Rules, regulations & restrictions: How to navigate manure management policies



There are two key things Vince Murray wants Alberta livestock producers to remember about manure management: do soil tests and keep records.

Murray, an Agricultural Operation Practices Act engineer with Alberta Agriculture, said Alberta’s legislation governs intensive livestock operations and those who handle 500 tonnes of manure a year.

He said the operation and the handler might not be the same person, so it’s critical that all involved know the rules.

The province began regulating ILOs in 2002 after the booming meat industries led to widespread growth.

“The municipalities at that time had jurisdiction over where these went and what rules they had to follow,” Murray said. “There were issues with the industry trying to develop. They were unsure because we had over 60 sets of rules in the province.”

Other factors were the emergence of organizations fighting against ILOs and rural-urban conflicts. The province stepped in and required new or expanding operations to have a permit as of Jan. 1, 2002.

The Natural Resources Conservation Board, an arm’s-length board already dealing with non-energy development, was appointed to regulate the new legislation.

Murray said the critical points of the law are that anyone handling more than 500 tonnes of manure, which includes the straw, bedding material or anything that has come in contact with manure, must keep records and apply the manure according to the regulations.

“There’s setbacks from neigh­bours and setbacks from water courses based on slope, and then we have nitrogen and salinity limits,” he said.

Producers don’t have to submit their records to the NRCB, but they must have them available if an inspector asks to see them. The record should include who handled the manure and where and when it was applied.

“Essentially, this means recording how much manure was applied to meet crop needs based on soil tests,” Alberta Agriculture extension specialist Deanne Madsen said in a mid-November release.

“Repeat applications of manure at rates exceeding crop needs can reduce the soil’s ability to remain at peak productivity over the long-term, as well as increase the chance of nutrients being lost to surface water and groundwater.”

The levels of nitrogen that can be applied depend on soil type and whether the land is irrigated.

The regulations state that manure can’t be applied to soil that has salinity greater than four deciSiemen per metre from the surface to a 15 centimetre depth. Manure also can’t be applied at levels that increase salinity by more than one deciSiemen per metre.

Manure applied to cultivated land must be incorporated within 48 hours unless the applicator has obtained a permit for alternate arrangements.

Spreading on snow could be one of those exemptions.

“Here, the way the rules work is that if you have more than nine months of storage you can only spread on snow if you get permission from the NRCB prior to doing the application,” Murray said. “You need to have a reason why you have to spread on snow.”

Some older dairy barns in particular had only enough storage for a couple of months and had to spread manure year-round.

Technically, those operations could still do that without asking first, as long as they don’t cause environmental risk.

Cow-calf operations that use practices such as bale grazing are exempt because the Agricultural Operation Practices Act governs ILOs.

“If your cattle are spread out across the field and you don’t have to do anything with their manure other than maybe harrow it in or something before next growing season, that doesn’t count,” Murray said.

“We still have a lot of cattle operations that haven’t been through the NRCB permitting process because they existed before 2002 and they haven’t grown or expanded.”

He said neighbours of ILOs generally know the rules and will complain to the NRCB if necessary.

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Saskatchewan legislation and regulations surrounding manure management come down to one basic principle: water protection.

Andy Jansen, agricultural operations manager at the provincial agriculture ministry, said the rules are results-based rather than prescriptive.

“You need to plan to use manure so that it doesn’t contaminate water and tell us the details of that plan,” he said.

The province’s first legislation requiring proper manure storage and management was passed in 1971.

The Agricultural Operations Act was established in 1996, partly to better address intensive livestock operations.

That’s where things get a bit murky.

Jansen said the legislation defines an intensive livestock operation as the confinement of one animal unit to less than 4,000 sq, feet.

“So therefore, by definition, a horse on an acreage confined to less than 4,000 sq. feet would be an intensive livestock operation,” he observed.

Intensive operations such as dairies, hog barns, feedlots and poultry barns will clearly have stocking densities that fit into the definition.

However, Jansen said the legislation uses only stocking density, which has forced the ministry to also establish size criteria — an operation with 300 animal units or more — when determining which operations need approval to operate.

There are two other risk-based criteria of note.

“If you’re 20 animal units or more, 20 to 300 essentially, then you do need approval if you’re within 1,000 feet of a water course or you’re within 100 feet of a well that’s not part of the operation.”

These restrictions were put in place because some dairy and poultry operations are located in areas that are more rural residential and have closer neighbours. It also helps if land has been subdivided and someone other than the ILO operator owns the house, Jansen said.

These factors mean some operations that people might consider intensive actually don’t need approval.

“For example, half of the dairy operations don’t need approval under our legislation because they’re under 300 animal units and they don’t meet the other two criteria,” Jansen said.

Cow-calf herds might fall under the legislation, depending on how they operate. Many herds would have more than 300 animal units, but few operate intensively year-round.

Jansen said the catch would be wintering sites or calving sites that might meet the definitions.

Saskatchewan’s rules don’t specifically prohibit spreading manure in winter.

Jansen said most producers hire custom applicators, and they won’t go out in winter. Smaller operators with limited storage capacity might be in a tougher situation.

Complaints do come in about winter stockpiles and winter spreading.

The Agricultural Operations Review Board may review and mediate disputes, but Jansen said the preferred approach is to work with operations to resolve problems and put appropriate plans in place. Approvals could be cancelled, but he said that’s difficult to do when barns are full of live animals.

Jansen said the ministry does established a re-inspection policy that targets higher-risk operations and is based on size.

“Our intent is to get back to the larger operations in five years or less,” he said.

The ministry is reviewing what constitutes risk factors other than size.

“What we’re hoping to do is be a little more inclusive in our re-inspections, but targets the ones it thinks are much higher risk from a water protection point of view.

“That being said, most of them should be low risk if they’re following their plans.”

Jansen said all provinces offer programs and funding under Growing Forward 2 to help producers decrease their environmental footprints.

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Manitoba livestock producers face stricter requirements than their prairie counterparts when it comes to manure management.

They must file manure management plans with the province, including soil tests and manure analysis, even before they can even begin to spread manure.

The plans must be filed annually, according to the Livestock Manure and Mortalities Management Regulations.

“They include things like the details on how much manure is produced, where it’s going to be spread and they actually take soil samples and send us soil sample reports,” said Bryce Wood, an environment officer at Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship’s livestock program.

“They’re required to do that every year for every field they’re spreading on.”

Approved plans are necessary for producers with 300 animal units or more and for some that are smaller than that, depending on factors such as proximity to water.

Wood said government employees review the plans, mainly for nitrogen and phosphorus levels in the soil, to determine if the selected sites are suitable for manure application.

The manure is also analyzed for nitrogen and phosphorus content.

“We just look at the balance of nutrients going on the field in manure versus what nutrients are required by the crop,” Wood said.

“Is it a suitable field? Does the application rate pencil out?”

Manure application rates in Manitoba are based on the livestock waste unit concept from the 1960s, which was that corn required 68 to 77 kilograms of nitrogen per acre to maximize production. The livestock waste unit was the number of animals required to produce 73 kg of nitrogen each year and supply the crop’s needs. The term was changed to animal unit in the 1990s.

About 500 plans are submitted to the Manitoba government each year, some of them by consultants hired to do the work, and Wood said staff randomly audit 10 percent a year. This includes taking more soil tests to make sure nitrogen and phosphorus levels are within limits.

He said producer compliance is good.

“The real key of our regulations is to ensure responsible management of manure and mortalities. That’s what we’re trying to achieve with this.”

Manitoba also has strict winter spreading regulations, which prohibits the spread between Nov. 10 and April 10.

Larger operators have not been able to do so for many years, but even smaller farmers are now bound by this rule.

“There are provisions for emergency spreading,” Wood said.

“Let’s say their lagoon is damaged or is going to overflow and they need to spread. They can apply to our department for an emergency authorization and we may grant that. It’s rare.”

The province has offered programs to help producers build more storage to avoid the possibility of an emergency. Wood said producers are aware of the rule and typically spread in fall and spring to make sure they don’t get caught without enough storage.

There are also situations when weather conditions might allow spreading within that window. For example, manure could still be applied if there is no snow and the soil is not frozen by Nov. 10.

Regional or provincial variances can be issued to permit this activity.

Wood also said commercial fertilizer application, regulated by the Nutrient Management Act, is also prohibited during the five-month period.

Custom applicators in Manitoba must be licensed through the provincial agriculture department.

Wood said farmers must still follow regulatory provisions such as the setbacks from water, nutrient limits and storage, even if they don’t have to file manure management plans.

For more information, visit and click on livestock program or and click on livestock.


  • Alberta published an agricultural operation practices act reference guide that includes definitions, confined feeding operation regulations and rules for containers, storage plans and more at
  • Saskatchewan developed a flowchart to help producers decide if they need approval. There are also charts to help define what constitutes an animal unit. Visit to learn more.
  • Manitoba’s animal unit months are based on the number that would excrete 73 kg of nitrogen. Go to to see what that is by species.


Each province counts one animal unit slightly differently. Here are the most common ones:


  • One cow
  • Two feeder cattle
  • 3.6 calves
  • 0.56 sows, farrow to finish
  • 5 feeder pigs
  • 18.2 weanlings
  • 100 hens
  • 500 broiler chickens
  • 75 turkey hens
  • 5 ewes and rams
  • 21 lambs


  • One cow
  • 1.5 feeder cattle
  • 4 calves
  • 3 sows and boars
  • 6 feeder pigs
  • 20 weanling pigs
  • 100 hens
  • 200 broiler chickens
  • 50 turkeys
  • 7 ewes and rams
  • 14 lambs


  • 0.8 beef cow
  • 1.3 feeder cattle
  • .5 dairy cow
  • 0.8 sows, farrow to finish
  • 7 finishers
  • 30 weanlings
  • 100 hens
  • 200 broiler chickens
  • 100 turkeys
  • 5 ewes and rams
  • 16 lambs

Source: Provincial Agriculture departments, staff research


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