On this Earth Day as we meditate on how we can all be better stewards of our planet, Louise Calderwood, former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture for the State of Vermont, offers a few thoughts on a key ingredient in our sustainable food system – manure.
Manure application on agricultural fields requires a great deal of responsible management in order to keep our soils healthy and productive and our water quality high.
Photo credit: Fairmont Farms
The signs of spring are here; singing birds, green grass, bright sun and….manure! Manure? That doesn’t fit this list of welcome springtime arrivals- or does it? Why do farmers spread the sloppy liquid? Do Vermont farmers have to comply with environmental laws for manure applications? How do they keep manure from polluting our waterways?
Manure is a valuable resource for farmers. Nutrients in the form of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium contained in manure are essential to grow forage crops and vegetables. Dairy and livestock farmers use manure from their animals to boost forage production while some vegetable producers import manure to meet the needs of their crops.
All farmers are required by state and federal law to use manure according to the nutrient needs of the crops and fields where they spread it. Larger farms have to maintain plans and records to prove to state regulators they are using the manure appropriately and minimizing the impact on water quality. In the near future, smaller farms will need to self-certify they are meeting the same standards to protect water quality.
Manure pollutes water if it runs off farm fields and into rivers and streams. Phosphorus carried in the manure causes algal growth that robs the water of oxygen needed for aquatic life and can lead to blooms of toxin producing cyanobacteria, commonly called blue-green algae.
In addition to manure management farmers also protect water quality by managing liquids released from stored feed and maintaining buffers of grass with no manure or fertilizer application between fields and water ways. Farmers test the chemical make-up of the manure and soil to be sure the right amount of manure is spread on each field.
One theme is constant across all farms: manure is money and farmers don’t waste it. Responsible farmers recognize their role in protecting water quality and appropriate manure management.
Louise H. Calderwood, provides government relations services, grant writing, development and executive director services to a number of agricultural organizations and producers throughout the Northeast. She also serves as adjunct faculty teaching animal science, whole farm planning, US agricultural policy, and farm business management at Sterling College in Craftsbury, VT. Calderwood served as Vermont’s deputy secretary of agriculture from 1998 to 2006 and as a regional dairy specialist with UVM Extension, specializing in dairy reproduction, from 1988 to 1998. Calderwood is a graduate of UVM (BS-Dairy Science), Virginia Tech (MS-Dairy Science), and conducted graduate research in animal physiology at North Carolina State University and UVM. She is a partner with her husband, Randi, in the family’s sugaring operation. She serves on the boards of the Vermont Community Loan Fund, and the North Country Investment Corporation.