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

2010 Annual 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

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


We seek to validate composting recommendations for manure and mortality in Montana’s cold semi-arid environment. The project will evaluate the ability of producers at two sites to market manure compost as a value-added product from their animal feeding operations. Exporting manure nutrients as compost will provide better nutrient balance on operations and enable other users such as 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.

Objectives/Performance Targets

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.


Numbers are references to Performance Targets above

1) Data has been collected at Bozeman and Havre sites, in addition to a supplemental site in Chinook. Data includes temperatures and oxygen monitored during the process. Samples have been collected and submitted for compost in regards to nutrients and organic matter. No run-off from the compost piles has been observed during the study period.

2) This work has begun by collaborating economist, Joel Schumacher. Analysis has been completed for cost of composting relative to land application of raw manure. Retail prices have been calculated to break-even and profit from the added expense of the composting endeavor. Potential markets have been identified. The collaborating landscaper in Havre has received sample product to test in his operations.

3) A MontGuide Publication draft on manure composting has begun, as has mortality publication which will be produced as a four-state document in conjunction NMSU, CSU, UWY and MSU. Instead of doing a small mortality supplement, this deliverable was integrated into another SARE grant (PDP-Western held by CSU) and will provide for a 20+ page detailed manual for mortality composting in semi-arid climates.

4) Havre Field Day completed in summer 2010 with over 60 participants from farms and ranches, NRCS, Extension, area schools, MSU researchers, CD staff, US Senate Staff (Tester) and others. Manure windrows and mortality bins were showcased. Economic data was also presented.

Havre based collaborators have also given four presentations on the composting research between January 2010 and December 2010

In fall 2009 MSU County Agents toured Amaltheia Dairy (Bozeman site), including compost sites. In fall 2010 the SARE-funded Rocky Mountain Mortality Compost Team (PDP- held by CSU) toured Amaltheia with a focus on mortality composting bins.

5) SARE has no future plans for a national meeting. A poster was presented at the ACRES Conference in Indianapolis ( by producer partner Nathan Brown as a substitution.

For 2011, CSREES (NIFA) did not have an open call for papers at the annual meeting. A poster will be presented at the EPA Region 8 Nutrients and Water Quality Conference in Salt Lake City February 15-16, 2011.

The Havre-based collaborators will be submitting a paper to the Western Region Animal Science Society to share their data at the June 2011 meeting. They presented preliminary pilot data in June 2009, at Western Section Animal Science, prior to the start of this project. That data allowed us to proceed with this SARE project.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

Related to Five Western SARE Goals

Montana’s cold semi-arid environment will influence general time-based composting recommendations. Validating the process will provide a site-specific and regional sustainable agriculture practice for Montana ranchers and farmers. Because of feed and fertilizer imported to AFOs, these operations often have a nutrient imbalance (more manure nutrients than can be effectively used on the site’s own crops) that can be detrimental to the quality of ground and surface water. A marketable product from manure will allow for improving this nutrient balance by distributing said nutrients geographically for other agronomic uses in areas of nutrient deficiencies. The second component of proposed project, composting mortalities, will determine if this is a viable alternative to burial or abandonment; both practices are potential threats to surface and ground water quality. It should be noted that we do not recommend exporting of mortality compost; this is a disposal method only where the material is selectively used on its site of origin (Western SARE #1).

Manure is a resource on an operation, but it is often viewed as a liability. Compost is, however, a value-added product, enabling a producer to sell a new product in addition to calves, pigs, milk, eggs or other animal product. A viable business plan will be needed to successfully produce and market this material. We will investigate current markets for bagged and bulk compost and determine the sustainability of diversifying current AFOs in Montana and western states (Western SARE #2).

Composting, when done properly, has shown to reduce pathogens and weed seeds through the heat generated in this aerobic process. This will improve the safety of handling the material and allow for alternate uses. This is a natural biological process that with minimal management takes on-farm resources and processes it into a safe and marketable product. Using compost can off-set purchases and reduce use of commercial fertilizers (Western SARE #3).

As previously mentioned, compost can serve to diversify products from an AFO and provide resources for external enterprises. This can increase income, offset management costs and reduce environmental liability (Western SARE #4).

Finally, by tracking end users of the exported compost, the investigators will examine the feasibility of adopting this practice to increase the profitability of the AFO through direct sales revenue or reduced costs (manure management). Other benefits could include providing a resource for other agricultural enterprises such as commercial nurseries and landscaping or organic crop production, in addition to home garden use (Western SARE #5).

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. The practice will be monitored on diverse operations, including a small organic goat dairy and a commercial sized beef feeding operation, thereby covering a spectrum of appropriate types of operations.


Joel Schumacher
Extension Economics Associate Specialist
Montana State University
Agricultural Economics
Linfield Hall
Bozeman, MT 59717
Office Phone: 4069946637
Steve Chvilicek
Frontier Lawn and Landscaping
1704 2nd Street West
Havre, MT 59501
Office Phone: 4062651670
Max Hofeldt

Hofeldt Feedlot and Sheep Co.
Box 957
Chinook, MT 59523
Office Phone: 4065373452
Darrin Boss
Associate Professor
Northern Ag Research Center
3848 Fort Circle
Havre, MT 59501
Office Phone: 4062656115
James Knight
Associate Extension Director (now retired)
Montana State University
Culbertson Hall
Bozeman, MT 59717
Office Phone: 4069941750
George Nathan Brown
Amaltheia Organic Goat Dairy
3380 Penwel Bridge Rd
Belgrade, MT 59714
Office Phone: 4063880569