Dodge County feedlot upgrade aids Zumbro River, Mississippi River

By late May, the manure storage facility on the Currier brothers’ Mantorville Township dairy farm in Dodge County held seven months’ worth of manure. It’s built for 12 months of storage, with extra capacity in case of emergency. The cow yard slopes to the pit. Jay (left) and Ben Currier previously had one week’s worth of storage. The facility was installed with assistance from the Lower Mississippi River Feedlot Management in Minnesota Regional Conservation Partnership Project, which is funded jointly by the USDA’s NRCS and by BWSR. Photo Credit: Ann Wessel, BWSR

MANTORVILLE TOWNSHIP — Dodge County brothers Ben and Jay Currier improved their dairy farm’s efficiency, optimized the fertilizer it produces, and played a role in protecting the Mississippi River when they installed a new manure pit last fall.

Increasing manure storage capacity to one year eliminated the need for weekly hauling and spreading on the 200-acre farm where they milk nearly 100 cows and raise replacement heifers. The $572,000 project makes it possible to avoid application in winter and early spring, when manure is most easily carried off by snowmelt and runoff.

The Currier brothers’ feedlot project was one of four funded at 90% through the $3.2 million Lower Mississippi River Feedlot Management in Minnesota Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) project. The five-year, federal-state partnership wraps up Aug. 31, 2021. State-only RCPP dollars funded two more feedlots at 75%.

Funding came from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) via Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) assistance, and from the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR), whose contribution included Clean Water Funds.

A trio of Canada geese takes off from the South Branch Middle Fork Zumbro River in Dodge County. Photo Credit: Ann Wessel, BWSR

Combined, the six feedlot projects’ estimated annual pollution reductions to Mississippi River tributaries include 182 pounds of nitrogen and 47 pounds of phosphorus. One pound of phosphorus can produce 500 pounds of algae. The work also addresses E. coli.

By reducing phosphorus-loading to the Mississippi River, states’ nutrient reductions address the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. Water from the Currier brothers’ farm reaches the Gulf by way of a wetland that flows to the South Branch Middle Fork Zumbro River.

“These guys show all the symptoms of being successful dairy farmers. They have high phosphorus soils. Very productive. They’ve had a relatively small area to spread manure on for decades. They’ve been in business for a long time,” Blaine Delzer, Dodge SWCD feedlot technician, said during a late-May visit to the Curriers’ farm. “The land shows that.”

Delzer worked with the Curriers to develop a manure management plan and apply for funds.

“By allowing the Curriers to use their manure as a nutrient source instead of a waste product, there’s a lot more control going into where and when that manure is applied. That will really allow for it to be used by the plants in the field rather than having a fallow area where they spread manure for the entire summer and over-apply,” Delzer said.

Dodge SWCD feedlot technician Blaine Delzer, center, talked to brothers Ben Currier, left, and Jay Currier in late May about how their new manure pit fit into their Mantorville Township dairy operation. The berm around the storage facility, in foreground, was seeded last season. Photo Credit: Ann Wessel, BWSR

Landowner participation in the RCPP was voluntary. The Curriers, whose share of the project cost totaled about $67,000, look forward to eventually using the dairy’s manure on their own land again.

“Once the manure gets transferred off, then you take your soil samples and as your crop removes the nutrient value that you’ve got built up in your soil, you want it to decrease as rapidly as you can so you can get to use the benefit of your manure again. That’s the goal,” Ben Currier said.

Meanwhile, the Curriers have agreements with neighbors who will use the manure on their fields.

“This manure we’ve got in the pit is quite attractive to crop farmers because it’s got a lot of nutrient value, plus it’s got a lot of microbials. It’s better for their soil,” Jay Currier said.

Olmsted County-based NRCS District Conservationist Mike Muzzy, whose territory previously included Dodge County, expanded upon the benefits of using manure as fertilizer.

“It’s an organic form of nutrients, so it’s more of a slow release,” Muzzy said. “Having manure on the field, that does help the soil health and builds the biology in the soil and results in more productive soil. There’s a lot of micronutrients in manure that you don’t have in commercial fertilizer.”

Every three years a technical service provider will sample fields to determine soils’ nutrient content.

“In three years’ time, with no manure going on our soil, we’ll get a chance to see how that decreases,” Ben Currier said of the nutrient levels. “That’s how we track our success on our end.”

Ben Currier walked among the cows in the freestall barn, where fans keep the cattle cool. Ben and Jay Currier milk nearly 100 cows. A new manure pit, concrete slab and walled feedlot ensure that runoff doesn’t enter the South Branch Middle Fork Zumbro River by way of a waterway and wetland. The Zumbro is a Mississippi River tributary. Photo Credit: Ann Wessel, BWSR

The 1.4-million-gallon pit, sloped cement cattle yard and low cement diversion wall were completed in October 2020. The berm was seeded in December. A storage tank for milkhouse wastewater, which now outlets into the pit, eliminated a potential source of groundwater contamination. Gutters divert rainwater from barn roofs.

“Having manure storage allows the farmer to have a way to use it as a nutrient, and saves them money on the bottom line, plus takes care of that potential problem in the springtime when things are heating up and people are doing a daily scrape-and-haul,” said Peter Fryer, the Chatfield-based Technical Service Area (TSA) 7 lead engineer who designed the project.

“That water no longer discharges to anywhere but the manure storage facility,” Fryer said.

The project augments nutrient- and sediment-reduction benefits of a previous Dodge SWCD project on a farm immediately downstream, creating a so-called “treatment train.”

“What people really have to realize is the end-users from here all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico are receiving a benefit,” Delzer said. “There is a state benefit, there is a federal benefit to these dollars being used on projects like this.”

By late May, the new pit held seven months’ worth of manure. Built-in emergency storage makes it possible to exceed the 1.4-million-gallon, 7-foot-deep mark if unexpected circumstances prevent it from being emptied within 12 months. The pit is built to hold 200,000 gallons and withstand a once-every-25-years rain.

Manure pit construction in fall 2020 included replacing soil in some spots and installing a liner, seen here, before installing the concrete floor. Photo Credit: Dodge SWCD

Because it lies within southeastern Minnesota’s karst region, the pit incorporated safeguards to protect groundwater from seepage that might enter the aquifer through fractures in the limestone bedrock.

“With all manure storage ponds in the karst area, it’s a real concerted effort to make sure we build these things as liquid-tight as we can,” Fryer said. “In the design, there’s water-stops that are put into the concrete pours at every joint.”

It was one of the largest projects in Rochester-based TSA 7 engineering technician Chris Nelson’s career. He conducted the original site survey and worked onsite with landowners and contractors. Nelson said involved landowners, exceptional contractors — Hodgman Drainage of Claremont handled earthwork; Leon Nerison of Wanamingo-based B&N Construction handled concrete work — and favorable weather made this one of the easiest projects he’s worked on.

“The landowners knew exactly what they wanted. They probably could’ve managed the contractors and had everything built if they had enough time,” Nelson said.

Jay Currier looked over the calves in late May. The Curriers raise replacement heifers and sell the bull calves. Photo Credit: Ann Wessel, BWSR

Editor’s note: Blaine Delzer worked at Dodge SWCD for the past 10 years, most recently as a feedlot technician. He also farmed in Dodge County. Delzer died not long after discussing this feedlot project in an interview.

A concrete ramp makes it easier to remove sand from the bottom of the pit when it’s cleaned out. The Curriers use sand for bedding in the freestall barn. Photo Credit: Ann Wessel, BWSR

RCPP Details

FUNDING: The original $3.2 million agreement was split between NRCS and BWSR. BWSR addressed a backlog of requests by earmarking an additional $520,000 — two years’ worth of general fund appropriations — for the TSA to handle additional work. The RCPP was available within 11 southeastern Minnesota counties.

PROJECTS: Ag waste systems funded at 90% were completed in Dodge, Houston, Wabasha and Winona counties. Two more, in Houston and Rice counties, were funded at 75% using only state funds. Landowners paid the 10% or 25% match. (The RCPP targeted livestock operations with 500 or fewer animal units. An animal unit is a measure of manure produced. One dairy cow equals 1.4 animal units.) The $120,000 in remaining funds will help to reduce the risk for one farmer to try rotational grazing, and for two farmers to convert row crops to perennial cover.

ACCOMPLISHMENTS: “We were able to leverage both state and federal dollars to really provide some vital financial assistance to some dairy operators at a time when there really wasn’t a lot of profit margin in dairies,” said Rochester-based BWSR Board Conservationist Dave Copeland, who served as the state’s administrative coordinator for the RCPP. “(The dairies) had some issues they needed to address to reduce or minimize the environmental impacts from their operation. … We had producers that wanted to do the right thing, they just needed some help.”

USDA is an equal opportunity provider, employer and lender. Natural Resources Conservation Service website: www.nrcs.usda.gov.
The Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources’ mission is to improve and protect Minnesota’s water and soil resources by working in partnership with local organizations and private landowners. www.bwsr.state.mn.us

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