Farmer discovering "energizing effect" of compost on his soil

Jan Shepel

WAUNAKEE - After four years of experimenting with composting on his dairy farm near Waunakee, Jeff Endres believes “there’s a lot of upside to composting that we don’t know about yet.”

He told a large tour of attendees from the North American Manure Expo in nearby Arlington that the fertilizer value and bedding potential of compost are already apparent on his family’s Endres Berryridge Farm, operated with brothers Randy and Steve, but he is still learning about the energizing effect compost has on the soil.

One hint of that aspect of compost use is that his alfalfa acres that have been fertilized with compost for two years have out-yielded all other alfalfa fields. “It’s enough to notice,” he said. “That told me this isn’t hurting me. There’s something to it.”

He also noted that one problem they had before utilizing compost in their system is that steep alfalfa fields could not be fertilized with liquid manure and as such started to decline in fertility. Once they had the environmentally friendly, stable compost, they could feed those fields with it. They also found that applying compost to a growing crop didn’t harm the plants.

“There are not a lot of barriers to composting,” he said. “No farmer is going to go into it as crazy as we did, but I got sick of digging holes in the ground to store manure. For us, this was a way to utilize the nutrients we already have in our farm system.

“I don’t think farmers should ever have to give nutrients away,” he said.

Two busloads of visitors from Manure Expo joined another busload of guests from the Madison Clean Lakes Alliance to visit the Endres farm on Tuesday (Aug. 22) and they asked some pointed questions of the compost experimenter.

He told them that he could probably build and use a liquid manure system more cheaply than operating his compost system. Just over a year ago the Endres family incorporated a large compost barn into a new set of buildings where they raise their dairy herd replacements.

Two identically sized barns (65 by 220 feet) house the farm’s heifer calves from four months to 13 months of age. Both barns feature tunnel ventilation and additional cooling fans which aid fly control; the air moving at 5 miles per hour keeps flies away. “The compost process, with the heat that is generated, is also very friendly to fly control,” he adds.

To kill pathogens and weed seeds, compost is generally kept at a desired temperature of 130 degrees and the Endres compost is regularly over 140 degrees.

In their new barns, Endres said they are “trying to create an environment as if the heifers were under a shade tree but in a controlled environment. The air in here is as fresh as it can possibly be.”

The younger calves in the first barn are in groups on bedded packs with a base of corn fodder. They are fed hay free choice and grain twice a day and bedded once a week with fodder. In the second barn, the older heifers are given freestalls that are bedded with corn fodder and sand.

Three busloads of visitors toured a large open-sided barn near Waunakee that was designed to house a composting operation. Keeping rain off the large windrows of compost allows them to be managed more intensively. The floor of the building is three feet of clay to prevent leaching.

The drier manure from the first barn is mixed with the wetter manure from the older animals. The mix is then composted in a third barn built alongside the others.

That process involves scooping the two manure streams and mixing them in a manure spreader and then discharging that into windrows in the compost barn.

Endres said one of the challenges for dairy farmers is how to recycle nutrients on the fields without causing environmental problems. “We are always looking for new ideas as well as ideas that are proven.”

With that in mind, he began composting on a small scale four years ago with manure from 30 to 40 head of animals as he learned various techniques and began experimenting.

Andrew Skwor of engineering firm MSA in Baraboo, consulted with Endres on the compost project. He said there are lots of ways to do it on the farm. “You can start by just making a windrow outside.”

That’s how Jeff Endres got started with his small-scale experiment. Then he decided to make a quantum leap, engineering a shed as large as his heifer barns to use for making compost. Skwor helped with the design to make sure it met state regulations for environmental protection -- NR 502 is the state rule for composting.

By building to meet those requirements, Endres would also be allowed to take yard waste and food scraps if he ever wanted to, Skwor explained. The engineering standards, which are also designed to ensure the killing of pathogens, would also allow Endres to sell compost if that were a direction he wanted to go.

The floor of the compost barn is built with three feet of clay, which minimizes the permeability and protects against leaching. Material going into the open-sided compost barn is about 65-70 percent moisture. When it comes out it’s about 35-40 percent moisture.

There’s also a “huge amount of shrink,” Endres said, which results in concentration of the nutrients. This means fewer trips to the fields with material that is ready to feed plants immediately.

Jason Fuller, a compost consultant who also works with Endres on his process, said the technology is transferable to large farms and small ones. He works with dairy operations that have herd sizes from 20 cows to 1,000 cows. He monitors the temperature in the windrows and turns the material with a large, tractor-drawn compost turner.

A large tractor-drawn compost turner makes quick work of rotating a pile of dairy heifer manure and bedding on Endres Berryridge Farm, during a farm tour that was part of the North American Manure Expo this week. The Endres farm went into composting in a big way a year ago.

“Dairy manure is one of the easiest things to compost,” Fuller said.

After testing his material, Endres finds that a ton of compost yields an average of 9 pounds of nitrogen, 15 pounds of phosphorus and 25-30 pounds of potassium. All of the finished compost is used on the Endres’ farmland, although they do use some of it as bedding, after mixing it with sawdust. In its turn, that material also goes back into the compost stream.

What he likes about compost as a fertilizer, Endres said, is that he can fertilize the fields at the best time for the crop and the soils. He can avoid spreading manure in the winter or when soils are wet. If he has to stockpile the compost he can safely do that too.

He finds that one of the best uses for the material is on alfalfa fields where he’s applying it at 5 tons to the acre.

The compost operation inside the new building – it was finished about a year ago – involves extra steps and comes with a cost. “This facility is costing us more to run than a liquid facility,” he said. “But we’ve got enough faith in this process we’ll see our way through it. We are gaining efficiency and we’ll get there."