A Tangy Question: Money And Manure

BRIAN SULLAM

June 06, 1993|By BRIAN SULLAM

Manure disposal is not something that keeps me awake at night, but the high cost of disposing of large amounts of animal waste does cause a lot of sleepless nights for many Carroll County farmers.

Consider the situation at Country Fair Farm, which houses 500,000 laying hens in its four high-tech chicken houses on Bachmans Valley Road. These modern hen houses are basically two stories high. The top story houses the hens, the bottom their droppings.

Every year or so, T. Edward Lippy, one of the farm's co-owners, sends in front loaders to clean out the several thousand tons of manure and then spreads it on 8,000 acres of corn and grain fields.

At Steve Warehime's farm outside of Taneytown, Mr. Warehime built a 933,000-gallon, state-of-the-art manure pond to handle thousands of gallons of waste generated by the 2,400 pigs he feeds. The pond is 10 feet deep, 136 feet wide by 146 feet long, cost more than $40,000 and is lined with a thick black layer of high-density polyethylene plastic. When the pond is empty, it looks like a great swimming hole. When it is filled with semi-liquid manure, swimming is the last thing that comes to mind.

During a recent tour of Carroll farms organized by the Carroll County Cooperative Extension Service, two dozen non-farm types -- bankers, government officials and media people -- received a short course on manure disposal problems facing the county's farmers. For most of us city slickers, it was an eye-opening and, in some cases, nose-closing experience.

The family of Norman and Paul Sellers has been tending dairy cattle on their farm outside of Manchester for more than a century. Last year, they built a 570,000-gallon, concrete-lined pit to handle manure from their 130-head dairy herd and the seven to eight dozen steers they raise in an adjacent feedlot.

The cost of the tank put a considerable dent in their budget, but Norman Sellers said he needed it to continue to operate the farm profitably.

"People like to think of farming as a way of life," he said, "but it is a business."

These Carroll farmers know that unless they can produce grain and livestock on a profitable basis, they cannot stay in farming. So it becomes a question of maximizing the output of the land and reducing costs.

For increasing numbers of farmers in Carroll County, manure collection and disposal is a serious challenge. In an effort to augment the incomes they get from growing grains, corn, hay or soybeans, many farmers are raising livestock on a contract basis.

They receive a regular payment for housing, feeding and caring for these animals, which someone else owns. But the farmers are stuck owning the waste, and that is the reason for their preoccupation.

During the tour, we saw a variety of waste disposal systems. Some relied on gravity. Other required people or tractors to move the manure into the large storage pits. We also saw a variety of manure storage facilities: concrete- and clay-lined pits, a large metal above-ground tank that looked as if it had been transported from an oil refinery and Mr. Warehime's plastic-lined holding pond.

Mr. Warehime doesn't mind being called a "pig sitter." In fact, he appropriated the term from his daughter, who used it to explain to her friends what her father was doing with his spanking-new, temperature-controlled pig barns.

Three times a year, Mr. Warehime takes delivery of 2,400 10-week-old piglets. They are housed in small pens in the barn, where they will remain until they are fat enough for slaughter about four months later.

About the only thing these pigs have to do is eat the grain mix they are fed automatically from the silos outside the barn. A computer measures the amount needed and a conveyor belt carries it to their pens.

These pigs never go outside to root in dirt and deposit their droppings on the ground like some of their country cousins. All of Mr. Warehime's charges drop their urine and manure through slats in the floor into a concrete-lined disposal collection system. After about a month, plugs are pulled and the waste empties into the plastic-lined holding pond.

In early spring, Mr. Warehime pumps the manure out of the pond and into his spreaders. He distributes it on his 600 acres of grain and corn fields. In the fall, he repeats the spreading process. It takes about 40 hours to spread the manure each season.

Farmers who are using manure as fertilizer have cut back on their purchases of chemical fertilizers and lowered their cost of growing grain. But they also have incurred a great deal of debt in order to handle this manure.

In recent months, runoff from farms has been blamed for problems in Chesapeake Bay. But after seeing all that these farmers are doing to curb soil erosion, control animal waste and minimize the use of chemical fertilizers, it appears that a number of them are making every effort to do their part to preserve the bay.

Farmers seemed to be quite sincere in their efforts to curb the pollution they generate. If spending large amounts of money is a measure of sincerity, then many of the county's farmers are beyond sincere, considering the hundreds of thousands they are now investing in pollution control.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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