Kristin Whittington hasn't just looked at things from both sides; the former Indiana state regulator has lived both sides when it comes to manure management.

As director of the Office of Agricultural Relations for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, she helped write state regulations and assisted with federal rules related to manure management plans. With them in place, she saw an opportunity to help livestock producers stay in compliance and help them and crop producers see that manure management pays.



Quitting her job with the state, she established Creative Ag, Edinburgh, Ind., and invested in a Nutrient Management System from Ag-Chem. The attraction with the machine was its ability to inject manure into the ground for maximum crop use and minimal environmental impact. Site-specific variable rate application with prescription maps and producing as-applied maps would be the gold standard of manure management. Expected regulatory oversight and penalties would not only put her customers ahead of the regulation game wise, but profit wise, too. She began lining up clients, working directly with farmers and also working through ag retailers who saw opportunity in the rising value of manure and the bite of regulations to their customers.



Five years later, Whittington said the opportunity remains unrealized. The tougher regulations and penalties never appeared. The advantages offered by the system couldn't compete with lower cost, less sophisticated equipment. The manure application equipment has been sold off. Now operating as Landmark Environmental, she still helps livestock producers stay in compliance, but it is as a consultant writing plans, which they use to do their own applications or to hire a custom service.



"I had always stayed involved in the plan-writing process with producers, helping them stay in compliance; I'm just no longer in application," said Whittington. "I still think opportunities with variable rate application of manure are coming. I just thought it was coming in six to 18 months. Now I believe it is still three to five years off."



Whittington remains enthused about the opportunity to help livestock producers and crop producers get the greatest value out of available nutrients. She remains impressed with the ag retailers she worked with when she started; people who saw manure as a viable nutrient source and not as competition for their commercial fertilizer sales. It is an attitude that she expects will strengthen in the next few years as livestock and crop producers see more benefits from manure as a nutrient source, ag retailers see it as a more viable product and retailers earn income from assisting customers even more.



"I still work with ag retailers across the state who use my services as a writer for nutrient plans as well as manure management plans," said Whittington. "They look to me as a resource for their customers. They take the plan back to their customer and are involved in providing supplemental fertilizer."



It's a win-win program, she said. "By helping the crop farmer find out what his needs are, we can show the retailer where to focus his sales effort," Whittington added. "The retailer profits through better focus, and the crop producer gets more value out of his manure."



FINDING A NICHE
Betsy Bower, agronomist, Ceres Solutions, Terre Haute, Ind., works with Whittington and other consultants. She sees them as valuable resources that help Ceres retain business without the load of plan writing.



"Most of the plans I work with as an agronomist are nutrient management plans that are part of an EQIP contract," said Bower. "There is quite a bit of money for everything from no-till equipment to waterways, subsurface drains and other practices. In order to ensure a better chance of getting the EQIP contract, they agree to having nutrient and pest management plans developed for the tracts involved."



Doing the plans was not business that Bower sought.



However, not doing the plans would open the door for competitors or independent crop consultants. Neither scenario was an option. However, Bower and her counterparts soon found there were too many plans, and they took too long. That's where Whittington and other consultants come into play.



Having the EQIP plan in place gives Bower the opportunity to sell the Ceres precision management program. "We strongly urge the customer to at least do nutrient management with site-specific soil sampling and VRT application of P and K and lime," she said. "We have been doing some VRT nitrogen recommendations as well as VRT seeding recommendations."



Bower said this past fall Ceres Solutions did more site-specific work than in the entire previous year. "Customers tell me that if VRT applications can trim their fertilizer budget by putting nutrients where they are needed, they'll do it," said Bower. "What we tell them is this is the opportunity to sort out what they really have in their fields and then put resources where they are needed. Our guys understand that."



DISCOVERING THE PITFALLS
Putting resources where they are needed is one reason Farmers Alliance got out of the manure application business. Caught in a squeeze between multi-year commitments with livestock producers established when fuel prices were low and labor was less tight, the co-op decided to opt out.



"When we made the investment for an applicator, pit pump and three semis to move material, fuel prices were at $1.50 per gallon or less," recalled Jeff Cleveland, agronomy manager, Farmers Alliance. "The board wanted three-year commitments, and our budgets were based on then current fuel prices. We did apply some fuel surcharges, but that wasn't enough to offset the increases."



Perhaps an even bigger factor was labor. It is hard enough to find good help anyway, but manure application had its special challenges, such as keeping a five-man crew going dawn until dusk from spring thaw to late fall freeze-up. Cleveland notes that with their modern equipment, it wasn't a dirty job, but it was wearing.



What the co-op didn't stop doing were manure management plans. Like Bower and Ceres Solutions, Farmers Alliance recognized the importance of whole farm involvement. "Doing the plans definitely helps hold onto business," said Cleveland. "They know we are helping them stay in compliance, as well as deal with both their manure and overall nutrient needs. It allows us to work with them on all their fields, not just the ones where we apply fertilizer."



Cleveland takes pride in the quality of the application job Farmers Alliance did. "We opened the eyes of our farmers and competitive custom manure applicators to the importance of treating manure as a commodity and not as a waste product," he said.