Manure Pumping Safety

By Marty Rost

Many of our system and shareholder barns pump their manure pits in the spring, but pumping safety is not always top of mind. That’s because spring is a busy time, and we have lots of other things to think about. But, the welfare of our employees and our animals may be jeopardized if we do not pay attention to safety. Here’s why.

Manure pumping safety includes:

  • Good Communication
  • Detecting Hydrogen Sulfide
  • Dealing With Foam
  • Adequate Ventilation
  • Preventing Fires

Good Communication – Whether you do it yourself or hire someone, maintain good communication with your pumper before, during, and after the process. Agitating and pumping pits releases Ammonia, CO2, hydrogen sulfide, and methane. If levels of these gases get too high, stop pumping and agitating and adjust your fans or let them catch up.

Hydrogen Sulfide Detection – Hydrogen Sulfide has a foul odor, much like rotten eggs.  Some people’s noses become “used to” odor in hog facilities and cannot detect when levels become dangerous.  And, Hydrogen Sulfide is lighter than air and is usually at “pig level.” Use a hydrogen sulfide detector to tell when this gas reaches a critical level. When it does, make adjustments to barn ventilation by opening curtains, adjusting the fans, or asking the pumper to stop for a period of time.

Dealing With Foam – A lot of research is being done on the subject of foaming in manure pits, but the cause is still uncertain. We know foaming carries with it a high risk because there are dangerous gases (usually methane) in those bubbles. All these gases can be released at once when you pump. If a spark is present, you could actually experience a flash fire in your barn. Flash fires due to foam have melted feed lines and electrical wires and even burnt down whole barns with loss of both human and animal life.

Take these steps to address this hazard:

  • Use an additive to decrease foaming. Not all additives have been tested, but I would be happy to recommend an emergency product you can use to reduce foaming.
  • Make sure all barn fans are running at peak operating efficiency before pumping a foaming pit. You don’t want to chill the pigs, but at the very least, you do want your minimum speed fans to be running at 100%.
  • Determine whether just opening the curtains on a curtain-sided barn is enough or whether you need your fans going as well. Just opening curtains, on a day with no breeze, still allows gas to build up. You may also need to activate the fans to keep the gas moving and keep it as low to the pit as possible.
  • Before you start pumping, shut off anything that could cause a spark—such as light switches and feed lines, which may kick on while you are pumping your pit. You don’t want to ignite any flammable gases you might stir up.
Photo Courtesy of Pork Checkoff

Other safety practices

Make sure you observe these additional common sense practices, as you pump out your pits:

  • Make sure all PTO shields are in place.
  • Obey all traffic laws including stop signs.
  • Never go into a pit.

Anyone going into a pit should have proper safety gear, including air tanks. This is not a job for you, your local plumber or your veterinarian. If you need to enter your barn pit, call me and I’ll help you locate someone who is equipped and trained to do so.

If you have a question about safety and you are using a custom pumper, ask them. They are usually a good resource and attuned to pumping safety.

Finally, maintain good biosecurity, even in the pumping process. Inspect all pumping equipment before it comes on site, swabbing and testing for common swine diseases. If you have multiple barns, follow a biosecurity pyramid by pumping the health barns first and putting the barns with known disease problems toward the end of the process.

Editor’s Note: Marty Rost has been with Pipestone for almost 20 years and has served in a variety of roles. Currently, he works as an internal swine specialist, answering a variety of health, production, and pharmaceutical questions. He also works with the Manure Management Plans for Pipestone.  Marty may be contacted at or call 507.825.4211.