Composting on Michigan Farms (E2715)
How to successfully compost on Michigan farms.
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Facing Challenges by Composting
Michigan livestock producers are facing new challenges that may be more easily handled by on-farm composting of their animal manure
In the last decade, non-farm people have moved away from urban centers and into the countryside. That has brought them into closer contact with farming operations. They are sometimes shocked at the scale and sometimes the odors associated with some modern livestock operations. This has led to lawsuits and protests taken to local governments seeking redress or restriction of farmer activities.
While Michigan does have a Right To Farm Law that protects farmers from “nuisance” lawsuits if they are following good management practices, most farmers would undoubtedly prefer a less confrontational relationship with their new neighbors. While not completely odor-free, composting does not generate the same kind of manure odors, preventing or eliminating the noxious ones associated with manure collected and stored in pits or lagoons under anaerobic conditions.
Under Michigan law, livestock farms have to operate with no runoff of manure-contaminated water from their premises. While liquid manure handling systems can be managed in ways that satisfy the rules, they are inherently riskier systems, and many farmers will undoubtedly want to avoid those risks. Composting fits easily into manure handling systems that generate manure with low levels of added water.
Many farms, especially the larger ones, may be required to have comprehensive nutrient management plans. These plans must address how farmers intend to apply manure at rates that do not exceed the soil’s capacity to absorb manure nutrients, especially phosphorus, or the capacity of crops to remove them. This means hauling manure further, and that is more easily done with compost.
On some larger farms that buy significant amounts of feed, the land base may not be large enough to properly use all the manure the farm’s animals generate. These farms may need to change manure into a form that can be sold or brokered to crop farmers or conveniently hauled greater distances. Composting addresses these problems.
Composting reduces the volume of manure. It creates a product that can be more easily hauled and thus more easily applied to distant fields. It is drier than manure and doesn’t slop on roadways or require the large equipment it takes to haul heavy, wet material.
Compost is stable and stores well. It can be applied at the best time of the year for crop production. It can eliminate the problem of having to dispose of manure during periods of heavy rain or snow that could produce manure runoff or nutrient leaching. Because it is non-burning to crops and its texture does not interfere with plant growth, compost can be topdressed on alfalfa fields between cuttings without stressing the plants or contaminating the next hay cutting. Compost fits like a glove on dairy farms where land is rolling and alfalfa is the preferred forage.
One of the most exciting aspects of composted manure is the growing realization that compost can play a larger role in crop production. Many farmers appreciate the benefits of organic matter on soil quality and value manure for that reason.
Compost provides a biologically degraded form of organic matter high in humus. Compost acts as a slow-release, non-burning fertilizer. It is biologically active and stimulates plant growth to a greater degree than its nutrient and organic matter content alone would explain.
Research at Michigan State University has demonstrated that use of compost can alter the balance of soil nematode populations, suppressing plant parasitic species like root lesion nematodes and enhancing predator species. Instead of feeding on plant roots and adversely affecting crops, predator nematodes feed on other nematodes and their eggs and on disease-causing bacteria and fungi. MSU scientists Richard Harwood and George Bird say that compost will play a leading role in the next step of crop yield enhancement, reducing the need for synthetic pesticides and increasing yields at the same time.
There are some drawbacks to on-farm composting. It is a manure management system, and it requires time and investment. It takes space within the farmstead. It must be properly sited for material flow and water flow and also to keep peace with neighbors. While overall it produces fewer and less offensive odors than daily haul or pit storage, it is not odor-free. Snow and rain can also interfere with compsting and building compost piles or windrows.
Composted manure contains less nitrogen than fresh manure. Nitrogen is lost in the composting process. (But remember that nitrogen is quickly lost to the atmosphere in most manure handling systems unless manure is hauled daily and immediately incorporated into the soil.)
Composting changes the availability of the nutrients in manure. Nitrogen is converted to complex organic forms that must be broken down (mineralized) in the soil to become available to plants.
Typically, only about 5-15 percent of the nitrogen in compost is available to plants in the first year after application, less than manure that has not been composted. This stability has benefits, for it meters nitrogen out to plants during the growing season and reduces the risk of nitrate loss into groundwater.
Summed up, composting is a different management system that can tame manure – subdue its odors, reduce its bulk, enhance its storability, make its application conform to crop production systems, provide bonus benefits in weed and disease control and enhance yield. But these benefits are not free. It takes time, labor, knowledge, and some investment to release benefits on Michigan farms.