Skip to content

Know Your Fertilizer – Making the Compost You Want

January 17, 2015

Know your farmer is a pretty common phrase these days, and we direct market farmers have done a pretty good job of getting that word out.  So now it’s time to move on to the next step.  Know your fertilizer or what’s in it.  Taking a systems approach, we try to meet out our fertility needs by confining or moving our animals as needed, planting cover crops, and working with the seasons.  How we want to use our end product – the compost – determines how we source our inputs, and how we “make” our compost.

Each farm varies, laying hens on deep bedding can provide a large amount of hen finished compost for annual crops and provide eggs too.

filling the freezer and fertilizing the pasture

filling the freezer and fertilizing the pasture

Or pastured meat birds do dual duty fertilizing the pasture before filling the freezer.

Rotating the cow herd during the growing season lets the cows fertilize as they go.

Providing loose minerals for the cows adds to the mineral profile of the manure as well.  Going one step further choosing a good mineral mix for brought-in feeds makes a difference too with livestock like poultry and pigs.

Inter-seeded cover crops and mulch in addition to composted animal manures work in concert with annual vegetable crops.

So as you can see, there are many ways to approach the fertilizer needs of your farmstead.


Seeing red

Seeing red


Most of the compost we make goes back to the fields where we harvest hay for winter feeding.  In an ideal world we would not have to harvest hay, muck stalls, build fence, gather eggs, and the cows, pigs, and chickens would feed themselves on polyculture pastures year round, and we would just sit back under a plum tree and enjoy the fruits of their labors.  Well, actually bacon, eggs, and steaks, but alas, I don’t live on that farm.  So we move materials around in an effort to keep our minds occupied.  Same shit, different day.

Stacking feeding shed deep bedding

Stacking feeding shed deep bedding

Where to start?  Actually we start by choosing our carbon.  We buy oat or barley straw and get horse manure with conifer shavings from a neighbor.  Those are the most cost-effective carbon products in our area.  Each geographic area will have a different economical source of carbon.  We also like straw because the small square bales we buy are easy to handle, store and break down for bedding.  This might be a good place to mention too that hay doesn’t make a good bedding choice for several reasons.

1)  There isn’t much carbon there, so you will need a lot more hay to do the same job as straw.  The higher the carbon content the less bedding you need to keep your animals clean.

2)  “Weed” seeds.  Hay will most like have seed heads of perennial grass, straw is an annual grain, so the any sprouts from straw are basically just an annual cover crop.  I don’t worry much about the grass seeds just because we practice clean tillage in our annual garden rows, so grass is not a worry since most grass takes a bit to establish or needs to be left alone to get a stronghold.  I don’t leave my garden alone, so grass seeds don’t bother me, but I know grass seeds freaks many gardeners out.  My garden was pasture before it was garden, turning it into garden isn’t that hard.  When I’m done it can go back to pasture.

3)  Low carbon bedding packs like the devil.  If you are doing much hand work in your bedding endeavors be ready for some back-breaking work if you tackle a manure and grass hay bedding pack.  Picture peeling up an old linoleum floor and you’ll be mentally prepared for the job ahead.

The deep bedding process actually begins in the summer, after the shed is cleaned out and the bedding stacked, we layer in about 18″ of the horse manure/shavings for a base.  The higher carbon of the sawdust works well to soak up the urine that is part of the fifty pounds of fertilizer that comes out the back end of the cow, and is the hardest part to stabilize.  Over the sawdust layer we apply straw daily as it is soiled by the cows,.  The goal is to keep the cows clean and comfortable.  You can also apply lime as you wish for odor control and future soil amending or other soil amendments of your choosing.  We apply lime once weekly since our soil is naturally acidic.

deep bedding pack

deep bedding pack

As the deep bedding pack is dug out, compost windrows are built.  Using a mix of the manure pack and stockpiled horse manure shavings for added carbon.

Stacking feeding shed deep bedding

Stacking feeding shed deep bedding

This is definitely a heavy metal job.  Bartering with neighbors or renting equipment makes sense in this case since the cleaning and compost stacking takes only a few days in a year.  We stack the manure for a full year and wait it out, just like waiting for the first paycheck, once you have a system in place you always have aged compost for spreading in the garden or hay field.  If you’re in a hurry you could turn it, but then again that more equipment time.  I’m not fully convinced that any homemade compost pile will get hot enough to kill seeds and still have a lot of microbial life left.  I may be wrong.


aged compost

aged compost

For the last few years, I’ve been using the hen-pecked compost more and more in the garden.


The material is light and easy to handle and the project is ongoing.  Each day I add carbon in the form of straw to keep the hen hoophouse smelling like compost instead of chicken manure, and weekly I add a wheelbarrow load of the horse manure sawdust mix.  The hens work their magic, and I can rob this material on a regular basis for side dressing, bed amending or adding fertilizer to cover crops.  Adding to the top and taking from the bottom.

As with any post I write, this is just food for thought.  Meant to be inspiring, yes, I get inspired by manure and I hope you will too.

Gather as much carbon as you can afford to, protect any manure you can gather from the elements, and start building compost piles.  It’s fun, really.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. Risa Stephanie Bear permalink
    January 18, 2015 2:27 am

    One of your all time great how-tos. ❤

  2. Elizabeth permalink
    January 18, 2015 6:50 am

    A grass-fed beef producer once told me that if you have grains growing in your pasture that make seed heads (IE: barely, oats….) and the cattle eat the seed heads, you can’t promote your beef as “grass-fed”. I’m not sure I buy that. What are your thoughts?

    • January 18, 2015 7:13 am

      Well, I guess yes and no, my cattle eat seed heads of perennial grasses all the time, the problem with fanatics is well, they are fanatics. We don’t plant grains anyway, I just buy straw from a grain grower, so I wouldn’t worry about it. Anybody doing mob stocking has a herd eating grass seed heads.

  3. Fid permalink
    January 18, 2015 7:50 am

    “It’s fun, really.” Love it!

  4. January 18, 2015 9:21 am

    I love compost piles too. We do use hay for bedding, but that is because we produce more than enough hay for our needs and some of it is still quite coarse – which makes for good bedding. We would have to buy in the straw. I don’t freak out too much about grass seeds, until of course it takes over, but that is my fault and lack of time. Hopefully this year, it will be a little more under control – I can hope.

    I do envy your deep bed chicken compost. I am working on ours, hopefully one day we will get our system right to get a lovely compost mix at the end. It doesn’t go to waste though.

  5. January 18, 2015 11:14 am

    Thanks again so, so much for the work you put into your informational posts. Your generosity is a great gift to many. You’re like the Johnny Appleseed of sustainable farming 🙂

    I’ve been working on creating a good composting system that I am capable of managing by myself. The amount of heavy lifting can be a real disincentive. A front loader or skid steer would improve my game quite a bit, but isn’t in the budget at the moment. One thing I wish I had done from the beginning is purchase a PTO manure spreader. I have a chain driven one and it limits me more because I can’t create a pile. Is there a book you especially recommend pertinent to small farm composting?

    • January 18, 2015 12:19 pm

      You’re welcome Jackie, I sling so much crap each day it’s pretty easy to do the same here 😉 I would rather clean stalls than wash dishes any day! I have to say a skid steer is awful unless you have concrete, which we don’t. But sometimes a skid steer is all the neighbor or the rental place has when you need to borrow it. A front end loader is much better and more useful for other things IMHO and that of the head equipment operator here. I wish we too had a PTO spreader but more for powering through clumps than anything. The chain drive just can’t handle something too big or solid. I’m not getting though why one or the other would make a difference on if you pile you manure or not? I haven’t seen any one book on composting that I would recommend that really deals with the realities of a mixed farmstead and the resultant manure output. I do know that waiting makes the best black gold compared to fussing and turning.

      • January 18, 2015 12:26 pm

        The PTO spreader would allow me to pile it up in one place. Chain driven means I have to make a long row. Good point on the skid steer. With you on the housework too, but dishes are the price I have to pay for all the pie I love to bake 🙂 Dusting & vacuuming are a whole other matter 🙂

        • January 18, 2015 1:49 pm

          I get ya, sit and spin 😉

          Dusting and vacuuming? What’s that?

          ETA, we got our ground drive spreader so we could spread with the pickup (nice for traveling down the road to another pasture) and load with the tractor, since it’s a pain to unhook, load, rehook, spread.

  6. Esther permalink
    January 19, 2015 2:31 pm

    Really enjoy your blog, so much to learn. I am very interested in keeping our chickens in a hoop, like you do and the deep bedding. Do you need to look them up at night? Ours free range but need to be shut up every night or they get got…. Thank you!

    • January 19, 2015 2:45 pm

      Yes, they are locked up to keep them safe. If we didn’t we would have chickens for about a week 😦

  7. January 19, 2015 3:25 pm

    How do you protect those big long manure piles from the elements? Do you find that a lot of the nutrients leach out or does it matter much? Or do you cover them and just had them uncovered for the pictures?

    • January 19, 2015 4:08 pm

      Emily, we cover them with old greenhouse plastic after they are built and before the fall rains begin in earnest. Kinda hard to move the plastic for every load 😉 The grass is a littler greener about a foot from the piles, but they don’t leach too much.

  8. A.A. permalink
    January 21, 2015 12:37 pm

    Definitely inspiring and something to forward to a friend! Cheers!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: