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Manuresheds – Moving Manure Back to Fields and Pastures

We’ve all heard the term “watersheds.” We use it to describe a land area that channels rainfall and snowmelt to creeks, streams, and rivers. It helps us think about all the resources in one place and how they are distributed.

Now, scientists are using that same concept to look at how we can reconnect livestock and crop production so that problem manure becomes a fertilizer solution. Thanks to Dennis O’Brien of the Agricultural Research Service for sharing this article with us.

Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists are developing an innovative approach to address a major environmental challenge facing the nation’s animal farmers: the accumulation of nutrients in the manure.

Manure produced in livestock and poultry operations has been increasing since the 1950s when large-scale feeding operations, along with large-scale crop farms, began to replace many of the nation’s small, family-run farms that traditionally produced both crops and livestock and used the manure as fertilizer to boost crop yields.

The transition has created efficient, high-yielding crop and livestock operations, but it has also severed a longstanding symbiotic relationship where the excess nutrients created by the manure had productive uses. Though some animal farms typically use some manure to grow feed, most animal farms have insufficient land for using all of their manure. The surplus can pose an environmental threat to air and water quality. Yet manure contains phosphorus and nitrogen, which are key nutrients for many crops that are now supplied by commercial fertilizers.

“The question is what to do with the manure from livestock operations with surplus manure nutrients, and how to get it to farmland where it is needed most,” says Sheri Spiegal, an ARS scientist in Las Cruces, N.M.

Spiegal and her colleagues have proposed using “manuresheds” to create systems that reconnect crop and livestock production so that more manure can be used to fertilize more crops. The manureshed concept is designed to promote the practices, technologies and management systems that would clean up manure while building healthy soils and supporting crop yields. It also illuminates the fundamental challenges facing sustainable manure use and creates a framework for addressing the problem in a way that’s clearly sustainable, the researchers say.

Figure 2 from the study: A manureshed encompasses the lands surrounding animal feeding operations onto which manure nutrients can be redistributed to meet environmental, production, and economic goals. Manuresheds can be managed at multiple scales, for example: a) on-farm; b) among farms within a county; or c) among farms in different counties. Here, the darkening of buffers represents increased distance from the manure source.


They outlined how the concept would work in a recent paper in the journal Agricultural Systems. They collected data on the manure produced in feeding operations, the fertilizer needed for crops, and the nutrients removed by them in 3,109 counties across the United States. Based on that data, they classified the counties as either manure “sources” or “sinks,” depending on whether their manure nutrients exceeded use by their crops (sources), or whether their crops could use the excess nutrients to fill deficiencies or substitute for fertilizer (sinks).

Results showed that there is potential to redistribute manure from source to sink counties across much of the country, with source counties in 40 of 48 states—and much opportunity in the South.

The study authors also identified clusters of counties dominated by one or two production systems, such as dairy or poultry, and they highlighted opportunities for redistributing manure by joining the clusters into four regional manuresheds—in the Northwest, Southwest, Midwest and Southeast. Possibilities for efficient transport and use of excess manure from each animal industry are also discussed in the paper.

Figure 3 from the study: Counties classified with respect to manure nutrient source and sink potential for a) phosphorus (P) and b) nitrogen (N) in 2012. Each class’s shade of color (lighter vs. darker) represents a split at the median value of the class. See supplement 2.1 for maps in terms of kilograms of nutrient per hectare of harvested cropland per county.

The researchers note that efforts similar to what they propose have been underway in some areas. Truckers from western Pennsylvania, for instance, now haul hay to mushroom growers in the eastern part of the state and pick up poultry litter for the return trip west, effectively exporting poultry litter from the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Programs in Minnesota, Maryland and Arkansas also offer farmers and producers various incentives to transport manure from feedlots to farms.

The paper can be found here.

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  1. This is sheer brilliance. Now if we can correlate manure sheds with watersheds, we’ll be cycling with integrity and traceability.

  2. On a small scale, several dairy farmers (100-400 milking cows) sometimes “swap” fields with crop farmers which produce little fibre (potato growers). The dairy farmer grows grass for three years and improves the soil structure and the potato farmer benefits from the relatively rich dairy land without many fertilizer inputs. (I can think of drawbacks to this procedure, but . . . )

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