Blaine Besser’s manure pit cleanup project.

“With grandkids running around here, abandoned manure pits can be a death trap,” said Ogilvie farmer Brian Besser. Besser along with his son, Blaine, own adjoining farms south of Ogilvie. They each had an abandoned manure pit that they wanted to fill in and were considering doing it on their own and paying for it out of their own pockets. That is when they asked for help from Rick Martens, owner of Martens Manurigation pumping business. Martens suggested that they contact the Natural Resources and Conservation Service and the Soil and Water Conservation District office staff in Mora to see if there was funding available that would cover some of the costs of cleaning and closing up their pits. One phone call, a year of planning, design and working with NRCS and SWCD staff in Kanabec County resulted in their two manure pits being filled to NRCS standards and 75 percent of the costs being paid for with federal funding.

Financial, technical and paperwork assistance is available for farmers and landowners who want to properly fill-in abandoned manure pits according to Shannon Rasinski, NRCS district conservationist for Kanabec County. Some added state funding is only available through the end of June.

This is welcome news to farmers who have quit milking cows or raising hogs in recent years and who have abandoned their liquid manure pits. NRCS funding pays flat rates based on the pit size, and it is available to farmers who follow a proper abandonment, closure and clean-up process with the help of the NRCS and SWCD staff. An additional Minnesota Department of Agriculture low interest loan currently for 10 years at three-percent interest can be applied for through the SWCD. With these two sources of funding, up to 75 percent of the costs may be covered.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency requires that within one year of ceasing operation, farmers must remove all manure and land apply the material at agronomic rates. The purpose of proper manure pit abandonment is to protect ground and surface water, safeguard public health from potential gases, such as hydrogen sulfide and to remove a drowning hazard according to Rasinski. Also, if a farmer wants to sell the farm in the future, the pit will have to be refilled anyway or it can be a liability to the new owner. The closure has to be permanent.

“Many pits have lived beyond their design life,” said Rasinski. “We may have the original design on file at the NRCS office. We will inspect the site, do a closure design, calculate quantities and cost estimates. This all needs to be done before any work is started.” Pit closure project applications are then put into a pool. Each project goes through a National Environmental Protection Act assessment of its impact on impaired waters and threatened and endangered species. Livestock practice projects are given a high priority. The goal is to protect surface waters from runoff and ground waters from leaching. The closure has to comply with all federal, state and local laws, rules and regulations including national pollution discharge elimination system requirements.

Once that is completed, the excess water and solids in the pit must be removed. Then, the contaminated soil on the sides and bottom of the pit have to be removed and spread on cropland. Once the pit is cleaned, both ends of the underground pipe running from the barn to the pit and the pump must be cemented to permanently seal them to prevent any water from getting in. After that is completed and the pit is inspected to meet NRCS standards, it can be filled. Sometimes the fill can come from soil on site like it did with Brian’s pit when he got DNR permission to use a bank of soil between his farmstead and the river. In other situations, the fill may have to be hauled in as it did for Blaine’s pit. In his case, a local construction company brought in fill at no cost from another construction site that had to have it removed. The final steps are for the sites to be covered, graded and sloped to prevent water accumulation and then seeded.

Two other area farmers who have taken advantage of the NRCS and SWCD manure pit closure programs are Paul Kent Jr., Bill and Lucas Olen who farm east of Mora. Kent had his pit filled in last year as well. He had used it for 30 years for his 80-cow dairy herd and said it was an ideal way to handle manure. However, he does not miss hauling manure for two and one-half days, without sleep, to get it incorporated into the soil before winter arrived. He also said that another critical timing issue with manure pits is in the spring when there is a narrow window of opportunity to haul manure between the ground thawing and corn planting. He has not milked cows for five years and has pumped six to eight feet of water out of his pit each year for several years. With a 3-year old grandson around who could get into it, he decided to fill it in when he heard that his neighbors Bill and Lucas Olen had filled in their pit.

Olens had sold their cows in 2015 and filled in their pit in 2016 with the help of federal and state cost-sharing. Lucas is an experienced heavy equipment operator so he was able to do the work himself. Olen said that initially they received a 15-year loan to install the pit and they used it for 33 years. He said that the reason pits were approved for manure storage was to be able to contain the manure which is considered a hazardous waste.

Both Kent and Olen worked with NRCS and SWCD to complete the paperwork and followed what they described as fairly stiff criteria which they found was easy enough to follow. They isolated the topsoil, removed the liquids, contaminated side and bottom soils while being monitored the whole time. They were complimented by the staff on how good of a job that they did. Olen said, “It worked out really well,” Kent added, “Overall, it was a very favorable experience and federal and state funding paid for 75 percent of it. If funding is available, use it.”

Blaine Besser summed up his experience with the process when he said, “I thought it was going to take years to finish it if I paid for it out of my own pocket. We stuck with the process and we got it done with about 90 percent of the cost paid for. It actually turned out really nice.” His father Brian added, “It was pretty simple. It was just a matter of meeting with NRCS a few times.”

Bessers now plant row crops over both of their old pit sites. “It’s now a nice landscaped slope that the kids slide on in the winter. It changed an unsightly weed and brush covered site and made it nice looking. It was worthwhile to work with NRCS and SWCD,” he concluded.

Farmers with questions on a manure pit that is no longer used are encouraged to stop by the Kanabec County NRCS and SWCD office at 2008 Mahogany St., Mora. It is located on the east side of Mora between the East Central Livestock Auction and the East Central Veterinarian Clinic. NRCS and SWCD are voluntary based and not regulatory organizations. Farmers have to request help from them. The USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.

Terry Salmela is a contributing writer for the Kanabec County Times and retired University of Minnesota Extension Educator.