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Cementing a composting solution

Marty Winchell was in need of a composting solution to keep his operation’s mortalities out of the jaws of wild animals. Some creativity and a used cement mixer turned out to be the simple answer.


 Using a grant from the Alberta government, Marty Winchell purchased a used cement mixer, outfitting it to be used as a compost system for animal mortalities on his farm. Contributed photo.

The Winchell family farm in Alberta is relatively small – around 300 laying hens, 70 sheep, as well as a number of pigs and cattle. But not long ago, the 120-acre farm raised around 12,500 layer breeders as well as 4,200 egg laying ducks for the Filipino and Vietnamese market. When Marty Winchell went back to full time work in 2011 as the agriculture program supervisor for Clearwater County, the poultry population had to be substantially cut back.

Faced with depopulation, the Winchells first looked at selling the layers. Unfortunately, there was no market for the chickens.

“I ended up paying people 20 cents a bird to pick them up, and then another 25 cents to 30 cents a bird to get rid of them. It was quite expensive,” says Winchell.

The same thing happened with the depopulation of the ducks.

“There was no market for spent fowl in the duck world here in Alberta,” he says. “Certainly nothing that wasn’t without risk.”

Winchell decided to compost the ducks himself. He built a trough using two rows of square straws bales. He filled the trough with the mortality and then covered it with three to four feet of manure. Although it worked, it wasn’t the optimum solution.

“Every time you turn compost with any animals in it, you often expose bones and there was also odor,” Winchell says. “And although the odor dissipates quickly, we’re in close proximity of town.”

The odor can also bring in predators, which Winchell doesn’t want to expose his sheep to.

Another environmental consideration is that the farm is on the bank of the North Saskatchewan River, a river that provides water for the city of Edmonton. For that reason, they are extra cautious about any composting practices.

“We’re just trying to do the right thing,” he says.

Winchell can’t tell you when he came up with the idea of using a cement mixer to compost mortality, because he says he feels like he has always been on the lookout for one. It was definitely before the mortalities, when he was dealing with composting cracked eggs and similar materials.

“Cracked eggs are probably one of the biggest attractives I have on my farm. And, I also wanted to compost with less work,” says Winchell. “I knew that composters they sell at the hardware store weren’t large enough. I guess I was just looking for a practical way to size it up, and when I did that, it looked like a cement mixer.”

He wasn’t the only one who thought it was a good idea. Bear Smart, an Alberta provincial program, gave him a $1,000 grant to try out his innovative idea.

It took some time to get it all in place. Not only did Winchell have to find an inexpensive, used mixer, but also find a way to get it to the farm.

“With the grant, I bought a cement mixer with a bad hydraulic drive and no truck,” he says. “It cost me $1,000 to transport it here and around $800 for a new hydraulic drive, plus I had to buy some hoses. I figure I’ve got about $2,000 of my own money in it.

“If the average person were to go and buy one, they’d probably just need hoses to attach it to a tractor or a skid steer,” he adds. “I didn’t know what I was doing, so when I picked it up, it didn’t actually have the hydraulic pump, or the drive on it, so I had to find one of those and that was difficult to locate because of the age of the cement mixer.”

In the end though, the idea was sound, and the composter worked just as he had anticipated.

One of the big benefits of using a mixer as a composter is that when it turns one way it stirs the material, and when it turns the other direction the material exits.

It’s also easy and quick to use.

“It takes about 30 seconds to hook the hoses up to my skid steer,” Winchell says. “I turn it, and I’m done.”

The first thing he composted with the mixer was 300 birds. Within a month – and only spinning it three or four times – the birds were completely composted.

“I felt like it worked really well,” he says. “I would turn it in the evening and could see the steam coming out and that it was heating.”

Winchell says he could be more scientific about the process, but for now if there is any odor he adds more carbon, like a bale of straw or a bucket of shavings. And if it’s not heating, he adds water.

Over the last year, the Winchells have put into the mixer anything that they don’t feel comfortable putting in a windrow or exposed to the water. They have composted a llama, mortality from lambing, wiener pigs, as well as other waste like broken eggs – all the while adding shavings, straw and water.

“Truthfully, after over a year, I still haven’t emptied the mixer,” Winchell says.

The cement mixer holds around five yards of compost. But it’s definitely the smaller variety. Many of the newer cement mixers hold around eight cubic yards.  

Winchell doesn’t have any intention of spreading the compost from the mixer on his land.

“I was at one seminar where Environment Canada indicated that if you had compost with a dead cow with BSE, spreading it on your land and then allowing cows to eat off that could be dangerous. They weren’t sure how prions moved, and were very reluctant for animal compost to be put back on pastureland. Because there are sheep in our compost, and sheep can have scrapie (not that I’ve ever had that on my farm) I will not be using this compost on anything that is used for food production for animals or humans.”

When Winchell does empty the mixer, he will be using the compost for other projects, like bank stabilization.

The Winchells do, however, still have a lot of manure left from the farm when it was larger, and continue to compost with windrows and sell that compost to neighbors.

“I usually turn it once in the spring, once in the fall. Because we live close to the river, we don’t do a lot of spreading of manure on the land. We’re trying to be responsible landowners and not put nitrates in the river. I suspect I will be spreading some compost on the property in the next couple years though.”

Winchell believes the mixer would be an ideal tool for smaller farms, not just because it’s effective, but also because it’s inexpensive and simple to use.

“If you were looking for one, I would check out industrial auctions. They aren’t expensive, because nobody wants a cement truck. You can probably buy the truck and the cement mixer for a couple grand, then drive it home, take the cement mixer off, and then sell the truck for more than what you paid for the combination.”

And he adds, “There’s not a lot that can go wrong with them. They will probably last for a very long time.”

He can see the mixer as a great composter for small farm animals.

“You can compost something completely in six to eight weeks, so there’s no reason why a broiler operation couldn’t use something like this,” he says. “Because you don’t have a lot of mortality until the last couple weeks, and if you’re placing every six-and-a-half to eight weeks, you should be able to get a batch through.”

The Winchell family (wife, Cindy, sons Oliver and Henry and daughters Grethe and Josie) isn’t shy about showing off the new composter. During the Clearwater County West County Ag Tour, 120 people came to look at the composter in action. Also, a number of articles have been written on the innovative mixer and Winchell has received some emails.

This May, the Winchells had 275 students out to the farm.

“The Grade 4 curriculum in Alberta is animal waste and plant waste and composting. So, we incorporated the cement mixer into the Grade 4 curriculum in Clearwater County and had 275 students come through my place and look at it – in addition to seeing sheep being shorn and talk on bees and whatever else.

“We’ve been a part of that program for five years. I’ve talked to them about compost before because I’ve always been composting, but this is the first year I’ve shown them the compost.”

He says his family gets involved because it’s important to educate.

“Often agriculture is vilified in social media and in the media. Education is something that I think we need to do a lot more of in order to make sure people realize that farmers are the first stewards of the land.  We make our living off the land, so why would we do things that are not constructive?

We need to educate people that manure is a byproduct, but it’s also a resource.”