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Research   »   Manure and Nutrient Management

Manure and Nutrient Management

Cattle manure is a valuable resource in agriculture when utilized properly. On an annual basis, approximately 3.4 million hectares of land in Canada receives animal manure as an amendment to improve soil fertility and quality for crop growth. Manure from cattle contains macronutrients and micronutrients that plants need. It also has considerable amounts of organic matter that can improve soil tilth. Land application of cattle manure is an effective way of recycling nutrients. As such, cattle manure that is hauled out and applied to farm fields or deposited directly by grazing or overwintered cattle reduces reliance on commercial fertilizers and helps to sustain land productivity.

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Nature of Manure

Commercial mineral fertilizers typically contain plant nutrient concentrations of greater than 10% and have their nutrients in inorganic forms that are immediately available for plant uptake. In contrast, cattle manure is a dilute fertilizer, owing largely to its high content of water and organic materials.

Nitrogen and phosphorus

Nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) concentrations are typically only 0.5% to 1.5% of the fresh weight of solid cattle manure. This means that application rates of several tonnes per hectare are required to apply an agronomic rate of nutrient such as 200 kg N / ha. An example calculation is shown below:

Desired rate of total N to be added to the land as manure: 200 kg N / ha

Manure N content: 1% N on a wet basis

200 kg N/ha / 0.01 = 20,000 kg fresh manure / ha = 20 tonnes of fresh manure / ha

It is important to note that only a fraction of the 200 kg N added in the solid cattle manure from the above example would actually be available for plant use in the year of application. This is because:

      1. only a small portion of the nitrogen in the manure is in the inorganic form (ammonium- or nitrate-N) that plants can directly use and
      2. the organic nitrogen forms in the manure are only slowly released to plant available inorganic forms through the action of microorganisms in the soil.

Estimates of the plant availability of cattle manure nitrogen in the manure will vary depending on the composition of the manure and environmental conditions. Manure that contains large amounts of straw or woodchip bedding may make available only 10% to 20% of nitrogen in the year of application (Mooleki et al., 2004). Therefore, depending on composition and application rate, some supplementation with commercial mineral fertilizer N may be desirable in the initial years of application to ensure an adequate supply of N.

Application of manure to meet a nitrogen requirement also adds a significant amount of phosphorus to the soil. If the phosphorus content of the manure being applied in this example was 0.5%P, then the manure applied would also add 20,000 x .005 = 100 kg of P / ha.Since plants require N:P in a ratio of about 8:1 and cattle manure adds more P relative to N than this, application of cattle manure as the sole source intended to meet a crop N requirement will typically add more P than what the crop can use. Consequently, over time the excess P will accumulate in the soil where it is susceptible to overland movement with water (surface runoff) and possible entry into water bodies. Application of manure on a crop P requirement basis rather than a N basis may be required to avoid P loading and potential loss to water.

Nutrient testing

Commercial agricultural testing labs located throughout Canada offer the service of manure testing and rate recommendations based on manure and soil analyses.

Because the total, relative amounts, and plant availability of nutrient in manure can be highly variable, it is recommended that manure be sampled and tested to determine the appropriate application rate and need for supplemental commercial fertilizer on an individual farm and field basis.

Stockpiled vs. composted

Properties of stockpiled manure will vary based on the location in the stockpile:

      • conditions are more anaerobic (lack of oxygen) in middle/bottom of the file and more aerobic (oxygen) in top
      • warmer temperatures (after initial set up of stockpile) in middle and bottom locations compared to outer/top
      • drier in outer layers than middle and bottom core, as its protected from evaporation
      • more rapid decomposition (losses of carbon and nitrogen) in top/outer locations as more active microbial community 

To test stockpiled manure, collect sub-samples from the top (outer layer), middle and bottom of the core. Open the stockpile with a front end loader and create a face to do vertical sampling.

If you stir or turn the manure pile it will begin to compost, although one disturbance is very minimal. Although there is a cost involved in turning the manure pile (fuel, labour, time), it may cause more rapid stabilization of the manure and may cause an increase in temperature that would help with pathogen control of the material. Turning the pile would also likely get more of a volume reduction and therefore would reduce haulage costs, with even one turning. True composting relies on five or six turnings over three months with a further three months of curing.

Other qualities

The organic matter added in manure is a valuable contribution because it is associated with improved soil structure, organic carbon content and microbial activity (Schoenau and Davis, 2006; Schoenau and Assefa, 2004).

Manures also contain salts. Salt accumulation should be monitored, especially when manure is applied to poorly drained soils (Grevers et al., 2010).

Handling and Application of Manure

Manure is a valuable but challenging soil fertilizer. To manage it most effectively, one should:

      • know the content and availability of plant nutrients in manure
      • know the content of the soil that will receive the manure
      • apply the manure over time using a rate and method of application that meets crop nutrient requirements and minimizes the potential for loss to water and air.

Cattle manure poses challenges as a soil amendment due to its heterogenous nature. Feed source and manure processing are two important sources of heterogeneity. The recent availability of dried distillers’ grain with solubles (DDGS) as a feed source for cattle has raised questions about its influence on manure composition. As DDGS usually have higher protein and P content compared to conventional feed grains, the manure produced from cattle fed DDGS was also found to be higher in N and P concentration (Hao et al. 2009) and will need to be managed accordingly.

Composting will also further increase the concentration of nutrients due to loss of water and carbon in the composting process (Larney et al., 2008). As shown in Figure 1, for a given feed grain source (DDGS wheat or DDGS corn), the composted forms had the highest concentrations of nutrient and resulted in the greatest nutrient and salt accumulation in the soil when applied at high rates (Stefankiw, 2012).


Application rates should be chosen based on nutrient needs of the soil, nutrient composition of manure, and the application method (Schoenau et al. 2010). Higher rates of manure may be applied once every two years or three years to reduce time spent in the field but may increase the risk of nutrient loss in the year of application.

Solid cattle manure is generally applied in the form of surface broadcasting of the manure with a spreader, usually followed by an incorporation operation. Some research work has recently been conducted in western Canada on technology for injection of solid cattle manure in bands (Landry et al.,2011). Although enhanced nutrient recovery was sometimes observed from in-soil versus surface placement of the solid cattle manure, the benefits were relatively limited. However, in-soil placement was noted to have a large and significant benefit on reducing odors, with an average of reduction of 37% noted in a recent study in western Canada (Agnew, 2010; Agnew et al., 2010). Variable effects of in-soil placement on nitrogen and phosphorus exported in runoff have also been noted (King and Schoenau, 2010).

While it is desirable to incorporate solid cattle manure into the soil especially to reduce odour, benefits on nutrient retention may not always be apparent such as when the manure is low in volatilizable N forms like ammonia. Furthermore, significant soil disturbance associated with several incorporation operations may increase the susceptibility of the soil to erosion. Feeding and overwintering cows directly in the field was shown to increase overall nitrogen retention in the soil-plant system compared to hauling manure out of drylot pens and broadcasting on grass pasture (Jungnitsch et al., 2011). This was attributed to better retention of the nitrogen contained in cattle urine when it was deposited directly in the field versus in a penning environment.


Agnew, J. 2010. Odor and Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Manure Spreading. PhD Thesis, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK.

Agnew, J., Lague, C., Schoenau, J., Feddes, J. and H. Guo. 2010. Effect of manure type, application rate and application method on odors from manure spreading. Canadian Biosystems Engineering 52: 619-625.

Grevers, M., Schoenau J.J., Japp, M., Assefa, B., Baan, C. and S.S. Malhi. 2010. Effects of Soil and Crop Management, and Application of Swine and Cattle Manure on Physical Properties of Soil in the Northern Great Plains of North America. In S.S. Malhi, Y. Gan, J.J. Schoenau, R. Lemke and M. Liebig (eds). Recent Trends in Soil Science and Agronomy Research in the Northern Great Plains of North America, 129-142. Kerala: Research Signpost.

Hao, X., Benke, M., Gibb, D., Stronks, A., Travis, G., and T.A. McAllister. 2009. Effects of dried distillers’ grains with soluble (wheat-based) in feedlot cattle diets on feces and manure composition. Journal of Environmental Quality 38: 1709-1718.

Jungnitsch, P., Schoenau J.J., Lardner, H. and P. Jefferson, 2011. Winter Feeding Beef Cattle on the Western Canadian Prairies: Impacts on Soil Nitrogen and Phosphorus Cycling and Forage Growth. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 141: 143-152.

King,T. and J.J. Schoenau. 2010. Relationship of solid cattle manure placement method in a Black Chernozem to Phosphorus and Nitrogen movement in simulated snowmelt water. Abstracts of Soil Science Society of America 2010 International Meeting, Oct 31-Nov 3, Long Beach, California (on CD), 106.

Landry, H., King, T., Schoenau, J.J., Lague, C. and J. Agnew. 2011. Development and evaluation of subsurface application technology for solid organic fertilizers. Applied Engineering in Agriculture 27: 533-549.

Larney, F.J., Olson, A.F., Miller, J.J., DeMaere, P.R., Zvomuya, F. and T.A. McAllister. 2008. Physical and chemical changes during composting of wood chip-bedded and straw-bedded beef cattle feedlot manure. Journal of Environmental Quality 37:725-735.

Mooleki, S.P., Schoenau J.J., Charles, J. and G. Wen. 2004. Effect of rate, frequency and incorporation of feedlot cattle manure on soil nitrogen availability, crop performance and nitrogen use efficiency in east-central Saskatchewan. Canadian Journal of Soil Science 84:199-210.

Schoenau, J.J. and J.G. Davis. 2006. Optimizing soil and plant responses to land-applied manure nutrients in the Great Plains of North America. Canadian Journal of Soil Science 86:587-595.

Schoenau, J.J. and B. Assefa, 2004. Land application and handling of manure. In: M. Amrani, Manure Research Findings and Technologies: From Science to Social Issues. Edmonton, AB: AAFRD Technical Services Division Press, pp. 97-140.

Schoenau, J.J., Carley, C., Stumborg, C. and S.S. Malhi.. 2010. Strategies for Maximizing Crop Recovery of Applied Manure Nitrogen in the Northern Great Plains of North America. In S.S. Malhi, Y. Gan, J.J.

Schoenau, R. Lemke and M. Liebig (eds). Recent Trends in Soil Science and Agronomy Research in the Northern Great Plains of North America, 95-107. Kerala: Research Signpost.

Statistics Canada 2006. 2005 Census of Agriculture. Available online:

Stefankiw, J. 2012. Novel Organic Amendments To Improve Soil Fertility and Plant Nutrition. MSc thesis, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK.


Learn More

To learn more on this topic, see the fact sheets posted on the right side of this page. External resources are listed below.

Nutrient Loading Calculator (NLC) for In-Field or Extensive Livestock Winter Feeding Systems
Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development

Manure is Mother Nature’s fertilizer … and she likes to run the show
University of Manitoba

Bioenergy and Manure Management Information

The Tri-Provincial Manure Management: A Gateway to Manure Management Information for the Prairies

Manure Management
Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development

Managing Manure as a Fertilizer
Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture

Composting Solid Manure
Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture

Manitoba Livestock Manure Management Initiative

Best Management Practices: Manure Management
Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs

Soil Fertility and Nutrient Use: Manure Management
Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs

Manure Management Guidelines
Nova Scotia Agriculture

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
A presentation by Francis J. Larney, Western Feedlots Manure Meeting March 7, 2012, High River, AB
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Feedback and questions on the content of this page are welcome. Please e-mail us at info [at] beefresearch [dot] ca


Thanks to:

    • Dr. Jeff Schoenau, University of Saskatchewan Researcher and Professor of Soil Science
    • Dr. Francis Larney, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Research Scientist, Lethbridge, AB,

This topic was last revised on March 6, 2016 at 2:03 AM.

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