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Confined Spaces - A Danger Regardless of Farm Size

Jerry Bertoldo, Dairy
Northwest New York Dairy, Livestock & Field Crops

Last Modified: June 25, 2013

A confined space can be defined as an area that has limited openings for entry and exit, has unfavorable natural ventilation which could contain or produce dangerous air contaminants and is not intended for continuous employee occupancy. In the animal agriculture world, upright silos, manure digesters, manure pits, trenches and storage tanks all come to mind as examples.

The danger on the farm is usually in the form of gasses harmful to the respiratory tract, ones that displace oxygen or are explosive in nature. It must be kept I mind that mechanical hazards cannot be ignored. Agriculture is exempt from most OSHA regulations. The mandatory signage, respirators, safety harnesses, eye wash stations and the employee training that goes with it is not mandatory as with other industries. 

Silo gas (NO2 or nitrogen dioxide) was a well recognized health danger from the early days of upright silos. The switch to bunkers, bags and bottom unloading silos has reduced the risk. With the increase in collection and storage of liquid manure many more potentially dangerous confined spaces have been created. The key concern is the air within these spaces. This can include a drop in oxygen concentration (from decay of organic matter and displacement by CO2 and/or methane), an increase of carbon dioxide, a buildup of carbon monoxide from nearby running engines, lethal build up of hydrogen sulfide (H2S, rotten egg smell) or explosive levels of methane.

Manure pits have been to blame for numerous deaths of unsuspecting individuals entering them to work on pumps, impellers or other objects needing attention. Low oxygen conditions (16-18% versus the normal 21% atmospheric concentration) as an example are rather innocuous. At these levels there is an impairment of judgment and breathing without the victim realizing it. A drop in the oxygen concentration to 6%, however results in death within minutes. Hydrogen sulfide can be detected by most people at very low levels (<.005 ppm). Between 100-150 ppm the sense of smell is deadened with a few breaths. Levels approaching 350 ppm will cause pulmonary edema and possible death. The heavier than air nature of H2S makes forced ventilation of a pit before entry a must.

Methane (biogas) is non-toxic, lighter than air, colorless and odorless. Even though it does not accumulate in the bottom of a confined space, continuous methane production can be expected from manure at the floor of a pit. At 5-15% concentration by air volume, methane is explosive. This means anything that might create a spark - cell phones, radios, engines, clothing static, fans or any other non-explosion proof devices - could initiate an explosion.

Anyone working around or in confined spaces should be made aware of potential dangers. Working in pairs or groups with a means to retrieve someone quickly from a hazardous air space should be a minimal consideration. For more information go to











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Upcoming Events

Dairy Cattle Summer Research Update

July 18, 2019
Batavia, NY

After the day's work is done, come hear about two new research trials conducted by Julio Giordano's lab:
  • Strategies for improving dairy cattle reproductive performance and economics
  • Using automated sensors for improving dairy cattle health monitoring and management

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Weed Resistance Management Demonstration and Plot Tour

Event Offers DEC Credits

July 23, 2019
1:00 - 3:00 p.m.
Waterloo, NY

Come join us on July 23 in Seneca County at Quinten Good's farm for a demonstration and walking tour of 16 different pre- and post-emergence treatments in soybean and 12 different treatments and combinations in corn.
  • Tall waterhemp and marestail are two weeds that are resistant to glyphosate and ALS herbicide modes of action in the WNY and Finger Lakes regions.
  • Each year the number of acres with resistant weed populations expands.
  • For herbicides to be an effective tool in weed management, we have to know what chemistries & application timings are most effective against these resistant weeds.

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Pasture Walk with the Finger Lakes Graziers

July 29, 2019
12:45 - 4 pm
Waterloo, NY

Join the Finger Lakes Graziers on a pasture walk and learn about soil health. 
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USDA Announces New Decision Tool for New Dairy Margin Coverage Program

WASHINGTON, April 30, 2019 ? Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced today the availability of a new web-based tool - developed in partnership with the University of Wisconsin - to help dairy producers evaluate various scenarios using different coverage levels through the new Dairy Margin Coverage (DMC) program.

The 2018 Farm Bill authorized
DMC, a voluntary risk management program that offers financial protection to dairy producers when the difference between the all milk price and the average feed cost (the margin) falls below a certain dollar amount selected by the producer. It replaces the program previously known as the Margin Protection Program for Dairy. Sign up for this USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) program opens on June 17.

"With sign-up for the
DMC program just weeks away, we encourage producers to use this new support tool to help make decisions on participation in the program," Secretary Perdue said. "Dairy producers have faced tough challenges over the years, but the DMC program should help producers better weather the ups and downs in the industry."

The University of Wisconsin launched the decision support tool in cooperation with FSA and funded through a cooperative agreement with the USDA Office of the Chief Economist. The tool was designed to help producers determine the level of coverage under a variety of conditions that will provide them with the strongest financial safety net. It allows farmers to simplify their coverage level selection by combining operation data and other key variables to calculate coverage needs based on price projections.

The decision tool assists producers with calculating total premiums costs and administrative fees associated with participation in
DMC. It also forecasts payments that will be made during the coverage year.

The new Dairy Margin Coverage program offers very appealing options for all dairy farmers to reduce their net income risk due to volatility in milk or feed prices," said Dr. Mark Stephenson, Director of Dairy Policy Analysis, University of Wisconsin, Madison. "Higher coverage levels, monthly payments, and more flexible production coverage options are especially helpful for the sizable majority of farms who can cover much of their milk production with the new five million pound maximum for Tier 1 premiums. This program deserves the careful consideration of all dairy farmers."

For more information, access the tool at For
DMC sign up, eligibility and related program information, visit or contact your local USDA Service Center. To locate your local FSA office, visit

New Guidance for Mortality Disposal Issued

NYS Department of Ag and Markets has posted guidelines on disposal of livestock carcasses, in response to reports that some rendering companies have halted pickups from farms.|1