Composting manure has many benefits, but graziers find it is a practical way of making use of the manure without burning pastures or discouraging grazing.
Barbara Salas owns and manages a 72-acre sheep grazing farm. She has 62 commercial crossbred ewes that produced 125 lambs this spring.
She uses rotational grazing to feed her sheep but also composts the manure produced by the sheep in her buildings during the winter months.
After composting, the manure is spread onto pastures to meet their current nutrient needs.
She became interested in the composting for several reasons.
First, as any livestock producer knows, mortalities occur, and Salas utilizes the composting manure pile to also compost the carcasses efficiently.
Composting is also a means of destroying pathogens in the manure so it can be spread on the pastures without the risk of spreading disease to the sheep grazing there.
Because composting creates heat, it kills weed seeds and pathogens and decomposes the material, allowing for a more even distribution when it is later spread.
Other graziers taking part in a recent pasture walk utilize the same method for the dealing with manure and animal mortalities.
Steve Guell raises beef and dairy heifers on pasture at his Waupun farm. A long-time grazier, he is always seeking ways to keep animals healthier by maintaining healthy pastures.
He composts the bedding packs used in winter for his animals. "Composting breaks down the material so it is easier to spread," he said.
"In the past when I put raw manure on the pastures," Guell added, "I found it burned the fields during the first two weeks. Also, the spurt of energy from the nitrogen in the manure resulted in excessive grass growth, and that crowded out the legumes."
When he spread composted manure on the pastures, the material was in a thinner layer, and he found he had fewer refusals when cattle grazed in the area. Conversely, with raw manure in clumps, cattle did not eat the surrounding grass.
The bedding packs on Guell's farm compost for a year before he spreads the pile. Salas, however, doesn't want the compost piles to be on her barn yard that long so she turns the pile and manages it so it will compost faster.
Guell uses canary grass to cover mortalities and lets the pile compost naturally. The canary grass is about 15 percent moisture, cut six inches long. He said it is important to have the layer of cover thick enough on composting animals.
"We had turkey vultures dig two or three feet into the pile to get at the buried calves," he said.
Salas uses plenty of bedding, hay and soybean straw to cover the pile. She created her compost pile on the concrete yard next to the barn, which makes it easier to manage using a skid steer loader to turn the pile. "Composting results in the material shrinking," she said. "After it is composted, the pile is about a third or half the size it was before. I hire someone to haul the manure on my farm and fewer loads saves on that cost."
Her biggest challenge in raising lambs on pasture has always been parasites, and composting is just one of the methods she uses to reduce the parasites on pasture. Composting raises the heat of the material to about 136 F and kills the parasite eggs.
"Worms make lambs anemic," she said. "I check my ewes by looking at their lower eye lid to determine if they have a parasite problem."
She also runs fecal samples as a group. The combination of the two methods help her monitor parasite issues.
"My sheep are now on a long rotation and graze high," Salas said. "The eggs of the parasites are going toward moisture, but the larvae will crawl up on the plants four to six inches. Grazing higher prevents the sheep from getting them."
Older ewes are somewhat resistant to parasites, but she worries about yearlings so she worms them to prevent problems.
Salas direct markets many of the lambs raised on her farm. She has been in business for quite a few years, but during the last two years, since she retired from her full-time job, she increased her pasture acreage. Her 61 ewes produced 125 lambs this year. By careful management, she has almost a 100 percent survival rate in her flock. Of the lambs born this year, five were bottle-fed lambs. and she sold them immediately.