On-Farm Composting of Livestock Manure

Final Report for FNC94-083A

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1994: $2,500.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1996
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $85,609.00
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
Expand All

Project Information


[Editor’s Note: this grant was apart of the FNC94-083B grant also and some of the material in this final report is the same in that final report.]

300 acre, 60 cow dairy plus replacements, heifers and calves. Corn, alfalfa and small grains (oats nurse crops) are raised. Son Joe, wife Mary, and myself run the milking operation as well as 2 greenhouses for spring vegetables and flowers selling approximately 3000 flats and 800 pots.

As a conservation district member (chairman) I have done a number of conservation practices – no till planting of alfalfa, small grains and in 1996 the use of the Rawson Zone-Till on corn. In the past I’ve installed grade stabilization structures, closed two abandoned wells, water sediment control basin, soil testing, manure sampling, nutrient/pesticide record keeping, and this past year a livestock manure composting management and storage system. A temporary storage area for manure is used to stack manure and mix with the carbon source before building windrows. Polluted runoff and milk house/parlor wastes go through a concrete low velocity channel to settle solids, then flows into a 450 ft. grass channel to utilize nutrients and waste. After the 30 minute retention time the grass channel outlets into a 5 acre permanent alfalfa field.

The dairy cows, in good weather months (April-October), spend about one half the day on pasture and the rest of the day in barns. This generates a compost windrow, ½ manure, ½ straw (carbon source) about every 2 weeks when totally confined and one per month when on pasture. Windrows are on sloping ground, covered with a geotextile blanket to shed rainfall, keeping windrow temperatures uniform and preventing excess drying and wind movement. The windrow is turned usually twice the first week, then once per week for the 7-8 week active composting process. Turning may be more often if temperatures exceed 140 degrees F. after the active period, compost is either field spread or stockpiled for further curing/storage.

This storage system, not accounting for the $22,000 AeroMaster turner, cost approximately $18,000 to install. This compares to the estimated earth lagoon system I considered 6 years ago at $40,000+. I would have had another $25-30,000 invested in tank wagons and pumps as well to move a very large volume of mostly water. Any guesses as to why I’m smiling with this system?

The following sections are for both project sites, since goals were similar (where results varied, they are described for each site).

1) Project Goals
a. Cost saving with manure storage
b. Improved soil with compost versus daily spreading
c. Use urban yard wastes as a carbon source
d. Reduced odors, flies and manures on roads
e. Increased nutrient utilization, slow release of nutrients for crop uptake and reduced off-farm fertilizer inputs.

2) Research/Education Components
As described in the original grant, replicated plots with soil quality test were to be completed on our farms. Once we had our teams operating, (we are part of a Livestock Manure Composting project funded by the Michigan Integrated Food and Farming Systems, a WK Kellogg Foundation Initiative) we decided that we would only do field demonstrations comparing manure to compost. Much greater field research was being done at the Michigan Manure Demonstration Project in Ionia, Michigan with our team member Christopher Lufkin. Also Dr. Richard Harwood, the CS Mott Chair for Sustainable Agriculture at Michigan State University, would be doing very extensive field research on comparisons of compost to other sources of nutrients and effects on soil biology.

We decided to focus on the composting operation and getting the carbon/manure mixture correct, design of a system that’s environmentally safe and economical for the farm, and look at compost effects on the soil, weeds, and yields.

Our team has also emphasized the information/education/dissemination of our experiences to other farmers and agricultural service providers – FSA, MSU-E, NRCS, SCD and private consultants. A number of articles were written, presentations made to a number of varied audiences, and three field days have been performed to date. There are plans to make additional presentations at various up coming winter meetings and to work towards the development of a compost management service and/or cooperative. Since starting this project two additional farms have started composting and another 6-7 in the area plan to try in spring 1997.

Initially we anticipated acquiring a large amount of the needed carbon for the 25:1- 30:1, C: N ration from leaves form the neighboring communities. What we found out was that a number of private companies, and some municipalities, had already begun compost operations. In 1986 Michigan passed a law outlawing yard wastes in landfills which was to take effect in 1996. What we didn’t realize is that Muskegon County adopted this law immediately in 1986, which had an effect of creating a supply/demand situation and the resulting business. We would not compete with these businesses, since government funds could subsidize our operation – an unfair advantage compared to the businesses. We have found that there is some supply available and are receiving a small amount of leaves at our farms. There may be future opportunities as the composting industry develops.

Two compost trials were done on my farm. One with a new seeding (spring 1996) and using compost in our greenhouse operation.

We spread approximately two loads per strip of daily spread manure and compost on a new seeding this past spring. There were seven strips (4 daily spread, 3 compost) on this 15 acre field. The daily spread strip received 26.8 tons of manure (N-72, P-58, K-116) and the compost strip 20.6 tons (N-103, P-156, K-589) per acre. We observed no visible differences in forage yields or growth in this first year. We will continue to watch this field for differences and weed pressures. The drought we experienced this year may have hidden many of these differences. Before soil tests are to be taken this spring 1997.

In the greenhouse we filled with 6-quart pots with a mixture of ½ compost and ½ our regular growing mix. We were reluctant to do more because of the high level of salts in the compost.

The mix proved to work out well at the end of the growing season we could not tell any difference in the plants’ foliage color or blooms. We will be doing more of this blending of compost and soils this winter.

We used compost in tomatoes and some other vegetables which worked well. The problem was the particle size being tool large and uneven – the compost needs to be ground up to a smaller size prior to blending.

We went through a 2-3 year process of evaluation different manure management systems with the liquid option being the most costly, and at the time the most likely solution. Then information about composting came to our attention in 1992-93 via the NRCS and Extension. After another 8-12 months of reading, talking to others composters and attending field days, it was a very appealing answer to manure management.

As manure management/storage system it offers a lot of flexibility and an economical solution that nay size livestock operation can implement. Other than a compost turner, existing equipment can be used, and a turner can be shared with other operations. Another option is to form a Co-op or management service to best utilize a turner, as well as market finished compost.

We have been very fortunate to have started this project when the Michigan Manure Demo Project was also in operation. We were able to learn and digest a number of things from their experiences and receive direct assistance from the project leader, Christopher Lufkin. This assistance was very valuable for getting the right compost recipe, windrow management techniques and on-farm assistance.

As has already been identified, a number of people have been involved with our projects. Key people to our success so far has been the NRCS Resource Conservationist, Greg Mund and Christopher Lufkin, who is now in private business with composting commercial waste. We have learned a lot from other producers as well. Ken Gasper and John Newland of Ionia, Michigan were early operators with the MMDP and we were able to visit and learn from their experiences.

Dr. Ted Loudon, MSU Ag Engineering assisted with the conceptual design of a storage system as well as the on-farm compost management. Roger Peacock, MSU Extension Agriculture and Natural Resource Agent for the county has also been a part of the local team and has contributed to our efforts.

The Muskegon Conservation District received the Michigan Integrated Food and Farming Systems (MIFFS) grant for Livestock Manure Composting, which with these farmer grants has made it possible to do this project. The District staff of 3-4 different individuals have all contributed efforts in support of the information/dissemination program, field days, our presentations, some on-farm operations and report documentation.

Some of our original goals were not accomplished (on-farm field research) we feel quite successful with our results thus far. We expect to see continued field results with soil improvements and crop quality from using compost. The benefit of being able to market to local consumers a finished compost product is another reward that we will pursue.

We have enjoyed making and working with the partners involved in our composting projects. It was been a real team effort on behalf of the Muskegon Conservation District, USDA-NRCS, MSU Extension and many MSU advisors.

This project has made our chores much easier by eliminating daily hauling; we also saved much labor in time spent cleaning barns. The compost allows us to spread at a more suitable time of they year and because of the volume reduction, we save many trips to the field.

The biggest advantage of implementing this practice is the time saving and retention of runoff from manure that is daily spread. The disadvantage of implementing this practice is getting and keeping a good reliable carbon source to make the compost. Also, the turning time when we are busy planting or harvesting.

We have given several talks about composting and what we have learned and we also hosted several tours on our farm.

This is a good sustainable way of handling your Ag manure in a way you can benefit from the nutrients and help reduce pollution of water from runoff.

As already discussed, various media have been used to reach the audiences of government officials, farmers, researchers, and Ag service providers.

The Muskegon Conservation District’s two newsletters reach approximately 4600 households in the Muskegon-West Michigan area. Articles were also published in the Michigan Agricultural Stewardship Associations, the MMDP and farm Bureau’s newsletters which reach farmers throughout Michigan. Also, Joe and Bob were featured in two videos on composting produced by the MMDP program and MSU Extension (release 3/97).


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.