Once you have hired a custom manure applicator, be available to address any additional concerns, and then let him do the job he was hired to do. “The less you know we’re on your farm, the better we like it,” says custom operator Tim Ransom of Darien, Wis. “We don’t want to interrupt you or your cows.”

The need to move large volumes of manure in a short time span means more and more dairies have turned to custom-manure applicators for help.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t always mean an end to manure-handling hassles. Scheduling conflicts, unmet expectations, and a wide variety of disputes have caused more than one custom agreement to go up in smoke.

But that doesn’t have to be the case. Communication and more communication is what’s needed to keep the custom applicator in the field and efficient, while allowing you to focus on daily management of the dairy, says Leonard Meador, owner of Global Eco-Tech, an environmental consulting firm in Rossville, Ind.

With that in mind, here’s how to build a good relationship with a custom-manure applicator.

Check references. Before you enter into any type of agreement, ask for references. Get the names and numbers of producers with whom he’s done business, as well as his suppliers and equipment dealers.

Ask the following of producers:

  • Does the custom applicator keep a clean site while pumping?
  • Does he have enough equipment that is calibrated and in good repair to do the job correctly?
  • Is he dependable?
  • Does he have an emergency action plan if something should go wrong?
  • Did he consistently meet your needs?
  • Would you recommend his services?
  • Would you hire him again?

Ask suppliers and dealers:

  • Does the custom applicator pay his bills on time?
  • Is he a good customer?
  • Is he easy to work with?
  • Does he make reasonable demands?

A red flag should go up if he is unwilling or unable to provide references or address any areas of concern.

But turnabout is fair play. Don’t be surprised if an applicator asks you for references. He will want to know what kind of a client you are, especially if he has not done business in your area previously.

Evaluate services offered. Not all custom-manure applicators are alike. Besides price, you need to evaluate the candidates based on what services they can perform for your dairy.

“Can the custom operator abide by conservation-tillage requirements, handle no-till-residue management, buffer and filter-strip identification, or be able to deal with growing crop and cover crop applications?” asks Meador.

Also, determine if he will collect manure samples during the pumping operation, or if you will need to do that. Will he agitate storage facilities, or will you? Can the applicator change application rates within a field and avoid areas with nutrient buildups? And ask if application maps will be provided upon completion of the job.

To help make sure that you cover everything, complete a list of the steps currently completed on farm with regard to manure management. Then, use that list to guide your discussions. Don’t assume that you can add to the list later; the custom applicator may not have the time or capacity to do what you ask without advance preparation.

You’ll also want to ask what his expectations are for notification; that is, how far out you will need to plan your applications in order to meet his work schedule.           

Do the math. Before you sign any contract, make sure that the quotes offered by the customer applicator pencil out financially. According to economists at PennStateUniversity, to determine whether you’ll be money ahead to haul your own manure or hire a custom applicator, you need to do some calculations.

First, make a list of all the fixed and variable cost you incur from owning the manure-handling equipment to providing the necessary labor. Your list of fixed-cost items should include depreciation, interest and housing for the equipment. The variable-cost items include labor, fuel, oil, repairs and the interest on both the fixed and variable cost. Add these two together to get your total cost.

Now, compare this figure with the cost of hiring a custom applicator. Then, make your decision based on price, plus services provided.

Once you have agreed to terms, develop and sign a contract that puts the expectations of both sides down in writing. Be sure to include payment method and payment schedule so that there are no misunderstanding or surprises.

Plan ahead. For best results, give custom applicators as much notice as possible.

“We work with about three to four months of lead time,” says custom applicator Tim Ransom, owner of T-K Ag Works, Darien, Wis. “For example, we’ll have our spring work mapped out by March 1. Of course, we can be flexible, but if you can tell us when you need us about three months ahead of time, that helps us a lot.”

At the very least, it is good policy to notify a custom applicator as soon as the manure application sites are available; then he can work it into his schedule according to workload, weather and proximity to your site, says Meador. “In the busy season, most custom operators will not be able to respond sooner than two weeks, and three weeks is closer to normal.”

Also, keep custom applicators apprised of your crops’ progress and field availability. Let them know if it’s too wet in your area to apply manure or if crop maturity has advanced faster than expected. These factors enter into application decisions.

Finally, be flexible to applicator workload.

“We try to be totally honest with our clients as to what we’re doing and when we’re going to do it,” says Ransom. But, sometimes, unforeseen difficulties or scheduling conflicts arise. Be sure to discuss how you and your applicator will handle these situations.

Above all, be courteous, recommends Meador. “The application season is a high-stress time for everyone, and creating more conflicts does not minimize mistakes or maximize efficiency.”

Plan for field access. When planting this spring, think about the relationship between the field and crops or the hybrids planted and how they will affect manure application. Or, if you rent cropland for manure application, get in touch with the crop managers for this information.

If manure is to be applied in the spring’s wetter season, plan to apply manure to fields that drain well and dry out quickly. Reserve wetter fields for applications later in the year. Make sure hybrid selection correlates with these decisions, so that early maturing varieties are planted in fields that will be ready for manure application without seasonal weather interference.

Or, be flexible enough to accommodate weather curveballs. For example, if winter wheat in Wisconsin suffers severe winterkill, consider a compatible crop like Sudan grass that will allow for application flexibility. “That way, we can apply manure in late June before the second crop is planted,” Ransom says. “We don’t have to wait for corn ground and we’re not competing for a scheduling slot in July, which can get tough.”

Choose wisely. Choose applicators that belong to professional organizations and have participated in training exercises. Some states require certification.

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource officials have found that custom-manure applicators who receive training are much more professional in reporting and handling accidents.

If a potential applicator has completed a certification program, find out if all of the equipment operators who work for him are certified, or does it just involve the owner? Ask if everyone keeps up with continuing education.

Responsible parties

accidents and mistakes happen. in the case of misapplied manure, the result can be costly. But, who is responsible?

In all states, the generator of the manure is the responsible party, says Leonard Meador, owner of Global Eco-Tech, an environmental consulting firm in Rossville, Ind. In some states that require custom-applicator certification, some of the responsibility can be shared by the applicator. Check with your state department of agriculture to find out if this situation applies in your state.

One possible exception to total producer responsibility for misapplied manure may be if the manure is truly brokered, says Meador. That is, you have a signed contract with a person or company that removes, transports and utilizes the manure independent of your operation. “But even this arrangement must have a documented paper trail, and that the broker understands what he is receiving and how it is to be handled relative to the waters of the state,” cautions Meador.