correctly.


“Manure is a great substitute for commercial fertilizer because it’s locally produced and is easily accessible. Certain sources of manure can increase the organic matter content in soils and the water-holding capacity,” says Angie
Rieck-Hinz, an Iowa State University Extension specialist in ISU’s agronomy department at Ames. “When commercial prices of fertilizer increase, manure becomes more valuable. People now treat it with respect and are more conscious of the way it is applied.”

Farmers with open feedlots do not need to be certified to apply manure. However, commercial manure applicator businesses and livestock producers who have confinement sites with 500 or more animal units do need to be certified to apply manure.

Applicators are certified

Today in Iowa that means one out of every nine farms has either an owner or employee who is a certified manure applicator, or is in an arrangement with a professional custom applicator. According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the manure application business employs more than 4,500 people throughout the state to meet this large demand.

Certified applicators are trained every year on a variety of topics including proper application methods, understanding of the right application rate to protect soil and water quality, and emergency action plans in case of a spill.

In addition, thousands of jobs in Iowa are linked to manure handling and application, such as manure management planners, specialists who put together comprehensive nutrient management plans, certified crop advisers, engineers, equipment manufacturers, soil scientists and groundwater professionals.

One business specializing in both manure application and the manufacturing of application equipment is Puck Custom Enterprises, or PCE, at Manning in western Iowa. This family-owned business has expanded greatly from its beginning in the 1970s when two brothers were struggling through local droughts, poor growing conditions, sky-high interest rates and a low return on livestock production.

Manure is valuable resource

Like it so often does, necessity brings out the best. In this case, necessity meant Ben Puck needed to find a way to make income outside his farm. After talking to a neighbor about the need for manure applicators, Puck realized the job security in a business customers continuously require.

In 1979, Puck and his brother purchased a vacuum truck and started a manure application business. This led to buying more trucks and eventually tractors, honey wagons, TerraGators and a drag hose system. “The manure application industry is one of the newest businesses in Iowa,” says Puck. “It was born out of the need from customers and is driven by the desire of individuals to participate in an important and valuable aspect of the agriculture industry.”

The use of manure as a fertilizer hasn’t always been a well-accepted practice, but that’s swiftly changing. Almost 90% of PCE’s customers use liquid manure as the sole source of nutrients for their crops. When it’s applied before corn is planted, manure can provide enough nutrients for that crop, plus the soybean crop the following year. “Farmers say they see crop yields go up, and the health of their growing plants increases simply by switching to liquid manure,” says Puck.

Careful planning pays off

Last year, PCE applied nearly 200 million gallons of liquid manure on 30,000 acres in Iowa. To apply manure safely and accurately, PCE uses a carefully planned-out procedure. A third party, normally a crop consultant, determines the appropriate application rate. PCE uses this information to figure how much manure is needed to provide the nutrients for a specific crop. The manure is measured when it leaves the site and again when it’s received at the applicator tractor. Applicators watch the pumps throughout the process and can shut off a pump from an applicator tractor, if necessary. Technology used in manure application is constantly changing to ensure the equipment and process is environmentally friendly.

PCE’s unique position as an applicator and manufacturer allows the company to be involved in the complete manure application process and make adjustments as needed. “We’re a small part of the industry, but we want to make a difference in safety and provide a better environment for all of us,” Puck says. “We drink Iowa’s water, too, and will do everything we can to protect the water and keep it clean.”

Adding value to rural Iowa

USDA Rural Development assisted PCE with its recent expansion plans through a revolving loan fund administered by Western Iowa Power Cooperative in Denison. “We are pleased we could help an industry leader like Puck Custom Enterprises expand its business,” says Bill Menner, state director for USDA Rural Development in Iowa. “Manure application and manufacturing of related equipment often get overlooked, but it can be an outstanding business opportunity.”

PCE used the $666,250 loan to help construct a 15,000-square-foot building to manufacture equipment. The new space has also allowed PCE to host educational meetings and bring people from the industry together to discuss and solve common problems. The company has 15 employees, but the expansion will allow it to hire more.

Normally, manure applicators only work in fall and spring, but PCE can employ workers year-round to manufacture the equipment. This gives PCE an opportunity to provide good jobs to young, educated people who can stay in small towns to raise their families. “People at USDA see our vision to offer this needed service for agriculture, and they helped provide us with funding for it,” says Puck. “We hope to continue working together and use their services again in the future.”

Scott is a communications intern with USDA Rural Development in Iowa.

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BEST USE: In 2010, Puck Custom Enterprises applied almost 200 million gallons of liquid manure to a large number of acres of farmland in western Iowa, providing natural fertilizer for crops.

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HIGH TECH: Ben Puck uses a wireless remote control to operate PCE’s agitation boat on an outdoor lagoon.

This article published in the June, 2011 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.