Composting As A Manure Management System

by Richard Thompson

Editor'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 I say dispose of, not use. The manure was hauled out of sheds and lots during the 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-bushel 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 of the neighbors on chemical methods. However, I felt with all this manure and only 80 to 90 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 dean 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 feet 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 cold, frozen manure which had a temperature of about SO to 40 degrees heated up to 140 degrees, and steam was coming out of the top of the windrows. I feel that, in my situation with all the manure off concrete, 1 need the added bacteria to get the action started, a» little earth was combined with the manure. We 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 are 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 stili steaming can be applied to fields and disked in the same day. We initially applied four tans of compost per acre in fall after the soybeans were combined and bean straw was stacked. The N-P-K analysis of the coirpost was 2-1-2.

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

including a gearbox, tool bar, and silage-unloading auger. The auger is used to aerate, break up, and mix the pile. Afterwards, a tractor loader is used to repile the materials.

Wucbben has been keeping daily records of the temperatures within the compost at f>0 different

¡joints along his SOO-foot windrow. The records bate indicated that the temperatures of the pile rose substantially after each turning and also following rains thai occurred between mi nings. The increase in temperature following a tain would indicate that the moisture content of the compost wasn't ade cjnate for optimum bacterial atiiviu.

Edgar Wuebbrn's home-bttill compOit ! nrrirr.

aiory 10 ho analy/cd will) ihc

HHH.S H»K AIHJINI. ORI.ANH MAI'liR TO l ilt SOll

HHH.S H»K AIHJINI. ORI.ANH MAI'liR TO l ilt SOll

»ample of the finished compost was taken to an Omaha laboratory to be analyzed with the foi lowing rendes.'

Moisture 34.80%

Organic Matter by

Combustion 14.40%

Total Organic Carbon 8.5 %

Carbon-Nitrogen Ratio 10,6

A tractor-powered. turning machine built by the Mehlaf Machine am! Manufacturing Company of Freeman, South Dakota is used to turn compost at the rate of 100 to 500 tons per hour. I his unit is used by Town and Country Park. Inc., its Sioux falls. South Dakota, which processes sewage sludge, paunch manure, and stockyard pen wastes.

At the McGmtey-Schil* feedlot in Brule, Nebraska, a specially designed machine aerates the wmdrowed manure. The compost is made under contract with the Colorado-Nebraska Compost Corporation owned by Ja<-k E. Martin and Lester R. Kuhlniaii of Sterling, Colorado. The machine, known as the Scarab, was developed by Fletcher Sims of Canyon, Texas.

"About 20 tons of raw manure to the the acre would have to be applied to equal the benefits derived from two tons of compost," says Martin.

"It's turned our feedlot waste problem around. Instead of manure being a nuisance, it's a valuable asset," Schliz was quoted in an Omaha World-Herald article.

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