As most of you read this column, we’re a little less than three weeks from the point when days start getting longer. Most of the Northeast has only had occasional snow flurries, with the Buffalo area bounteously making up for the relative lack of the white stuff elsewhere. Farsighted winter-savvy dairy farmers who daily spread manure often designate a level area near cattle housing for piling this commodity dumped by blizzards. They plow out this flat area just described, trying to keep it free from snow build-up. This ground, now bare, freezes quite nicely, assuring the availability of “any port in a storm” (one where equipment will not get mired). Scraping bare this small area of sod to create a hard-frozen spot on which to pile manure works quite well.
I do something similar to that in part of our front yard. This is because our driveway is fairly narrow, and also because our single garage parking spot is hogged by my pickup truck (usually with bagged product in its bed that needs to stay dry). To create a parking spot in the front yard for our car, I use our snowblower after clearing the driveway. Minus the insulation provided by many inches (if not feet) of snow, the manure piling spot – and the car parking spot – soon freeze hard enough to make sure no vehicle gets stuck.
The typical Northeast winter is one big reason that manure may not travel too far from the barn, particularly with non-grazing cattle management. But a lot of times, it’s just convenient to do your spreading as near as possible to home base. As a result, fields which are not so conveniently located tend to get short-changed manure. This means that purchased crop inputs must be introduced to help the more remote fields avoid nutrient starvation. This also means that fields that are overloaded with manure are more likely to be a pollution threat, through surface water runoff or ground water leaching – down to the water table, brook, river, and ultimately bay and ocean.
The unusually mild autumn weather thus far throughout most of the Northeast prompted me to check out what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s reports indicate. Doing so, I learned that NOAA’s 90-day outlook was published Oct. 10 by the Climate Prediction Center, a part of the National Weather Service. Their prediction was heavily influenced by the presence of La Niña (“Little Girl”), which their forecasters, at that time, said was 75% likely to stick around through the winter months. The “Little Girl” tends to split the country in half, bringing a dry winter to the southern half and a wetter winter to the northern half.
Quoting these NOAA scientists, “When it comes to temperature, it’s looking like it will be a warm winter this year for many states – the West, South and Northeast all have a good chance of above-average warmth between November and January. If forecasters’ predictions hold true, and La Niña sticks around through January, it’ll be the third La Niña winter in a row – a rare phenomenon we’ve only seen twice since 1950. However, new research suggests recurring La Niña years are growing more common due to climate change.”
Getting back to the science of manure allocation, I first noticed the disparity between “near the barn” and “far from the barn” while advising a Central New York dairy crop grower who had just moved from Illinois the year before. Having taken soil samples for the newcomer, and after the test results came back, we observed that the phosphate, potash and magnesium readings were all very high on the field right behind the barn. The newcomer told me that the previous owner had plastered the fields right behind the barn with manure.
His other soil tests also showed that fields farther away were much less blessed with nutrition and were in fact starving for phosphorus. When one field is over-fertilized, for whatever reason, and this causes another field to be short-changed nutritionally, the yield improvement of the first field is almost always less than the yield suppression of the second short-changed field. Spreading a uniform quantity of manure per acre over all the crop land that needs it can be expected to improve average yields – compared to the all-too-common feast or famine methods.
The take-home message here is that before winter really sets in, growers should be sure to spread the remotest fields first. If field conditions and road conditions permit spreading manure farther away in autumn and early winter, it will be great to not have to worry about spreading on those more distant parcels during spring’s normally more uncertain conditions. Similarly, it’s also good to spread lime still this autumn since we don’t know what those unknown spring conditions have in store. The other reason to apply lime in autumn is that winter’s freezing/thawing action breaks down the lime particles further, thus increasing their effective neutralizing value.
I was easily convinced of the merit of spreading the farthest fields first. This is mostly because this wisdom closely paralleled what my father gave my brother Jim and me as directions when we started to paint an old farmhouse. We had just moved into the Colonial-style dwelling in question in western Greene County in 1962. Jim and I had ladders in place to start painting the front of our house. Dad told us to move the ladders to the back of the house; paint there first, then the sides. We asked him why. He said that he grew up in Minnesota during the Great Depression, where he saw lots of houses with only their fronts painted, because the owners ran out of paint and couldn’t afford any more. He wasn’t taking a chance on that happening with his house.