Brothers Ben and Jay Currier of Dodge County, Minn., improved their dairy farm’s efficiency, optimized the fertilizer it produces, and played a role in protecting the Mississippi River when they installed a new manure pit last fall.
Increasing manure storage capacity to one year’s worth eliminated the need for weekly hauling and spreading on the 200-acre farm where they milk nearly 100 cows and raise replacement heifers. The $572,000 project makes it possible to avoid application in winter and early spring, when manure is most easily carried off by snowmelt and runoff.
The Currier brothers’ feedlot project, in Mantorville Township, was one of four funded at 90% through the $3.2 million Lower Mississippi River Feedlot Management in Minnesota Regional Conservation Partnership Program project. The five-year, federal-state partnership wraps up Aug. 31. State-only RCPP dollars funded two more feedlots at 75%.
Funding came from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service via Environmental Quality Incentives Program assistance, and from the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, whose contribution included Clean Water Funds.
Combined, the six feedlot projects’ estimated annual pollution reductions to Mississippi River tributaries include 182 pounds of nitrogen and 47 pounds of phosphorus. One pound of phosphorus can produce 500 pounds of algae. The work also addresses E. coli.
By reducing phosphorus loading to the Mississippi River, the nutrient reductions of states along the Mississippi address the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. Water from the Currier brothers’ farm reaches the Gulf by way of a wetland that flows to the South Branch Middle Fork Zumbro River.
Landowner participation in the RCPP was voluntary. The Curriers, whose share of the project cost totaled about $67,000, look forward to eventually using the dairy’s manure on their own land again.
“Once the manure gets transferred off, then you take your soil samples. And as your crop removes the nutrient value that you’ve got built up in your soil, you want it to decrease as rapidly as you can so you can get to use the benefit of your manure again. That’s the goal,” Ben Currier says.
Meanwhile, the Curriers have agreements with neighbors who will use the manure on their fields.
"This manure we’ve got in the pit is quite attractive to crop farmers because it’s got a lot of nutrient value, plus it’s got a lot of microbials. It’s better for their soil,” Jay Currier says.
Every three years, a technical service provider will sample fields to determine soils’ nutrient content.
“In three years’ time, with no manure going on our soil, we’ll get a chance to see how that decreases,” Ben Currier says of the nutrient levels. “That’s how we track our success on our end.”
Benefits of manure storage
The 1.4-million-gallon pit, sloped cement cattle yard and low cement diversion wall were completed in October. The berm was seeded in December. A storage tank for milk house wastewater, which now runs into the pit, eliminated a potential source of groundwater contamination. Gutters divert rainwater from barn roofs.
“Having manure storage allows the farmer to have a way to use it as a nutrient, and saves them money on the bottom line — plus takes care of that potential problem in the springtime when things are heating up and people are doing a daily ‘scrape-and-haul,’” says Peter Fryer, the Chatfield-based Technical Service Area (TSA) 7 lead engineer who designed the project.
“That water no longer discharges to anywhere but the manure storage facility,” Fryer says.
The project augments the nutrient and sediment-reduction benefits of a previous Dodge Soil and Water Conservation District project on a farm immediately downstream.
By late May, the new pit held nearly seven months’ worth of manure. Built-in emergency storage makes it possible to exceed the 1.4-million-gallon, 7-foot-deep mark if unexpected circumstances prevent it from being emptied within 12 months. The pit is built to hold 200,000 gallons and withstand a once-every-25-years rain.
Because it lies within southeastern Minnesota’s karst region, the pit incorporated safeguards to protect groundwater from seepage that might enter the aquifer through fractures in the limestone bedrock.
“With all manure storage ponds in the karst area, it’s a real concerted effort to make sure we build these things as liquid-tight as we can,” Fryer says. “In the design, there’s water-stops that are put into the concrete pours at every joint.”
It was one of the largest projects in Rochester-based TSA 7 engineering technician Chris Nelson’s career. He conducted the original site survey and worked on-site with landowners and contractors. Nelson says his work involved landowners and exceptional contractors — Hodgman Drainage of Claremont handled earthwork and Leon Nerison of Wanamingo-based B&N Construction handled concrete work. With the addition of favorable weather, he says it was one of the easiest projects he’s worked on.
“The landowners knew exactly what they wanted. They probably could’ve managed the contractors and had everything built if they had enough time,” Nelson says.