Compost Happens: The wonder of living soil…

I moved around a bit in our first installment talking about how we have ventured down the rabbit hole of quick and cheap and easy when it comes to our food supply. We talked about the bad decisions living under heat lamps in this country and how it is the demand that is truly driving what has become the farming norm in America.  I will always point out that you cannot blame the farmer. Consumers cast a vote everyday when they open their wallets at the grocery store, or McDonald’s, and ultimately the farmer provides what is asked for regardless of how uneducated the vote was.  What we want to be here at The Savvy Savage is a zone of open discussion about why we should and how we can change our direction as a country and how vital even the smallest efforts are when it comes to promoting nutritional integrity and sustainability in agriculture and ultimately our food supply.

In promoting our small farm and selling our products we run into a lot of people with a good deal of information regarding the nutritional benefits of organic, small farm produce. Specifically with our grass fed beef, many have knowledge of the higher levels of omega-3’s; 5x higher.  They have read the facts including that the levels of Vitamin A in grass fed beef are 7x higher than that of grain fed beef, Vitamin E levels are 2.5x higher, conjugated linoleic acid levels are twice what is found in grain fed beef…  We even freely understand that pasture diets in cattle also create higher levels of antioxidants which help slow the aggression of free radicals which prevent lipid oxidation. (Nutrition Journal 2010; 9:10.)

Studies published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine have shown that grain fed animals are 55.5x more likely to develop liver abscesses (WTF?!?). Grass fed beef is higher in the percentage of polyunsaturated fats.....

Nutritional differences seem to live front and center in the discussion.  Countless documentaries have shed light on some of the sad processes of the industry as well.  People know about prophylactic antibiotic use and what we as a country have really subsidized; anyone ever hear of pink slime?   Nutritional aspects of the industry are pretty obvious these days and are certainly part of the reason we farm the way we do, but honestly there are many more reasons.  One of the great attributes of grass fed animal farming, especially on a small scale where runoff can be more easily mitigated, is water quality.  One integral part in our approach to sustainability and water protection is our compost system for bedding and manure.  When paired with the venture of grassland farming, small scale composting operations can really put the clamps on what gets away into rivers, streams and aquifers. 

The biggest difference between small, sustainable operations and larger feedlot and dairies is the composition of the waste.  Maybe you've heard of the common pits used for storage of waste which speaks to the make up. If you store something in a pit, lagoon, or pool it's a good bet that that something is liquid.  Liquid manure is about as pleasant as it sounds, slop, concentrated.  While relatively contained in these lagoons it's before and after the lagoon where it is especially vulnerable to runoff.  On the flip side, a pastured animal’s manure is allowed to decay and be contained by proper grass management while picked over by birds and worms and bugs.  In the winter months, especially in cases where sheds and bedding are used it is basically locked in along with the grass, hay, and straw.  This binding not only allows for a much more efficient breakdown of material, it does not allow for unencumbered runoff.  In life, just like death and taxes, shit happens; it’s an inevitability, but your shit doesn't have to happen to your friends and neighbors on down the stream.

Whether the combined material is spread on hayfields or finished and used as garden amendment, the composition of it is more stable and when paired with acceptable timing of application is much less conducive to excessive runoff.  This is where major trouble lies with confined animal feeding operations.  The sheer amount of waste not only leaves the animal to trudge through and lay in their waste contributing to the need for prophylactic medication, these operations produce such quantities that manure is often spread year round on top of snow cover and upon slopes so that even the dullest layperson can see the imminent runoff into the watershed.  These operations claim efficiency, but I'd like to see some work shown accounting for the trucking of manure, medication programs, and landscape degradation. 

So spreading compost instead of slurry is a much better way to deal with animal waste, even unfinished compost which actually has more nutritional benefits for plants than finished compost, is far more watershed friendly.  Compost however, goes beyond nutrition and contributes immediately to a functional living soil.  Compost application will increase the moisture holding capacity of sandy soils and increase drainage and aeration of heavy clay soils.  These applications also help to hold and release essential nutrients while promoting earthworms and soil microorganisms so beneficial to plant growth.  Studies have also shown that compost applications lead to improved seed emergence and water infiltration due to reduction in soil crusting.  Basically such amendment practices help to promote actual living soil which stands at a premium in this day and age when so many acres are teetering on the verge of overuse.  The living structure of good soil creates an environment where nutritional inputs are used freely and efficiently.

A good composting set up is quite simple.  Manure is collected from feeding and bedding areas along with the bedding and what isn't eaten by the animals, which is typically the stemmy parts of grasses and occasional weeds within hay bales.  This is all then piled in a location suitable to avoid washout and runoff.  The compost is turned and separated into piles according to where it is in the process.  We generally keep three or four separate piles here at the farm in different stages of decomposition.  There is a pile of fresh manure, one or two piles that are in the process, and another that is finished.  Finished compost has no resemblance in the size, smell, or appearance of the pile in the first stage.  While most seeds from the hay and straw incorporated into these piles are destroyed by the heat produced during the process, there are always some remaining and others brought in by passing birds and wind.  To combat these unwanted seeds we lay out the finished compost and cover it to promote germination.  We then pull some of the weeds and turn over the compost and repeat the process until germination stops, only then do we have a truly finished product ready for lawn and garden use.

Hopefully I've shed a little light on farm applications of living soil, but how can somebody incorporate such a product into there own lawn or garden?  Amendments will help improve even well nourished soil.  As previously mentioned, actual compost does more than feed, it adds structure.  So for your garden or lawn, even applications can do wonders for enriching your soil system.  In raised beds a commonly prescribed fill mix is 1/3 standard soil, 1/3 sand, and 1/3 compost of any kind.  Growing potatoes and carrots in such a mix will change the way you garden!  Compost tea has also become a popular way to enhance plant growth and breathe real life into soils.  In simple terms the tea approach is a life multiplier, creating microbes many of which are predator microbes that will combat potential disease.  You can read more here: 

You can also visit the farm store to purchase 20 dry quart bags of our finished compost and complete compost tea kits we have added to our farm store.  Reach us by email to order larger quantities for your garden or to inquire about organic lawn amendment applications offered!  Thanks for reading, thanks for sharing, and thanks for caring about family farms! 

Nathan IhdeComment