We should do all we can to maximize soil health, and manure and biologicals play an important role in accomplishing this.

June 12 2024 12:54 PM

Biologicals. Are you familiar with this term? North Carolina State Extension defines biologicals as agronomic inputs derived from microbes, plants, or other living organisms.

Biologicals is one of the new buzzwords in agriculture that raises many questions. What are they? What do they do? Why should individuals in the manure industry be aware of them? Isn’t manure the original biological? This idea has been met with curiosity and speculation, as does any new technology when it is produced for the masses.

The manure industry mainly focuses on the nitrogen and phosphorus levels in manure. Yet, we know manure has many other benefits, including microorganisms and micronutrients.

Numerous studies have been done to determine the value of those additional benefits. To date, the conclusion is daunting, if not downright impossible, to quantify the value of these organisms in manure. These are such important components, but with so many possible interactions, the value is acknowledged without a specific economic value. I do not think they are talked about enough.

The economic side

Let’s begin the conversation in a logical place: economics. According to Vantage Market Research, the agricultural biological sector was valued at $12.3 billion in 2022, with a projected compound annual growth rate of 13.4% until 2030. These figures should be eye opening, especially since I believe manure has a place at the “biological table.”

The biological market has numerous products, each focused on a very specific piece of plant or soil health. Want some microbes that help break down plant residue faster? It’s there. How about plant stress? That’s available, too.

Need to utilize nitrogen during a more optimal period in the growing season? There are several of those products. There are even biologicals on the market that are specified to enhance the benefits of manure after they break down solids in the pit and reduce crusting. With the value of biologicals growing and the ability of manure to contribute to the growing value, I contend that conversation should be focused on how manure application saves producers money.

In the bigger picture of crop production, the relationship of plant health and soil is essential. The balance of the plant and soil relationship is the basis for any manure application. Manure application should also be seen as a biological amendment. The contribution to plant growth while enhancing soil health is the primary consideration. The economic value to accomplish this goal should not be ignored. Concurrent to the economic value of manure as a biological is to reduce the need for other applications and amendments.

Stewards of the soil

We, as professionals in the manure industry, should do everything we can to maximize soil health. Manure and biologicals are a large component of this goal. There is still a lot to be learned about the broad spectrum of biologicals on the market.

Not all acres have access to manure. The farms that have access should be using manure and conducting research to see if more biologicals fit their operations. Farms with acres that don’t have access should be using biologicals, and probably a mix of them. Regardless of access, the goal is to improve soil health for long-term sustainability.

I haven’t even begun to talk about how biologicals and manure fit into the conversations revolving around Carbon Intensity Scores. The bottom line is that what we do in the manure industry is a small part of the larger web we call agriculture.

I hope I sparked some questions for you to ponder. The manure industry needs to recognize its potential to positively impact soil health, among other benefits. We must commit to continuous learning, asking questions, and conducting our own field experiments to find feasible options. This commitment will move us forward. I know I have to keep learning every day, all for the improvement of my operation . . . What about you?

This article appeared in the May 2024 issue of Journal of Nutrient Management on page 24. Not a subscriber? Click to get the print magazine.