Composting As A Manure Management System

by Richard Thompson

Kdi or's note: Richard Thompson was born and raised on his present farmstead, consisting of 300 acres outside Boone, Iowa. He graduated from Iowa State University with a B.S. in Animal Husbandry and an M.S. in Animal Production.

Composting, in my opinion, is a sensible, practical, economical way to deal with animal waste on the farm. My reasons for starting to compost followed the same pattern as my reasons for changing to organic farming back in 1967, namely—problems.

Back then I was on a continuous corn program, applying chemical N-P-K, herbicides, and insecticides. The fences were removed from between the fields, cattle were brought in and confined to barns and lots.

We live in a low, flat area so the barns and lots needed to be cemented, This situation brought about all kinds of sickness in the cattle. It seemed like it was just one thing after another. I got to the point where, out of frustration, I said, ' There has to be something better than this." In the spring of 1968, we stopped using all chemicals and started putting fences back, so the cattle could have limited pasture. The cropping system was changed to a corn-soybean-corn-oats-hay rotation.

Even with all-chemical N-P-K added to the continuous corn program, I had to dispose of all the manure from the cattle and hogs. Note that 1 say dispose of, not use. The manure was hauled out of sheds and lots during tiie winter and early spring, and applied to frozen, plowed fields that were often covered with snow. This was a very poor utilization of the nutrients, especially the nitrogen content in manure which would turn into ammonia, dissipate in the air, and be completely lost. Also the raw manure would move with the melted snow and end up in creeks and rivers, polluting our water supply.

After I stopped using the artificial N-P-K, the corn yields stayed at 120 bushels per acre for the next seven years. The corn yields, previously, were about the same, averaging 120 bushels per acre.

My yields, on the organic program, were oats: 70 to 80 bushels, soybeans: 35 to 45 bushels which, i felt, were good and also competitive with the neighbors, The hay fields also seemed to improve each year. After about seven years of organic farming, the field of corn following soybeans dropped to the 80- to 90-busheI range. The cornfield following hay remained in the 120-bushel range. The profit on the 80- to 90-bushel yield would probably be okay, since the expenses per acre were $40 to $50 lower than those oE the neighbors on chemical methods. However, 1 felt with all this manure and only 80 to 9© bushels, something must be wrong. This was where composting came into the picture.

Composting is a way of turning a liability into an asset on the farm.

In the spring of 1975, we decided not to spread the manure on frozen ground during the winter. The manure was pushed up into large piles in the yards during the winter. On June 5, we started to clean out these piles and haul to our compost site on the edge of the hay field. This manure was cold and had large chunks of ice in it.

A bacteria starter was spread on the manure piles in the yard, loaded in the spreader, and taken to the compost site located centrally between our farmstead and the neighbors'.

The spreader needs to be power take-off-operated so it will unload in a stationary position. When the manure builds up to the beaters, the spreader is moved forward about one foot and the rest of the load is unloaded in this fashion. I feel the ideal pile is about eight feet wide at the bottom and four feet high, in two days' time we saw a miracle happen. This told, frozen manure which had a temperature of about 30 to 40 degrees heated up to HO degrees, and steam was coining out of the top of the windrows, I feel that, in my situation with all the manure oil concrete, i need the added bacteria to get the action started, as little earth was combined with the manure. Wc tried some windrows without bacteria and the action was very slow.

One of the important keys to good composting is moisture content. This should be in the 40 to 60 percent range. If the manure is wetter than 60 percent, it will take more turnings with the spreader to get it dried down. If the manure is too dry, water needs to be added. Generally, I take some wet manure and mix it with dry manure and this usually comes out about right. Much has been written about carbon-nitrogen ratios in composting; they should be. 20 to 30 parts carbon to one part nitrogen. For the farmer, I think this means simply that what creates a good environment for livestock will make good compost. If cattle or hogs arc kept clean and dry with bedding, the carbon-nitrogen ratio will be excellent.

My windrows were turned by reloading the spreader and unloading to make a parallel windrow. The windrows need to be turned until the temperature stays below 100 degrees. However, if it is time to spread on fields, incomplete compost that is still steaming can be applied to fields and disked in the same day. We initially applied four tons of compost per acre in Sail after the soybeans were combined and bean straw was stacked. The N-P-K analysis of the compost was 2-1-2.

This year I bought an Easy Over compost-turning attachment for my tractor. With this attachment

I can now turn the more than 500 tons of compost I'm making in an hour, as opposed to the two days it took using the stationary manure spreader and loader. I attach the turner to the hydrostatic PTO of a tractor, anti use another tractor to slowly move it along through the windrow.

Before getting the turner, we were somewhat lax about turning our piles, since it took so much time. During the growing season it was often impossible to find the time to give two days to turning compost. Now, time is not a problem. If composting had a drawback, it was always because of the amount of time it took to turn. Turning time is no longer a problem for farmers, thanks to the turner.

Although the turner costs five to six thousand dollars, I still think it's a good investment. On a family farm, time is often the critical commodity, and the turner frees a lot of time. I don't think every farmer should own a turner, and as long as there is one in your area, you can hire it for custom work. The turner is easy to transport on the highway, so moving it is no problem. In fact, we now use ours to do our own composting, in the sewage sludge composting operation my son has set up, and a neighbor uses it, to compost chicken manure.

As I stated before, we are dealing with raw, wet manure when we start to compost, so we locate our compost site away from farmsteads. When composting starts, the odor changes to a musty smell and isn't noticeable over 40 rods away from windrows. The fly problem is eliminated when the temperature starts to rise, and these temperatures will also kill weed seeds and harmful pathogenic organisms. As I mentioned before, the compost is applied to my field following soybeans. The planting of corn that followed the soybeans was where we were having the yield reduction problem. Last year, we applied 300 tons of finished compost to the fields. The time required to turn 300 tons three times was 30 hours using two people. This year I'll produce more than 500 tons of compost, with not more than eight or ten hours of labor. The yield response from compost was very encouraging, producing a strong 100 bushels per acre in a dry year. This yield was equal to the corn yields of neighbors who used chemical methods.

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