Promoting manure composting for livestock operations

Final report for LNC19-427

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2019: $50,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2022
Grant Recipient: University of Minnesota Extension
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Chryseis Modderman
University of Minnesota Extension
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Project Information


This project, “Promoting manure composting for livestock operations,” will increase the understanding and prevalence of manure composting in the north-central region. It educates and demonstrates how to sustainably compost manure and the economic, environmental, and societal benefits of doing so. This program is open to anyone interested in learning more about composting, but the target audience is livestock producers with solid manure – such as beef, dairy, turkey, and horse – who are interested in composting.

Overall, this educational project will increase farmers’ awareness and knowledge of composting manure in the north central region, which will lead to increased adoption of the practice. Attendees of this program learn about composting manure through classroom activities and lectures, demonstrations and examples, and farmer testimonials. In the classroom, interactive lectures increase awareness of the immense value of composting manure, and the unique challenges and opportunities of composting manure in the north-central region. Attendees gain practical and applied understanding of the composting process from a panel of farmers who successfully compost manure. The demonstration portion of the program demonstrates the skills of day-to-day compost management and how to identify and correct problems within a compost pile. The articles, videos, and outreach generated from this program will spread this knowledge and information to the greater north-central region.

Project Objectives:

This project will educate more than 100 Minnesota and North Dakota livestock producers through one online workshop in year one, and two in-person workshops in year two on the sustainable processes and benefits of composting manure. Outcomes will include increased knowledge of how composting is sustainably done in northern climates, awareness of the benefits of composting, hands-on understanding of the components required for successful composting, and the skills to identify and correct problems within a compost pile. This project will also increase the number of producers in Minnesota and North Dakota exploring the option of composting on their own farm, and applying composted rather than raw manure.


Manure is a valuable nutrient source that supplies both macro- and micro- nutrients for plant uptake. It also increases soil organic matter which leads to better soil structure, water holding capacity, and microbial activity. There are sustainable benefits to using composted manure over raw manure, such as decreased transportation costs, fewer pathogens and weed seeds, reduced nutrient pollution, less odor, and increased organic nitrogen content. However, although composting manure is a common practice in some regions, it is only recently gaining popularity in Minnesota and North Dakota.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Steve Enger
  • Jay Schnell
  • Kurt Dagel


Involves research:
Participation Summary


Educational approach:

This project was performed as an online workshop in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Thirteen educational videos were released to registrants. Registrants were able to view the videos at their leisure. These videos included lectures, applied composting procedures, interviews with the producer cooperators and tours of their operations, and an interactive diagnostic video where participants identified compost problems and made decisions on how to correct them. One week after the videos were released, a live online discussion was held with the producer panel to answer questions and discuss the topics outlined in the videos.

The 2021 workshops were held as was outlined in the original proposal. Two in-person workshops were held; one at the West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris, MN and one at the Carrington Research and Extension Center in Carrington, ND. These locations had the necessary classroom space, on-site manure, and piling space to complete this project. In addition, both sites already compost manure, so there were scientists and technicians who were familiar with the process.

In preparation for the in-person program, bedded pack wet-solid manure (dairy in Morris and beef in Carrington) was piled into six stockpiles in Morris and six windrows in Carrington for composting. Samples of manure were analyzed to determine nutrient content as well as the carbon to nitrogen ratio which is necessary to know for proper composting. Since the best point of degradation for attendees to view the compost was approximately half-way to completion, they were started three to four weeks prior to the workshop date.

Each compost pile had a problem that is commonly encountered, so each pile was managed differently based on its designated problem. For example, the compost pile designated as “not aerated” was mixed and aerated less frequently than the rest. The problems inflicted on the compost piles were as follows: pile too small, too wet, too dry, carbon to nitrogen ratio too high, carbon to nitrogen ratio too low, and not aerated. In addition, a pile with no problems was used for turning and mixing demonstrations; and a completed pile was started three weeks before the others to demonstrate how to tell when the composting process has finished.

On the day of the in-person workshops, the program began classroom style. Tents and outdoor venue space was used for lectures to keep in line with COVID-19 precautions in Morris, while indoor classroom space was used in Carrington. Topics covered included crop production sustainability through improved soil health and water quality protection, economic feasibility, environmental benefits, practical use in a cropping system, and personal and societal benefits of composting manure. The basics of composting and problems that may arise was also covered, including specifics on temperature, moisture, and aeration requirements.

Special attention was placed on the unique challenges and opportunities of composting manure in the north-central region. This region receives moderate annual rainfall, warm summers, and sometimes-harsh winters, so compost management in those conditions were highlighted.

A question and answer session was then held with a panel of farmers who successfully compost manure. Each member of the panel described their experience with composting. A producer panel member suggested that it would be best to have the panel address predetermined topics to keep the discussion focused, so each panel member was asked to explain how they got started, challenges they have faced, how they have dealt with those challenges, and why they recommend composting. Attendees were then invited to ask questions of the panel. To maintain the continuity of the workshop, lunch was served to participants as this was an all-day event held in a field.

The class moved outdoors (or out of the tent) for the hands-on portion of the workshop. The proper method of turning piles for aeration was demonstrated with a front-loader on the stockpiles in Morris, and with a compost turner on the windrows in Carrington. Participants were asked to view multiple compost piles and identify the problems with each one and how they would troubleshoot those problems. There were gloves, temperature probes, buckets, and shovels to assist participants with their identification. As a group, the participants and instructors discussed each compost pile one-by-one, focusing on the steps taken to identify the problem, what the problem was, and how to fix the problem.

Here is a link to the workshop website that also has links to the videos.


To evaluate the accomplishments and effectiveness of this project, we will use process, output, and outcome indicators. For process indicators we will 1) collect the number of participants at each composting workshop including producers as well as Extension educators and agency partners, 2) record the number of inquiries received about composting manure because of the workshops, 3) record the number of radio interviews and printed articles in regards to the composting workshops, and 4) keep track of visits/likes on social media outlets. 

To evaluate output indicators we will 1) record the number and type of educational programs (workshops (4) as well as other potential educational opportunities), 2) record the number of publications created and how they were disseminated, and 3) document the number of videos produced and how they were disseminated. 

We will use pre- and post-workshop surveys as well as follow-up surveys to gather data. Outcome indicators will be measured by 1) the level of satisfaction from the workshop participants, 2) estimating the number of participants who are planning to adopt the composting techniques learned, 3) record who does adopt the techniques (6 month follow-up), 4) estimate a change in KASA (knowledge, awareness, skills, attitudes), 5) document the benefits from learning the proper composting techniques, and 6) suggested changes for future composting programs.

Project Activities

Online Workshop Videos
Live Online Discussion
Virtual Tour of Producers' Operations
Manure Composting Quick Guide
Common Composting Problems and Their Solutions
In-person Workshops
Common Manure Composting Problems and Their Solutions
Manure Composting Quick Guide
Impact Statement

Educational & Outreach Activities

3 Consultations
4 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
9 On-farm demonstrations
3 Tours
28 Webinars / talks / presentations
3 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

110 Farmers participated
86 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Each of the three compost producer collaborators were consulted for their input and ideas as the program progressed. They each approved of the program content, format, and flow, including the move to an online workshop due to COVID-19.

Two fact sheets were created and distributed: (1) Manure Composting Quick Guide and (2) Common Composting Problems and Their Solutions. In turn, those fact sheets were turned into extension publications.

Five on-farm demonstrations were filmed: (1) Basics of Composting, (2) Turning Compost Rows and Piles, (3) Calibrating a Compost or Manure Spreader, (4) Sampling Compost for Analysis, and (5) Diagnostics - Troubleshooting Compost Issues. Four demonstrations were done at the in-person workshops.

Three tours were filmed. One for each compost producer collaborator.

Fourteen total videos were produced, including the recording of the live online discussion. An additional 14 presentations were given at the in-person workshops.

One online workshop in 2020, and two in-person workshops in 2021 were held to present the educational products listed above.

Learning Outcomes

29 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
24 Agricultural service providers reported changes in knowledge, skills, and/or attitudes as a result of their participation
Key areas taught:
  • Basics of composting
  • Compost site selection
  • Turning compost rows and piles
  • Calibrating a compost or manure spreader
  • How to sample compost for analysis
  • How to interpret your compost sample analysis
  • How to diagnose and troubleshoot common composting problems
  • Land application regulations
  • Land application calculations
  • Economics of composting manure
  • Composting equipment costs and case studies
  • Personal experience with composting

Project Outcomes

Key practices changed:
    1 Grant applied for that built upon this project
    6 New working collaborations
    Success stories:


    “Well organized and executed. Appreciated that videos were individual by topic area, short, and focused. That allowed me to watch what was relevant and fit it into my day more easily.” - Online participant

    “Really enjoyed the discussion and interaction between the three cooperators. Also appreciated having enough time to flesh out the information, i.e., didn't try to squeeze it into one hour.” - Online participant 

    “I loved the course. Very didactic and I am interested in the methodology used. I would like to contact the organizing team in the future.” - Online participant


    While our project needed some structural changes in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions, we were able to experience a new teaching format that we otherwise would not have tried. We appreciate SARE’s willingness to let us pivot and continue our project in a format that was well received and has already been mimicked by other educators.

    Information Products

    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.