Farmers place a lot of trust in custom applicators to transport nutrients and uphold their reputation.

June 12 2023 07:23 AM

The author has been involved in large-scale commercial dairying in Wisconsin for more than 20 years and is now an account manager for Chr. Hansen Inc.

If you ever want to “trigger” a group of livestock farm managers, ask them — off the record — to discuss how potentially fraught the relationship is with their custom manure hauling crews.

Don’t get me wrong. Most dairy operators have long-established, mutually beneficial relationships with their hauling crews. A solid 97% of the time, the two sides of this coin work in a productive, professional harmony. But it’s that other 3% that sends a chill down virtually every farm operator’s spine.

In preparation for a speaking gig at the Wisconsin Custom Operators annual convention, I asked a number of large dairy managers to individually confide in me, “What do you wish your manure hauling crew knew?”

The amazing thing was a nearly universal consensus among their responses. The dairy operators cited two main concerns about their hauler relationships, and both are rooted in public relations.

First, despite the fact that the manure truck says “ABC Trucking” on its side in big, crystal-clear letters, the farm’s neighbors don’t “see” that. Instead, they only associate that truck with the farm for which it’s hauling.

That leads directly to the second distress factor: The behind-the-scenes planning of nutrient application is exponentially more complicated than it sometimes appears on the surface. And one bad driver can send a stick of dynamite into all those plans and do irreparable damage.

The general parameters of the dairymen’s shared nightmare are pretty easy to follow. Let me lay it out in this fictional situation that may hit close to home for some of you.

One bad move

A manure truck isn’t just a manure truck. It’s an 80,000-pound smelly, rolling billboard for the farm. If you ask most nonfarming neighbors, they’ll tell you the top complaint — by a country mile — is the presence of a stinky manure truck on their local roads. Worse yet, one neighbor’s bad experience with a manure tanker can lead to hundreds of thousands of dollars in future ramifications and negate a decade’s worth of good public relations efforts for the farm.

Let’s say a neighbor pulls out in front of a manure tanker and the truck driver avoids the car but loses his cool as a result. Maybe that driver lays on the air horn and flips the neighbor the “bird.” That neighbor, who never complained before, now decides to call the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to complain about the manure trucks.

The DNR comes out to inspect, and the dairy owner shows them the hauling log, the rate sheet, and the marked setbacks in the field. The DNR person points to an area of the field that has been incorporated with manure perfectly and asks why it isn’t marked with a setback. The dairy manager explains it is just a low spot in the field and there’s nothing ponded or running off, so everything’s fine.

However, the DNR rep just graduated with his environmental science degree last week and is looking to make a name for himself. He says that it’s a concentrated flow area and you’re in violation of your permit, despite it being incorporated, despite it being part of the field, despite it not being on the setback map, and despite there being anything that even remotely resembles “pollution.”

The neighbor who called you in now starts telling a few other neighbors about the fact that you got in trouble with DNR and, dollars to doughnuts, they start to think, “If they’re doing that, what else are they doing when no one is looking?”

Long-term impacts

A year later, that same dairy wants to expand from 700 cows to 1,200 cows since two of the sons are graduating college and want to return to the business. The family applies for a permit to add a lagoon and some manure technology. The DNR informs them that there’s been chatter from some “concerned neighbors” and, as a result, there will have to be a public hearing.

In the meantime, the “concerned neighbor” has a group of five more neighbors that they’ve convinced the world will cease spinning on its axis if you’re allowed to grow your farm. At the public hearing, these neighbors use their allotted three minutes of speaking time to opine about the evils of factory farming, the environmental destruction caused by modern dairy farming, and the fact that, “If only we returned to everyone milking 35 cows in little red barns, society as a whole would prosper and we would all live forever.”

Meanwhile, a reporter is writing down everything they say, and you wake up the next morning to headlines that read, “Industrial farm coming to a neighborhood near you.”

The DNR ends up issuing you a permit — but tacked on are a few extra monitoring wells that you’ll need to install so they can “assure the locals that their groundwater is safe,” despite the fact there are three other farms in your neighborhood and none of them are required to install them.

Our reputation is at risk

You’re wondering what in the world just happened, given you’re a fourth generation farm that’s never had an environmental issue and has had a wonderful relationship with the community for the last 50 years. What happened was the loss of “social license” from one neighbor having one bad experience with one truck driver.

This really does happen. One bad interaction with one manure hauler can lead to hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, public relations costs, and additional operating expenses. Fifty years of positive community interactions can go south just like that.

This is the nightmare scenario that keeps farmers up at night.

Custom operators deserve tremendous respect for the service they provide. Not only are they performing a vital role in the operation of our dairies, but they’re also carrying with them our reputation, and arguably the future of our business.

Even as the labor market gets tighter and truck drivers become even more difficult to find and retain, we must never lower the standards with which we operate. Having very specific rules for custom crews in regard to the code of conduct is absolutely imperative, as is a clear chain of command. Our haulers, literally and figuratively, have their hands on the wheel and can determine the direction — positive or negative — that our farms take going forward. The future of our industry is at stake.

This article appeared in the May 2023 issue of Journal of Nutrient Management on pages 6-7.
Not a subscriber? Click to get the print magazine.