How much manure do you need to apply? The answer depends on:

  • The crop you are growing and the expected yield;
  • Existing soil nutrients as determined by a soil analysis;
  • Desire to build soil nutrients for future years or mine what’s currently in the soil;
  • The type of manure you wish to use and a laboratory analysis of it; and
  • Any other fertilizer nutrients you expect to apply.

Note that manure characteristics vary significantly among species, so choosing a rate based on the coverage it provides on the soil surface is not a recommended method of determining an appropriate application rate. For instance, poultry litter is much more nutrient dense than beef feedlot manure so the soil coverage resulting from a recommended application rate of litter will be much less than what would result from a recommended application rate of beef manure.

What Are Your Goals?

Because fertility needs differ among crops, a good starting point is figuring out what nutrients are needed. Fertility recommendations can come from trusted advisors (like a crop consultant) or can be calculated yourself using guidance and resources provided by UNL, such as CropWatch. Remember, when determining nutrients needed, account for all sources of nutrients (i.e., existing soil resources, irrigation water, starter fertilizers, etc.).

Once you know what nutrients are needed for your crop, you can choose a manure application rate to meet agronomic crop needs while accounting for excess soil nutrients or building soil fertility. Usually, agronomic rates are determined on nitrogen (N) need and/or phosphorus (P) removal. In either case, these need-based rates are chosen on just one nutrient and, therefore, may over- or under-apply other nutrients, so they’re many times used as guideposts. For this reason, someone may choose a rate that deviates from these. NEVER apply more N than necessary as doing so increases the risk for nitrogen leaching. Also, if your soil already has enough phosphorus (P), manure may be better utilized on acres that need phosphorus and can benefit from additional intrinsic benefits of manure. N-based and P removal rates can be calculated as:

N-based Rate=(N needed)/(N available from manure in year 1), P removal rate=(Expected P2O5 removal for next 4-5 years)/(P2O5 in manure)

What Does Manure Provide?

Example manure analyses results from 2 popular labs in Nebraska. Please note these do not reflect any operation but orient the reader to the proper column for reading analysis and determining their own availability.
Example manure analyses results from 2 popular labs in Nebraska. Please note these do not reflect any operation but orient the reader to the proper column for reading analysis and determining their own availability.

Many people are unfamiliar with reading manure lab analysis reports, but this skill is critical when choosing a proper manure application rate based on manure nutrient availability. This starts with taking a manure sample and sending it to the lab for a manure analysis. Example manure analyses can be seen in figure 1 to the right. Once that information is received, calculations can be made to determine available nutrients.

Nitrogen Availability in Manure

Nitrogen in manure is typically found in two forms, ammonium N and organic N. While nitrate N is occasionally found in small amounts in some composts, it is not usually significant for most manures. For this reason, if you know total N (sometimes called Total Kjeldahl Nitrogen or TKN) and either organic or ammonium N, the other nitrogen form can be calculated.

Ammonium N is available the first year but is prone to loss through volatilization into the atmosphere when manure is applied to the soil surface. Volatilization, however, can be reduced by quick incorporation with tillage, irrigation, or precipitation.

Organic N is not all available the first year. It becomes available slowly – and over multiple years – as microbes in the manure and soil mineralize it into plant-available forms.

Availability of nitrogen differs regionally due to differences in climate as well as application practices on the farm, so lab-provided availability may not match nutrient availability for your particular situation. Read more about Nebraska availability factors.

Example N availability:

A small cow-calf operation receives a manure analysis result of Organic N = 15 lbs/ton and Ammonium N = 2 lbs/ton.

Available Organic N=Organic N from manure analysis ×availability factor, Available Organic N=(15 lbs N)/ton×〖40% available〗^*=(6 lbs N)/ton

*For most manures, but exceptions exist. See availability factors.

Available Ammonium N=Ammonium N from manure analysis ×availability factor, Available Ammonium N =(2 lbs N)/ton  ×0% available =(0 lbs N)/ton

*0% available when manure is broadcast on the surface with no incorporation.

Total N Available=Organic N available+Ammonium N available, Total N Available=(6 lbs N)/ton+(0 lbs N)/ton  =  (6 lbs N)/ton

Phosphorus Form and Availability

Phosphorus in a manure analysis is reported as P2O5, which is likely what would be used for any fertility recommendations, so no conversion is necessary. Even though P2Oin manure is only about 70% available the first year, manure is generally applied at a rate that exceeds needs for P2O5 in a single year, so one can assume that 100% will be available over time.

Calculating N-based and P-based Rates

Remember, an N-based rate is always a maximum possible rate. It should never be exceeded due to the risk of nitrogen leaching. To calculate a manure application rate that meets all crop N needs, all that is required is knowing what a crop needs and how much N is available from manure and other sources (e.g. residual organic N, irrigation water, etc.). The following example uses the availability from the previous example.

Example N-based Rate:

A field is expected to grow a 251 bu/acre corn crop, which will need 183 lbs N/ac. Manure from a small cow-calf operation will be used but not incorporated. The manure analysis reports Organic N = 15 lbs/ton and Ammonium N = 2 lbs/ton.

N-based Rate=  (N needed)/(N available from manure in year 1), N-based Rate=  (183 lbs N⁄ac)/(6 lbs N⁄ton)  = 31 tons⁄ac

Table 1. P2O5 removal rates for common crops in Nebraska.
Crop DM% P2O5 Units
Corn (grain) 85 0.31 lb/bu
Corn silage 35 3.2 lb/ton
Corn stover (residue) 85 3.5 lb/ton
Soybean (grain) 87 0.79 lb/bu
Oats (grain) 86 0.23 lb/bu
Oat straw 90 2.5 lb/ton
Wheat (grain) 87 0.5 lb/bu
Wheat straw 90 2.1 lb/ton
Small grain hay 85 11.7 lb/ton
Alfalfa hay 85 9.3 lb/ton
Alfalfa silage 40 4.9 lb/ton

A phosphorus removal rate will meet the P needs for the planned crops in the next few years but is designed to maintain current soil test values. Using a rate in excess of the P removal rate will build soil P values, which can cause environmental concerns if soil P values become excessive and/or the field has a high risk for P loss (as determined by the P-index). Using a rate below P removal rate will allow the crop to mine excess P from the soil.

To calculate a 4-year removal rate, one must know crop removal rates, which will vary based on expected yield. Table 1 gives estimated removal rates of P2Ofor various crops.

Example P Removal Rate:

For a field in Eastern Nebraska, a 4-year crop rotation is expected to be corn year 1, soybean year 2, corn year 3 and corn year 4. Corn yields are expected to be 215 bu/acre and soybeans are expected to yield 68 bu/acre.

4-year P removal=Year 1 crop yield ×removal rate+Year 2 crop yield ×removal rate+ Year 3 crop yield ×removal rate+Year 4 crop yield ×removal rate, 4-year P removal=(215 ×0.31)+(68 ×0.79)+(215 ×0.31)+(215 ×0.31)=254 lbs⁄acre

Manure from a small cow-calf operation will be used. The manure analysis reports P2O= 11 lbs/ton.

P removal rate=  (Expected P2O5  removal for next 4 years)/(P2O5  in manure), P removal rate=  (254 lbs/acre)/(11 lbs/ton)=23 tons/acre

What Rate Should be Chosen?

How Do I Know I Applied at the Intended Rate?

Choosing an application rate is important, but if you don’t know what you actually applied, what is the point? As with any fertilizer spreader, a manure spreader should be calibrated. Learn more about calibration.

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