Composting Recommendations and Marketing Evaluation for Livestock Operations in Cold Semi-Arid Environments

Final Report for FW09-305

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2009: $49,315.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: Western
State: Montana
Principal Investigator:
Thomas Bass
Montana State University
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Project Information


This project validated composting recommendations for manure and mortality in Montana’s cold semi-arid environment, including documentation of storm water runoff from the composting sites (a consideration for future water quality studies). Manure and mortality composting were evaluated separately. In addition, the project evaluated the ability of producers at two sites to market manure compost as a value-added product from their animal feeding operations (AFOs). Exporting manure nutrients in the form of compost provides for better nutrient balance on the operations and enables homeowners and gardeners, commercial nurseries and landscapers, organic producers and others to utilize this organic-based fertilizer and soil amendment.

Recent increases in energy prices are stimulating interest in the use of less energy intensive forms of fertilizer and soil amendments. Manure and manure-based products, such as compost, are two alternatives to traditional energy intensive products.

Project Objectives:

1) Compost manure and mortality for one season

Track temperatures, time to reach benchmark temperatures and nutrient content; observe if run-off occurs from the composting site after storm events; and evaluate finished product quality (nutrient analysis and end user evaluation) at two sites, Bozeman and Havre.

2) Examine markets

Allow producers to sell, trade or give away compost; document end users, price paid per unit of material and end user opinion of quality.

3) Produce MontGuide Extension publications on manure and mortality composting, including guidance and case studies

a) Manure composting
b) Mortality compost supplement

4) Conduct two educational events (one at each site), ie: demo/field day

5) Submit professional papers to SARE, CSREES Water Quality and Western Section American Society of Animal Science (ASAS) conferences. Assume presentations at these meetings to disseminate information to other educators and technical service providers.

6) Complete reporting requirements in late winter; give presentations at conferences; continue distribution of materials regionally. Close grant in June 2011, as soon as Western Section ASAS paper is given.

This was not a singular research project, but a multi-component demonstration and education project. The project employed several methods towards the goal of locally validating and demonstrating compost techniques, in order to create relevant educational products. Therefore, Performance Targets are described in the Methods Section and answered in Accomplishments. More detailed narratives on the demonstrated research components are also provided under Accomplishments.


Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Darrin Boss
  • George Nathan Brown
  • Steve Chvilicek
  • Max Hofeldt
  • James Knight
  • Joel Schumacher


Materials and methods:

This project used multiple methods towards the goal of educating Montana producers and agricultural advisers on the suitability of manure composting in a cold semi-arid climate.

Expanded methods sections for demonstrated research are included below in Accomplishments.

Research results and discussion:

Please see accomplishments narrative, attachments and full paper referenced.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

1) Compost windrows were created and managed at two sites, data were collected and analyzed results were shared through field days, educational publications and professional meeting poster presentations and papers. Narratives for demonstrated research are shown below.

2) Economic data were collected and described in MontGuide Publication. Economic data is also explained in a narrative below, in this section. Graphs appear in MontGuide Publication (attached under Publications/Outreach).

3) A MontGuide Extension publication was produced on manure composting, including guidance and case studies.

A Mortality compost supplement was combined with a multi-state mortality composting manual produced by MT, WY, CO and NM and funded by a SARE PDP project. Montana data, video and images were incorporated into this larger collaborative manual.

4) Two educational events (one at each site, Havre and Bozeman), were conducted as field days and reached producers, ag advisors, policy makers, Engineers without Borders and consumers.

5) Three professional posters and two papers were presented at regional Animal Science Society and Extension Water Quality meetings. Additionally a poster presentation was made at the 2010 ACRES Sustainable Agriculture Conference and Trade Show by cooperator Nathan Brown.

6) This online report, with attachments, serves as the final report. The grant was closed on December 31, 2011 with a small unclaimed budget surplus.

Havre Manure Composting Narrative

This is an abbreviated narrative. A full paper was submitted to Western Section Animal Science Society Proceedings. Provided by J. Dafoe.

Composting occurred in November and December of 2008 and 2009. In 2008, the compost consisted of 163.3 t of dried cattle manure and bedding material from a permitted feedlot, 38.1 t of wheat straw and 38.1 t of year-old spoiled corn silage to bring the carbon:nitrogen (C:N) ratio to a calculated value of approximately 30:1. The C:N ratio was within the recommended optimum range for U.S. composting guidelines. Wheat straw and corn silage were produced at Northern Agricultural Research Center (NARC). Two windrows (W1, 66.8 m long by 3.7 m wide and W2, 76.8 m long by 3.7 m wide) of the composting blend were constructed on a flat surface of clay loam soil. Moisture content was analyzed to be 12.5% at the beginning of the project after the compost materials were blended and the windrows were constructed.

In 2009, compost consisted of 180.5 t of dried cattle manure and bedding material from a permitted feedlot and 20.2 tons of wheat straw and corn stalks from NARC. Three windrows (W3, W4 and W5) 57.3 m long by 3.0 m wide, 84.7 m long by 3.0 m wide and 218 m long by 3.0 m wide, respectively) were constructed on a flat surface of clay loam soil. Moisture content of W3, W4 and W5 was analyzed to be 58.0%, 70.4% and 56.7%, respectively.

The compost was turned with an elevating face compost turner (CT-670, Vermeer, Pella, IA) twice weekly, weather permitting. A 90 cm data logger (Windrow Manager, Green Mountain Technologies, Bainbridge Island, WA) was placed into the windrows three times weekly to record internal temperature and oxygen levels of each windrow at a depth of 45 and 89 cm. After initial readings, water was added to W1, W2 and W5 as it was being turned, bringing the moisture content for each windrow to approximately 50% (5 was already over 50%). Water addition took place on December 3 and 5, 2008 and November 20, 2009. Ambient temperature readings were recorded daily at 800 h (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Weather Service Cooperative Observer Site: Fort Assiniboine; Site ID: ASNM8; Site Number: 24-3110-03: Lat/Lon: 48.29.54, 109.47.50: Elevation: 2613 ft.). Grab samples were taken of each windrow, and samples were tested at the beginning and end of the composting period to test for maturity of the compost.

Results and Discussion:

Maximum and minimum mean daily ambient temperatures for the 47 d trial in 2008 were 6.9?C and -31.1?C, respectively. From the beginning of the trial to when the windrows were irrigated (d 16 and 14, respectively), no composting or aerobic activity was occurring, evidenced by the low temperatures (mean temp W1 and W2; Figure 1) and high oxygen levels. Oxygen levels in the windrows were >16% and >6% before irrigation in W1 and W2, respectively. After irrigation aerobic bacteria began immediately to start digesting the nitrogen and carbon sources within the windrows, evidenced by the repaid increase in temperature and decrease in oxygen. Maximum and minimum mean daily ambient temperatures for the 34 day trial in 2009 were 10.0?C and -33.3?C respectively.

In 2009 aerobic composting immediately commenced upon blending and the initiation of regular turnings as evidenced by high temperatures and decreasing oxygen levels. Mean core temperatures in W1 and W2 were >40?C 120 h and 24 h after irrigation, respectively. Composting occurs most rapidly when temperature are >40?C (Trautmann et al, 1996). Even though all the windrows in 2009 tested >50% moisture, W3 did not recover after turning as seen by temperature and oxygen levels, therefore W3 was irrigated to increase the composting process. In both 2008 and 2009 oxygen levels consistently returned to 20% immediately after aerating (turning) the windrows; however within 24 h of turning oxygen levels < 2% were observed. The consistent drop in oxygen levels indicates a very rapid aerobic digestion of feedstocks and available oxygen in all windrows across both 2008 and 2009.

Windrow 1 and W2 reached a high temperature of 60.6?C 7 d after irrigation and 63.6?C 9 d after irrigation, respectively. High temperatures in W3, W4 and W5 were reached on d 10, 4, and 5 after irrigation, respectively. Temperatures exceeded 40C immediately in W4 and W5, and 5 d after irrigation in W3. Core temperatures remained above 40C for 14 d for W3 and 25 d for both W4 and W5. Oxygen levels below 5% result in anaerobic conditions within the windrows, and oxygen becomes the limiting factor (Trautmann et al, 1996;), hence the requirement for such frequent turning of the windrows in this trial for both 2008 and 2009. The wheat straw and year-old corn silage in this composting system broke down rapidly and added little to the overall bulk density. To combat the low oxygen levels in the center of the windrows, our procedure resulted in turning quite frequently, even in 2009 when corn stalks were added to the blend. In future compost runs, adding different carbon sources, including wood chips for bulking agents, may promote increase aeration and infiltration and oxygen availability within the windrows.

Composting systems can achieve a significant reduction of pathogens when the compost is maintained at minimum operating conditions of 40C for five days, with temperatures exceeding 55C for at least four hours of this period (Trautmann et al., 1996). Core temperatures within this trial remained above 40?C for 26 d in W1 and 30 d in W2 (Figure 1). Even though the minimum ambient temperature was reached -31.1?C and -15.4?C in 2008 and 2009 respectively – there appeared to be no lasting negative effect as the compost was able to maintain and generate appropriate optimum temperatures after each turning. Microbial activity was sufficient for composting as evidenced by the independent temperature trends of windrow temperature and ambient temperature. For windrow composting methods, maintaining 55?C for 15d is sufficient to destroy weed seeds (Trautmann et al, 1996; Wilen, 1997). Once the temperature of the windrows maintain 55?C, the environment in compost windrows have sufficient moisture and temperature to break dormancy of hard seeds followed by thermal kill of seedlings (Egley, G.H., 1990).

Ambient temperature and precipitation events appeared to have little effect on the compost. During the coldest periods of the experiment ambient temperature was <17?C for 6 d in 2008 and <-12?C for 4 d in 2009; core temperatures remained above 35, 47, 36, 47 and 50?C in W1, W2, W3, W4 and W5 respectively. In 2008, 4.22 cm measurable precipitation in the form of snow fell on W1 and W2, with 1.42 cm falling on d 2. In 2009 there was 1.75 cm precipitation in eight precipitation events throughout December. Precipitation events had no apparent effect on temperature, oxygen or moisture content of the compost, possibly since it came as snow and the ambient temperatures did not allow it to add to the windrow moisture content. Compost was deemed to be mature when it conformed to U.S. Composting Council guidelines including: C:N ratio, pH, organic matter and moisture content (Alexander, 2003)

Citations available upon request.

Havre Mortality Composting Narrative

This is an abbreviated narrative. A full paper was submitted to Western Section Animal Science Society Proceedings. Provided by J. Dafoe.

Bins were constructed in February 2010 at Northern Agricultural Research Center (NARC), near Havre, Montana on flat clay loam soil surface, and composting continued through March 2011. The animals that were composted included calving losses from the 2010 calving season and animals euthanized according to best management practices for animals that were unsalvageable. As death losses occurred, mature cows (n=3, average wt = 904 kg) were composted in individual bins (B1, B2 and B3) and new born calves (n = 11) were composted in two bins (B4 and B5) containing multiple calves. Mature cows consisted of multiple breeds; cows breeds include one Hereford, one Angus and one Simmental cross bred cow. They were from the same herd. The bins for the mature cows were constructed with four large straw square bales (0.91 x 0.91 x 2.44 m).

Sawdust was used as a base material (approximately 45 cm) for moisture retention and to prevent runoff. The animal was then placed on the base material, covered with year-old spoiled corn silage and capped with a layer of sawdust. The spoiled silage is used to provide a carbon based substrate and fermented material, bacterial populations and an initial warm material to the bin. The bins were recapped with sawdust as needed throughout the 12-month period. The bins for the calves were constructed using small square straw bales (45 x 45 x 91 cm) on three sides and a large square straw bale on one side. Base and fill material were the same as used in the cow bins.

In this project, bins were constructed; however mortality composting has occurred in non-binned windrows. It may believed that predator/scavenger disturbance could occur in non-binned windrows. Calves were placed in the bins as mortalities occurred and then covered with year-old spoiled corn silage. Once the bin was full, it was capped with sawdust and another bin was constructed to be prepared for any future mortalities that could occur. A 90 cm data logger (Windrow Manager, Green Mountain Technologies, Bainbridge Island, WA) was placed into the bins monthly to record internal temperature and oxygen levels of each windrow at a depth of 45 and 89 cm. Although the process of composting motilities is anaerobic, the oxygen measurements may indicate if caverns, or fisutlas, of oxygen were getting to the carcass, thereby increasing the potential to produce a foul odor associated with decaying flesh.

Results and Discussion:

No predator, varmint or domestic animal disturbance was observed. Very little insect and fly activity was observed. Maximum and minimum mean daily ambient temperature in February 2010 was 5C and -31C, while March 2010 was 19.4C and 18.9C, respectively. All bins containing mature cows reached 40C temp 24 hours after construction, and bins containing calves reached 40C 9 d after construction, indicating the anaerobic conditions and substrate provided an adequate environment for initiating the composting process. Oxygen was never observed in appreciable levels in any of the bins, indicating aerobic composting was taking place so oxygen measures are not included. The maximum temperature for B1, B2, B3, B4 and B5 was 65.7, 63.5, 64.8, 70.4, and 68.1C, occurring 22, 7, 32, 22 and 32 d after mortality was placed in bin, respectively. Bins were excavated 130 d after beginning the mortality composting process (June 26, 2010), and no soft tissue remained, only skeletal structures and some hair. Bins were re-closed and sealed with sawdust and left undisturbed until March 2011.

Upon re-excavating in March 2011, one year from initiating the project, all motility bins contained skeletal bones. All appeared to have reached temperatures to produce a black charred appearance directly in proximity to the skeleton. Calf bones were more brittle and appeared to be more broken down by the process than the mature cow bones. The long bones of the mature cows could not be physically broken by the force of a normal sized human; however, some larger long bones of the calves could easily be broken. The year-old mortality compost bin materials were completely excavated and were mixed together. The blend of compost and remaining bones will be the substrate for future compost in 2011. Additional work is planned; however it appeared that large domestic animal composting can occur in northern Montana.

Citations available upon request.

Bozeman Site Composting and Field Day Narrative

Narrative provided by G. Nathan Brown, Farmer-Cooperator

Amaltheia Organic Dairy has been composting our goat manure in Montana since 2004. The compost inputs were goat manure from our 350 goats, straw bedding and spent hay. The pens at our farm are cleaned out once a year with a skid steer loader and moved to our composting pads with a 10 yard dump truck. The two composting pads are able to hold eight windrows each consisting of 80-100 yards of raw materials. The windrows are then turned using the skid steer loader during the composting process. The manure is composted during the late summer and fall in order to be ready for use in the spring and summer. The compost is then sold to local gardeners, nurseries, vegetable growers and organic farms. It is also used on our farm as a soil amendment and spread on the fields using a manure spreader.

The windrows were broken into quarters and tested for temperature and oxygen at the four locations. The oxygen measurements showed very well where the windrow was not getting enough oxygen and where the windrows needed more turning and aeration.

For the year of 2009, the compost turned out really consistent. There were two windrows that I turned over the winter, trying to maintain the high temperature throughout the winter. There was a problem with snow melting into the compost and increasing the moisture content within the windrow. The moisture increased until the temperature of the windrow dropped and the compost was no longer active. The other windrows cured over winter and all was used in the spring and summer. The two windrows that did not stay active needed to be turned and re-activated in order for the higher moisture content to dissipate and be ready for use. There was also another composter in the area that had an herbicide problem in his compost, so there was a bigger demand than usual for 2010. The last of our stockpiles of manure were used this year, and all the pens were cleaned out in August 2010. The composting process was started soon after, and the compost was turned until the snow came. The windrows were not turned over the winter so that the moisture content would not increase. The windrows all had a high temperature of around 140 degrees Fahrenheit, and the hope was for the windrows to maintain their active state over the winter and have the snow insulate the windrows. When spring 2011 arrived, the windrows were turned to observe how they had decomposed over the winter. They had lost the active temperatures and had not decomposed as hoped. The spring was unusually rainy, and it was hard to get the skid steer to turn the windrows on the composting pads. There was one windrow of compost that had decomposed enough to be screened and sold. The seven other windrows needed further decomposition and were not able to be turned until June 17, 2011. Customers who wanted compost had to be turned away or were offered not fully decomposed compost. The compost was turned until it was fully finished, and starting on August 8, 2011 it was beginning to be sold and used on our fields. There were two hypotheses to why the compost did not finish over winter 2010. The first was that we had stockpiles of manure and material that was stored in big piles since we started the farm in 2000, and by the end of 2009 we had composted all of the stockpiles that had sat untouched for three – four years. Since the compost from 2010 had only sat in the goat pens for less than one year, it may have not had a moisture content that was adequate for intensive composting. The lower moisture content may have deterred the compost from continuing to break down over the winter. The stockpiled material had years to achieve higher moisture content and anaerobically break down. Our farm does not have a way to irrigate the compost, so we rely on rain and snow in order to achieve a moisture content that will allow for proper composting. The windrows also were not turned enough times in order for the compost to be ready before the winter. There were other projects and jobs that needed to get be done before the winter came, and the composting was not finished by the time the snow came.

A mortality composting bin was set up on our farm during the project period. It was constructed of four straw bales with dimensions 4 foot x 8 foot x 3 foot. One bale was placed as a backstop with one bale on one side and the other two on the other side. The base for the bin was a layer of spent hay 1 foot deep. We then put in any mortalities that we had on the spent hay and covered it with active unfinished compost. We continued to do this over the year until the bin was full. The bin was opened from the backstop bale in August 2011, and there was nothing but bones and finished compost. The compost was spread on our fields using a manure spreader and skid steer. Approximately half of the compost in the bin was able to be used and the rest was still being decomposed. There were no problems with predators getting into the bin, but our dogs did have to be watched closely if they were anywhere near the bin because they liked to dig through it. There was no smell once the carcass was completely covered with the compost, and the only time there was an odor was when the pile was turned and a carcass was uncovered.

As part of the grant, I was able to attend Acres, U.S.A. conference in Indianapolis in the early winter of 2010. There were many speakers, organic farmers, gardeners, etc from all over the United States talking about their experiences and their farms. There were lectures on composting and combining compost and cover crops to increase soil life and nutrients. Permaculture, crop rotations, soil amendments, hoop house gardening, cover crops and many other topics were all topics that were talked about at the conference. There was a booth, and I was able to talk with farmers all over the country about our composting and show them what we were doing with the grant. Our goat cheese was sampled and enjoyed by many while at the trade show part of the conference.

Economic Narrative

Provided by J. Schumacher.

Livestock operations may consider adding composting to their operation for several reasons. Reasons to compost include creating a value-added product, effectively managing nutrients for environmental reasons, meeting permit requirements or creating a high quality soil amendment for on-farm application. In any case, understanding the costs and benefits of composting are important.

The benefits of a proper compost process are several. Composting kills many weed seeds and pathogens contained in raw manure. This attribute makes compost a more attractive product for garden and landscaping uses. Composting reduces the volume of the raw manure, which reduces transportation costs. Composting eliminates much of the odor associated with raw manure. The reduced odor improves marketability for many consumer markets. Composting can help confined animal feeding operations meet the environmental requirements of their operation.

Costs are also incurred during the composting process. Each step in the process has various costs associated with it. The first step is to clean the raw manure from pens, corrals or other confined areas. This step is likely already undertaken at regular intervals by most operations. The costs of this include labor, equipment (tractor with loader) and fuel expenses. The second step is to pile the manure. Labor, equipment (tractor with loader) and fuel are required for this step. The third step is to monitor the temperature and oxygen levels in the pile. The costs for monitoring include labor and equipment (temperature gauge and oxygen sensor) expenses. Based on the results of monitoring, the pile may need to be turned from time to time. The costs for this include labor, equipment (tractor with loader or a tractor with a compost turner) and fuel expenses. The final step is delivery to the end user of the compost. For on-farm use this may involve spreading the compost with a manure spreader. For off-farm markets this may involve loading compost into a customer’s vehicle, delivering the bulk compost or bagging the material for retail sales. The cost for this step varies significantly depending on the end market for the compost.

Cast Study Examples

The actual cost of composting was tracked for two different operations in Montana. The first was the 280 goat Amaltheia Organic Dairy. Amaltheia tracked the time and equipment required to complete each step of their composting operation. Amaltheia utilized a small skid-steer loader to complete most of their composting activities. Amaltheia markets their compost to several different markets. These markets are 1) bagged compost for sale to gardeners at retail locations, 2) bulk sales where the customer transports the compost, 3) bulk sales where Amaltheia delivers the compost, and 4) on-farm application of the compost as a fertilizer replacement. The graph below displays the costs (labor, equipment, fuel and supplies) associated with each marketing option.

The composting process at MSU’s Northern Agricultural Research Station (NARC) was also examined. NARC operates much like a 300 head beef feedlot in terms of manure production and management issues. NARC utilizes a compost turner and a tractor with a loader to complete their composting activities. NARC tracked three marketing options for their compost/manure: 1) on-farm application of raw manure, 2) on-farm application of compost and 3) bulk compost sales in large lots with the customer transporting the compost. The graph below displays the costs associated with each marketing option.

The case studies indicate that composting increases costs over direct application of raw manure. Composting also produces benefits. Measuring the value of the benefits of composting is more difficult. The benefits of composting may include compliance with the requirements of an environmental permit and the creation of a nutrient rich soil amendment. The value of these benefits can vary significantly depending on the specific operation. The value of the compost as a soil amendment can be determined by evaluating how it is utilized. If the compost is sold to an off-farm customer then a value can be easily identified. If the compost is applied to land that would not have otherwise received a nutrient application, then the increased productivity of that land is the value of the compost (less any application costs). However, if the compost is applied to a field that would have received a nutrient application, then the value of the compost is equal to the reduction in costs of applying the traditional nutrients. This assumes that the combination of compost and traditional nutrient application provides an equal amount of nutrients as the traditional method of application would have otherwise provided. Composting provides both additional costs and benefits to animal operations. The specific situation of each operation will determine if the benefits of composting outweigh the costs of composting.

Brief Comments on Storm Water Run-off

No storm water run-off was observed during the project period at either site. In the case of the Havre site (annual precip approx: 14 inches) manure windrows required irrigation. Mortality bins were constructed of dry hay bales, which served to absorb run-off from direct precipitation.


Potential Contributions

Composting methods for manure and mortality are not validated in the literature for Montana. In order for extension, the Land Grant University and other partners to move forward with educational programs and recommendations, this validation needs to occur. Documenting successful composting and evaluating markets for the finished product will provide a Montana-specific case study, with data, for other potential producers to examine before adding this sustainable practice to their operations.

Future Recommendations

The information submitted and documented can be used for expansion of outreach programs in cold semi-arid regions and as a basis for future research. A future recommended area of study would be related to connecting organic crop and vegetable producers with producers of animal manure compost. The certification needs of such producers should be identified and applied to the composting process to allow for movement of compost from conventional operations into organic production. Additionally, the social barriers between these two groups (organic growers and conventional livestock and poultry feeders) should be examined.

The discoveries regarding composting of mortalities from livestock operations could be applied to emergency management situations where mass animal mortalities occur from natural disasters or animal disease. The composting process seems like an environmentally preferable option to burial in many situations. Outreach in this area is advisable.

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.