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Turning the stink into profitTurning the stink into profit

USDA offers tips for composting manure to help farmers come up smelling like roses.

Jennifer M. Latzke

September 7, 2023

3 Min Read
Excavator shovel working on large heap of fertilizer
SWEET SUCCESS: Livestock manure can be a profitable enterprise for farmers, with a little extra work. Maren Winter/Getty Images

From the feedlot to the dairy, and every livestock enterprise in between, figuring out some way to handle manure is a stinky task no one likes to take on. But with a little bit of work and ingenuity, farmers can turn that stink into opportunity for their farms.

A team of researchers at the USDA Economic Research Service found earlier this year that there is an opportunity for farmers to increase their use of manure fertilizer. According to the team’s study “Increasing the Value of Animal Manure for Farmers,” manure was applied to just 8% of the 237.7 million acres planted in 2020 to our nation’s top seven field crops. Of those acres of applied manure, 79% were planted to corn, and 26% were planted to hay or grass.

But there are a few challenges to replacing commercial fertilizers with manure.

To start, manure’s high water content — up to 90% of its total weight — means that has a low nutrient-value-to-mass ratio. So, farmers may have to transport and apply more loads, adding to their costs, according to the report.

Manure is a great source of nitrogen, but it also comes with more phosphorus than a plant needs, which could run off and pollute waters. And because of variation in feedstocks, results can vary if you don’t test before you apply.

The study also found that large farm operators are more likely to use commercial fertilizers over manure for their precise application and ease of use. Meanwhile, smaller-scale farmers are generally more likely to use manure because they may have integrated livestock in their operations.


The USDA report shows that 78% of applied manure comes from diversified farms that raise crops and livestock, while 14% is purchased from other farmers and 8% is obtained for free. When you consider the recent spikes in commercial fertilizer costs, many farmers are looking to manure as an alternative. There’s value in the pile, you might say.

One way to capture that value of manure is to compost it. Composting uses bacteria to stabilize the manure’s organic matter and nutrients, reduce its volume and reduce pathogens. The National Center for Appropriate Technology, Butte, Mont., offers a tip sheet for farmers interested in composting their manure.

Here are some of the NCAT tips:

  1. Choose a method. The passive pile method stacks compost feedstocks without turning, ventilating or monitoring their temperatures. The windrow method places the feedstocks in a long, narrow pile that is turned regularly and is approved for organic production. The aerated static pile also uses a long windrow, but instead of turning, oxygen is delivered through PVC pipes placed at the bottom of the pile.

  2. Be safe. Monitor the compost pile so that all of the feedstocks reach a minimum of 131 degrees F for a minimum of three days. You can tell when the active composting process is complete when the pile returns to ambient temperature levels. If the compost pile doesn’t reach high enough temperatures, it can actually harm plants, because bacteria and fungi are still active.

  3. Use the right tools. You’ll need a tractor and front-end loader to mix the compost, a thermometer with a 2- to 3-foot probe to reach the interior of the pile, and PVC pipes to aerate the pile.

  4. Watch for contaminants. This is especially important if the composted manure is destined for organic production.

Value streams

Manure isn’t just a great source of nutrients for plants, though. The USDA ERS report shares that farmers could also find value from other revenue streams for their livestock manure in the developing carbon economy.

Anaerobic digesters are already producing renewable energy from the methane from manure that farmers can use on their farms. The high cost of the technology and the maintenance required of digesters, though, has limited early adoption by farmers. But, as carbon credit trading and incentive programs grow in popularity, the USDA researchers predict that it will increase demand for them.

Even the byproducts of the anaerobic digesters — the manure fibers — can have a second life as biodegradable containers for horticultural plants.

Read the full report.

USDA Economic Research Service contributed to this article.

About the Author(s)

Jennifer M. Latzke

Editor, Kansas Farmer

Through all her travels, Jennifer M. Latzke knows that there is no place like Kansas.

Jennifer grew up on her family’s multigenerational registered Angus seedstock ranch and diversified farm just north of Woodbine, Kan., about 30 minutes south of Junction City on the edge of the Kansas Flint Hills. Rock Springs Ranch State 4-H Center was in her family’s backyard.

While at Kansas State University, Jennifer was a member of the Sigma Kappa Sorority and a national officer for the Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow. She graduated in May 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural communications and a minor in animal science. In August 2000 Jennifer started her 20-year agricultural writing career in Dodge City, Kan., on the far southwest corner of the state.

She’s traveled across the U.S. writing on wheat, sorghum, corn, cotton, dairy and beef stories as well as breaking news and policy at the local, state and national levels. Latzke has traveled across Mexico and South America with the U.S. Wheat Associates and toured Vietnam as a member of KARL Class X. She’s traveled to Argentina as one of 10 IFAJ-Alltech Young Leaders in Agricultural Journalism. And she was part of a delegation of AAEA: The Ag Communicators Network members invited to Cuba.

Jennifer’s an award-winning writer, columnist, and podcaster, recognized by the Kansas Professional Communicators, Kansas Press Association, the National Federation of Presswomen, Livestock Publications Council, and AAEA. In 2019, Jennifer reached the pinnacle of achievements, earning the title of “Writer of Merit” from AAEA.

Trips and accolades are lovely, but Jennifer says she is happiest on the road talking to farmers and ranchers and gathering stories and photos to share with readers.

“It’s an honor and a great responsibility to be able to tell someone’s story and bring them recognition for their work on the land,” Jennifer says. “But my role is also evolving to help our more urban neighbors understand the issues our Kansas farmers face in bringing the food and fiber to their store shelves.”

She spends her time gardening, crafting, watching K-State football, and cheering on her nephews and niece in their 4-H projects. She can be found on Twitter at @Latzke.

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