On-Farm Composting of Livestock Manure

Final Report for FNC94-083B

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1994: $2,500.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1996
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $44,020.00
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


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

550 acres owned or rented 110 dairy cow operation plus replacements, heifers, calves, and steers. Corn, soybeans, wheat, oats and alfalfa are rotated on high water table sand, sandy loam and loamy soils.

My wife Kim, two young sons, Sam and Jacob run this 3rd generation milking operation, which is the only one left in my township and one of the three in this part of Muskegon County. Our operation also sits on a county drain which flows into White Lake (2470 acre) which is one of 14 areas of concern in Michigan (42 in the great Lakes Region). Nutrients, soil, sediment, and bacteria are named as NPS pollutants for this lake.

I’ve done the following conservation practices to make my operation more sustainable: nutrient/pesticide record keeping, soil and moisture testing, closing of four abandoned wells to protect ground water, tried no till corn planting and the installation of a livestock manure composting system for management and storage in these past two years.

My system is very similar to Joe Slater’s except I’ve installed pumps to collect runoff to move these wastes to a grass filter strip that after 635 ft. empties onto a crop field that drains eventually into a woodlot on the farm. Also, I have installed a permanent composting area (80’X220’) to build 5 windrows for a 60 day active composting period. Finished materials are field spread, stored, or sold to local landscapers and gardeners. Sawdust is bedded in the barn with additional amounts of spread in the alleys after each scraping. Approximately one half of the total volume of compost has sawdust (0.5:1) mixed with the manure to produce the beginning product. What seems to work well in building a windrow is to get a mixture of about 65% moisture, about like corn silage.

The rest of the set up and operation is similar to Joe Slater’s as described in his final report. Both of our operations received some leaves from neighbors in the township and nearby towns. So far this has not worked as well as we had hoped, but we are still talking to the town supervisors to get leaves.

As with Slater’s farm, I evaluated the costs associated with a typical government approved system and balked at a debt load of $6-700/cow, plus all the labor, odors, equipment maintenance and quick replacement schedule and the mess on roads. I have a lot of traffic going to Lake Michigan (2 miles away) cottages and a county park and would rather avoid any additional problems from a mis-informed public about farming operations. My costs for installing the complete system ran around $24,000, and as with Slater’s, received ACP cost shares on 75% of these costs through a long term agreement with USDA (FSA, NRCS) and the Conservation District. These were the first ever cost shared compost systems in Michigan and maybe the US.

I also have the same satisfaction and smile that Joe has from knowing I saved quite a bit of money, if I had installed the other system. And I have a desirable product that just about any consumer wants for their lawns, gardens, and plants. That is our next challenge – marketing the product to a wide range of consumers.

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.

Fall, 1995: the two field trials were actually extended to three. Prior to the ’96 crop year, we spread compost on one half of a 14 acre corn field that was planted to corn in 1996. the spread rate was 3 ton/acre. We then spread the other one half of this field daily with regular cow manure at the rate of 10 tons per acre. This was done in a timely manner, with incorporation by means of a field cultivator after spreading. A rye cover crop consisting of 2 ¼ bu per acre spread on with a fertilizer spreader was used to hold nutrients and give a plow down material for next spring (1996). April 5, 1996: Ten acres were used for oats, planted on marginal san ground, lime was spread fall of ’95 at 2.5 tons/acre, compost was spread at the end of March ’96 at a 3.5 ton rate. The only other fertilizer used was 30 lbs. actual urea. Oats were drilled with no seeding so seed rate was quite high, 2 ½ bu/acre. Plenty of rain and cool temperatures made conditions good for oats. This field was very, very clean, although the oats grew so tall that in parts of the field, the oats fell over, but were still able to be combined with little loss. The result on 10 acres was as follows:
Yield: 108 bu/acre
Test wt. 48 lbs/acre
Straw yield – 100 bales/acre. Many compliments were given on this field, especially for the ground it was seeded on.

The second trial was on soybeans. Twenty acres were divided and used for this test. Prior to plowing 2.5 tons of lime were spread on existing corn stalks and then manure was spread on ten acres first, then compost was spread. This time the spread rate was the same on both ten acre strips at the rate of five tons acre. Both strips were shallow plowed at 4”. Normal field preparation was done. Fertilizer used was 80# 10-26-26. Spray used was 2.25 pints Broadstrike Dual. Seed used was Mycogen 202 Early Group II planted at 100.bs/acre at a 7” spacing (solid seeded). A wetter than normal spring with heavy rain caused some germination problems and we feared the spray material would be relocated below the weed target zone. Alson, a drier than normal growing season came after the wet spring.

Results: The spray material used gave excellent weed coverage basically zero weeds. But the rains packed the ground and root growth was shortened. Height of plants were above knee height so lack of moisture affected growth.

Final yield was 35 bu/acre. Due to weather conditions, there wasn’t a lot of difference between the two trial strips except that the compost strip was slightly darker in color.

Corn silage field trail: fourteen acres were divided, compost spread on one-half manure on the other. Rye cover crop was let to grow 18” before being chisel plowed down.

One hundred pounds anhydrous ammonia was applied prior to planting along with 150# K20 and 150# 10-26-10 for starter. Mycogen TMF Silage Corn was planted at a population of 23,300 on both strips. Spray material was Broadstrike Dual at 2 ¼ pints/acre. This field was used for silage in 1996 and 1997. Although a dry summer, this field yields 238 tons of corn silage at 70% moisture. Rain at harvest prevented the strips from being harvested separate to compare tonnage.

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.