A manure-application system to help producers calculate and record how much manure they spread and where they spread it is being developed at the University of Illinois.

“We’re building a low-cost, effective system that will incorporate a handheld, global-positioning-system unit, a portable computer and mapping software such as FarmWorks or ArcPad,” says Jay Solomon, an Extension educator from East Peoria, Ill.

The test system records the manure-application path, and when the applicator was turned on or off.

By loading a background map of the field with buffer zones into the computer, the operator gets a visual representation of the field and his location within it. By watching the screen, the operator can manually turn the applicator off as he approaches a buffer. Once the applicator is outside the area, the operator can turn the system back on.

The eventual goal is for the system to use GPS data to sense when to automatically turn the manure applicator off and on when approaching non-application zones – such as near a waterway.

Researchers also want to include a flow meter to collect flow data for liquid manure.

Data collected from this system will generate “as-applied” maps for producers, animal-manure haulers or custom applicators.

While there are systems available that can collect this type of data, Solomon says they are extremely expensive. Some are upward of $20,000. Although the price isn’t set, Solomon believes the test system will compete at around $2,500.

Because many new tractors come with a GPS unit already on board, he points out that another option is to find a way to tap into that system. “But most farmers won’t use brand new equipment to apply manure. So we’re looking at ways to put consumer-available technology on older tractors to collect the data,” says Solomon.

He notes that this type of data will give producers an accurate manure-application record from year to year that can become a piece of their geographic-information-system documentation.

“The more information farmers can get into a GPS format, the better able they are to analyze a yield problem or variation across the field,” says Solomon. “It’s easier to determine things like: Was it caused by drainage patterns; was it a weed or an insect problem; or was it fertilizer?”

Although the system’s primary function is to give the producer useful information, it’s also helpful from a regulatory standpoint. “What if a neighbor files a complaint against a farmer because manure was applied close to a well?” asks Solomon. “Instead of pulling out a hand-drawn map with numbers scribbled on the side, the producer can go to the computer, pull up records and say ‘Here’s how much I applied and here’s where I put it’.”

Finally, Solomon notes that much of what’s been learned about mapping manure applications can be applied to other systems, such as chemical spraying. “We’re starting with manure,” he says, “but once we get the system worked out, we can use it any number of ways.”