Zeolite is a really fine powder marketed as a horse stall freshener and cat litter additive that sucks up ammonia. Paul Bechtel adds zeolite to his compost every day before adding fresh manure, and it easily gets mixed in. Photo by Photo courtesy of Paul & Sheri Bechtel
Manure can be a valuable commodity, if the distance to haul it isn’t too large and if it’s composted. Composted manure has very little odor and the weed seeds have been killed. However, if you can substantially boost the N, P and K content, your composted manure is going to be that much more in demand – and the profits will be that much better.
Paul Bechtel of Baden, located near Kitchener, Ont., has accomplished just that, by adding a very inexpensive additive and a little innovation along the way.
The small Bechtel family farm, started by Paul’s grandfather Pete decades ago, is 12 acres. Bechtel runs a feedlot there for about 320 head of cattle, which produce about 9,000 pounds of manure a day. Bechtel won his first Ontario Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence in 2009 for the high-temperature composting system first created by his father Robert.
“We obviously have a limited land base, and we had to do something to make the manure more attractive and in order to satisfy environmental requirements,” he explains. “After neighbours hauled manure out of here, they couldn’t pay anything for it because of their time and the fuel involved. If you compost it, it’s worth something.”
Robert had first started researching composting back in the 1970s, and built a big flailing mixer machine to which Paul later made tweaks. The machine runs along the manure pile, which is 24 feet wide, three feet deep and 100 feet long, mixing it and blowing air through it, allowing it to reach high temperatures.
“After two weeks, it’s done and every day we pull the finished product off one end and add fresh manure to the other end,” Bechtel says. “It kills the weed seed off completely, has little odor and won’t attract flies. It was even used in flowerbeds in Waterloo region and surrounding counties.”
The greenhouse gases are also much lower in composted manure, which Paul says emits no methane, ammonia or nitrogen oxides.
The flail unit originally ran on steel wheels on railway tracks, but the tracks couldn’t deal with all the moisture from the steam, so Paul built a new cogwheel drive to replace it. The chains that held the spinning hammers (which mix the manure at 150 RPM for less than an hour each day) would wear out every two years, but with adjustments, they now last about five.
“We also switched from electric motors,” says Bechtel. “They were burning out every two or three years, and you had to have one in reserve when the other was being rebuilt. Now, we run it off a diesel engine and it works well.”
However, Bechtel wasn’t satisfied.
“We were always getting tests done, and we had a really nice composted product that everyone was happy with, but we knew we were losing a lot of nitrogen through ammonia leakage,” he explains. “We wanted to try and keep that, so we started knocking around ideas and finally came up with zeolite [see sidebar]. It’s marketed as a horse stall freshener and cat litter additive because it sucks up ammonia.”
Zeolite is also used as a feed additive for cattle in feedlots (it helps prevent acidosis and bloat from the cattle ingesting high-energy feed rations), and so Bechtel had about four tons of it lying around the farm he could easily experiment with. Bechtel says it’s a really fine powder that he adds every day before adding fresh manure, and it easily gets completely mixed in.
But arriving at the right amount was not a fast process.
“Yes, we experimented a lot with how much to add,” Bechtel says. “It took a lot of tweaking and testing. We had to get a deep freeze in the barn for holding samples because we had so many of them. If you add too much zeolite, you’ll starve the bacteria of nitrogen. If you add too little, you don’t get the results. You also have to run things on each try for long enough to get a good measure of what’s happening, so it was about two and a half years before we had it right.”
Cost-effectiveness was also a small part of the experimentation. There was an amount of zeolite (admittedly only a dollar a ton) that Bechtel found where it didn’t profit him to add a little more because that little more gave no better result.
Advanced Compost was officially opened in 2015, offering what Bechtel calls ‘zeolite manure,’ nabbing him another Premier’s Award.
“Manure is $11 a ton for its N, P and K,” he says. “It’s worth $27.50 a ton for composted manure, and zeolite manure is worth $55.30, based on 2014 prices for N, P and K (the value of organic carbon, calcium and magnesium are not priced in). The tests show that the nitrogen in zeolite manure is 1.78 percent, compared to 0.96 for composted manure. The P and K are more than double as well.”
Profits from manure sales have doubled. It’s going to neighboring farms, being used in local ‘Triple Mix,’ and golf courses have also shown interest. Bechtel says he never has to worry about not selling it. Other farmers have contacted him about how much to use, and he’s getting a zeolite distribution contract set up with a local farm supply business.
Bechtel believes innovation and learning to be critical in farming.
“If you stop learning, you might as well file for bankruptcy on the spot,” he says. “There are always new things coming down the pipe and if you don’t keep learning, you’ll never catch up. There’s also good personal satisfaction in innovating. It always feels good to know things are working out better every time you go to work.”
All about zeolites
Zeolites are microporous aluminosilicate solids known as ‘molecular sieves,’ a group of molecules than can selectively sort other molecules and atoms based primarily on size. They are able to do this because of their very regular pore structure. In addition, the zeolite structure can also hold a wide variety of positive ions, which can readily be exchanged for others in a liquid solution.
Natural zeolites form where volcanic rocks and ash layers react with alkaline groundwater. They also form over epochs of time in shallow marine basins. Naturally-occurring zeolites are rarely pure and usually contain other minerals, metals, quartz or other zeolites. For this reason, naturally-occurring zeolites are excluded from many important commercial applications where uniformity and purity are essential.
Adapted from Wikipedia