Keep the Compost Cooking this Winter

Manure and bedding collects rapidly on most livestock farms, especially in the winter. Instead of pitching the waste out the back of the barn, consider turning the materials into a valuable, usable product. Compost. If an active compost pile is started now, by spring you may be pleasantly surprised with compost that may be incorporated into the vegetable garden or flower bed, applied to pastures or used as mulch.

Composting manure and bedding properly will reduce viable weed seeds and pathogens and create a product that handles more easily and smells much better. Not to mention, the amount of material may be reduced by 50%.

The first step is selecting a location for composting that is away from surface water and wells. Preferably, a place that has a concrete, gravel or compacted soil pad. The location should also be close to the barn for convenience.

Compost piles must be covered in the winter, to exclude excess rain or snow. Ideal moisture content for composting materials is approximately 50 to 60%. The compost should feel like a wrung out sponge. A cover will also help insulate the pile by excluding cold air. If the composting materials get too dry, add some water using a garden hose. A tarp is an easy and inexpensive way to cover the pile.

The size of the compost pile is a factor for success, especially in the winter. A pile needs to have at least 1 cubic yard of material. Larger piles help insulate themselves, as the inside of the pile will be creating heat. As microorganisms decompose manure and bedding, their body heat causes the temperature in the pile to increase. A hot pile will compost much faster than a cold pile. If possible, invest in a composting thermometer. The ideal temperature range for effective composting is 130 to 150 degrees F. At higher elevations or in areas with cold prevailing winds, straw or hay bales placed around the pile will help insulate and protect the compost.

Microorganisms need oxygen to properly decompose materials. Turning or mixing the pile should occur when the internal temperature begins to decrease. Perforated PVC pipes inserted into the piles may also help with air circulation, especially if actively turning the piles isn't an option.

Keeping the carbon to nitrogen ratio (30:1 is best) of composting materials is always important, no matter the time of year. Nitrogen is a nutrient that will be supplied by the manure and urine and carbon is the main element in bedding materials. Using urine soaked bedding, along with manure should compost fairly well. If too much bedding is added to the pile, the composting process will slow down, due to excess carbon resources. Only remove soiled bedding when cleaning the barn.

Composting in the winter is a slower process than when the air temperature is warmer, but it's definitely possible!

Tarp Covered Compost Bins Photo by Garry Stephenson