Web Exclusive! Composting for Farm Use


Compost bedded pack barn provides cows with a dry,
comfortable place to rest and ruminate

Photos courtesy of Cornell Waste Management Institute

Composting for Farm Use

Make the most of all your resources

by J.F. Pirro

        A certified organic, diversified and sustainable family-owned operation in Hyde Park, Vt., Applecheek Farm produces a little bit of everything: organic dairy, grass-fed beef, humanely raised veal, pasture-raised poultry, raw milk and emu oil. There are even llamas and draft horses on the farm.

        That means there ought to be enough byproduct, or waste, on-site for the farming family to also be agricultural alchemists or environmental experimentalists with generating their own compost for on-farm use.

        That's exactly what John Clark has been doing for the last eight years with his own ingenuity and specialized help from those like Tom Gilbert and the Highfields Center for Composting, a production facility and training center in Hardwick, Vt., that promotes what it calls "soil security." Clark says, "They train other farmers how to compost properly."

        It's where he learned about mortality composting, a separate section of the compost operation on Applecheek Farm, along with the more traditional composting in a compost pack barn and adding in the right mix of carbon sources found in wood chips, bedding straw and other yard waste materials.

        The pack barn builds up and compacts over the indoor winter months and is mixed with the remains of bedding which are added in after a spring cleanup. It's composted all summer, then spread in the fall.

        Key benefits to any form of composting include diverting organic wastes from landfills, putting life back into soil, moisture retention, soil aeration and utilizing the full line of nutrients that are readily available on-site. Some farmers have added compost farming as a specialty and are selling excess compost to others to help boost bottom lines.

        Clark's main interest remains building the soil in his own fields. He only uses mortality compost, which is spread with a manure spreader, on about 60 to 75 acres of hay fields and compost from the pack barn to cover 5 acres of vegetable fields that are leased to another farmer, Hatch Brook Gardens. What little excess there is, he sells to meat customers for home use.

        "I find that it's a great soil amendment that's more stable than liquid manure," he says. "There's more of a long-term benefit, but we use a combination of the two."

        The increasing cost of carbon sources has caused Clark to drastically cut back on the amount of compost he makes. He says that prices have gone up exponentially the last few years. A tractor-trailer load of wood chips that once ran $400 to $500 went to $600, then $900 and now runs $1,300 or more. Blame fuel costs and a classic case of supply and demand-wood chips are used in power plants; straw is used as a feed source.

        "I'd like to do more [composting again], and we could definitely use more, but I would also like to find free or cheaper carbon sources," he says. "I would also like to include more manure from egg layers."

        Previously, Applecheek's compost pile would be 6 or 7 feet high and fill a 52-by-132-foot space in the pack barn, with Clark investing $20,000 in carbon sources. "Then it got to be crazy," he says. Now, he'll utilize a 30-by-30-foot corner of the barn for composting. "Even straw bales that were once $50 are now $75 per bale. Even old hay that's $25 to $30 for a round bale takes man-hours to unroll."

        He'll use more old hay, mulch hay and hay sweepings in the mortality piles, which is much more of a utilization of farm waste, mortalities included. That pile is usually about 60 to 70 feet long, 7 or 8 feet high and 120 feet wide. It's tucked behind a workshop area, but not that far removed. There's no or minimal odor "as long as you do it right" and get the right balance of carbon sources, which is the real trick.

        Clark knows that he has to become more industrious in finding carbon sources. For example, approaching the guys who are chipping trees on the side of the road or making calls to find sources. "Some day, when I have some free time," he speculates.

Butcher waste compost pile with chunky carbon base.
Photos courtesy of Cornell Waste Management Institute.

Compost concentration

        At his family-owned farm in Warren, N.J., Clint Dealaman talked his family into letting him try composting. It's now his full-time focus and his own business, Waste Not Composting. The family handles the general farm, which grows hay, raises sheep and processes wholesale pork.

        Two years ago, Dealaman started with a skid steer and about 50 yards of piled up manure from the previous year. "I thought it was a huge amount at the time," he recalls. "Now I'm managing over 3,000 yards and using a backhoe with a 1-yard bucket."

        His early mix was mostly pig manure, with some horse, sheep and goat waste mixed in. Then he started adding in the offal generated by the farm's pork processing operation. That generated an odor, and you have to keep the neighbors from getting steamed (houses are within 100 feet of his operation), so he sought more of the necessary carbon-rich feedstocks. He contacted every tree service company he could and had them start drop off wood chips, but he still noticed leachate coming from the bottom of the piles. With reservations, he contacted a horse manure hauler who agreed to bring him as many 30-yard containers as he could handle.

        "Now I would say that horse manure is really the key to composting offal without odor or leachate issues," Dealaman says. "It is carbon rich for the most part and fills in the gaps that leaves and wood chips do not."

        Dealaman uses a windrow setup and forms the piles at about 7 feet high and 16 feet wide at the base. He turns the piles as much as possible and adds offal as needed. He's found that raw horse manure only needs one turn before adding offal, while other feedstocks (leaves, wood chips and straw) don't need to be turned at all. He will add offal to a pile 10-plus times before it's finished, and then turn each pile twice (three times if you count setting up and adding the offal) between additions.

        "Some people think that adding offal may be a bit gross, but it all breaks down in the end, and I've found it makes a great nitrogen source that has plenty of moisture, so I don't have to add any," he says.

        A good nitrogen source is essential for breaking down the carbon into a nice, rich, finished product. Piles take from six 12 months to finish. He's finished four piles thus far in his upstart operation. "Ideally, if I had $250,000 to spend, I'd probably buy a self-propelled windrow turner, which would turn what I turn with the backhoe in three hours in about 15 minutes," Dealaman says.

        So far, most of the compost he's produced has been used on his own farm, though he's also sold bags and yards to those who stop and inquire. Through the fall, Dealaman hopes to have a good bit of finished product to sell to the public to help boost his bottom line.

        "In my opinion, compost is the best product out there, specifically compost that has been produced aerobically," he says. "I think the simple answer is that Mother Nature knows what the soil needs better than people do."

        For more information, Cornell Waste Management Institute in Ithaca, N.Y., has the following 38-minute video called Farm-Based Composting: Manure and More. It highlights 15 farm operations and six different composting technologies.

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th century America, agrarian culture, land use and sports and recreation topics.

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