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A box spreader distributes solid manure on a farm field in Rising Sun, Maryland, the US. Picture: REUTERS/CNH INDUSTRIAL
A box spreader distributes solid manure on a farm field in Rising Sun, Maryland, the US. Picture: REUTERS/CNH INDUSTRIAL

Chicago — For nearly two decades, Abe Sandquist has used every marketing tool he can think of to sell the back end of a cow. Poop, after all, needs to go somewhere. The Midwestern entrepreneur has worked hard to woo farmers on its benefits for their crops.

Now, facing a global shortage of commercial fertilisers made worse by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, more US growers are knocking on his door. Sandquist says they are clamouring to get their hands on something Old MacDonald would swear by: old-fashioned animal manure.

“I wish we had more to sell,” said Sandquist, founder of Natural Fertilizer Services, a nutrient management firm based in the US state of Iowa. “But there’s not enough to meet the demand.”

Some livestock and dairy farmers, including those who previously paid to have their animals’ waste removed, have found a fertile side business selling it to grain growers. Equipment firms that make manure spreading equipment known as “honeywagons” are also benefiting.

Not only are more US farmers hunting manure supplies for the spring planting season, some cattle feeders that sell waste are sold out to year’s end, according to industry consultant Allen Kampschnieder.

“Manure is absolutely a hot commodity,” said Kampschnieder, who works for Nebraska-based Nutrient Advisors. “We’ve got waiting lists.”

Sky-high prices for industrial fertiliser are projected to reduce American farmers’ maize and wheat plantings, according to US government data. That further threatens global food supplies as domestic wheat inventories are the lowest in 14 years, and the Russia-Ukraine war is disrupting grain shipments from those key suppliers.

While manure can replace some of the nutrient shortfall, it’s no panacea, agriculture specialists say. There’s not enough supply to swap out all the commercial fertiliser used in the US. Transporting it is expensive. And prices for animal waste, too, are rising on strong demand.

Manure is absolutely a hot commodity. We’ve got waiting lists
Allen Kampschnieder, industry consultant

It’s also regulated by state and federal authorities, partly due to concerns about impacts on water systems.

Manure can cause serious problems if it contaminates nearby streams, lakes and groundwater, said Chris Jones, a research engineer and water quality expert at the University of Iowa. Livestock farmers say it’s a heavy lift to meet all the government rules and track how manure is applied.

Regardless of the drawbacks, demand is booming. In Wisconsin, three dairy farmers said they turned down requests to buy their manure sent via text and Twitter messages. North Carolina-based Phinite, which makes manure-drying systems, says it’s fielding solicitations from growers as far away as Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa and Indiana.

Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, has noticed the shift at the US hog farms that supply its slaughterhouses.

“We’re definitely seeing farmers move towards manure with the increase in fertiliser prices,” said Jim Monroe, a spokesperson for the company, which is owned by Hong Kong-listed WH Group.

Industrial fertilisers such as nitrogen require much energy to produce. Prices started to surge last year amid rising demand and lower supply as record natural gas and coal prices triggered output cuts by fertiliser manufacturers. Extreme weather and Covid-19 outbreaks also roiled global supply chains.

The war in Ukraine has made the situation worse by reducing fertiliser exports from Russia and its ally Belarus due to Western sanctions and shipping snags. That threatens to shrink harvests worldwide amid record food inflation. Combined, Russia and Belarus accounted for more than 40% of global exports of potash last year, one of three critical nutrients used to boost crop yields, according to Dutch lender Rabobank.

In March, commercial fertiliser prices reached a record high, with nitrogen fertiliser jumping fourfold since 2020 and phosphate and potash up threefold, said London-based consultancy CRU Group.

One person left bereft is Dale Cramer, who grows maize, soyabeans and wheat on about 2,428ha in Cambridge, Nebraska. Searching for alternatives, he has been sniffing around feedlots for manure since last August with no luck.

“A lot of people have put their names in for the same thing,” Cramer said.

More concentrated

With demand for manure surging, prices have followed, delivering an unexpected windfall to livestock producers and cattle feedlots.

Prices for good-quality solid manure in Nebraska alone have reached $11 to $14 per tonne, up from a typical price of $5 to $8 per tonne, consultant Kampschnieder said. A dry winter helped drive up prices by leaving manure with less water in it, making it more concentrated, and thus more valuable, he said.

Iowa farmer Pat Reisinger is relieved he has dung from the pigs and dairy cows he raises to fertilise the maize, soyabeans and hay he grows to feed those animals. He sold a little manure to one neighbour and is getting phone calls from others in need.

“If I sold any more, I’d have to turn around and buy commercial fertiliser, which makes no sense,” Reisinger said.

We have people looking for equipment right away and we’re sold out for six months
Walter Grose, president of Husky Farm Equipment

The boom has also has lifted machinery companies that make spreading equipment for solid manure as well as so-called honeywagons: wheeled tanks hitched to trucks and tractors for transporting and applying liquefied waste.

In Canada, Husky Farm Equipment is sold out of honeywagons. The company built its first contraption in 1960 as a way to make collecting and spreading manure more efficient, according to president Walter Grose. Today Grose sells directly to farmers and machinery dealerships, and he can’t keep up.

“We have people looking for equipment right away and we’re sold out for six months,” said Grose who sells honeywagons in several sizes. Bigger tanks come with a $70,000 average price tag.

CNH Industrial, the American-Italian farm and construction equipment giant, said it has seen strong demand for its New Holland brand box spreaders — essentially, a steel box that attaches to a tractor to haul and spread solid manure.

Kansas equipment dealership KanEquip is sold out of New Holland spreaders, even though prices have jumped 10% from the normal list price of $30,000, said regional manager Bryndon Meinhardt. He said the dealership has ordered 10 more to meet demand.

Even in states where large livestock herds generate huge quantities of manure, there’s not enough to replace commercial fertiliser completely. Iowa, the top US producer of pork and maize, already applies all of its manure on land covering about 25% of its corn hectares each year, said Dan Andersen, an associate professor at Iowa State University who specialises in manure management.

Supply problem

On average, Iowa uses about 53-billion litres of manure annually, said Andersen, known as @DrManure on Twitter. He expects Iowa growers may suck out an extra 3.7-billion litres this year from storage in tanks on farms to substitute pricey commercial fertiliser.

Part of the supply problem is rooted in the evolution of the US farm economy. As America's livestock sector has consolidated, there are geographical hubs where animals are raised for eggs, milk or meat, and where the most manure is produced. Some places thus have too little, while others have too much and have wrestled with ways to dispose of it.

Last October, Pennsylvania dairyman Brett Reinford thought he might be tight on manure storage space over the winter. So he made an offer to local farmers: You come and haul it away, you can have it for free. He got no takers.

Fast forward six months and Reinford is now sitting on liquid gold. “We’re keeping it all and I wish we had more,” he said.

Manure could become even more precious later this year, as US livestock herds and poultry flocks shrink.

The number of hogs in the US has dropped to its lowest level in about five years, as producers grapple with swine diseases and rising costs for feed and other inputs. Bird flu, meanwhile, has wiped out more than 22-million chickens and turkeys on commercial US farms since February.

But even hard-hit poultry farmers could have something to use: their dead birds can be composted and applied as fertiliser, according to the Iowa department of agriculture and land stewardship.

Reuters

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