Small Farm Composting
I want to start by saying that I am not an expert at composting. We have enough animals that we having a meaningful amount of manure and soiled bedding to compost differently than in a backyard garden. When we had a garden compost pile, I had a ring made of fencing material and I would toss retired garden plants into the ring. The idea was to turn it every month or two, and by spring it would be ready to incorporate into the garden. Rabbit and other vegetarian pet waste could go in it, but no cat or dog waste, and no meat or dairy products. I've also seen containers that you load and turn, which look nice, but the volume it processes is not a good fit for a small farm or homestead with livestock ... unless you have a couple dozen of them, I suppose, and lots of time to tend them.
I've also found information about large-scale composting such as at feedlots and high-density dairies. I think a small farm or homestead is probably closer to those in that I don't want to do it all by hand, but it's still not the same. Composting doesn't have to be that complex. (You can look into the carbon-nitrogen ratio, but it has seemed fairly good for me so far.) Properly composted livestock waste kills pathogenic microbes, some seeds (but not all), and promotes the growth of soil-building microorganisms. We currently use a tractor, but with the fencing of our "official" farmyard, we will also use hogs.
A Note About Raw Manure
It is usually not a good idea to apply raw manure (not composted) to plants. You can till in raw manure into a future planting site if there is time for it to compost in the ground. The US federal government's Food Safety Modernization Act does not allow raw manure to be applied to plants where food is harvested within 120 days of raw manure application if harvested plants contact the ground (such as root vegs or melons sitting on the ground) or 90 days if the harvested food is off the ground (tree fruit harvest from trees or staked tomatoes that don't touch the ground). These times seem rather short to me. I regard these as minimums, not goals.
We age our compost for six months or longer - usually longer. This allows for really good break-down and die-off of pathogenic microbes that are normally found in animal manure. If you use hogs for composting, their manure definitely needs to be composted or remembered in this equation. Hogs usually choose a toileting spot making it easy to isolate their manure from the compost. I had a pathetic crop of potatoes I let hogs clean up once and they choose a nearby corner for their toilet. Over six months later, I tilled the garden and manure and planted potatoes. About a year after the hogs, we harvested the BEST potato harvest we had ever had. Thank you hogs.
Raw manure can carry many different types of pathogenic (disease-causing) microbes. Composting gives them time to die and beneficial competitors to take over. Also be aware of wild animals bringing in diseases and leaving them as manure in the areas you grow. This can include birds, rabbits, raccoons, deer, elk, etc., and includes microbes, parasites, and diseases (such as Brucellosis). Fully composting waste helps with this - and is not likely to burn the roots of your plants!
Composting with a Tractor
I move the waste from the livestock yard to where I compost and form it in a row 8-10 feet wide and about 6 feet tall. It will shrink about 40% by the end. The first time it may be a bit roughly formed and lumpy - try to break it up as you go, removing stray baling twine or branches that won't break down. While I form up the rows, I evaluate the moisture level. It should be damp but not wet. It is usually good, but in the heat of a dry summer, it may need to be watered a little.
The pile should heat up. You can get compost thermometers that measure the internal temperature. It should not exceed 160 F because at that point it hurts beneficial microbes instead of helping them. If it is over-heating, turn the pile or spread it out a little. If it is going along well, turn it in about two weeks (10-14 days) ... if you're on top of things. I try to turn it monthly in the summer. I end up turning very infrequently in the winter because it is colder and muddy when it starts to warm up ... muddy enough to make the tractor slide instead of effectively pushing the pile to turn it over. I also cover the composting row with loose plastic in the winter because the snowmelt oversaturates it otherwise. Winter is also not a good time to apply compost because I cannot work it into the soil well and it will erode, not to mention the clay is often too soft to drive on and too clumpy to till.
I use a small utility tractor with a bucket to turn it because turning it by hand is too much work and misery. Perhaps if the apocalypse comes and I have hordes of people wanting to be my serfs and work for food ... but that's not going to happen, thank heaven! It is usually clumpiest and stinkiest at first, but becomes finer and less smelly with time. If you have ponds, such as wastewater lagoons, consider growing water lettuce or other plants on them in the summer. When you turn your windrows, take out about 75% of the pond plants. It adds nutrients to the compost and gives the plants more space to continue growing and filtering the lagoon water. This works for us where we're not in a rush for compost, but take our time to make sure it's well aged.
After five or six turns, the pile should be ready to apply to gardens or orchards. That works out to 10-24 weeks depending on how well you tend it and how warm it is. Winter is usually the longer, and summer the shorter. Don't apply compost on snow, so waiting the longer time is usually fine.
Composting with Hogs
Composting with hogs will be our initial way of composting cattle manure after we get the barnyard enclosed this summer (about 5 acres). We don't presently plan to use it for sheep and goat manure composting. For our cattle, we're building two feeding paddocks where we put out hay for them to eat one paddock at a time. They like to loaf around this area and they have a tendency to create a poop wall as their rears all line up at about the same distance from where they eat. This wall can trap liquid waste around the food. I have tried to manage this by moving it with a tractor and creating a midden (AKA dunghill, mountain of poop). However, this is challenging when the ground is soggy, which lasts three or four months here. Also, moving it out still leaves a mushy muddy mess around the high-traffic area.
Instead of cleaning away manure, another option is to use deep bedding. I do this for all of the livestock. As the bedding gets soiled, I add fresh clean bedding on top. Once there is a layer or two of bedding, it actually generates heat (like a compost pile) which I believe the animals like for lounging on in cool weather. It also stops or reduces their sharp hooves from mixing up a deep muddy mess, but creates a sort of mat they can walk on. To use hogs to compost, we'll use this deep bedding strategy, but with an added step we plan ahead for.
Once the area is ready to have new straw spread out, distribute whole kernel corn over the area, then cover with straw. Yes, the corn is buried in the gross heap of bedding where it will ferment. These are delicious hog treats - like buried treasure! When the season of confinement is over and the pastures are ready for the cattle, I'll switch to using the other feeding paddock where there isn't an accumulation of bedding and animal waste. I close off the used paddock with fences ready for this and move in a couple of portable hog shelters along with their occupants. The hogs then work their way through the entire heap of manure mixing it as they dig for buried treasure.
The hogs live in there for months, as needed, to give it all a good mixing. It's nice because soiled cow manure has a tendency to be clumpy and this gives it a good initial mixing. If there is a way to get the animals to happily do the work for us, I'm all over that. Once the hogs have finished turning the compost, they can continue living in there or be moved to other pens (or a garden patch for fall cleanup). Hogs will have selected a toilet area, usually somewhat close to where their water is located, so we incorporate their manure into the mixed compost. I then use the tractor to remove the compost and clean it all out for when the other paddock is full and we're ready to rotate again.
I do further compost the hog-compost mixture, adding sheep, goat, and poultry waste along with pond plants. If wanting to use it right away, don't mix in the hog manure but compost it separately. Also, hogs out of this paddock are probably far more delicious than supermarket hog, but I like to finish mine off out of the compost pen. I prefer finishing them with garden clean-up with lots of orchard scraps (cores), if available. It's probably not necessary, but my own personal preference.
For a new garden area, the first time I compost is different. I start by rototilling up the area I am going to compost. Then I spread out about 8-10 inches of compost and till it again so it's mixed in. In subsequent compost applications, I simply spread it on the top - no more tilling. I don't want to form a hard pan in the clay under the garden bed, and it also helps me build up raised beds, both of which are important considerations in our heavy clay soils. It also is less disruptive to our soil environment - no chopped up earthworms or turning deeper microbes up shallower. The first time I do it because we need the organic material mixed in a little. Consider your own soil types.
With the orchard, I don't till. I don't want to damage the trees' feeder roots near the surface. I just apply compost to the surface out to the trees' dripline or where I think they will grow when the trees are young. They do get light exposure to raw manure because I let lambs and poultry pasture in there, but I have it sectioned off so I rest the pasture the needed time before harvesting. (My goal rest period is six months.)
Repeated application of compost boosts your soil health, makes for happy healthy plants, and helps build beautiful well-draining raised garden beds. It is our black gold on our farm - we happily keep and use everything we produce.
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Wife to Brandon, mother to Tess and Liam, farmer, entrepreneur, cook & baker, nurse, and accountant who loves to try new things, travel, and work toward greater self-reliance.