Cedar Rapids farmer places environment high on list
by Debra Bell Geiser, freelance writer, Cedar Rapids
Linn County farmer Mick Alsager does not think of himself as an environmentalist, but when he talks about his farming plans, preserving the land for future generations is usually the first thing he mentions.
"Iowa is a pretty state, and I want to keep it that way," said Alsager, who with his wife, Diane, farms 160 acres southwest of Cedar Rapids. "I wouldnt call myself an environmentalist, but I like the outdoors. I try to do things in an ecologically sound manner and be a good neighbor, too. I plan on living here for 30 years or more, and I still want to be able to drink the water when I leave."
Alsager raises corn and soybeans in rotation and markets 3,000 feeder pigs annually. He built a new farrowing and nursery building in the spring of 1995. The facility has three rooms that house 10 sows each and five nursery rooms for the young pigs. "Im on a 10-day cycle," explained Alsager. "I breed sows, farrow and wean pigs every 10 days."
Alsager currently houses his gestating sows in open lots year-round, but he plans to build a breeding and gestation barn next summer. "Ill have more of the sows inside and be more efficient," he added.
Alsager shares equipment and labor with his wifes uncle, Mike OConnell, and cousin, Jim OConnell, who farm nearby. "I wouldnt be farming without the support of Mike and Jim," said Alsager, a former banker who farmed part-time until 1994. The OConnells and Alsager also work together in the hog businessAlsager raises the feeder pigs to 60 pounds; then the OConnells finish the hogs to market weight.
Extension contacts led to workshop
Alsagers new nursery, his plans for another building and his commitment to preserving his land led him to enroll in a manure nutrient management workshop in Iowa City in the winter of 1996-97. The workshop was sponsored by Iowa State University Extension and the Iowa Veterinary Medical Association. It was hosted by the Linn and Johnson County Extension offices.
"I had worked closely with Greg Brenneman and Terry Steinhart on the nursery building," said Alsager. "They put me on a mailing list for the workshop flyer." Brenneman is an ISU Extension agricultural engineer located in the Johnson County Extension Office. Steinhart is an ISU Extension swine specialist working out of the Keokuk County Extension Office.
The purpose of the workshop was to "get farmers to take credit for the manure they apply to their fields," said Brenneman, a presenter at the workshop. "Taking that manure credit will decrease producers fertilizer bills and increase their profitability. It also reduces the negative impact on the environment."
At the workshop, participants received color, digitized maps of their fields showing soil types, potential yields, and land capability classes. They discussed how storage and application of different types of manure (pit vs. dry, cattle vs. hog) affected the nutrient value. Participants also calculated the dollar value of the nutrients in their manure.
"It was an eye-opener for me that what we had here was a valuable resource and not just something to try to get rid of," explained Alsager. His nursery building has an outside storage facility for the manure, and he has emptied it three times.
"We broadcasted the manure the first year and didnt take any credit for it at all," Alsager added. "I didnt know how much better it was to inject the manure than to broadcast it. We found that out at the seminar."
Brenneman said that with broadcast applications, losses are highly variable. "Very little up to more than one-half of the total nitrogen can be lost through volatilization," he noted. "When the manure is injected, very little nitrogen is lost from volatilization."
To take credit for the manure his hogs produced, Alsager needed to know the manures nutrientnitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K)content. He tested his manure last spring when he pumped his storage for the third time. "It was within three pounds of N and one to two pounds of P and K compared to the information Greg gave us at the workshop," said Alsager. "Ideally, Id like to pump the manure in the fall, because spring is so busy, and do a fall application to allow the soil to mellow out. The sweeps we use to inject the manure put it in deep. I dont want to compact the soil by driving over it to plant."
Brenneman advises farm operators to test each of their manure pits or storage facilities separately. "I recommend testing each time the storage is pumped out to develop a history of the nutrient content of the manure," he said.
When Alsager builds his new gestation barn, he also plans to sample that manure. In fact, attending the workshop made him re-evaluate some of his plans for the new building. "The sows are going to produce the same amount of manure no matter what facility I put them in," he explained. "Ive decided the manure is a valuable resource I can use to replace commercial fertilizer, and I want to get the most value out of it."
Alsager is also consulting with Brenneman and Steinhart as he plans his new building and considers ISU Extension a valuable resource. "Extension is here to help you succeed," he said. "Its free. If youre not using it, youre missing the boat."
"Best seminar ever"
Alsager called the manure nutrient management workshop "probably the best seminar Ive ever been to," adding that he attended "a lot" of seminars during his banking days. "We spent four hours there and got right on it," he noted. "They had a really good ratio of specialists to people, and you could get a lot of one-on-one work. You could figure out right there roughly what application rate you should use for your operation."
ISU Extension offered the manure management workshops again this winter. Alsager "definitely" recommended them to fellow livestock producers. "Even if you dont have confinement buildings, if you have bioshelters or open lots, you can benefit from going to this workshop," he said.
Based on the manure tests, soil information, yield goals and calculations from the workshop, Alsager applied only manure from his nursery building to 20 acres of cropland last spring, saving the cost of commercial fertilizer. "Thats $1,600 based on fertilizer prices," he said. "And Ill also get a pretty good rotation, applying manure to 20 acres out of 156 every year. That will avoid building the P and K so high."
Nitrogen not used by the growing crop usually leaches out of the soil or evaporates into the air. Phosphorus and potassium, on the other hand, build up in the soil and are not lost, "but youre not getting any return on them, either," added Alsager. "This workshop made me a lot more aware of how much P and K the co-op should apply. There is no reason to apply at a rate to build your soil for 10 years from now."
Alsagers local cooperative is testing the soil in two and one-half acre grids on the 80 acres north of his farmstead. A new combine equipped with a yield monitor allows him and the OConnells to correlate soil test results and crop yields with manure and fertilizer applications and make changes as needed. "Well adjust where we apply the liquid manure based on where the soil needs the most help," said Alsager. Injecting the manure this fall will be "a lot more economical as far as saving the manures nutrient value," he added.
For Alsager, two considerations make taking the time to manage his livestock manure worthwhile. "Number one is the environment," he explained. "We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to apply the manure in a way it can best be used and in a safe manner. Number two is saving $80 an acre on fertilizer. Economically, I dont see how you cant do this. I equate it to dumping money on the ground."
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Page last updated October 5, 2004
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