Biosolids Pump Up Pasture Fertility at a Fraction of the Cost


These are interesting days in the beef business. Cattle prices are at record levels, but expenses are sky-high and rising. What if there was a way to cut those costs, especially fertilizer?
Bill Pyle, of Youngsville, N.C., has done just that, taking the rather unconventional approach of applying biosolids to his pastures. Biosolids are the materials left behind by wastewater treatment at municipal sewage plants. Following the treatment process, this material can provide nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and micronutrients to land.
Pyle has biosolids applied to 150 acres of pasture for his 80-cow beef herd. Depending on soil tests and nutrient requirements, the free fertilizer saves him $125 to $150 per acre in commercial fertilizer costs. The key is flexibility.
"You have to be able to keep cattle out of a pasture for 30 days after a biosolids application," Pyle says. "We have biosolids applied two to three times a year depending on weather and availability."
Benefits of Biosolids. Pyle's contractor (Granville Farms, Inc.) delivers and applies the liquid biosolids as a broadcast at no cost.
While fertilizer values vary depending on the treatment process, in an average application of 13,000 gallons per acre, values are comparable to 65 pounds of inorganic nitrogen, 39 pounds of phosphorus and up to 30 pounds of micronutrients. The dollar value based on these numbers is around $80 to $100 per application.
Granville Farms provides lime, but some biosolids come stabilized with lime. The contractor also provides soil testing as part of the state's requirements for applicator permits. The cattleman's pastures receive all of the nitrogen and phosphorus needed for high levels of forage production and are limed at no cost. Pyle still buys potash (0-0-60) fertilizer.
Pastures are planted with wheat and ryegrass for winter grazing. During periods of bad weather, Pyle supplements with haylage. A spring application of biosolids encourages heavy fescue growth through early summer. Later, bermudagrass and crabgrass provide excellent grazing. In early fall, Pyle stockpiles fescue. Thanks in part to this cheap source of fertilizer, cattle graze 10 months of the year, and excess forage is available to bale and sell as hay.
Pyle's 9- to 10-month-old steers wean off at 700 pounds. He also raises and sells SimAngus bulls. Cows maintain excellent body condition while raising heavy calves, and rebreeding rates are high. "If I didn't have such good forage, I would need to wean calves at 7 to 8 months of age," Pyle says.
Biosolids Boost Rangeland.
Oregon's Kent Madison took part in a nine-year, on-farm research project to see how biosolids applications might affect rangeland. The results were pretty amazing. Native grasses fertilized with biosolids averaged 3,000 pounds of forage per acre, with nitrogen uptake of 100 pounds per acre. In high rainfall years, yields were 5,000 to 6,000 pounds per acre, with nitrogen uptake of 140 pounds per acre. Without biosolids, median annual grass yield on the farm's arid rangeland (9-inch average rainfall) averaged 670 pounds per acre, with nitrogen uptake at 45 pounds.
Madison applies biosolids in dry cake form at a rate of 4 tons per acre once a year. The 4-ton rate gives him 150 pounds of Plant-Available Nitrogen per acre. Phosphorus values are 174 pounds, potash 24 pounds and sulfur 80 pounds. In addition, the application provides small amounts of zinc and copper. The fertilizer-replacement value was around $144 per acre.
Madison leases 9,000 acres of rangeland grazing rights. The higher forage yield and quality allow an increase in animal units per acre and have improved the overall value of the farm's grazing leases.
Biosolids Highlights
"Biosolids are too good to be disposed of in landfills or burned in incinerators," says Oregon's Kent Madison. A nine-year research project using biosolids on rangeland at Madison Farms showed:
-- Grass yield increased 530%.
-- Protein increased 1,150%.
-- Soil organic matter improved.
-- Digestibility of grass increased.
-- Nutrients were more concentrated.
The Downside
Not in My Backyard. Unless your cattle operation is in a remote area, you'll probably face concerns from adjoining landowners when using biosolids. You can explain the value to society of using biosolids as fertilizer as opposed to incineration or landfill disposal, but you'll probably have to live with a few upset neighbors.
Availability Varies. To keep hauling distances to a minimum, contractors want to apply the material to land near sewage-treatment plants. Farms and ranches near towns with treatment facilities stand the best chance of receiving biosolids.
Scheduling Problems. You may not be able to have biosolids delivered right when you need them for optimum fertilization.
Heavy metal concerns. Going back 30 years, the buildup of heavy metals from industrial wastewater was a major worry. But today's environmental regulations and wastewater-treatment requirements deal with those concerns. If you are uneasy about using biosolids as fertilizer, schedule a visit to the nearest wastewater-treatment facility and find out how heavy metals are removed during the process.

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