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0807 ANM: Composting works for others, will it work for you?

Published on 07 August 2007

What started out as a small, high interest conference, National Compost Dairy-Barn Conference, for dairymen quickly burgeoned into an international group with wide-ranging interest in composting in dairy barns. More than 150 attendees participated.


Noteworthy, was the attendance from foreign countries including Canada, Brazil, Chile, Germany, Israel, Netherlands and Japan. Last-minute attendance inquiries were advised that registration had to be closed because the facilities would be overcrowded.

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Ms. Marcia I. Endres, associate professor in the Department of Animal Science at the University of Minnesota, who coordinated the conference, declared “its success was beyond our expectations.” She noted, “In addition to the tour, many attendees appreciated and commented on the wide scope of topics covered during the Friday educational sessions. Topics covered the many facets of ‘composting’ and how attendees might benefit from the practice.”

The two-day conference began June 21st in Burnsville, MN with buses touring three southwestern Minnesota dairy operations. Each operation visited had significant experience in ‘barn composting of manure.’

(A bit of explanation…composting is done within an open barn without freestalls. Such barns are divided into a feeding area and a large area where cows roam and rest. A bedding pack, most often from sawdust or wood shavings, is developed and periodically stirred to facilitate a clean, fluffy upper surface while allowing the pack to heat (compost) and break down the various manure and pack material components. )

Each dairy on the tour had a different herd size with one location milking 65 cows, the second location milking 80-90 cows and the third dairy visited had two composting barns and milks 170-180 cows.

Attendees heard the operators explain their reasons and rationale for developing a ‘composting operation.’ Each of the operators put ‘cow comfort’ right at the top of the list of advantages of the composting system. Cow comfort seemingly translates into more milk production as all three operators indicated the herd’s milk production increased when moved to a bedding pack system.

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Operators further cited less labor, fewer odor problems, reduced pathogen problems and fewer mastitis cases within the herd. Equally important on the operators’ list of positives were less foot, leg and teat injury problems plus better heat detection and conception as positive reasons to consider ‘composting barns.’

Everyone on the tour walked through the ‘composted manure area’ of the barns. On one dairy, everyone stood on the bedding pack while it was being stirred. The procedure was surprisingly simple…just cultivate or roto-till down into the pack thus stirring and fluffing up the top six inches of pack with dry material.

This ‘attendees walk-through’ on the soft pack provided solid evidence of the cow comfort factors and impressed all regarding the ‘fewer odors’ statements of the owners.

However, it needs noting that the three dairymen confirmed one of the difficulties in the years ahead for composting would be both the difficulty and expense of obtaining sawdust, small shavings/wood chips or alternate materials that would work efficiently as bedding pack.

One of the dairymen had used corn stubble in the pack but it did not work as well as hoped and he now considered using it only in case of a sudden shortage of preferred materials. ANM

*Editor’s note – Progressive Dairyman will take a closer look at these individual dairies in its September 2007 issue.

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