COMPOST FOR HOME, COMMUNITIES & FARMS,
PLUS FARM MANURE MANAGEMENT
We are not just wasting our waste but we are also doing serious damage with it! If our global food waste were a country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world!
Our waste emissions account for around three times the global emissions from aviation!
Thankfully, government at both national and council level are starting to address this but we can all do our bit, especially at home and become active in informing and helping councils to do the right thing!
They may need help keeping up to date on the latest technologies and with measuring what is being wasted where in different sectors of the community, etc.
Dumping garden and food waste in landfill produces methane and carbon dioxide. It is better if councils send it for anaerobic digestion, which utilises these gases to create energy and some compost, (digestate), although there is an opportunity cost in that this relies heavily on transport (please see What You Can Do section for more advice on how to reduce your food waste).
Composting our food waste, when done properly, minimises greenhouse gas emissions, enriches the soil with nutrients, increases the life in the soil and helps it absorb carbon. Think of it as an inoculum: a substance introduced into the body of the soil to create or increase the soil’s resilience and health. Seen in this way, rather than as a fertiliser, it becomes evident that the more diverse a mix the compost is made from, the more and varied will be the soil life that is created.
Compost, if made correctly, is full of good microbes: bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, etc. Those microbes provide the nutrients and, more accurately, the ability to make nutrients which already exist in soils available to plants. On its own, compost is actually very low in nutrients; it’s all about the microbes! Unfortunately, much of the compost we by, doesn’t have many microbes within it and it’s shocking we are still able to buy peat-based compost at all. This is why creating our own is of such benefit.
Please too bare in mind also that microbes need feeding, not just from decomposing waste but also from sugars fed by plant roots. This is partly why it is important to reduce areas of bare soil.
There are many ways to compost; it’s a science, in fact. Sure, you can just throw things in a bin and it will decompose over the next couple of years into microbially-rich compost, but be careful not to let it dry out or become too wet. Waterlogged compost, like waterlogged soil, becomes anaerobic (no air) and microbes need some air, even if only tiny amounts.
In these conditions undesirable microbes can dwell and it would be necessary to quickly add more brown, mature, carbon-rich material and turn it over; professional growers would perhaps start again. It is necessary not to lose heart and to remember that it is always worth experimenting and learning.
An important ratio in a compost is that of carbon content to nitrogen content. This should be a ratio of about 30:1. That said, it is actually quite difficult to achieve this exact ratio because a basic error is often made when carbon is equated with brown waste and nitrogen with green waste. In fact, every ingredient in a compost has it’s own particular carbon: nitrogen ratio and these ratios can change depending upon the state of decay of the ingredient. Using the terms brown or green is a useful shorthand for identification and understanding but it is important that misunderstanding does not occur from using the terms too literally.
Thus, fresh green plant materials contain high levels of nitrogen but as the decay process develops, they lose nitrogen and become brown. Materials such as wood or straw are seen as brown and they contain low levels of nitrogen, yet a material such as horse manure looks brown but there is a high level of nitrogen and this should put it in the category of a green. It is evident that it is not correct to have a rigid ratio of browns to greens in a normal non-commercial compost heap. In general, however, a useful guide is to have a brown: green ratio of 3 or 4 to 1.
For most ordinary people it is not practical to have the most effective ratio of composting material, mainly because the waste available is a given and has to be dealt with or processed somehow. Provided that the compost does not become waterlogged or bone dry and the pile is turned, compost will result, even if the process is much slower. Basic imbalances can be dealt with quite simply.
Thus, if there is too much brown waste, it results in there not being enough nitrogen for the carbon content. Nitrogen could be added easily with a modest application of human urine, or a small amount of fresh chicken manure. If a smell develops, the application has been excessive, so turn the pile with an addition of brown waste and the balance is restored.
This is a good example of a compost heap because the pile can be kept aerated and also easily covered in very wet conditions. The mesh can be opened and closed to allow the pile to be managed quite easily. In a hot compost, where the intention is to ensure that all weed seeds and pathogens are killed, all of the compost needs to reach a temperature of 71C (160F) for three days.
Most domestic heaps are unlikely to reach this temperature throughout the whole pile, hence they need careful movement of parts of the pile to ensure all areas of the pile have a time in the middle, where it’s hottest. This is Dr Elaine Ingram style. Elaine’s ratios are 30% green to feed bacteria, 60% woody for fungi feeding and 10% high nitrogen or party food’!
Composting can be done in many ways, from domestic to industrial scale. The aerated, static versions are better fungal growth as they allow fungi more time to populate the pile before being broken up, so they have time to produce more fungal spores that can later populate your soil. This too is better for plant health and carbon capture, but all microbes are needed in great quantities.
Many have started combining this method with Elaine’s method to produce some great results.
See Learn More Section and link below, ‘Why Mycorrhiza Fungi in compost is such an asset’.
A simple option for a static aerated pile is just to slowly add food scraps to a pile of wood chips – or even create a pile all in one go, Dr Elaine Ingram style – adding the ingredients in layers and adding water to each layer.
BROWN COMPOST MATERIALS
- Leaves, sticks, twigs (better shredded)
- Hay and straw
- Paper and Cardboard- no waxy films (paper best scrunched into balls – shredded paper tends to compact)
- Wood chips, wood shavings and sawdust
- Tea bags (not plastic ones – remove tea leaves from these)
- Cut up woody vegetation, e.g. stalks and corn husks
- Wood ash
GREEN COMPOST MATERIALS
- Vegetables and fruit
- Dead flowers
- Herbs cuttings and bamboo
- Grass clippings (not if treated with herbicide)
- Fresh manure
- Coffee grounds
- Young hedge trimmings
- Feathers & hair
DO NOT ADD
- Human faeces
- Meat and animal fats
- Pressure treated wood
- Cat litter
- Other non-organic materials
- Plant material with soil-borne diseases like white rot
- Roots of bindweed, ground elder and similar tough weeds
IF YOU HAVE ROOM FOR HOMEMADE COMPOST IT
- builds the fertility of your soil
- improves texture and air circulation in heavy soil.
- helps bind sandy soil together.
- improves plant growth and leads to better yields.
- is free.
- helps to build soil organic carbon.
- is not washed away by rain.
- retains moisture and suppresses weeds.
- requires no oil-reliant machinery, unlike commercial composting.
- is peat free, which is vital and unlike many commercial composts.
- creates an awesome community of bacteria, insects, worms, fungi and creepy crawlies which are all beneficial to soil health. Most compost sold in shops is not bioactive and therefore is not as good.
CREATING GARDEN COMPOST
A great video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kf6CGj7xpFE
Why mycorrhizal fungi in compost is such an asset- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JGxSDhnvUUc
How to compost links – https://charlesdowding.co.uk/advice-on-making-compost/
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t39WfhyOc60 plastic containers need holes!
Beware of nasty weedkillers lurking in your compost! See here-
The inoculum effect of the compost can be helped along by using big un-decomposed pieces from previous compost piles. These woody fragments will be covered with microbes and help to kick start your pile. There is no need to use a commercial compost starter. In fact, if you do not have old biomass from a previous pile, just throw in a shovel full of ordinary soil.
It is useful to remember that our water is often chlorinated (or chloriminated). Chlorine is released over time as a gas from the water when it is exposed to the air, but chloramine tends to stay in the water.
As both versions of the chemical kill microbes, the effectiveness of any compost is reduced. For this reason, it is much better to use rain water collected in a butt for adding moisture to a compost heap, but it is possible to break up the chlorine bonding in the water and dissipate the chlorine and chloramine, making the water safe to use when building compost piles.
Letting tap water stand with occasional stirring for several days in an open container will allow chlorine to be released. Chloramine is not so easily eradicated by this method.
There are commercial reverse osmosis and filtration systems which can be used, or humic acid – a neutraliser – can be purchased and added to the water. It is possible to obtain a crude liquid which contains some humic acid in impure form by squeezing mature compost to extract the juices and you can extract your own humic acid from your compost to use for this purpose.
Add some to a watering can with rose head spreader to wet down the ingredients as you build. You can also use humic acid when you water your garden (it’s a fungal food), and add a drop of humic acid to your water when you make compost tea. Remember, though, that a lot of this effort is avoided if you simply use collected rain water.
If you don’t have room to compost at home, perhaps there is room somewhere in your community. If so, this action pack will help because it is designed to provide the information you need on all aspects of a community / neighbourhood composting scheme. The advice offered is for all stages, from the initial planning to the distribution of your valuable compost. https://www.farmgarden.org.uk/system/files/community_composting_action_pack.pdf
WHY MAKE COMPOST FOR A FARM?
Because it’s cheap and is better than any fertiliser you can buy &
- To add organisms to the soil. This is not just bacteria but fungi, protozoa, nematodes and often microarthropods. You need lots of all the different types. Having low numbers of any microbe type, means there will be parts of the system that don’t function. (See Soil section in ‘Learn More’). Compost serves as an inoculum of all these organisms, as long as it is made correctly. It is better than any fertiliser, as it creates diversity of life underground. This will then cycle more nutrients making a wider and richer food source for the plants to grow.
- To add foods to feed bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes and microarthropods. Animal manure also does this job but you need the microbes in there to feed first.
- To add structure to the soil. Living organisms in the soil react to roots and help form soil aggregates. Structure is also needed in the compost inputs, to help with airflow. You are trying to mimic a forest floor!
- Life in the soil helps trap carbon through decomposition and the cycling of plant root carbohydrates to form sticky, hard carbon. This is the material which helps stick the aggregates together. This, together with Carbon loss reduction, gives humanity room for hope.
- To grow soil
Please do read the general information above and check out the videos below. The key is to prevent the compost from becoming anaerobic, much like compressed soil, or the microbes will suffocate and allow toxins and harmful bacteria to develop.
Microbes will also die if they dry out too much.
Hence, investing in a temperature and moisture content probe – and the gift of some of your time – will potentially be one of the best things you can do to become regenerative and is a fine investment into your soil.
A good compost tea can treat problems on crops, whereas compost feeds life underground and is best applied at the end of the growing season.
Dr Elaine Ingram has many videos on the soil food web and making compost for farmers. Currently all over the world, including the UK, people are buying microscopes and spending a lot of money to complete her courses as they know that soil microbiology is a sensible place to invest.
Combining Elaine’s knowledge with that of Dr Johnson’s is what enlightened agronomist and practiced regenerative farmer, RegenBen is doing. Here you can see what he’s created on his farm in Ross-On-Wye.
This is RegenBen’s Johnson Su compost heap – https://www.regenben.com/the-farm/improving-soil-functionality/
Useful videos below.
- See: https://www.regenben.com/the-farm/improving-soil-functionality/#johnson
- Here’s an introductory one from Elaine Ingram:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x2H60ritjag&t=1285s
- Dr David Johnson of New Mexico State University has great insight into how vital it is to get the correct bacteria / fungi balance. We highly recommend you take the time to see these two videos…One of the top two regenerative agronomists in England is a great advocate and they are promoted at The Centre for Regenerative Agriculture, California University. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JGxSDhnvUUc
- There are many more to explore but we highly recommend you not only concentrate on your soil chemistry and physics but also your BIOLOGY! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pk14Qyulc9E (see Soil Section)
Manure is fantastic stuff; both in terms of providing a great source of nutrients that can be used to grow crops and grass but also through enhancing soil biological activity, feeding the soil microbes and helping provide a source of organic matter. This all ensures that our soils are in the best condition structurally, chemically and biologically. Manure is one of the most important resources that we produce on-farm.
Whether you have slurry or farm yard manure, how you manage, store and apply it will have big impacts on the potential benefits and the environmental impacts that occur from this brilliant resource. Manures, when stored and applied correctly, provide substantial benefits in building resilience within your farming system, cutting costs and lowering your carbon footprint. If, however, they are applied in too high a quantity or at the wrong time of year then they are an environmental risk. So, it is the job of farmers to maximise the benefits that can arise and to minimise the risks.
It is obviously good to keep abreast of anaerobic digestion developments and biomethane gas use, e.g. by Arla and Bennamann, who have Cornwall Council waste lorries running on methane from slurry.
SO HOW CAN WE GENERATE THE BENEFITS?
Manure storage – It is beneficial for slurry-based systems to minimise the amount of rainfall that is entering your store. There is extra fuel usage in transporting slurry made significantly heavier by a high water content. The nutrient content of the material is also diluted by water content. This means that you may well have to apply more also risking compaction on the fields if the soil is wet. Water content in the manure could be minimised by installing a floating cover on your store, or looking at mending guttering on covered yards to minimise the amount of rainwater that reaches the floor. Floating covers will also reduce the amount of ammonia which is released into the atmosphere.
For solid muck storage, look at where you are positioning field heaps and manage your heaps to ensure that there is minimal leaching of nitrogen through the heap. You could consider composting your FYM, providing a more stable and uniform product. This is more of a soil conditioner than an immediate ‘nutrient hit’ for the crops but it will have benefits for the soil biology and structure.
Manure application – Ensuring that manures are applied at the right rate and the right time is the most important step to reducing environmental risk and improving the economic performance of the farm. Manure from different species will provide different nutrient concentrations. Slurry and poultry manure tends to be higher in nitrogen which can be utilised by the crop than solid muck. Understanding the nutrient content of what you are applying and matching that to the needs of the crop is important; as is integrating manure, slurry and bagged fertiliser applications to ensure that you are not over-applying nutrients. (See Soil section). The way that you are applying the manures is also important. In the case of slurries, there are some good new application technologies, including trailing shoes and injection machines that place the slurry directly on or in the soil, where it can be accessed by plant roots more effectively. These machines have a better utilisation rate than the traditional splash plate tankers. For solid muck, looking at an even application across the field of a consistent product will mean that the crops will be healthy and grow at an even rate, where soil quality is reasonably consistent. If manure or slurry is to be incorporated, it is important to ensure that it is done quickly after application and not just left on the surface where the nutrients may well be lost.
Optimal use of manures and slurries on the farm is a brilliant way to improve the farm profitability, resilience, soil health and carbon holding ability of the soil. Applying FYM to soils has been shown across numerous research papers to be a great way of improving soil carbon sequestration levels.
It’s not the cow- it’s the how!
For farmers further reading see:
A guide to manure management: https://www.nutrientmanagement.org/3-think-manures-2014/
Preventing pollution guide: http://adlib.everysite.co.uk/resources/000/098/647/DosDonts_PEPFAA.pdf
Regen Ben’s take on compost: https://www.regenben.com/the-farm/improving-soil-functionality/