Jason Hoefer, of Midwest Pumping, poses with some of his equipment.

Animal manure has long been recognized as a method to return nutrients essential to the crop growing process to the soil. When compared to more conventional commercial fertilizers, properly applied manure has the potential to foster a prime growing environment in addition to providing numerous environmental benefits.

Commercial manure application is an evolving field. Midwest Pumping Services, based in Edgewood, employs five full-time workers along with three to five seasonal employees to meet the needs of producers throughout Northeast Iowa and Southwest Wisconsin.

Midwest Pumping owner Jason Hoefer has grown up around the business.

“It started with my family. My uncles started over 20 years ago. It was in the family and I just went after that,” said Hoefer. “My brother and brother-in-law do this too. It’s kind of a family thing.“

Hoefer believes manure plays a vital role in building the soil, and combined with other sources, creates optimal growing conditions.

“There are a lot of variables in fertilizing. You’re still going to need some chemicals, but you can’t buy organic matter in town. The manure is going to have stuff that builds up your ground,” Hoefer said. “There are some farms that don’t need everything we have, so we’ll put on a light rate and they have someone come in and add some nitrogen or something because there’s already enough phosphorus in the ground.”

Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are often referred to as the big three in soil quality, and farmers are well aware of manure’s ability to improve the organic composition of soil.

“Farmers have learned that if they waste manure it’s just tossing the money because then they have to buy more fertilizer,” said Hoefer. “So they’re spreading this stuff out the best they can. When you have fertilizer sitting there to use, you certainly don’t want to need to buy some.”

Commercial manure application isn’t a one size fits all operation, but according to Hoefer, producers in all situations utilize his services.

“We work with bigger operations, but also work with some smaller ones. A lot of what we do goes on to a farmer’s own ground, but sometimes we have customers who include the neighbors in their manure plan,” Hoefer said. “Basically, a dairy, hog or beef operation will have a facility that holds manure. Most of the hog operations can hold it for a year and dairy and beef facilities can hold for six months. The DNR (Department of Natural Resources) watches their pit levels and they hire us to apply the manure from their facility onto their ground or their neighbor’s ground.”

Technology has transformed manure application, and Hoefer looks for further advances that will improve efficiency in his operation.

“The equipment is a lot better. We have GPS which we didn’t have 20 years ago. Now we regulate everything from the tractor and the price of the equipment is one of the biggest changes,” he said. “We’re trying out a John Deere system now that tests the manure 4,000 times a second coming into the applicator. It tests for nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium — everything coming into the applicator. We’re trying that out because it’s helpful to everybody.

“I control gallons per minute, gallons per acre and basically I know the rate I need to run and the speed I need to run. As we’re going we’re mapping the field through our John Deere mapping so when we get done the farmer can have the map.”

Hoefer and farmers work in cooperation with the DNR to assure proper environmental procedures are in place, but Hoefer sees the DNR as a partner rather than an adversary.

“We have regulations. Everything we do we like to inject into the ground to keep the nutrients there and for the public aspect of things. We have certain separation distances. If there’s a cemetery, church, a town or somebody’s house nearby we can inject it right up to their property, but if we don’t inject it it has to be worked in within a 24-hour period,” Hoefer said. ”The DNR is here to help us and help the public. Because if we don’t follow the regulations, we know there will be problems. You’re probably seeing more regulation and you’re seeing farmers that are utilizing the manure a lot better.”

Before the product is applied to the soil, a comprehensive plan is in place for each individual landowner.

“What it amounts to is they have a manure plan, and with the gallons per acre that the DNR sets for them, we go out and apply it to the ground for next year’s crop,” Hoefer said.

“Our applicator is set up so I have an Ipad in my tractor and I control the gallons per minute. If there’s a problem, I can shut it down. There’s material coming to my applicator all the time and I usually inject it four-to-six inches.”

Manure can be a very cost-effective part of a farming operation dependent on market conditions.

“Our rates vary. It’s all over the board,” said Hoefer. “Corn prices and bean prices will impact fertilizer prices and impact manure prices as well. There are just so many variables.”