Low-Cost Waste Management in Beef Cattle Operation

Final Report for FNC94-079

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1994: $3,277.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1995
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $3,218.00
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


I farm 372 tillable acres share-cropped with my uncle in northern, IL. Next year half the farm will qualify for organic certification, with the rest of the farm the following year. Corn, soybeans, wheat, alfalfa, oats, and hairy vetch for seed are current crops being raised. I plan to include spelt, sesame, and 2 or 3 other high value crops to increase our rotation. About 250 head of feeder cattle are purchased and fattened every year on typical cement lots with sheds being bedded with straw, cobs, or stalks.

Current sustainable practices include: contour planting, cover crops including vetch after wheat, rye after corn, also vetch airplane seeded into standing soybeans and soon to be tried will be seeding clover into standing corn the last cultivation. A good crop rotation is essential also! All practices have been implemented in the last three years as we move toward fulfilling our five year plan of complete organic production.

Environmental concerns are being brought to the forefront as a major issue in agriculture. Runoff (waste water) is a concern for any producer who is worried about nitrates leaching into ground or surface water supplies. Presently, legal implications and cleanup costs far exceed the financial capability of most smaller (or any) farmers. If we can solve a large problem with a simple, inexpensive solution, wouldn’t all farmers and surrounding communities benefit?

Two project goals have been achieved since the initiation of this project. A third long term goal is also being realized as a spin-off of this project:

1. How to handle raw manure to be composted for use within a sustainable organic farming system.
2. How to handle waste-water cattle yard runoff from snowmelt and rainfall that would otherwise flood crops in surrounding fields.
3. How to eliminate off-farm soil amendments, i.e. NPK using crop rotation and compost.

Retention Pond and Composting Pad Construction: The first step in building the retention pond is measuring the total surface area of the cattle lot contributing to the runoff. This number in square feet can be multiplied by the amount of rainfall (in feet) to give a cubic foot of water storage needed. This particular pond was designed to hold a one time 5.5 inch, 24 hour rainfall, about a 50 year occurrence. The amount of excavation can now be determined as well as the size of the pond. Alterations can be made according to individual needs and specific application. Wherever it is possible, the retention pond should be designed so no extra borrow material is needed from off the site. This will greatly reduce the cost of the project, and location of existing tiles or water lines should always be considered before excavation begins.

Before the actual implement arrived, a surveyed grid of elevations was produced for the area to determine the best location of the pond. It was determined that only a 3.5 ft cut was needed with a 5.5 ft berm to produce the amount of water storage needed. The maximum depth of the pond water is 7ft. At this level, one waterway is designed at this height to provide a natural overflow. At this point the water flows over the waterway and NOT over the top of the berm. This protects the berm from being ruined by erosion. The shape of the pond is a square measuring approx. 50ft x 50ft. The berm is across two sides and the bottom slopes gently from two sides to the deep point in one corner. Berm sides were sloped 2 to 1 which make mowing easy. Once the project was complete, there was excess black soil left over for other uses, such as smoothing out your lawn.

After the pond was completed, the surface was lined with a thin layer of Bentonite using a simple walk behind lawn fertilizer spreader. A ¼ inch layer of high calcium lime was placed over the top of this using the same method. This was frequently watered until it was hardened in place. This step was done to insure that there was no seepage into ground water. I am confident that this works because a tile was capped one year later, one foot below the pond surface. When the tile was dug and capped. IT WAS DRY!

Waterways were cut along cattle yard fences gently sloping toward the retention pond at the rate of one foot drop per hundred foot run. Grass can be allowed to grow and mowed to 3-4 inches to help control siltation in your pond. Later on this silt can be scooped up with a loader. Another option is to use small boards across the waterway 2-3 inches high every 50-100 ft. This also traps silt before entering your pond.

After construction, the berm was seeded down with Tall Kentucky Fescue. The surrounding area will be seeded down this spring with oats and alfalfa. This will provide a permanent overflow area in case the pond overflows.

The compost pad was built with a 12 ft wide plateau and both sides gently sloping away from the plateau. No matter which process of composting a person is going to use, good drainage is a MUST. The pad is constructed so any runoff from the compost or immediate area, drain back into the pond. When grading was complete, Hi-calcium lime was spread over the plateau, and eventually gravel will be spread to form an all weather road so turning of compost can be done in any weather. By experience, it is best to let your pad go unused for at least a year’s period to allow the ground to settle. Trying to use your pad too soon after construction could cause rutting and will provide many headaches!

With two small children on our farm, safety is always a concern. We do not allow unsupervised entry into the area. Nevertheless, to insure the safety of our kids, we decided to put up a safety fence around the deep end (berm side) of the pond. Steel posts were driven into the berm (perpendicular to the berm) and hog panels were place on these and fixed permanently. The panels are just below the high water level of the pond. If a child fell off the berm into the pond, the panel would keep them from falling all the way in and possibly drowning. I felt if the panels were out of the water it would encourage climbing. With the panels partly submerged it will inhibit the notion to climb on them. The other two sides of the pond are very shallow. Walking into the water 10 ft will only produce about one foot of depth. I feel this is safe if the kids are horsing around at the edge of the pond.

When a contract is signed for your construction work, always reserve the right to have the person doing the work return for any needed improvements or touchups. Many times improvements come to mind after the fact, and it is nice to have these taken care of to facilitate ease of use of your pad and pond. Write this into your contract!

The Composting Process: The actual start of the composting process begins inside the cattle shed itself. When the floor is bare, a one-inch layer of high-calcium lime is put down on the floor. Hi-cal lime is used because we have high magnesium contents in our northern Illinois soils. Hi-cal lime has very low magnesium content when compared to dolomitic lime. This lime layer helps to absorb the nitrogen rich urine, helping to minimize the loss of nitrogen in the form of ammonia. Once the bedding in the sheds reaches a depth of about four inches, I use a compost starter inoculant in a knapsack sprayer and spray down the manure. Generally once every week I respray the manure with the inoculant as the bedding gets progressively deeper. This inoculant helps start the breakdown process, helping to lock up the nutrients in organic form. Other nutrients can also be added to enhance your compost. I am presently using IdaPhos to make an organic form of MAP (Monammonium phosphate). Using small amounts of these nutrients, less than 300 lbs per shed, helps minimize nitrogen losses.

When sheds are cleaned after 4-6 weeks, manure is moved to the composting pad next to the cattle yard. While cleaning sheds, there are no offensive odors or ammonia smells. To prove this is a good method, I left the sheds without inoculant and lime for a comparison trial. When I cleaned the sheds after no inoculant, the ammonia burned my eyes until the wind had a chance to clear the air! I have always used inoculant since that time. Manure is piled on the pad in a line 4-5 ft high and about ten ft wide.

Several benefits of composting include: no heavy loads to compact the field. Sheds can be cleaned when fields are muddy. Manure loses about 60% of its volume when composted. Nutrients are already broken down and immediately plant available. There is no offensive smell associated with the composting process or the spreading of it in the fields. Pathogens and weed seeds are rendered unviable. These are a few of the many benefits of composting.

There are many different ways and methods of composting. The method I chose to use is called the CMC (controlled microbial composting) method pioneered by the Lubtke family from Austria. This method uses a completely aerobic process guided by Carbon Dioxide and temperature criteria. The piles are tested daily and when the threshold for these criteria is reached, the pile is turned keeping the process aerobic. Proper pile construction is necessary along with the proper moisture level of 45-55%. When these piles dry out, water from the retention pond is pumped back onto the compost to remoisten the pile. With proper attention and gained skills, good compost can be obtained in 6-8 weeks.

There are many good uses for the waste water runoff from the retention pond. The main and most important use had been to maintain the moisture levels of the compost. With windy conditions, compost needs to be moistened about every three days. This takes quite a bit of water. We have also used this water to irrigate sweet corn, vegetables, fruit trees, our lawn and flowers. I have also used it as a carrier for bacterial sprays in the field and as a carrier for starter fertilizer mixes. This fall I plan on spreading some on my alfalfa field using my neighbor’s honey wagon.

Since the construction of our retention pond and composting pad, we have seen a great improvement in the land surrounding our cattle yards. I have never seen so little grass problems in the once affected area. With time this should get even better. As mentioned above, there are many good uses for something that was once considered a menace, RUNOFF. Rather than destroying a few acres, this can be used through compost to enrich many acres. With the coming 1996 growing season, I am anxious to see the crop response due to the first full use of compost on our fields. This will be the first year where compost will replace the NPK on our fields.

One good aspect of this type of project is that it’s completely removable. No physical structures to tear down or expensive costs to build or maintain. This project could be built with a large loader tractor with a blade attached at the rear. There was very little excavation (only 3.5 ft cut) needed -- more rearranging of the soil around the area than actual digging. This makes future expansion or building in this area easier than if there were a permanent structure built.

Every year our Sustainable Ag group, Advocates for Practical Farming, has a fall drive around to view sustainable practices in progress on everyone’s farms. This year we held our get together at my farm and invited others to learn more about SARE projects and funding possibilities. An announcement was made on our local radio station WLBK and two newspapers were invited to also view my project. Craig Rice writing the farm news for The Daily Chronicle, and Martha Blum writing for the Illinois Agri- News attended our field day. The farm writer for Farm Bureau, Mariam Wassmann was also invited but failed to show any interest. Extension people from Boone, Kane, and Dekalb counties were in attendance. I thought attendance was poor, with about 15 people actually showing up, but there were three farmers that showed extreme interest. I led the group step by step through the whole process of the grant and the actual work conducted in constructing this project. Questions were answered as we went, and a final demonstration was given, explaining the composting process. A general explanation was given on how this project improved the quality of the farm.

This winter I’ve been asked to participate in a study circle training on Sustainable Ag practices. We learn how to conduct and lead discussions on sustainable practices everyone can use on their own farms. This will give me a great opportunity to spread the word about composting and waste water control practices.

The people involved with this project are as follows:
• Harold Rissman: donated the land to be used for this project
• Scott Ritter: surveying and construction
• Joe Bybee: Resource Conservationist, outreach and meeting planning
• Mike Richolson: SCS plan review and input
• Bryan Petrucci: American Farmland Trust, speaker and information source

I was able to solve three problems with one simple inexpensive solution. The three problems being raw manure management, cattle yard runoff, finding a way to have self-sustaining fertilization or soil enhancement. I have the ability now to eliminate off-farm inputs (fertilizers) saving dollars, controlling the environmental problem of runoff, and becoming a better neighbor by eliminating the unpleasantness of spreading raw manure (smell) that knows no bounds.

What did I learn from this grant? There are a lot of low cost solutions to solve many problems we face in agriculture. Projects such as this do not throw a lot of money at the problem hoping for a quick solution. Using the huge base of farmer ingenuity and know how can help alleviate many troublesome problems. Programs like SARE grants are a good way to spread out information within the farming community. I believe farmers can give very clear unbiased solutions when faced with various problems.

There are many unforeseen expenses when one considers a project such as mine. With all the material I read about the subject, there were still little “glitches” that had to be worked through. Thank goodness we didn’t have too many experiences with trial and error! Remember it’s a lot easier to throw away ideas on paper than in real life applications. It’s interesting to look back and see the different direction this project took as it unfolded before our eyes.

There are not too many things I would change with your current program. I think it is fair and offers everyone equal opportunity to apply sustainable practices.

I’m not sure if this already exists, but have funding for multiple year projects so practices can be viewed on a long term applications, such as a 5-year soil building project, etc.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.