By Kate Proctor
This year, it seemed as if we launched from a great winter straight into summer, with about one day of spring in between. Snow banks disappeared under a blast of warm air and sunshine, leaving behind drying fields, blooming spring flowers, and the kind of optimism that only a strong shot of sun can bring. One of our input suppliers quite accurately commented that he thinks farmers must be solar-powered.
We feel cautiously ahead of the game – after the past two wet, cold springs, we got all of our liquid manure out almost a month ahead of some years. Spreading liquid manure is a funny thing. People whizzing past in their cars probably don’t even notice, neighbours are inundated with the unmistakable odour, but out in the field, it is possibly one of the most complicated tasks that we do.
We have a relatively small drag line manure spreading set up compared to some of our neighbours. If everything goes right, we can get 750,000 gallons of liquid spread in two days. But, there are a lot of pieces to this puzzle that practically ensure you won’t finish in two days. I always breathe a huge sigh of relief when it actually is finished, and it is never finished until the last hose is safely rolled up on the reel and all the equipment is back in the yard.
Using a drag line to spread liquid manure has a few advantages over using tankers. It causes less compaction, takes less time to spread, provides more nitrogen to the plants, reduces odour, can require fewer employees depending on the number of tankers, and can eliminate travel on the road. It does take some management and if things go wrong, they can go wrong in a hurry.
The drag line consists of a hard plastic pipe that winds up on a big metal reel – one you can see from the road as you whiz past. The tractor pulls the manifold and an applicator, which is attached to the drag line. In addition, there is a supply line that brings the liquid from the tank to the applicator. At the tank there is a pump, run by another tractor, and an agitator to keep the solids stirred up and flowing out with the manure.
Added all up, we have 990 feet of drag line, roughly 3,500 feet of supply hose, two reels, four tractors, an applicator with a manifold, three PTOs, one pump with a primer, a suction hose, and an agitator. These pieces of equipment have gaskets, connectors, bearings, chains – some require lubrication but some can’t be lubricated, grease fittings, and about 30 tires. A pin hole in any of that hose requires immediate repair. What could go wrong?
So far, I’ve just described some of the equipment required to make this operation happen. One part of my job is to stay at the pit moving the agitator and watching the pump. If anything goes wrong in the field, the pump must be shut down immediately, so having a reliable system of communication is vital.
Placing the agitator requires backing the tractor up as close as you can to the edge of the tank, setting it in, running it for about 20 minutes at a time and moving it regularly to keep the entire tank mixing properly. Without moving the agitator adequately, you end up with the dreaded island of solid that cannot be removed.
Out in the field, correct placement of the drag line reel and supply hose is vitally important to make sure the field is covered properly and that the hoses do not cross. And while they may look rugged, driving over a supply hose or the drag line is a big no-no! Now we use GPS and autosteer to actually steer the tractor, so once that line is set up, driving the tractor is the easy part.
We can cover about one third to one quarter of a 100-acre field before everything needs to be moved. Moving equipment and resetting requires detaching the applicator, winding up the drag line, wrapping up supply hose and shifting everything to another part of the field. In order to wind the drag line, the reel must be repositioned so that the line feeds in as straight as possible and wraps tightly around the reel.
I have been helping with this job for about six years, which sounds like I should be an expert, but in reality, adds up to about a total of 17 days spread over that time. Every year, I think I’ll have a better idea of how things need to be placed and angled and set up – but every year it is a struggle. I’ve been doing it long enough to have an idea of some of the things that can go wrong (although there is always room for surprises), but not long enough to feel confident to take it on by myself. I’m very thankful for our long-term expert at manure spreading and try to learn as much as I can, hoping eventually that knowledge will sink in and still be there next year.
As with most jobs, there is a complexity that can’t really be appreciated from the outside looking in and I always think it is a small miracle every year when it is completed. It is one of those jobs that takes practice and people new to the job, who haven’t seen what can go wrong, sometimes approach it with more gusto than I do. The 4-H motto of “learn to do by doing” always pops into my mind at some point during the process, and I am especially grateful for the patience, skill, and knowledge of the people I work with. ◊