COVID-19 markets force some cattlemen to scrimp on manure work

A tight farm labor market in the cattle business has increased the need for custom manure hauling on livestock farms but COVID-19 market disruptions have reduced how much work they’re willing to do.

MILLER, S.D. — A tight farm labor market in the cattle business has increased the demand for custom manure hauling on livestock farms, but COVID-19 market disruptions mean some are cutting back on how much work they can afford.

Bart Johnson, 55, of Revillo, S.D., owns Bart Johnson Manure Hauling Inc. He’s been a custom manure hauler for about 15 years.

“The help isn’t out there,” he says, of the underlying demand.

Labor shortages in agriculture are leading to more demand for custom manure hauling, but the COVID-19-related beef processing and market disruptions have caused producers to cut back on how much work they’d normally do, says Bart Johnson of Revillo, S.D. Photo taken May 15, 2020, near Miller, S.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Usually in May, Johnson said his phone is ringing off the hook, but this year cattlemen were affected by poor prices, COVID-19 slowing production at meat processing plants, as well as from reduced demand for more expensive beef cuts.


“The cattlemen and the farmers have tightened their belts up,” he said.

Johnson estimates business has fallen off by more than half.

“They’re not having us haul. Too many uncertainties with cattle. They’re just pushing their manure up into piles, if they have room, and are going to leave it and see what happens," he said.

A new customer

Farmer-rancher John Saienga, 42, of Miller, S.D., says he needed a custom manure hauler, but because of poor livestock economics due to the COVID-19 market disruptions in 2020 had to put a dollar cap on this year’s work. Photo taken May 15, 2020, near Miller, S.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

In late May the Johnson crew was at a farmstead north of Miller in east-central South Dakota operated by John Saienga. Saienga and his wife, Amber, operate a 900-head feedlot and a 250-head cow-calf operation. He has 1,000 acres of land that produces corn and forage for the cattle and soybeans for cash.

They were spreading manure on fields that would be planted to corn, grown for cattle feed.

Saienga, 42, said poor market conditions forced him to “talk budget” with Johnson and put a lid on how many loads he could afford to move.

“I set him a dollar amount,” Saienga said. “When he gets to that — whether there’s two scoops left or 10 pens left —he’s done.”


Jack Saienga, 10, mows like a pro on the farmstead of his parents, John and Amber Saienga, Miller, S.D. The kids works harder than many adults but aren’t yet old enough to take an all adult farm labor, says their proud dad. Photo taken May 15, 2020, near Miller, S.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

More might be done later when markets turn around.

Saienga grew up on a family farm in northwest Iowa. He studied animal science at South Dakota State University in Brookings, where he met his wife, Amber, a physical therapist at Avera Hand County Memorial Hospital in Miller.

The couple started farming in 2006 with six heifers and along the way, they’ve raised five children

This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a bummer.

For one thing, the disruption cut Amber’s hours at the hospital.

“Heiferettes” -- young females with no calf, and headed for market -- would have been marketed earlier but in late May weighed 1,600 pounds and headed for a cow-kill market, due to the COVID-19 processing delays, said feedlot owner John Saienga of Miller, S.D. Photo taken May 15, 2020, near Miller, S.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

On the farm side, the market disruptions forced them to keep cattle longer than they’d like. Some “heiferettes” were being held longer than John wanted, at 1,600 pounds. Delayed marketing cost $3 a day in feed per animal, he figured.


John said he has a good hired man, but he can’t keep enough help around to use his manure-hauling equipment.

“My kids do more than a lot of adults, but they are still just kids,” he said.

Hiring Johnson and his crew was a good option.

3-person crew

Bunning manure spreaders, made at the village of Gressenhall in the Norfolk, England, area, are promoted as the finest quality rear-discharge manure spreaders, using twin vertical augers. Photo taken May 15, 2020, near Miller, S.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Bart Johnson grew up in the cattle business. His family suffered in the 1980s farm crisis.

“Not any fault of our own: The land prices were going up and all of a sudden, land prices went down and it broke us on paper,” he said.

Johnson graduated high school in 1983, but his family sold their crop farming equipment in 1986.

Just getting going, Johnson remained in the cattle business and continues to lease out stock cows in several states.


“I don’t have the land to run them on, so I rent them out, or lease them out, if you will,” he said.

In 2005, he started the manure hauling business.

“I saw an opportunity. It started out as a little bit of living money, and it turned into a full-time deal,” he said

Initially, he used old equipment — up to five trucks and several hired men.

Two years ago, Johnson purchased the Bunning manure spreaders — pull-type manure spreaders with weigh scales, pulled with four-wheel-drive tractors.

Johnson said he’d seen the machines years ago but never felt he could afford the price tag exceeding $225,000.

“My father told me, he said, ‘You can’t afford NOT to have one,’” and he was right," Johnson said, adding, “We ‘haul manure’ instead of ‘fix,’ now.”

Long hours


Bart Johnson’s manure spreaders, made by Bunning Agricultural Engineers of England, can take up to three truckloads of manure to the field, guiding fertilizer delivery using GPS technology. Photo taken May 15, 2020, near Miller, S.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

The June-July and December-January months can be a little slow, but otherwise the crew operates the rest of the year.

Johnson runs it with his wife, Vicki, whom he married in 2019. She works at Howard, S.D., in the Farm Service Agency for Miner County. Johnson said the manure hauling crew works for roughly 200 clients in a year, mostly livestock producers in western Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa.

The crew can handle up to three smaller feedlots in a single day. Some jobs are a week or 10 days. “Or 90 days,” he said. .

The biggest Bunning machine can handle three truckloads full of manure at a time.

“We’re hauling as much material now as we were then, but with less employees,” he said.

Tait Windedahl, 36, of Howard, S.D., has worked for Johnson for three years and is obviously pleased with a business he says is often overlooked.

“We like to call ourselves ‘fertilizer relocation applicator specialists,’” Windedahl said, with an important affect, and then, with a grin supplies the common moniker, “S___ haulers.” But he turns sincere in its real satisfactions:

“A lot of the (customers) become good friends. You keep up with each other, and kinda look forward to them every year," he said.


The Bunning equipment is provided with GPS, Windedahl said.

“If the farmer wants 15 ton to the acre, we have the ability to put 15 ton to the acre, and it’s not a ‘by guess, by golly.’ It’s an investment for the cattle man and the farmer," he said.

Johnson charges $150 per load for a big spreader, or $120 per load for the smaller spreader. They get the manure out of the pens fast, get it on the field so the client can work it into the soil to plant right behind.

“For the rate we do it for, the farmer can’t have two or three or four guys running spreaders and equipment,” Johnson said. “They have fuel costs, time, labor, break-downs. In reality, we can do it for the same money or less. If it’s the same price in the end, they might as well have us do it.”

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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