For nearly two decades, Abe Sandquist has used every marketing tool he can think of to sell a cow’s hindquarters. Shit, after all, has to go somewhere. The Midwestern entrepreneur has worked hard to attract farmers to its benefits for their crops.
Today, faced with a worldwide shortage of commercial fertilizers made worse by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, more and more American growers are knocking on its door. Sandquist says they’re clamoring to get their hands on something Old MacDonald would swear by: old-fashioned animal manure.
“I wish we had more to sell,” said Sandquist, founder of Natural Fertilizer Services Inc, a nutrient management company based in the US state of Iowa. “But there are not enough to meet the demand.”
Some cattle and dairy farmers, including those who previously paid to have waste removed from their animals, have found a fertile side business selling it to grain farmers. Equipment companies that make manure-spreading equipment called “honey carts” also benefit.
Not only are more U.S. farmers looking for manure supplies for this spring planting season, some livestock feeders who sell waste are sold out until the end of the year, according to industry consultant Allen Kampschnieder.
“Manure is absolutely a hot commodity,” said Kampschnieder, who works for Nebraska-based Nutrient Advisors. “We have waiting lists.”
Skyrocketing industrial fertilizer prices are expected to reduce American farmers’ corn and wheat plantings this spring, according to US government data. This further threatens global food supplies, as national wheat stocks are at a 14-year low and the Russian-Ukrainian war disrupts grain shipments from these major suppliers.
Although manure can fill some of the nutrient gap, it’s not a panacea, say agricultural experts. There is not enough supply to exchange all of the commercial fertilizer used in the United States. Transporting it is expensive. And animal waste prices are also rising due to high demand.
It is also heavily regulated by state and federal authorities, in part due to concerns about impacts on water systems.
Manure can cause serious problems if it contaminates nearby streams, lakes and groundwater, said Chris Jones, research engineer and water quality expert at the University of Iowa. .
Cattlemen say it is difficult to follow all government rules and track how manure is applied.
RACE TO WASTE
Regardless of the downsides, demand is booming.
In Wisconsin, three dairy farmers told Reuters they turned down requests to buy their manure sent by text and Twitter messages.
North Carolina-based Phinite, which makes manure-drying systems, says it responds to requests from growers as far afield as Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa and Indiana.
Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, has noticed the change in the US pig farms that supply its slaughterhouses.
“We certainly see farmers switching to manure as fertilizer prices rise,” said Jim Monroe, spokesman for the company, which is owned by Hong Kong-listed WH Group Ltd.
Industrial fertilizers such as nitrogen require a lot of energy to produce. Prices began to soar last year amid rising demand and falling supply, as record high natural gas and coal prices triggered production cuts at fertilizer makers. Extreme weather and COVID-19 outbreaks have also disrupted global supply chains.
The war in Ukraine has made matters worse by reducing fertilizer exports from Russia and its ally Belarus due to Western sanctions and transportation problems. This threatens to reduce harvests around the world at a time of record food inflation. Together, Russia and Belarus accounted for more than 40% of global potash exports last year, one of three key nutrients used to boost crop yields, according to Dutch lender Rabobank.
In March, commercial fertilizer prices hit a record high, with nitrogen fertilizers quadrupling since 2020 and phosphate and potash tripling, London-based consultancy CRU Group said.
One person left behind is Dale Cramer, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat on about 6,000 acres in Cambridge, Nebraska. Looking for alternatives, he’s been sniffing around feedlots for manure since last August without success.
“A lot of people put their names down for the same thing,” Cramer said.
The material (abridged) was reported by PJ Huffstutter and Tom Polansek in Chicago, and Bianca Flowers in Chicago and New York. Additional reporting by Leah Douglas in Washington, DC; Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Marla Dickerson