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.
November 5, 2014, Ottawa, OH – Poultry, dairy, swine, beef cattle and other livestock producers wanting to learn economically and environmentally beneficial ways to handle the death of their animals can earn livestock mortality composting certification through a course offered by experts from Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.
Livestock producers all have to deal with animal mortality at some point on their farms whether the death is the result of illness, old age, natural disasters or birthing problems, said Dale Ricker, on Ohio State University Extension swine program specialist.
While producers can choose any one of four state-approved methods for disposing of dead livestock in Ohio, composting is the most cost-effective because it can be done onsite with little effort or supplies, Ricker said.
The other legal options to handle livestock mortality include incineration, burial and rendering, he said.
“Composting livestock mortality is one of the most economical options when you consider the issue from a standpoint that it is an issue that a producer can face 365 days a year,” Ricker said. “While it is legal to incinerate livestock mortality, send the animal to a rendering facility or bury the animal, digging to the proper burial depth required by law is hard to do in winter months with frozen ground, for example.
“However, composting can be done easily right on site.”
Certification is required by law if producers want to use composting as a method to deal with livestock and poultry mortality in animals that naturally die or have to be euthanized, Ricker said. Ohio requires producers attend a mortality composting training session conducted by OSU Extension.
The workshop begins at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 19 at the Putnam County office of OSU Extension, 1206 E. 2nd Street, in Ottawa. Registration is $10, which includes a workbook and certificate, and can be paid at the door.
Participants will learn:
- The principles and operations of livestock mortality composting
- Selecting a good site
- Design options
- Managing the compost facility
- Biosecurity and disease prevention
- Rule and regulations
- Troubleshooting, which includes a review of the basic principles and management of livestock mortality composting
October 20, 2014, Carrington, ND – Livestock producers have a valuable asset at their disposal – the manure produced from their animals.
And by taking a little extra time and putting that manure through the composting process, they can reduce the amount of material they have to spread on the field, reduce the likelihood of pollution and benefit the crops and soils.
Producers recently had a chance to brush up on their composting skills at a Nutrient Management Day at the Carrington Research Extension Center. Ryan Odenbach, watershed coordinator for the Stutsman County Soil Conservation District led the discussion on proper composting methods. READ MORE
It’s spring at the Rosenholm Dairy in Waumandee, Wisc., when the snow melts. The robins start chirping, and the half-ton trucks start pulling up to the dairy’s gate to purchase compost and potting soils produced from its cow manure solids.
Compost sold under the brand name Cowsmo Compost has been produced at the dairy since 1990, and there have been years when the net revenue from this side of the business has been greater than from the dairy.
There are about 1,000 animals at any one time on the dairy owned by fifth-generation farmers, John and Nettie Rosenow, with 550 milking cows, all situated in three barns. The herd generates about 14 million gallons of liquid manure annually, which separates out to about 20 million pounds of organic matter and a high nutrient liquid stream that is stored in lagoons and land applied as organic fertilizer. The separated solid gold produces between 10 to 15 million pounds of compost and potting soils, sold year round to a variety of retailers, wholesalers, and direct customers primarily throughout the American Midwest.
The Rosenows first started making compost instead of land applying their manure after a barn fire in 1990 because they only had about half the cropland they deemed they needed to safely dispose of their raw manure through land application. They put about 1,000 acres into corn, alfalfa and cover crops for feed, with about 700 acres close to the dairy. They calculated that they’d need about three acres per cow to safely land apply their manure. This meant that they’d have to access about twice as many acres as they owned. Reducing their raw manure output by composting has helped the dairy avoid what John describes as “bidding wars for rents” because they have enough farmland of their own to spread their separated liquids and for disposing of their manure during those months when it is too cold to make compost.
Initially, they gave the compost away for free. Then the price went up to $5 a pickup load. Today, it sells for about $67 per pickup load and they are having difficulty keeping up with demand. So John says that they are actively in the process of establishing another composting site with another dairy to ramp up production.
“We know that we need to continue to grow and we want to do that, but we are doing that on the compost side,” says John.
Manure disposal through composting has benefitted the dairy in a number of ways. First, it removes the manure nutrients from the farm so it requires less land for manure disposal.
“Manure becomes less valuable the farther away you haul it and we would have had to haul farther away,” says John. “Now the farthest we haul the manure is about a quarter of a mile to the compost site.”
Secondly, they have acquired a new skill set for making compost and potting soils as well as selling it, which has developed a new income stream for the dairy.
Thirdly, John says that developing the composting business has been a very enjoyable experience.
“In the process of marketing our compost, we meet very intelligent and very exciting people, and that’s a lot of fun,” he says. “Every spring, when the snow goes away, we start having people come with their pickups and their trailers to get compost. They are all very happy because spring is here and they can garden and that’s been fun as well.”
And in the final analysis, it’s also been profitable for the dairy.
During each milking, the barn alleys containing the mixture of raw manure and bedding are flushed using recycled lagoon water to a centralized collection tank where an agitator and a submersible Flygt discharge pump are located. The pump transports the mixture across a Key Dollar incline screen separator. The separated liquids travel by gravity to the six million gallon, three-stage lagoon. The separated solids collect on a weeping pad and are blended with drier waste like that collected from the maternity barn to achieve the correct moisture content for composting, and from there the mixture is loaded into a New Holland apron beater spreader and transported to the composting site.
The Rosenows take their production of compost very seriously, having taken the training to learn how to properly convert their herd’s manure solids into compost and through a couple of decades of on-the-job training to fine tune their approach. The result has been the development of a tried and true method and a focus on four specific potting soil blends, resulting in high quality products manufactured with just the right amount of affordable sweat equity from farm labor. At one time they had a full-time person dedicated to compost production. Now they are able to accomplish the same end product with four hours of labor a week based on the knowledge they have acquired.
Speaking about their approach to compost production, John says, “it’s partially an art and partially a science, and you need both of them . . . you have to have a proper carbon and nitrogen ratio so that it doesn’t get too hot and also so that it does heat. We manage that.”
Over the years, they have expanded their product lines and have even teamed up with Joshua Frye, a West Virginia poultry farmer who is producing biochar and syngas from his poultry manure.
Frye is using the syngas generated from pyrolysis of his poultry manure to heat his poultry barns and markets the remaining biochar, which is a form of carbon, as a soil amendment. Rosenow purchases some of the biochar, which has been used as a soil amendment in the world as far back as during the Inca Empire, and mixes it with some of his potting soil products.
“I was interested in the carbon sequestration part of biochar, where it would sequester carbon by putting it into the soil and keep it there,” says Rosenow. “It’s a very tight and porous carbon molecule and it has some agronomic advantages, so we thought that was a pretty good fit, especially with our customer base.”
The organic material the Rosenows use to manufacture their compost is a combination of the pine shavings bedding that they use in the barns and cow manure solids. They have taken this bedding approach because there is a readily available supply of pine sawdust from a nearby Ashley Furniture manufacturing plant, which delivers three semi truckloads of sawdust per week. They don’t use any of their manufactured compost as barn bedding or as an organic soil amendment on their cropland because John says it is just too valuable as a saleable commodity.
Rosenow adds that manure composting was a novel idea back when they adopted it in 1990 and to a great degree is still a novel idea among confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) today. By far the biggest job and challenge in this business endeavor has been marketing, which he says has been and will be the key to success for any compost producer.
“We always tell our customers that the two things we sell are products and service,” says John.
Compost production occurs on a specially selected, 3.5 acre, blacktopped site about a quarter mile from the dairy, engineered to primarily control water runoff from the site. The runoff collection system consists of a reception area that settles it out and stops the flow. After a heavy rain, it will fill up and then discharge through a filtering system that consists of gravel and cement. It travels across a grass filter strip that consumes the nutrients from the discharge before it ends up in the stream.
This has helped to protect the integrity of the nearby trout stream and the site has been approved by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
The manure solids transported by the beater spreader from the weeping pad at the dairy to the composting site are placed in windrows measuring about 300-feet long, 6-feet high and 14-feet wide. Actual compost production takes place over about 10 months from mid-March to mid-December. During the non-production, two-month interval, the raw manure solids are land applied because the air temperature is too cold to produce compost at that time, and, throughout the year, about 800 acres farmed by the dairy does have manure applied to it.
The natural conversion process from raw manure to compost occurs through carefully timed mechanical turning and monitoring of important parameters such as heat and moisture content within the windrows. The Rosenow dairy uses a Scarab, self-propelled compost turner in their operations. The piles are turned on average about 15 times and the compost is typically ready for market in about three months.
They sell potting soil blends year round and have customers that pick up a “significant amount” every three weeks, meaning that the dairy derives some income from this area year round. Compost sales take place typically from February to the end of November, with demand dictated to some degree by geography. It will first start further south and move north as the weather warms up in spring.
Rosenow says they have to carefully balance their marketing effort with how much product they can supply, which explains their plans for expansion.
“We’re actually making a product that people want,” says John. “We’re not just trying to get rid of something. You can’t tell by looking at it where it came from, it has no smell, it’s stable, and you can apply it to any kind of growing crop . . . now I think it is safe to say that we probably produce the best compost that you can buy in the upper Midwest and our customers agree.”
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