He told a large tour of attendees from the North American Manure Expo in nearby Arlington that the fertilizer value and bedding potential of compost are already apparent on his family's Endres Berryridge Farm, operated with brothers Randy and Steve, but he is still learning about the energizing effect compost has on the soil.
One hint of that aspect of compost use is that his alfalfa acres that have been fertilized with compost for two years have out-yielded all other alfalfa fields. "It's enough to notice," he said. "That told me this isn't hurting me. There's something to it."
He also noted that one problem they had before utilizing compost in their system is that steep alfalfa fields could not be fertilized with liquid manure and as such started to decline in fertility. Once they had the environmentally friendly, stable compost, they could feed those fields with it. They also found that applying compost to a growing crop didn't harm the plants."There are not a lot of barriers to composting," he said. "No farmer is going to go into it as crazy as we did, but I got sick of digging holes in the ground to store manure. For us, this was a way to utilize the nutrients we already have in our farm system.
"I don't think farmers should ever have to give nutrients away," he said.
Two busloads of visitors from Manure Expo joined another busload of guests from the Madison Clean Lakes Alliance to visit the Endres farm on Aug. 22 and they asked some pointed questions of the compost experimenter.
He told them that he could probably build and use a liquid manure system more cheaply than operating his compost system. Just over a year ago the Endres family incorporated a large compost barn into a new set of buildings where they raise their dairy herd replacements.
Two identically sized barns (65 by 220 feet) house the farm's heifer calves from four months to 13 months of age. Both barns feature tunnel ventilation and additional cooling fans which aid fly control; the air moving at 5 miles per hour keeps flies away. "The compost process, with the heat that is generated, is also very friendly to fly control," he adds. READ MORE
These technologies can cover a range of innovations – generate energy from animal manure, reduce on-farm waste streams, and repurpose manure by creating marketable fertilizer and other value added products such as compost.
In October, MDA awarded Veteran Compost of Harford County, Maryland, and O2Compost of Washington State a grant for $350,300 to develop a compost demonstration project plus a public education and training facility in Anne Arundel County for livestock farmers.
The project will demonstrate aerated static pile (ASP) composting technology systems at three levels: small scale (one to four horses or livestock equivalents); medium scale: (five to 20); and large scale: (20 to 40).
All three compost systems will be solar powered to demonstrate off-grid sustainability. The medium and large systems will include storage tanks to retain roof water for use in the composting process.
The project will also include formal classes and hands-on workshops, public tours for students in kindergarten through college, and alliances with government agencies and non-profit environmental organizations. In addition, a compost cooperative website will be developed to bring together producers and end users of the finished compost products.
The compost systems that are displayed will be ones that have been in use since 2001. Peter Moon, owner of O2Compost, says he started out in the composting industry in 1989, designing and permitting large-scale municipal green waste systems. Then, in the mid-1990s, he started applying some of the industrial ideas to compost dairy and chicken manure.
After seeing a chicken farm that was composting mortalities that looked tidy but suffered from terrible odor issues, he decided that an aerated bin system was what was needed. It took him a few months to figure out the answer and was convinced that it would work.
“I ended up building a prototype in my back yard because I had to prove to myself that it would work, and it worked way better than I had hoped,” he says.
Today, O2Compost offers what they call Compost Operator Training Programs. They include four basic components – the design of the system, the aeration equipment package, a detailed training manual written in layman’s terms, and unlimited technical support – for a fixed fee.
“It’s this system and three stages of bins that will be on display,” he says. “Although I don’t know of any other company that is offering anything like it, I want to make clear I didn’t invent the concept of aerated composting. Aerated static pile (ASP) composting was first developed in the mid-1970s in Beltsville, Maryland. I just reconfigured it into an aerated bin system.”
When the MDA put out the RFP in 2016, Peter immediately thought of his client and good friend, Justen Garrity, owner of Veteran Company based out of Aberdeen, Maryland. The two had known and worked with each other since 2010 when Justen took Peter’s training program.
Veteran Compost has a 30-acre farm in Aberdeen and is dedicated to employing veterans and their family members and turning food scraps into high-quality compost. The crown jewel of Veteran Compost is its vermicomposting operation –it’s one of the only commercial worm composting operations in Maryland.
Peter approached Justen and suggested that, since the company was located in Maryland, why didn’t they set up a demonstration site with bins and a larger open aerated static pile system and use it to instruct farmers in Maryland and neighboring states. They could come to them, participate in a half-day workshop and then come out to the site and see it, sense it, understand it and learn.
Justen could immediately see the value in this partnership, and so did MDA. In 2016, O2Compost and Veteran Compost received the grant.
The project would already be operational today, except for one snag. Justen and Peter had challenges finding a good site, because people in the area have been reluctant to have a composting site near them because of potential odor issues. This is despite the fact that Justen’s composting facility in Aberdeen has received zero odor complaints from neighbors in the six years that it’s been operating.
“Justen has also had to go through a process with Anne Arundel County to allow for composting on agricultural zone property,” says Peter.
It has taken a long time and numerous public hearings, but recently the county commissioners voted unanimously to allow this activity on agricultural zoned land.
Ironically, these systems will demonstrate why compost doesn’t have to generate offensive odors for several reasons: the ASP compost piles are not turned; airflow is induced into the piles resulting in aerobic conditions throughout the pile; and a biofilter cover is used for in-situ treatment of off-gases.
“It has been my experience that most people think that compost piles need to be turned to get oxygen into it,” says Peter. “What they don’t understand is that when a biologically active pile is turned, the oxygen that is introduced into the compost is then consumed by the microorganisms and depleted within 30 to 45 minutes.”
With regard to composting at the training facility, Peter and Justen will induce airflow using a high pressure, high volume electric blower and push air into the pile to replenish the oxygen and displace CO2, heat and water out of the pile.
In short, ASP composting results in aerobic composting versus turned windrow composting, which results in anaerobic composting.
Drainage isn’t a factor for the smaller systems because the bins are covered with roof structures. However, for municipal scale compost facilities managing storm water, it is always an important consideration.
“For the larger systems, municipal-type scale, yes, typically we’ll construct a pond of some kind to handle any surface water run-off.”
The liquid collected is then re-introduce back into the compost pile as process water, or in some cases directed to a sanitary sewer for processing at the local wastewater treatment plant.
“Our goal with composting is to get the pile temperature throughout the pile to exceed 55oC (equivalent to 131oF) for a minimum of three days. Meeting these time-temperature conditions effectively destroys pathogens, parasites and weed seeds in the finished compost,” says Peter.
The objective is to produce a high quality compost product that is safe to use on pastures or in vegetable and landscape gardens.
Moisture is always an important factor when composting, and will be one of the things farmers will learn more about at the site.
“Our goal is to have the moisture content somewhere between 60 and 65 percent, going into the pile,” says Peter. “At that moisture content, it will feel quite wet and you can squeeze a handful and get a drop or two to come out. At this moisture content, it won’t drain free-water that could impact surface and ground water resources.”
Peter says with dairy and pig manure, even if it’s run through a separator and the fibrous material is stacked, the base can get saturated because the water just continues to drain out. It can fill the pipes under the stack with water. To avoid this, some type of dry “bulking” material can be added. Peter often encourages dairies to look to horse stables in their area or even equine events.
“Horse farms always have that same problem, but it tends to be very carbon rich and very dry, which is exactly what you want to marry-up with wet substrates.”
Flexibility is built into the system.
“For example, companies may accumulate their food waste in batches and then mix it up to compost out. Or you can build a pile over a 30-day period as you would on a horse farm,” says Peter. “The idea with the MDA grant is to teach people what is possible, and that there is a method that’s simple and effective and an excellent investment on their farm with an ROI of two to five years.”
There is also flexibility in the use of pipes. With small, aerated bin systems, the air is delivered by an air-floor and there are no pipes to work around.
For larger systems, aeration pipes can be laid directly on the ground with the pile constructed directly on top. Some farms sacrifice the pipe when they bring in their frontend loaders. Others choose a thick-walled HDPE pipe.
“That pipe can literally be pulled out from underneath the pile and reused.”
One of the key features of the system is low maintenance. Once the compost pile has been built, it’s pretty much hands off. The blower and timer to do all of the work.
“You monitor the composting process, but you don’t need the big windrow turner and someone out there driving it,” says Peter. “You’re not paying for fuel, maintenance or repairs and you are able to greatly reduce air emissions. ASP Composting requires about 25 percent of the space when compared to turned windrow composting, and it can be operated at less than 50 percent of the cost.”
Both Peter and Justen feel that once the training facility is in operation, which looks to be late summer of 2017, farmers will be excited to discover that aerated static pile composting yields too many benefits to ignore. It speeds up the process, reduces odors and basically eliminates neighbor issues. It also destroys parasites, pathogens and weed seeds in the mix, has a small footprint, reduces the cost of operation, can handle any organic waste material and is simple to operate.
“The question I get a lot is, ‘If this is all so easy and it’s everything you say it is, why isn’t everybody already doing it?’” asks Peter. “For some reason everybody is just locked onto the idea you need to turn the pile, but you don’t. We have over 1,200 systems in operation in 21 countries. It is a simple technology that is easy to learn – and it works.”
Nine consecutive days of temperatures above 100 degrees in the Central Valley area of the state resulted in a large jump in cattle deaths. According to an agricultural official in Fresno County, between 4,000 and 6,000 head of livestock died in the month of June due to the heat. Adding to the problem was the temporary shutdown, due to a mechanical problem, of the local rendering plant. As a result, a state of emergency was called in at least three counties and the California Dairy Quality Assurance Program (CDQAP) released an emergency mortality disposal advisory. Under the plan, producers were provided with three options to dispose of mortalities: directly transport the carcasses to an alternate rendering facility or permitted landfill; temporarily store mortalities on farm in compost piles until they could be permanently disposed of; or, as a last resort, bury the carcasses in an emergency landfill on farm, which still required a mountain load of paperwork and possibly thousands of dollars in fees.
According to the five-page advisory, producers were encouraged to put down a waterproof liner and use dairy manure solids as a composting agent, placing each adult carcass on a three foot bed of manure and then covering with a second layer of manure three feet deep. By doing this, farmers could buy themselves an extra six months of time before the carcasses needed to be disposed of permanently off farm.
“Staff will be looking for evidence of bones and carcasses that have been left more than six months,” the advisory warned, adding the number and identity of the animals composted plus documentation they had been properly disposed of would also be required.
While this isn’t the first time California has dealt with large-scale livestock deaths due to heat, it will be interesting to see how the agriculture and landfill industry deals with the added pressure to the carcass disposal system. With the threat of animal disease outbreaks, such as bird flu or foot and mouth disease, always in the background, this negative situation provides an opportunity to test-drive the official response. Heaven forbid it would be required on a state- or nation-wide scale but it’s always prudent to be prepared.
I look forward to any lessons learned which come after the debrief.
Speaking of composting, producers and custom manure applicators can learn more about the management practice and see relevant equipment in action during the North American Manure Expo, taking place in late August at the Arlington Agricultural Research Station near Arlington, Wisc. I consider Expo one of my favorite industry events of the year. What isn’t there to enjoy? Farmers, family, food, friends, farm equipment, information, demonstrations, community: the important things in life.
This Manure-a-palooza takes a year or more of planning to bring to fruition, including hours of committee meetings and conference calls. As a frequent participant in these morning gatherings, I can attest to the time and effort by industry volunteers that goes into preparing for this event. Be sure to check out the event website – manureexpo.org – and consider taking part.
Moreman, a retired vocational agriculture teacher with an animal husbandry degree from Texas Tech University, began his career by managing a cattle feedlot. He then spent over 25 years teaching at Texas Christian University and Clarendon Community College, where he developed and taught a two-year program in ranch and feedlot management.
Six years ago, this 81-year-old launched a successful turnkey manure composting and organic fertilizer application business headquartered in Clarendon, Texas, that has since doubled in size with 15 employees. Clarendon is about 65 miles southeast of Amarillo.
The company’s motto is, “Giving nature a hand and conserving the land.”
“I feel very strongly about conserving our resources,” says Moreman. “I think composting is one of the better things that we do, and the area that we are in, you could have three different soil types in one field, from sandy loam, to dark clay, to caliche. Compost improves the soil structure and the ability for the carbon molecules to hold the nutrients in place till the plant can get hold of it.”
A group of eight feedlot owners, who together raise about 200,000 head of cattle, annually supply Moreman with the manure he needs to make compost. The company uses its compost turning equipment on land dedicated by each feedlot to convert over 720,000 tons of raw feedlot manure annually into about 300,000 tons of compost. It then sells the compost to farmers as organic fertilizer and a soil amendment, providing the equipment and personnel to land apply it for them.
Rolling Plains Ag Compost makes its money from the sale and application of the compost, with a percentage of that income paid to the feedlot owners for supplying the raw manure.
Moreman says that there are two main reasons why the feedlots are eager to work with Rolling Plains Ag Compost. Firstly, when the feedlot cleans its pens and stockpiles the manure, it typically is compacted in large chunks, which makes it very difficult to land apply. Its nutrient content is also highly variable in this form and it often is full of weed seeds. Because the raw manure is in larger chunks, it usually takes a couple of years to break down in the field, which is why farmers tend to not see any value from it until the second year after application. However, by providing the raw manure to a composter, the large chunks are broken down, it is easier to land apply, and the nutrients are available immediately upon incorporation. Also, farmers who have applied raw manure on their fields have found that this material tends to have unwanted debris like pipes and cables mixed in with it.
Secondly, working with a composter like Rolling Plains Ag Compost, reduces the feedlots’ potential liability concerning land applying of raw manure. Moreman says based on feedback from his feedlot suppliers, the decision to compost the manure rather than land apply it has made a big difference when it comes to dealing with organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“Our feedlot operators tell us that if an inspector from the EPA or Texas Water Quality Board comes by and they see that they are composting that manure and hauling it out, the inspectors don’t ever bother them because that’s what they want to see done with it,” says Moreman. “But if the inspectors go in there and they have a huge pile that’s so big that it interferes with TV reception, then they get concerned.”
The composting processes gets rid of many of the pathogens and weed seeds in raw manure, and reduces the volume. Moreman says that it reduces the manure volume by as much as 5-to-1. So there is a lot less material to land apply and it tends to have more consistent nutrient content.
Because the feedlots feed their cattle concentrated rations, there is little, if any, roughage like hay or bedding material like straw mixed in with the manure, which actually makes it more valuable as a raw material for making compost because there is little to no filler.
“Dairy manure is probably worth about half as much as cattle feedlot manure because a dairy operation will typically feed a lot of hay and silage to their cattle,” says Moreman. “These beef cattle are on a high grain ration and they are not subjected to a lot of roughage, because these feedlot owners want their cattle to eat a lot of grain and convert that to beef. That’s kind of the name of the game.”
Moreman’s business operates year round. Employees are either creating the windrows, turning the windrows, or land applying the compost for farm customers.
“We are either putting compost on cotton, peanuts, corn, wheat or irrigated pasture,” says Jack. “There is a crop coming off at all times, so they need compost pretty much all the time.”
While there is year-round demand, there are times of greater and lesser demand. May to July tends to be the slowest time of year, after spring crops are planted.
An important selling point to marketing the compost to farm customers is its ability to improve the water holding capacity of the soils where it is applied. Water is a valuable commodity to farmers in that part of Texas. Adding compost to dense soils increases their aeration and drainage capacity, and increases the water holding capacity of sandy soils. Most of Rolling Plains Ag Compost’s customers participate in a program where they
land-apply compost on each parcel of land on a two-to-three year rotation.
The company has worked hard to build its farm customer base, and Moreman’s background as an educator has helped. He spends considerable time hosting seminars and speaking to individual farmers about the benefits of using compost. His effort has paid off.
“You can be assured of one thing that if they try it, we are going to make a sale next time around,” says Moreman.
While compost has significant nutrient value, it does not necessarily fulfil all the farmer’s nutrient needs but represents only part of the overall puzzle. The company’s customers understand that. Most will need to add some commercial fertilizer, depending on the crop they are growing.
Typically, a feedlot will stockpile its raw manure as it cleans its pens and then Rolling Plains Ag Compost will bring in their own loaders and trucks to transport the manure to a drainage-controlled parcel of land that the feedlot has designated as its composting area. This can measure anywhere from 20 to 40 acres.
The company will create a compost windrow that measures approximately six-feet tall by up to 16-feet wide. The windrow will be as long as required by the amount of raw manure being converted. In the past, they have measured anywhere from a quarter-mile to a mile long.
The composting process consists of windrow turning, temperature measurement and moisture measure to ensure that the microorganisms responsible for the biological conversion process within the windrows are doing their job.
Part of the reason for the turning process is to ensure that the windrows are well oxygenated to support the microorganisms. As the conversion process takes place, the windrows can heat up to as much as 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
To turn the windrows, Rolling Plains Ag Compost uses a CT718 compost turner by Wildcat, which is a Vermeer company. With a 44-inch diameter drum to turn, mix and aerate the material, it can process up to 5,000 tons of manure per hour. The turning takes place typically once a week.
After about six weeks, the raw manure has been converted to compost and it is ready for land application. Moreman says the compost turner is a large and powerful piece of equipment with a 500 hp Caterpillar engine. He adds that it is sturdy enough to break down the chunks in the manure pile.
Rolling Plains Ag Compost has its own fleet of semi-trailer trucks to deliver the compost to farm customers. At all stages of the pen cleaning, composting, and land application process, the company depends on a large fleet of John Deere loaders to move the material as needed.
Once the compost is delivered to the farm, the compost is temporarily stockpiled beside the field and then loaded into New Leader spreaders to land apply the compost. Rolling Plains Ag Compost owns four of them. New Leader is a type of nutrient applicator manufactured by Highway Equipment Company (HECO) located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In the Rolling Plains Ag Compost operation, the applicators are mounted on either Chevrolet or International trucks.
Moreman says that these New Leader nutrient applicators are large and purpose-built. The box consists of a stainless steel bed with a conveyor on the bottom. The conveyor propels the compost to the back of the box, where spinners broadcast the material onto the land. The company will deploy as many nutrient applicators as needed for each job, but when all four are working, their customers are amazed at how quickly the job gets done.
“They are also very accurate,” says Jack. “There is a GPS unit on them to ensure that you don’t leave any part of the field out, and if you do, it will tell you.”
In terms of application amounts, Rolling Plains Ag Compost recommends four tons per acre on irrigated land and two-to-three tons on dry land. Once the farmer has some experience using the compost, they usually make adjustments on future applications based on the responses that they have experienced.
After initially and enthusiastically backing a request for the facility, commissioners reversed themselves when farmers complained that the location of the facility in their midst would keep them from selling their fruits and vegetables. READ MORE
February 6, 2017, Champaign, IL — Illinois Manure Share, created by the University of Illinois, is a manure exchange program that brings gardeners and landscapers searching for organic materials for use in composting or application in contact with livestock owners.
The program, initially intended to help commercial farmers find markets for their manure, has evolved over time. Today, most of the manure providers are horse farms and many of the buyers are from the Chicago area. READ MORE
November 9, 2016 – Nutrient management encompasses the entire life cycle of the animal.
The tendency is to think about the cycle as crops to feed to product — milk or meat — to manure and back to crops. However, animal mortality is another step that falls within the nutrient management cycle. READ MORE
October 5, 2016, Toyota City, Japan – Toyota Motor Corporation (TMC) and contact lens manufacturer Menicon Co., Ltd. (Menicon) have jointly developed a new liquid livestock manure composting product that will join the resQ45 series of TMC-Menicon jointly developed manure composting systems.
The product, called the New-Tokubetsu-Kyuko Liquid (new special express liquid enzyme), will be sold by Toyota Roof Garden Co., Ltd. It will be distributed through Toyota Tsusho Corporation's (Toyota Tsucho) livestock feed sales channels.
In Japan, where around 80 million tons of livestock manure are generated annually, concerns about the adverse impact of manure on the environment, including its offensive odor, water pollution, and greenhouse-gas generation, have created widespread awareness for the need to find ways to properly process, and to effectively utilize manure. In January 2013, Toyota and Menicon launched a jointly developed powder livestock manure composting product called the New-Tokubetsu-Kyuko, which had significantly shortened the composting period from around one month to around two weeks, while substantially reducing the generation of malodorous ammonia gas by between 50 and 90 percent (in the case of poultry waste). However, since the dispersion of powder composting agents is both a time- and labor-intensive process for large farms with major composting requirements, TMC and Menicon recognized the need to develop a liquid product that can be dispersed more easily by existing liquid dispensers.
Using these liquid dispensers, the newly developed New-Tokubetsu-Kyuko Liquid can be dispersed in a manner that is more reliable and uniform as compared to powder. This helps to improve dispersion efficiency and helps to facilitate the creation of better quality compost. As a result, TMC and Menicon believe this new product will help to reduce onerous work on livestock farms, while also providing positive environmental benefits at the same time. Furthermore, since a 100 grams bottle of the new liquid product is able to substitute for an 8 kg bag of powder, this development also helps to significantly reduce the space needed for storage.
June 2016 marked the tenth anniversary of the launch of the resQ45 series of manure composting systems, which were developed to help improve the livestock manure composting process. In addition to New-Tokubetsu-Kyuko Liquid, other main products in this series include the Buta resQ for pig manure and the Moo resQ for cows. Total sales of the resQ45 product lineup reached 200,000 bags in April, and annual sales are forecasted to hit 50,000 bags this year.
An overhead view of the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada facility where researchers are studying composting and stockpiling manure. Photo by Contributed photo
In North America, antibiotics are routinely administered to livestock for treating cases of disease and in some jurisdictions, they are given at sub-therapeutic levels to prevent disease, improve feed efficiency and promote growth. Manure can contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and it’s well known that some manure management practices destroy these bacteria, but does one stand out? Does stockpiling do a better job than composting, and are there other factors that should be considered in your decision to use one method over the other?
Tim McAllister can provide insight. McAllister is a principal research scientist in ruminant microbiology and nutrition at the Lethbridge Research Centre of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC). Recent studies he’s led on these issues were supported by AAFC’s Sustainable Agriculture Environmental Systems initiative and the Beef Cattle Research Council’s ‘Beef Cluster Funding.’ McAllister’s team included Shanwei Xu, Alanna Smith, Shaun Cook, Andrew F. Olson, Francis J. Larney and Rahat Zaheer (all at AAFC Lethbridge), Srinivas Sura and Allan J. Cessna (AAFC Saskatoon) and George Wang (University of Lethbridge). Cessna and Larney were lead scientists. Among other contributions, Xu drafted the manuscript and oversaw the lab analysis, Sura participated in study design, Zaheer helped track antibiotic resistance genes; Wang, Smith and Cook all provided laboratory analysis and Olson led the field studies.
But before we get to their results on stockpiling versus composting, let’s go over some facts you should know about antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
“It’s found in all soil,” McAllister explains. “Antibiotic resistance has always existed. Antibiotics are produced by many bacteria to protect themselves from other bacteria, and those bacteria need to be resistant to their own antibiotics or they will harm themselves. The populations they are defending themselves against also become resistant over time. These bacteria are found in the soil, inside animals such as cattle and in many other environments.”
So, whether or not antibiotics are added to an animal’s diet, antibiotic-resistant bacteria will be found in that animal’s digestive tract and in its manure. Resistance is a fact, and it’s only a matter of when it develops, in which bacteria and under what circumstances. McAllister understands that while “it’s still a common perception that the prevalence and magnitude of antimicrobial resistance in our environment is related to feeding antimicrobials to beef cattle, we’ve actually found that in several cases, manure from cattle that were not administered antimicrobials contained higher numbers of resistance genes than manure from animals fed antimicrobials.”
The good news is that it’s not likely that antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the soil, either naturally occurring or placed there through the spread of manure, pose a significant risk to human health. For that, McAllister says they would have to exchange DNA with other bacteria that could cause human infections, and that would be difficult since most human pathogens don’t survive outside the human environment, or survive for long.
“So there would have to be pathogens present, DNA exchange and then humans would have to be directly exposed to the altered pathogens,” he says. “That’s not terribly likely.”
Composting manure involves turning long piles (windrows) at least three times over the composting period with the objective of the temperature uniformly staying at, or higher than, 131 Fahrenheit (55 Celsius) for as long a period as possible (at least 15 days desirable). Turning of compost also breaks up aggregates, increases porosity, redistributes moisture and promotes the microbial decomposition of organic matter. Stockpiling has been described as ‘passive composting,’ with manure being placed in large pyramidal piles on the ground or on a concrete pad. Stockpiled manure is not mechanically turned or mixed, leading to regions of anaerobic decomposition. Stockpiling cannot achieve the high temperatures associated with composting and results in a shorter period of internal pile heating.
McAllister’s team found that in terms of their ability to kill off pathogens and degrade antibiotic resistant genes, composting provides better results. McAllister believes farmers should definitely do one or the other.
“Stockpiling…doesn’t require any equipment other than a loader, which every farmer already has,” he notes. “So stockpiling is a no-brainer for manure management. Letting manure sit at least a month should be standard practice. It also has the economic advantage of lowering the volume of manure that needs to be delivered to the field.”
Composting has more costs, he says, but can be worthwhile.
“There are investments needed in capital equipment costs, and in ongoing time and labour, but if you have a market nearby, a big city where you can sell composted manure for a good price, you can potentially make an ongoing profit.” [See sidebar for more]
Composting or stockpiling aside, another matter of individual choice is deciding whether to spread your manure on your fields. Spreading it certainly won’t add to the prevalence of antibiotic resistance that is already found in the soil, but McAllister says it doesn’t always make sense financially.
“You are adding organic matter when you spread your manure, but manure is high in phosphorus, so likely you will have to add N anyway in a separate spreading to balance out the N-P ratio,” he explains. “So, sometimes it’s easier for farmers to just use chemical fertilizer instead of manure. It’s each producer’s decision.”
And if you are wondering about what’s occurring with antibiotics added to animal feed that could impact human health, McAllister can also provide an update on that.
“Some antibiotics are already considered not safe to include in feed and regulations are in place and followed to prevent this practice, but we need more studies on the antibiotics that are presently approved,” he says. “It’s not in the best interest of animals to take away those antibiotics that help them get better from an infection or protect their health. The important thing to remember – and we haven’t published too much about this – is that we’re finding that the populations of bacteria that live in the environment are different than those that live in an animal. And there are certainly many manure management and food safety practices that we can use to reduce risk to human health, and many [of these practices] are already part of best management practices.”
Markets for composted manure
Composting on a large scale can be profitable for farmers but is a full-time job, says Van Doan, agri-resource engineer at Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development.
“Most beef farmers are farmers first…[they compost] for the volume reduction and odor reduction. Plus, if they land-apply the composted manure, they find it’s improving their soil tilth.”
Overton Environmental Enterprises compost site manager Gerry Dubé agrees. The Winnipeg-based firm composts by-products from several large companies (such as a potato processor and the Winnipeg horse racing track) and sells it to the public, and also helps several farmers compost their own manure, from those who want to sell manure to those who want to use it on their fields to reduce or eliminate fertilizer and chemical use.
“We are trying to convince farmers that composting and spreading composted manure creates a vibrant soil biology and also sequesters carbon,” says Dubé. “They need a better understanding of the whole process and they also need an incentive from the federal government to help them transition from using large amounts of fertilizer and herbicides to this more-environmentally friendly type of farming. The incentive would fit well with the desires of the federal government to reduce carbon going into the atmosphere.”
Bison Compost LLC produced 1.5 million pounds of compost last year from feedlot manure collected from the North Prairie Bison Ranch in North Dakota. Photo by Contributed photo
The American bison is making a comeback and a North Dakota-based, start-up company called Bison Compost LLC is hoping this translates into growing sales for their teabag and bulk compost products. Their manure supplier and business partner, North Prairie Bison Ranch (NPBR), hopes it leads to reduced manure disposal costs.
After almost being hunted to extinction, the American bison, or buffalo, has become big business for some Great Plains ranches, and was recently named the National Mammal of the United States.
NPBR manages a 3000-head custom feedlot near Leeds, ND, where they raise the animals exclusively for a single customer. The feedlot is owned by Dennis Sexhus, his son, Sanford, and Keith Kakela.
Bison Compost LLC was formed in 2013 and has three partners: NPBR, Tom and Judy Duenow, and Shelley Mathison-Holmes. Although the Duenows live in Elk River, Minn., and Mathison-Holmes in Winston-Salem, NC, all have roots and past associations with the Leeds area, which is how they found each other to formalize the partnership. The company markets its products under the names ‘Buffalo Earth’ and ‘No. 2 Brew Compost Tea’ for plants.
While he has yet to sit down and crunch the numbers to calculate if composting is delivering a net financial benefit to the bison ranch, Sexhus says they have reduced their number of Frontier hydraulic-push manure spreaders from three to one because the composting process reduces their manure volume by about two-thirds.
Sexhus says NPBR’s main motivations for taking the composting route were to reduce volume, derive a potential extra income from compost sales, and to help out the environment by switching to compost from land applying raw manure. At present, he says all their raw manure is being composted, but only a portion is being sold. The rest is land applied as organic fertilizer for their cash crops until such time as the compost business builds up its distributor network to take all the compost.
“Manure management is a cost for us and is a fairly expensive part of the feedlot business to properly dispose of the manure,” says Sexhus. “We were motivated by trying to turn what was really a liability for us into an asset.”
However, he has a realistic view of the costs associated with converting raw manure into compost.
“I believe that we are benefiting, but making compost isn’t free,” Sexhus says. “This business is fairly new and our goal is to grow it into a viable business. I do know that there are savings, but there are also costs associated with it.”
Prior to the composting venture, the ranch typically stockpiled and land applied its raw manure. It is a combination of animal waste with grass, hay, straw or corn stover.
In addition to substantially reducing raw manure volume, compost also has a lot less odor, and is largely free of weed seeds, pathogens, and fly eggs. These are some of the main selling points of compost, not to mention its benefits as an organic plant food where it increases fertility, water-holding capacity, bulk density and biological properties.
Describing the manufacture of the bison compost as a “warm weather” endeavor, Sexhus says the accumulated manure from the pens is stockpiled and then put into windrows on a designated, 10-acre, drainage-controlled, composting site provided by the bison ranch next to the feedlot.
Tom Duenow says his career as a food business manager brought him considerable experience in recycling, so the idea of recycling manure into compost had some appeal to him. Also, his wife, Judy, had a strong connection to the North Prairie area of North Dakota, having grown up within a couple of miles of the NPBR feedlot. Her family had close family connections with the bison ranch’s owners. Judy also had experience as a business partner with Dennis Sexhus, raising bison in the 1990s before selling out when prices went south.
“I started a conversation with Dennis about the possibility of composting and we just rolled it back and forth for a year or two,” says Duenow. “In 2013, we decided to create a partnership and start composting the bison manure.”
Mathison-Holmes spends a lot of time in North Dakota and is a strong advocate for women becoming more involved in business. Her family comes from Fargo. She was interested in becoming involved in a recycling business that created value-added end products like compost. In fact, she started a venture in manufacturing and marketing bison compost but lost her source of manure. So she reached out to the Duenows and became part of the Bison Compost partnership.
The owners did not have a lot of experience manufacturing premium quality compost, so they turned to the U.S. Composting Council and the North Dakota State University (NDSU) Extension service for technical assistance. They credit individuals like NDSU livestock environmental specialist Mary Berg with providing great and ongoing assistance in helping to launch their business venture.
Using an excavator, dozer, and front-end loader from the ranch, the feedlot manure is piled into 200-foot-long windrows on the composting site that are 12-feet wide and 8-feet tall. The site has enough room for 15 windrows as well as room for expansion. Temperature is the critical benchmark measured when manufacturing compost and it is measured frequently. The piles are allowed to heat up to 160 Fahrenheit three times. Each time it reaches that temperature, a Vermeer CT612 compost turner – owned by Bison Compost – turns the piles. After turning, the piles cool down then heat up again. The heat is generated by the microbes within the windrows doing their job of converting the manure into compost.
“I like to say that it is kind of a natural pasteurization process,” says Duenow, adding this is how and when the toxins, fly eggs and weed seeds are destroyed.
After turning three times and the heat stabilizes at a lower temperature, the compost piles cure for four weeks. The entire process takes between two and three months.
The black compost is screened to 3/8-inch consistency through a screener supplied by PowerScreen – located in Rogers, Minn. – before being sold in bulk or loaded in small quantities into teabags. Because of the seasonality of compost production, the company rents the screener once it has a large amount of compost accumulated. Timing the production of compost to stockpile for the entire year is an important part of the planning and marketing process as no compost is produced during the winter yet there may be demand for compost from plant enthusiasts.
What Mathison-Holmes brought to the business was the concept of a unique ‘teabag’ compost gardening product. This is a small amount of compost packaged in a teabag. It is dipped in water for about 24 hours and during this steeping process, the compost nutrients are released and ready to use as organic plant fertilizer.
While Bison Compost LLC is still in its infancy, Duenow says the owners have already learned some important marketing lessons. Perhaps the most important is the decision to sell their bagger and focus on selling large quantities of the bulk product to other companies who then bag it under the Buffalo Earth name. Part of the challenge they face is being situated in North Dakota, which is quite some distance to market with a limited labor pool. That’s why for now, the company has focused on marketing its compost in bulk both locally and over longer distances as well as marketing it in smaller, more manageable quantities as the No. 2 Compost Tea product.
In addition to giving the environment a hand-up by converting the raw manure to compost, Bison Compost is also providing much needed employment for a local organization that works with handicapped individuals. They have the contract to package the No. 2 Compost Tea product.
The Duenows and Mathison-Holmes continue to work hard on the marketing front to attract interest outside their local area, and so far, their marketing strategy has worked out quite well. They have sold a large volume of compost to a landscape products company in Minot, ND, which is blending it to create potting mix and garden mix for its customers. Bison Compost also has nursery and garden distributors established in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Northern Iowa, as well as a distributorship established for six states around New York.
Last year, the company produced about 1.5 million pounds of compost. Duenow says they generated about $30,000 in sales and they hope to double that amount this year as well as make good progress on establishing a national market particularly for the teabag product. Their target audience is nursery owners, gardeners, individuals involved in soil remediation and reclamation, as well as gardening enthusiasts.
While there is no difference in the process of manufacturing compost from bison manure or cattle manure, Duenow says they are hoping to leverage their sales to some extent on the growing profile of the American bison itself. They are also hitching their wagon to the green movement, promoting their product as a natural alternative to commercial fertilizer, from a source where the animals are raised without hormones or antibiotics.
To support the start-up, Bison Compost received a $135,000 grant from the North Dakota Agricultural Products Utilization Commission, and Duenow says a considerable amount is being used in their ongoing marketing efforts.
“Our name and our product are really gaining more and more interest,” he adds. “It is so much fun to go to shows like Pride of North Dakota and have people come back again and buy our product.”
June 7, 2016, Dundee, OH — Welcome to the manure fortress, said Tim Sigrist, stretching his arms to show off three acres of composting manure. What started as trial and error and homemade contraptions, continues to be trial and error and homemade contraptions, but has become a successful business venture for the Sigrist family.
Bull Country Compost, in Tuscarawas County, sold 44,000 bags of compost in 2015, which is a significant jump from the 10,000 to 12,000 bags they sold their first year back in the early 1990s. READ MORE
March 3, 2016, Columbia, MO – After listening to the same concerns property owners took to the county’s planning and zoning commission two weeks ago, the Boone County Commission unanimously approved a rezoning request for a horse manure composting operation west of Columbia.
Property owners Mel and Charlotte Smarr of Smarr Family Farms must get permits from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and comply with county stream buffer requirements before beginning the operation. Future plans for topsoil mining would require a conditional use permit. READ MORE
Compost is an earthy-smelling, humus-like material that is a product of the controlled aerobic decay of organic nitrogen (such as manure) and carbon (such as sawdust, straw or leaves). One advantage of compost is its ability to hold moisture. The focus of this article is to understand how to choose composts that increase the soil’s water holding capacity.
It is important to understand at the outset that not all composts are alike. For example, composts made from manure are not the same as composts made from leaves. The nutrient content, microorganism diversity and population, cation exchange capacity and water holding capacity of compost can be different based on the feedstocks used to make the compost, the process used to make the compost and the maturity of the compost at the time of application. Therefore, it is important to understand the quality of compost before using it to ensure you get the intended benefit you are seeking.
Soil scientists report that for every one percent of organic matter content, the soil can hold 16,500 gallons of plant-available water per acre of soil down to one foot deep. That is roughly 1.5 quarts of water per cubic foot of soil for each percent of organic matter, according to Sullivan in “Drought Resistant Soil. Agronomy Technical Note. Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas” at the National Center for Appropriate Technologies in 2002. Increasing the organic matter content from one to two percent would increase the volume of water to three quarts per cubic foot of soil. Rodale Institute presenters, on the other hand, assume that one pound of carbon can hold up to 40 pounds of water. That calculates out to be approximately 38,445 gallons of total water per acre six inches deep. The point here is that organic matter holds a lot of water, thus, the amount of organic matter in a soil directly influences the availability of water to a crop over time. However, organic matter in droughty soils breaks down so rapidly that getting above two or three percent is difficult to do, but getting to two to three percent can have major positive impacts.
A 1994 study by A. Maynard found that a three-inch layer of leaf compost rototilled to a six-inch depth increased water holding capacity 2.5 times that of a native sandy soil and provided almost a seven day supply of plant available water. In a 2000 study, Maynard found that increasing the water holding capacity of the soil by adding compost helped all crops during summer droughts by reducing periods of water stress. The amount of water in a plow layer (eight inches) of the compost amended soil increased to 1.9 inches compared with 1.3 inches in unamended soil. Since vegetables require one inch of water a week, at field capacity, the compost amended soil held a two-week supply of water.
The U.S. Compost Council (2008) has stated that the frequency and intensity of irrigation may be reduced because of the drought resistance and efficient water use characteristics of compost. Compost reduces soil crusting, which helps with water absorption and penetration into the soil. Recent research suggests that the addition of compost in sandy soils can facilitate moisture dispersion by allowing water to more readily move laterally from its point of application.
The limiting factor for compost application in Michigan is soil phosphorus levels. In the Generally Accepted Agricultural and Management Practices for Nutrient Utilization (Nutrient GAAMPs) it states when soil phosphorus levels exceed 300 pounds per acre, no source of phosphorus can be applied. That means no compost can be applied to soils that exceed 300 pounds per acre. When soil phosphorus levels are between 150 and 299 pounds per acre, compost is to be applied based on the phosphorus removal rate of the crop. When soil phosphorus levels are less than 150 pounds per acre, compost is to be applied based on the nitrogen requirements of the crop.
For most cropland in Michigan, this means that low amounts of compost will be applied, so choosing composts high in organic matter is critical if increasing soil water holding capacity is your goal.
According to the U.S. Compost Council’s Field Guide to Compost Use, farmers should choose composts that have an organic matter content between 50 to 60 percent and a water holding capacity of 100 percent or higher.
When purchasing compost, ask to see an analysis to verify organic matter content and water holding capacity. Commercial sources of compost in Michigan can be found at the FindAComposter.com website.
Soil organic matter is built up over time with continuous applications of compost. Some farmers in Michigan’s Thumb area have found that applying one to two tons of compost/acre/year on field crops makes a difference in the soil’s ability to grow a crop. It is estimated that applying a ton of compost to the acre on a soil with one percent organic matter can increase that soil’s organic matter content by 10 percent. Compost spread evenly over one acre at a depth of one inch equals about 135 cubic yards or 54 tons, assuming the compost has 60 percent organic matter and a bulk density of 800 lbs./cubic yard at 30 percent moisture.
M. Charles Gould is with Michigan State University Extension.
The composting process of well-managed piles can be completed within four to eight months.
Composting animal manure has long been used as a soil amendment to improve soil health. Composting has increased use as a tool to manage animal manure in recent years for livestock producers. In addition to the soil health benefits associated with applying animal manure compost, other advantages include improved storage options, reduced volume of material to be transported and spread on fields, and it is more suitable to be spread on hay and pastures during the growing season than raw manure.
Composting is a biological process in which aerobic microorganisms decay organic materials such as manure and bedding into a soil like substance. Good composting requires a mix of ingredients that allow the microbial population to consume carbon and nitrogen. A carbon to nitrogen ratio of 25 to 30:1 is ideal while a ratio of 20 to 40:1 is acceptable. Moisture content also must fall into a certain range. The ideal range falls between 50 to 60 percent with 40 to 65 percent being reasonable. Most well bedded manure pack falls into an acceptable range for both carbon to nitrogen ratio and moisture content.
Pure manure is frequently too high in nitrogen and moisture content to be properly composted. However, manure can be mixed with other carbon sources such as straw, corn stover, wood residue, or leaves to balance the carbon to nitrogen ratio and moisture content. Piles of compost are formed and allowed to begin the composting process. During the process aerobic organisms consume the nitrogenous and carbon compounds with oxygen and generate organic matter, carbon dioxide and heat. As heat builds up within the pile and oxygen is depleted a mixing or stirring process is required to release heat and replenish oxygen within the pile. The stirring process can be conducted by special windrow turners or by tractor or end loader with a bucket. Microbe populations within unturned piles will quickly die from the excessive heat of from oxygen starvation.
The composting process of well managed-piles can be mostly completed within four to eight months. High quality compost requires additional time for curing of two to four months. High quality compost will be thoroughly decomposed, be more soil like and contain more humus. Unfortunately that time frame may not allow for the composting process to be completed and then spread before winter. Unfinished compost can be spread during the fall months but will be limited in its benefits of fully composted material. The compost material will reduce in volume through the process by about 30 percent. Compost material will be more thoroughly reduced if the process is completed and require less time for spreading.
Compost can be spread on hay fields and pastures without the disadvantages of spreading manure directly. The soil like structure of compost frequently falls to the ground and allows grass to more easily grow through the material than manure pack. Animals are more likely to efficiently graze after compost spreading as opposed to spreading raw manure.
There are many great technologies out there that say they can solve our manure issues. Many have merits but the most important thing we have to ask is: What problem are we trying to solve?
The best manure technology, no matter if it is the flashiest new thing on the market or something that has been around for the last 100 years, is only useful if it helps us alleviate something that really is an issue for our farm.
Composting has many positive benefits – it makes manure more uniform, reduces odors, kills pathogens and weed seeds, reduces the volume and, if you’re lucky, might even be a product that you can sell to local garden centers. However, compositing is only appropriate for solid manures and does require some special equipment, time to complete, and good management. In the right situation, composting can be a great option, but the value-added compost market isn’t big enough for all manure, so start composting for the right reasons.
Composting is controlled decomposition of organic material in an aerobic environment. Essentially, we are encouraging the right type of environment to get microorganisms in the manure to do their thing, eating and breaking apart the organic material, and in so doing creating a stable product that resembles soil. Composting is a biological process performed by microorganisms.
Creating good compost requires getting the microbes the things they need, namely an organic residue with the right carbon-to-nitrogen ratio (about 30:1), the right moisture content (shoot for 50 percent), plenty of oxygen, a neutral pH (6.5 to 7.5), and a nice warm temperature (55 to 60 C). Of these, one of the most important requirements is to remain aerobic; this requires getting oxygen throughout the pile. Because manure has such a high oxygen demand, we often have to provide a bulking agent (something to thicken the manure and create pore space) and occasionally turn the pile to maintain oxygen levels.
One of the most important things to understand about composting is where the nutrients go. In solid manures, almost all of the nitrogen and phosphorus start in organic forms; as the manure undergoes decomposition these compounds are converted to ammonia and mineral phosphorus. Ammonia is a form of nitrogen that can volatilize, that is become a gas, and be lost to the environment – this is why you sometimes hear stories about composting causing a big losses of nitrogen (typically 10 to 30 percent of N will be lost). However, if managed properly and a good C:N ratio maintained, N losses can be minimized (10 to 15 percent). In the case of phosphorus, there is no volatilization loss pathway, so whatever is there to start with will be there at the end. Similarly, K has no volatile loss pathway but it can be lost if liquid leaches from the pile.
If composting adds more work to my manure management system why would I want to do it? There are many ways it might add value to your operation but I’m going to focus on volume reduction. Composting reduces the volume of manure to haul by about 20 to 50 percent, meaning fewer loads to haul. For example, a beef feedlot operation will generate about 3 tons of manure per animal space per year. If manure application costs about $10 per ton, we’d be paying about $30 per animal space. By composting, we will reduce the amount to haul to approximately two tons, saving about $10 per animal space per year in hauling costs. This means if we can accomplish our composting for less than $10 per headspace it will pay for itself. However, even if we can’t compost for this price, it might still be useful on your farm if you see value in the other benefits like odor and pathogen reductions, manure uniformity, or can market some to your local landscape center.
Dan Andersen is an assistant professor in Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State University. You can find him on Twitter (@DrManure) or check out his blog at themanurescoop.blogspot.com.
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