Bedtime thoughts about manure, of all things!

John Oncken
The track, manure carrier and manure spreader of  John Oncken’s youth and memories.

The other night while laying in bed before going to sleep I was thinking not about a football game, the World Series or climate change, but rather the many changes that have occurred in agriculture during my life growing up, receiving an agronomy degree from the UW-Madison and spending decades working professionally in the ag area. 

Cleaning the barn

My thoughts about long ago history most always begin with cleaning the barn after morning milking and before walking down the road to Flint Grade School. My tools were a five tined fork, a manure shovel, the manure carrier on a track running the length of the barn and in good weather, a horse-drawn manure spreader just outside the north barn door. (The barn aisle was too narrow for the spreader to be inside.)

Even worse than the daily gutter cleanout was the periodic cleaning of the bullpen and calf pens that were packed high with manure and difficult to remove. Mechanical barn cleaners had not yet arrived on the scene so the work was all hand and back work which my brother Don and I faithfully carried out.(That’s what farm boys did.)

Lots of manure

Our dairy herd was never very big, only 12 - 15 cows but always seemed to us that they made a lot of manure and they did. Researchers long ago figured out that dairy cattle generally generate larger manure volumes per live weight than swine, beef or poultry. A mature dairy cow weighing 1,400 pounds can generate around 14 gallons (about 120 pounds) of feces and urine each day. 

Pasturing for 6 months meant self-spreading manure.

Not easy

Most people give little thought to waste removal. Just as long as it's gone and it has never been easy for dairy farmers to get rid of the waste created by their cows. Traditionally, Midwest dairy farmers pastured their cows during the summer and during the winter the fork and shovel method was and still is used. Sixty years ago, the barn cleaner was introduced and with electricity helped do the heavy work of cleaning the barns. The dairy scene changed as technology and economics prompted the growth of many large livestock farms and prompted others to sell out.

A typical barn on many farms today - no digester, lagoon of waste handling technology.

Still the same

But two things haven't changed: Dairy cows still produce manure and farmers use it as valuable fertilizer on their fields.

Meanwhile, city folks began moving to the idyllic countryside and cities have expanded into adjoining farmland. Thus the formerly innocuous product called manure became a major environmental as well as a 'people' issue. It becomes a serious issue when folks smell cow manure. Or when manure flows into a creek and kills hundreds of fish. Or when the Milwaukee sewage system is over stressed and sewage flows into Lake Michigan.

Liquid manure , coming from a rubber hose line being drilled into the soil.

When farm manure spills, farmers get in deep trouble with the Department of Natural Resources as well as with a host of environmental agencies.

We have all watched technology rise in an effort to better and more easily handle manure: Lagoons holding millions of gallons and a years' worth of manure; freestall barns with wide, open aisles making for easier cleaning by big equipment; digesters that separate liquids from solids while generating electricity and possibly natural gas and big, new equipment.

Today its pumping on the large farms with lagoons, no more forks and shovels.

A group of some 50 members, the Professional Nutrient Applicators Association of Wisconsin, is devoted to hauling and spreading manure from farm to field in a very short period helping many dairies move big volumes of manure quickly thus missing dangerous rainy and snowy periods. They also work with the state Department of Ag, Trade and Consumer Protection, UW-Extension and the USDA. 

Signs of manure spreading in mid-winter.

Technology advances

Yet, most farms of less than 700 cows still spread manure daily but must be careful how they do it. The technology of manure handling is advancing by the day, meaning livestock farmers are and will be spending lots of money to handle their manure. It's a far cry from a few decades ago when every farm had cows, pigs and chickens. And, manure had an odor even then – just ask the teachers who taught the kids like me – who came right out of the barn to the one-room schools.

John Oncken can be reached at or 608-837-7406.