Forward Farmer: Let’s Talk Compost

Farm Tour

When many of us think composting, we think about throwing a banana peel or two on the heap. But composting has a place in agriculture too – three farms in the Yahara River watershed are implementing manure composting practices and seeing major benefits.

“The initiative Yahara Pride Farms has taken shows that farmers can do the composting process,” said Andy Skwor, agriculture team leader at MSA Professional Services Inc., a Midwest-based consulting firm.

We spoke with Andy last week about this exciting project to test both the costs and environmental benefits of windrow manure composting.

Manure composting is not a complex process.
Through manure composting, farmers use raw manure to grow and feed populations of bacteria, bugs and fungus. As the farmers manage moisture, temperature and food source, the bacteria, bugs and fungus break the organic material down. As the bugs grow, they produce heat, which helps the bacteria, bugs and fungus grow. By turning the compost pile, the farmers redistribute the moisture, food and air back into the pile to allow the bugs to continue to live.

“In the case of on-farm composting, we can take manures and manage them correctly to get them to break down for a value-added product,” said Andy.

In 2014, Yahara Pride farms received the Farmer Rancher Grant.
The Farmer Rancher Grant from Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) helped Berryridge Farms, Maier Farms and Hoffman Farms begin manure composting on their farms. Three windrows were monitored to see how fast and efficient the manure could be broken down.

All three farms have continued composting on their farms and Jeff Endres started using his compost to re-bed his heifers, which adds value to his manure.

The Natural Resources Conversation Service and Clean Lakes Alliance have both been involved to help the project continue to grow.

In 2016, Clean Lakes Alliance received a grant from the Fund for Lake Michigan to build on this work.

Clean Lakes Alliance was awarded a $60,000 two-year grant to determine whether windrow manure composting could have water quality impacts in the Yahara River watershed and beyond, including potential reductions in phosphorus runoff.

The project goals are to:

  • Examine nutrient management planning before and after implementation, the benefits to runoff reduction, and the integration of these results into existing models
  • Communicate benefits of manure composting and other manure-management strategies to farmers
  • If phosphorus reductions can be modeled, incorporate windrow composting into the suite of projects tracked through watershed adaptive management

At the end of this two-year project, Clean Lakes Alliance hopes to see a visible reduction of phosphorus entering our waterways in the pilot area, as well as improvements in soil health and a reduction in fertilizer application. If this pilot proves to be successful, information will be shared throughout the watershed and could be applied statewide.

Benefits of manure composting, from a farmer’s perspective.
Farmers compost their bedded pack to convert the organic matter into an inorganic component. In this inorganic phase, the nutrients are more readily available for crops. Farmers are able to reduce the time that it normally takes for the manure to break down and become useful to their soil, by composting first. By adding the compost to the soil, farmers increase productivity and the soil retains moisture better.

Farmers are also able to create a value-added product from the compost, by selling the nutrient-rich compost to other farmers or buyers. Also, farmers have seen a two-thirds reduction in volume of the manure by composting. This allows farmers to either ship their compost farther for cheaper or take fewer trips to the field to apply the manure.

“If we take a hundred tons of bedded pack manure and compost it, we get two-thirds reduction in volume. We are reducing the size, which reduces compaction and fuel consumption,” said Andy.

During the growing season, farmers do not have land to spread manure on, so they stack manure on the edge of the field for easy access when the crop comes off. By composting before stacking, farmers are able to manage the water and nutrients so they are not lost before the farmer can apply them to his field. By monitoring the temperature, amount of CO2 production and the moisture of the compost pile, farmers are able to reduce amount of leachate.

“Composting allows us to manage the stack better. We can keep water and nutrients within the pile for the composting process, which is a win for water quality,” said Andy.

Manure composting adds time to a farmer’s daily routine.

With a farmer’s busy schedule, adding the additional daily steps to compost may be difficult. The main negative to composting is the additional responsibilities on the farmer.

However, there is an abundance of resources on manure composting available in the Yahara Watershed to help more farmers start composting.

“Composting doesn’t take a lot of labor. It doesn’t take a lot of time. It doesn’t take a lot of money,” affirmed Andy.

Andy is passionate about composting. He has witnessed benefits from manure composting on all three farms from composting raw manures down, less trips to the field and less fuel consumption.

“I personally love composting. I think it is a simple process that when done correctly can have a lot of benefits,” explained Andy.


To support on-field conservation practices like these, donate to the Conserve an Acre program today: https://cleanlakesalliance.org/product/conserve-an-acre/

Mikayla Simonson is a native Badger from Taylor, Wis. She studies Life Sciences Communication with a certificate in Business Management for Agricultural & Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and will be graduating in December 2016. As Clean Lakes Alliance’s Marketing and Design Intern, Mikayla will assist in day-to- day activities, compose Forward Farmer articles and helping to promote the work of Clean Lakes Alliance. In her free time, Mikayla enjoys hiking at various State Parks, kayaking and running.

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