If manure application is a bottleneck, here are tips to help keep it flowing.

Inside Hydro Engineering, the voice of company president Thomas Huffman is heard from the lobby.

"You're having labor problems? How many gallons of manure are you dealing with? How fast do you need it applied?"

It's 1:30 and he hasn't eaten lunch. He's been on the phone all morning with farmers, answering the question he's been getting a lot lately: Should I hire a custom manure applicator or buy my own equipment and apply the manure myself? Huffman offers both options. His Minnesota-based company makes a complete line of hose-drag manure injection equipment.

Hydro Engineering's patent-pending 3-pt. hitch manifold system released late last year hooks up to any 3-pt. tillage tool to save farmers more than 50% over the cost of a fully equipped, ready-made manifold and tillage tool made specifically for manure.

It also offers a crew of 23 custom applicators who will do the job for you. Which option you choose comes down to a few basic factors Huffman will walk you through.

Benefits of owning. Huffman deals only with the hose-drag system. Manure is transferred from storage to fields up to a mile or two away through a supply line. The supply line feeds into a flexible hose that is attached to a tractor and tillage tool that opens the soil and incorporates the manure. You can apply manure on 40 acres before you have to stop and move the hoses.

Huffman says timing will be the biggest driver as to whether you will buy your own hose-drag equipment. The available window of application is narrow each spring and fall. Most custom applicators run a tight schedule and may not be available on the day you need them.

The second biggest factor is cost. A fully equipped, ready-made manure hose-drag system costs, on average, from $50,000 to $150,000, depending on the specific application requirements in your area. That's based on a transport distance of 1 mile from field to storage and doesn't include the 150- to 200-hp tractor you'll need to pull everything.

What it does include is a pit agitator to keep nutrients blended in storage; a centrifugal pump to get manure out of storage; a chopper, installed on the inlet side of the pump, to chop solids and eliminate plugging prior to pumping, supply-line and reels; a dragline hose; tillage equipment; a manifold to connect the hoses and attach them to the tillage equipment, and a flow meter in the tractor to monitor flow rates and measure how many gallons per acre are being applied. It will handle up to 15 shanks with options of a shutoff valve, manifold agitator and flow meter.

To determine whether you can afford your own equipment, Huffman says to look at how much manure is produced on your farm. The typical break-even point of where it makes sense to own is somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million gal./year.

To estimate the number of gallons you have, count the number of animals on your farm. A count of 250 dairy cows or 13,000 to 14,000 finished pigs/year roughly equates to that break-even amount.

Going custom. The alternative is to hire out. Custom applicators charge on average .006 to .0117 cents to pump manure up to a mile. That's based on what Huffman's crew made pumping 800 million gal. of manure last year on some 80,000 acres in Minnesota.

According to Huffman, these are the services you can expect from them:

*On-site testing of manure for nutrient values, taken at three points during pumping, *Follow-up testing in a lab to verify accuracy of on-site tests, *Latest equipment, including a flow meter and wide range of tillage tools to control the rate per acre, *Emergency manure spill plan, *Report of how much manure was applied where and its nutrient value.

Most custom application equipment has expensive flow meters and a wide range of tillage tools to control rates. The wider the implement, the lower the rate of application, Huffman says. "With the variety of tillage tools being adapted in the past 5 to 10 years, we have the ability to get down to 2,000 to 3,000 gal./acre of application."

The equipment available to custom applicators is reason enough for some farmers to hire out, especially with the public's increased awareness of the environment. "Our business is flourishing because of the pressures being put on growers to handle the manure in an environmentally safe manner," Huffman explains.

To make sure you get a reputable applicator, ask the service provider for references or get recommendations from farmers who have hired them.

Apply by the rules. Any manure application must be based on a manure management plan provided by you, the producer, and written by someone versed in feedlot regulations and agronomy, such as your local extension educator.

Jeffrey Lopez, manure resource project coordinator with the University of Minnesota Extension Service, says the plan should outline the number of gallons or tons that need to be applied to meet the agronomic requirements of each field based on soil test results. It should also indicate on an aerial map the locations of environmentally sensitive areas such as river setbacks, abandoned wells, wetlands and tile intakes.

"I recommend running the manure management plan by your county feedlot officer to make sure it complies with state and county regulations," Lopez says.

For more information, contact your local extension agent or Hydro Engineering Inc., Dept. FIN, Box 98, Young America, MN 55397, 612/467-3100.