There is almost no conversation topic more neutral than the weather. That is, until weather records are set and rainy days drag on making weather top of mind and, for dairy farmers, a complicated discussion. Nichole M. Embertson, Ph.D., Nutrient Management Specialist at the Whatcom Conservation District (WCD) spends a lot of time talking to farmers about the weather.
Dr. Embertson says that, “In general, yes, this has been a very ‘wet’ spring. This March, in particular, was been one of the wettest in the past 10 years, and April was almost double the annual average.” Wet weather brings challenges for farmers that many people may not fully understand. Dr. Embertson goes on to explain, “This year is remarkable in that we have had very few periods with more than one or two days of dry weather to lets soils dry out; and the ‘dry’ period we had in February had snow on the ground. Since there is no manure application allowed to saturated, snow covered, or frozen ground, there have been very few options for safe manure application yet this year.”
This is a problem for dairy farmers who are balancing normal manure accumulation and prolonged abnormal weather. Manure is a valuable commodity on dairy farms. It is used to fertilize fields that grow crops for cows. On most dairy farms, manure is an important part of the sustainability cycle.
On Larry Stap’s farm, Twin Brook Creamery, in Lynden, WA manure is stored in a 1.4 million gallon above ground tank. Although it’s footprint is smaller, thereby collecting less rainwater, according to Stap, that hasn’t made managing those valuable manure resources much easier this winter. “We are much later getting fertilizer on our fields this year because it just isn’t safe to apply. It’s made many of us nervous as we have waited for things to dry out enough to apply correctly. Thankfully, we may be seeing enough dry days stretched together in the next few weeks to make manure application possible.”
Because manure plays such an integral part in the success of a dairy farm, farmers go to great lengths to make best use of the valuable commodity. There are many factors that go into determining safe application. Embertson says that the Whatcom Conservation District team offers field risk assessment planning to help identify low and high risk fields to give farmers a game plan for when and how to apply manure. The Conservation District also offers real-time tools including the Manure Spreading Advisory (MSA) and accompanying Application Risk Management (ARM) Field Assessment Worksheet. Basically, these tools help farmers make plans for manure usage that includes choosing the right time and the right field to apply to.
The WCD assessment includes risk rating maps that show each of their fields including the soil types and “high risk” areas for them to avoid in the wet season. Farmers also use seasonal variable setback distances for different times of the year so they can have a proper balance of active farming and protection of waterways.
Farmers are responsible for testing their soil and manure nutrients to determine agronomic rate, to ensure they don’t over apply. Conservation Districts work with landowners to help them figure out how to properly test manure and soil, as well as show them the resources on how to determine agronomic rate and walk them through the calculations if needed.
“I have a lot of compassion for the farms in our area and the amount of stress they are experiencing this year with the balance of wanting to get manure out for their crops, while also protecting water resources and not contributing to a runoff pollution event,” says Dr. Embertson. “This is one of the toughest years we have had in a while.”