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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
EDIT: clearly I should have titled this 'weed free' compost - oops!

We deep bed the animal pens over the winter - the sheep pen is maybe 2.5' high in hay/corn fodder/manure at this point. Nice and soft and cushy and oh so voluminous once spring comes and we haul it out. Then there's the goat pen, the rabbit cages, and all the chicken/poultry areas.

Last year we built 2 large areas for composting - each maybe 10' x 10''. Framed in on 3 sides, wide enough to use the front scoop (is that the right word?) on the tractor to turn the pile. By July one of the piles was easily 10' high and 18' deep.

So - mostly brown vegetable matter (hay/corn fodder) and manure + rain.

It got warm - but hot? I don't know. Warm enough to steam in the mornings when it was cooler out.

What would you advise as how to improve the composting efforts and kill more weed seeds? It needs to be doable - no way we can hand turn that volume. I'm sure the sheer weight of that huge pile meant no air at the bottom (though it didn't have the tell-tale anaerobic stench when we moved it out).

We're dreaming about doing 'weedless' gardening (Lee Riech) but without weedless compost, no use trying. The volume of compost produced last year was sufficient to put a 3-4" layer over our vegie garden last fall - we tilled it in. Would like to improve composting this year and move to weedless gardening next spring.

thanks
Cathy
 

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Do the chickens have access to the sheep pen, etc? I'm finding that my chickens are great about eating the seeds that is left behind in bedding. Would it be possible to let the chickens have access to the garden after you lay the compost down (in very early spring)? They would probably do a pretty good job of turning the compost and eating alot of the weed seeds.

I've been reading about foraging pigs to prepare gardens. People are fencing pigs into their gardens over winter/very early spring and these people are reporting that the pigs are amazing at eating all of the weeds- seeds, roots, plants. Supposedly you don't even have to till the gardens after the pigs have been in it- they do it for you. I haven't gotten my pigs yet so I can't vouch for this.
 

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Discussion Starter · #3 ·
the fowl (chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese) are everywhere, all the time. (except the garden once planted - that is effectively fenced off). But chickens cannot turn a 10' high x 18' deep mountain of manure! They can peck at the top - that's about it.

The chickens WILL be able to forage in the garden for at least a few snow free weeks before planting happens. And I am sure they'll help the seed/weed issue.

But back to the compost - how to get that mountain to productively cook?
 

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There are many sites available for thermophilic composting, but here are some basics.

1) Shoot for a 30:1 carbon to nitrogen ratio. That usually is of little help, unless you have access to a science lab. I find 3:1 cow manure to straw or dried chopped leaves, 2:1 horse manure to straw or leaves. Too much carbon and the bacteria has to wait for other bacteria to die to get their nitrogen before they can grow, so composting is slow. Too much nitrogen and ammonia is off-gassed. The compost pile should never "stink", but should smell very "earthy". Be careful if using only leaves, as they tend to clump. I like at least 2/3 straw due to its coarseness.

2) Moisture level is extremely important, too dry and nothing happens, too wet and it rots. They combined pile should be very damp, but not dripping. If your climate is wet, make the pile come to a peak at the top, so rain will largely run off, if dry, form a rainwater trough in the top of the pyramid shaped pile. If it is really dry and windy, you can cover with plastic, but this should be a last resort option, as you will prevent the pile from "breathing"

3) From your description, I believe you are having problems with aeration. The thermophilic bacteria used in hot composting are aerobic, they need oxygen and give off carbon dioxide. Most sources recommend three foot width and height in long rows for large amounts of compost. I find five foot at the base, tapering up in a pyramid fashion to 2 feet at the top to be fine. Height should be dictated by the weight of the mix. If it contains a large amount of straw, you can get away with 6 feet or more. If it is dense, don't go above 3 feet. Basically, you want to avoid compaction from too much height. Large piles like you describe only work if artificially aerated or turned daily. Incorporating drainage tile along the bottom and every three feet vertically throughout the pile may help, but I have no experience with this.

4) A properly constructed pile will get hot (over 150F) in the middle, no matter how cold it is outside.

I live in Texas, where I am blessed with many warm days during the winter to do outside work. I usually gather materials for hot composting for a few months in late fall, and construct my piles before January. Because I don't pre-chop bedding straw, it takes about 2 weeks to break down to the point where I can easily turn the pile with a shovel. I then turn it once a week, about three or four times, until I find that it doesn't heat as much anymore (only gets up to 100F or so). Then I turn it every other week until use, or until turning no longer produces a heat rise in the middle. I use no-till raised beds by placing three or four inches of compost on top of the bed and covering with three inches of straw or coarsely chopped leaves. Over the growing season the straw breaks down and worms work the compost and straw into the soil. My worm population has exploded since I stopped tilling.

Hot composting will kill all weed seeds and pathogens, and heavy mulching will prevent emergence of new weeds and will moderate temperature and moisture levels, as well as making your worms happy. Happy worms means happy gardener.
 

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Another thing I forgot to mention: vermicomposting

I have experimented in small scale with red worms, but without constructing a shelter for them, it just gets too hot and too wet at different times during the year for me to keep them. I have to keep mine inside and feed them kitchen scraps and donkey manure (large, easy to handle pellets that don't stink).It sounds like your situation may be different. If you start out with red worms, I would suggest buying as large of an amount as you can if you are dealing with a lot of animal manure. I have found it takes about a month for the population to double, so a couple pounds of worms would take a couple years to build up a large enough population for a large amount of manure.

Vermicompost is awesome though. I use it for container planting as it is too precious to waste where my earthworms can be put to work. The red worms don't eat soil like earthworms, they consume the microbial life that breaks down the organic matter and package it into perfect compost.

If you routinely deworm your livestock, vermicomposting may require ageing of the manure prior to adding to the worm beds.
 

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Discussion Starter · #6 ·
I agree that there is lots of info out there about composting - but everything I've seen is scaled to a home gardener. How to compost a small box or two sort of thing - not how to deal with small farm output. We're probably micro-farm output level but no way it's going to fit into a 'compost box.'

I like your suggestion to make a row. Scratching head as to where to put it.... but I think a row might help it 'cook'. I, too, think the main issue is lack of aeration.

As to the 'proper mix' - well, the proportions are enough dry bedding to manure/urine to keep the animals dry. Very scientific!
 

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If your compost heap doesn't get hot enough, you're probably lacking enough nitrogen. Use more manure or find some other green matter. Also, corn fodder isn't the best stuff to be working with unless it's been really chewed up into small bits. The hard outer shell of the stalks can only be attacked from the inside so it takes awhile to break down and ties up a lot of nitrogen in the process.

BUT, considering the size of your piles, you quite possibly did reach seed-killing conditions without realizing it. The active core of those piles was probably pushing 170ºF. Every seed there was killed for certain. Anything near that area or above it was also killed due to the steam passing through. Only the outer edges could still have some viable seeds from the hay.

Martin
 

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most of our compost gets put up in windrows 6 ft wide 5 tall and however long it gets! turned with the tractor loader or skidsteer once a month we have had little in the way of problems with the compost working but one of our farmers is going to a large compost tumbler!
http://www.xactsystemscomposting.com/
after last years rain every second day we are looking at using "retired" greenhouse plastic to cover the windrows if we get more of the same this year but in a normal year often have to look at watering the piles!
you can check the temp with a compost thermometer http://www.leevalley.com/garden/page.aspx?c=1&p=51145&cat=2,33140&ap=1
 

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that was very helpful to read, thank you. And the size of that enormous drum composter from the first link - wow!
If you are impressed with drum composters, see two of them in operation if you ever get up to Portage. They can hold 500 tons combined and produce 80 tons of compost per day. Columbia County was one of the first in this state to have mandatory recycling on everything and it's quite an efficient operation.

Martin
 
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