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Manure is worth its weight in gold

A farm, as one often sees in the Münsterland: a spacious complex of residential buildings, stables, barns, which testifies to the wealth of the farmers.

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Manure is worth its weight in gold

A farm, as one often sees in the Münsterland: a spacious complex of residential buildings, stables, barns, which testifies to the wealth of the farmers. But there are no animals here, and no corn or rapeseed is grown either. Bernd Bösing's employees sit at computers here. They calculate prices, coordinate truck trips and loads. The goods that are traded here are called liquid manure and manure. You can't see or smell it, the goods are not temporarily stored, but driven directly from the producer to the buyer. "Slurry exchange and nutrient mediation" - that's what it says on the website of the agricultural company Bösing, which is based in Vreden, in the district of Borken.

Farm animal excrement has always been used to fertilize fields. But while in the past it was usually the case that a farmer spread the manure and manure from his cows and pigs on his own land, today, in times of agricultural specialization, we are dealing with a complex system.

Large cattle and fattening farms produce tons of manure that they want to get rid of. Other farmers who cultivate crops like to use liquid manure in addition to the expensive mineral fertilizers, the so-called artificial fertilizers. However, they have to observe the legally prescribed limit values, and new regulations are constantly being introduced to prevent too much nitrate from the liquid manure getting into the soil and groundwater.

All of this forms the business basis of so-called liquid manure exchanges like that of Bernd Bösing. The 29-year-old trades in animal excrement, he mediates between "giving" and "receiving" farms. The special thing about this buying and selling system is that anyone who offers liquid manure does not normally get any money, but instead has to pay to get rid of it. For a long time, prices of up to 25 euros per cubic meter were due in some regions. And whoever picked up this liquid manure sometimes got extra money. That's how it was until now.

But then came the war in Ukraine, Russia imposed an export ban on artificial fertilizers - and suddenly liquid manure and animal manure, the natural alternatives to artificial fertilizers, were a rare commodity. "A critical phase" is what Bösing calls the spring months when conditions were turned upside down - and his earlier price tables were waste. "Many farmers who wanted to take in liquid manure found it difficult at first to accept that it suddenly cost them a lot of money." He expects the situation to get worse. Because the production of artificial fertilizer consumes a lot of energy, which will probably drive up the price of fertilizer even further.

Bösing's business does not suffer. Rather the opposite. With the shortage of artificial fertilizer, the value of liquid manure and manure increases and with it the importance of the ten or so companies that trade in it in Germany.

Torsten Smit recognized early on that there is money to be made in trading animal excrement – ​​he founded the Odas company in Dorsten in Münsterland together with Steffen Schirmacher-Rohleder in 2004, and the two of them studied agriculture together. Odas now has a fleet of twenty trucks, around one hundred employees, several thousand customers and is considered one of the major players in the industry. Smit doesn't know who came up with the term "slurry exchange" at some point. "That's not really the word, we don't have any stock market listings," he says, "we trade in all farm fertilizers."

And because they stink, the industry is not particularly popular in the public eye. The large liquid manure transporters are held responsible when, in regions where there is hardly any animal husbandry, the haze suddenly moves over meadows and fields from cowsheds or pigsties. "Our drivers are always exposed to hostility," says Smit.

In spring 2013, Bernd Bösing founded his liquid manure trade in Vreden, less than 50 kilometers away from his competitor Odas. He was only 19 at the time, had completed training as a specialist in agricultural services – and had a loan of EUR 10,000 in his pocket. In 2015 he passed the agricultural service master’s exam. Today he employs twelve people. In 2019 he bought the farm, which he is now expanding into a residence and company headquarters.

Bösing currently has his office in a temporary container. He is wearing jeans and an anthracite-colored shirt with the company logo embroidered on the collar. Programs written especially for him run on his computer. Because liquid manure trading is not an easy business. In a first step, the manure that farmer A wants to sell must be evaluated according to its nutrient content. Manure is not just manure, it differs depending on the animal species and feeding. Slurry from piglets has a lower nitrogen content than that from fattening pigs. But the content of phosphorus, potash and other minerals is also important. In the second step, Bösing and his colleagues use their digital file to search for a farmer B whose soil and the crops grown on it have a nutrient requirement that matches the manure of farmer A as well as possible. Wheat, for example, has a higher fertilizer requirement than other cereals. At the end, the price is determined, based on the current market value of the artificial fertilizer. If everyone involved agrees to a deal, Bösing sends one of his seven drivers off with the truck to bring the goods from farmer A to farmer B.

Traditionally, a slurry transport consists of a large barrel mounted on a truck. But now retailers like Bösing are looking for better methods. Such as that of the Exeler company from Rheine, also in Münsterland. The family business has developed a system in which the liquid manure is filled into a kind of giant plastic tube that can be rolled up after the goods have been delivered. The advantage: the same truck that previously loaded excrement can transport grain or animal feed on the way back. "This saves us empty runs," explains Bösing.

The dealer has another XXL special truck in his fleet. He calls the high-tech vehicle a “mobile separation system” – costs: half a million euros. Inside, a gigantic centrifuge separates the fresh manure into components that are as dry as possible and liquid manure that is as pure as possible. This allows manure to be used in a more targeted manner.

And not just for fertilizing fields and meadows. Animal dung has also long been discovered as a source of energy. All liquid manure traders also supply biogas plants. And what is left over there is later resold as high-quality fertilizer. "We close cycles," says Bösing. Despite all the problems that the high fertilizer prices bring with them, he finds one thing positive about the current development: "The fact that manure and liquid manure are getting a little more recognition for the value they have for us."

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