Putting A Price Tag On Manure And Compost

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“People with lots of manure see it as a negative, but people with no manure and high fertilizer bills see manure as valuable.”

Lethbridge – How we value manure is, believe it or not, a burning question on the mind of one Alberta Agriculture employee. Trevor Wallace of the department’s nutrient management section is heading up a first-in-Alberta online manure and compost directory, where producers can buy, sell or trade manure or compost. He hopes the directory itself will establish a value for the products, since there is no set price today for manure or compost.

“What value can manure provide?” he asked participants of Agronomy Update 2009 here in January. “There’s the obvious value of reduced fertilizer inputs, but there’s also supply issues, the presence of weed seeds or pathogens, the type of manure (solid or liquid) and the nutrient content that affect the value.”

Other aspects that affect value are the release of nutrients over time and soil-building qualities. “People with lots of manure see it as a negative, but people with no manure and high fertilizer bills see manure as valuable,” said Wallace.

As the project leader of the Nutrient Management Strategy, Wallace and his colleagues have developed two methods for putting a price tag on manure.

The first requires the current value of each of the major nutrients (based on fertilizer prices) and the nutrient composition of the manure. Multiplying the value of each nutrient by its concentration in the manure and then adding the values of each nutrient gives the total value of the manure per tonne.

Method two is much more involved, as it is influenced by soil nutrient content, environmental considerations, nutrient mineralization, previous manure application frequency and projected crop yield. This method will yield a more representative “actual” value for manure if crop producers are considering the application of manure to help offset commercial fertilizer costs. While both methods result in a gross value for manure, there are other costs to consider, such as the transportation and application.

Cost of movement

In addition to the online manure and compost directory, a transportation calculator is due this month to help producers determine how far is too far when it comes to gaining value from the product. There are also plans for a manure applicator directory.

Jim Smith, a cow-calf producer near Carstairs, has had a listing to sell solid manure on the directory since October 12, 2008. While Smith hasn’t had any calls yet, he says the directory is a good idea. “We have a substantial pile, and know that certain farmers are starting to put it on their fields.”

Today the manure market in Alberta consists of informal transactions between buyers and sellers. Manure is typically sold or traded based on the cost of hauling and/or application. “If someone comes around and tells you there no value in manure, they’re wrong,” said Wallace.

The two major challenges facing the establishment of a more active manure market in Alberta are the consistency and quality of the manure or compost product, and the regional concentration of manure resources.

Wallace says that often producers looking to move manure off-farm are likely located in concentrated areas, while those producers that could benefit the most from the manure are located well away from those areas. “Once the product is being traded, that creates a price determination mechanism,” said Wallace. “Alberta Agriculture is not involved in any price setting, just a providing a mechanism to establish a price market.”

Most listings on the directory do not list a price but Wallace hopes to see that change. The directory has been up and running since May 2008, but it wasn’t promoted actively until last fall. It is modelled after the province’s successful hay and pasture directory.

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