Composting Using Your Tractor and Implements
By Tim Nephew
Sponsored by Kubota
One of the benefits of owning rural property or a small farm is the ability to raise your own livestock or horses. Even small properties with ten or less acres can usually find enough room to keep some livestock and still provide a barn or stable for shelter.
Most people who decide to add livestock to their rural property have probably factored in that ready access to feed and water is imperative and a big cost of ownership. What is sometimes overlooked is what to do with the byproduct of all that hay and feed such as manure and bedding.
If you consider that a beef cow weighing 750 pounds produces an average of 45 pounds of manure a day, there is a lot of waste you will have to manage. Horse owners are no better off in the waste management arena. According to Rutgers University Extension Services, a single horse can produce 50 pounds of manure per day which equates to 9 tons annually. The Rutgers Extension Services goes on to say that the manure and bedding produced by one horse in one year can exceed 25 cubic yards. To put it in perspective, that amount of bedding and manure would require a storage area of about 12 feet by 12 feet with an accumulated depth of 3 to 5 feet.
The amount of manure and bedding that needs to be processed should not discourage you from adding some livestock to your rural acreage, but it does necessitate the need for a plan on how to best store and manage the waste. While larger farms have fields on which to spread manure and bedding during the year, smaller acreages – in most cases – don’t have the same luxury. Composting manure and bedding is a method that can be utilized by both small land owners and even larger farming operations to not only manage manure but produce a beneficial end product.
What is Composting?
You may be familiar with backyard composting which involves piling lawn clippings, table scraps, leaves and other organic materials into a small enclosure, composting bin or barrel. The compost is then turned several times a year with a pitch fork or by rotating the barrel. Over the course of a year, microorganisms in the compost pile break down the organic material into a great soil amendment that can be added to your vegetable or flower garden. In the case of rural land owners with livestock, the biological process of compost is the same but is done on a larger scale utilizing a tractor or skidsteer and sometimes different implements.
Composting on the Farm
Composting waste material on the farm takes advantage of the same biological process used in backyards but involves a lot more material which requires equipment to remove and prepare the compost piles. A compact tractor equipped with a loader makes an excellent composting tool and also has the benefit of being able to attach implements that will help “work” the compost from the raw phase to finished soil amendment.
An area should be selected to create your compost piles that allows for easy access with your equipment and has good drainage with a slight slope. You should never locate a compost pile near a well, stream or other wetland that could be contaminated by run off.
The process of composting begins with cleaning of the stalls or barn by removing manure and bedding from the enclosures. This can be done by using the loader on your tractor or a black blade attached to your tractor’s three point hitch. When the material has been cleaned out, the waste should be moved to the location you’ve chosen for your compost pile. The compost should then be moved into windrows using a rear blade. The number of windrows is really dictated by how much waste you will be composting but the height should be kept under five feet tall.
The process of turning waste into Compost
When your compost pile is initially set up, it is soon visited by helpful things such as earthworms and nematodes and insects like ants and beetles which start breaking down the compost into smaller pieces. Once the compost is initially broken down, soil bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms start the chemical process in the pile that continues to breakdown the compost.
After being piled for just a few days, the compost enters what is called the “active phase.” In the active phase, the compost pile heats up very quickly to temperatures that range from 130 – 150 degrees Fahrenheit. When temperatures reach these heights in the pile, it will kill weed seeds and nasty pathogens like e-coli, staphylococcus and clostridium. The active phase of composting may continue for several weeks, but the pile should be turned over a few times with your tractor and loader to allow oxygen to enter the pile. It is also important to make sure that the pile has ample moisture. This can be manually added but is often accomplished naturally by rain. Compost should be moist but not too damp.
When the temperatures in the compost pile drop to around 100 degrees, the compost is entering the “curing phase” of the process. It is in the curing phase where organic materials continue to decompose and are converted into the stable soil amendments. In the curing phase you no longer need to turn the compost pile. Depending on weather conditions and how often you turn the pile, it may take from three months to six months to cure your compost. The compost should be dark brown, crumbly and have a good “earth” smell to it when it is finished.
There are many helpful sites available online to guide you through the composting process on your rural acreage or farm. The Natural Resources Conservation Service, (NRCS), nrcs.usda.gov, has listed some great information regarding the benefits of compost and how to get started. Here are a few highlights:
• Composting reduces odor and fly problems
• Composting reduces the volume of manure and finished compost is easier to transport and spread than manure
• Fertilizer nutrients in compost are released more slowly than raw manure
• Composting is well suited for manure that contains bedding material from horses, goats, dairy or beef cows as well as poultry.
• To really work, the compost pile has to be turned over and mixed several times so outside parts get into the middle to be heated and to provide air.
• Depending on how much you mix and turn the pile, it may take three to six months for manure to turn into compost
• Heating to 145 degrees for at least three days will kill most weed seeds
• After the last turning let the compost age for a few months to be sure all the fertilizer nutrients are stabilized and seeds have been killed