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Dairy producer finds benefits are starting to outweigh costs of composting

Progressive Dairyman Editor Karen Lee Published on 06 September 2017
turning compost

Jeff Endres and his brothers are the fourth generation to farm at Endres Berryridge Farms LLC in Waunakee, Wisconsin. The farm is located in the Yahara watershed, which flows to the lakes in the state’s capital.

As a conservation leader in the county, Endres founded and leads the farmer-led watershed group and is a board member of the Clean Lakes Alliance. On the farm, he plants a lot of cover crops and just built a new barn to compost heifer manure.

“I was sick of digging holes in the ground to store manure,” Endres told a tour group in late August.

Two groups – one from the North American Manure Expo and one from the Clean Lakes Alliance – toured the farm’s composting operation, which is located just up the road from the main dairy.

The farm itself is pushing 600 cows, and heifers from 4 months to 14 months are housed at this secondary location. The Endreses compost heifer manure on-site and bring in some manure from maternity pens and calf pens from the main farm.

Jeff Endres

The two barns at the heifer facility are enclosed with tunnel ventilation. The controlled atmosphere keeps the manure from freezing in the winter, which allows the farm to compost all year, Endres explained. He also noted the air speed in the barns, along with composting the manure, keeps flies out of the area.

Approximately 150 young heifers are housed in bedded pack pens in the first barn. They are fed grain twice a day and provided free-choice hay. The heifers are moved in groups through the barn according to their size. The barn is bedded once a week with eight to nine big square bales of cornstalks. Endres said the stalks are a key ingredient for the compost as it is the carbon base to provide energy for the microorganisms.

The second barn is set up with freestalls for the older heifers, which are fed TMR. The freestalls are bedded once a week with a mixture of one-half yard sand, one yard compost, one yard sawdust and one yard cornstalks. “This starts the composting process right in the barn,” Endres said of introducing the bugs with the compost portion.

On a daily basis, they scrape the alley in both barns into a catch basin. The bedded packs are cleaned out every eight to 10 weeks. The liquid manure from the scrape alleys is scooped and blended on a one-to-one ratio with bedding pack material, corn stalks or rejected hay in a mixer wagon. Then it is hauled to the compost barn and emptied into a windrow.

compost bedding

Endres started composting the farm’s manure four years ago with a basic, small windrow, just to see what the farm could do with it. Last year, they put up roof structure with a 3-foot clay liner for the floor to hold the windrows. The roof reduces leachate and runoff from the compost.

Since the windrows are protected from rain, all of the moisture for the composting process comes from the liquid manure. Endres said as long as the first mix is to the point where it is almost weeping at 65 to 70 percent moisture it will have enough to get through the 12-week composting process. At the end, it comes out at 35 to 40 percent moisture.

Jason Fuller with Carbon Cycle Consulting has helped Endres fine-tune his composting operation. Fuller also provided a compost turner to aerate and turn the windrows a couple of times a week.

At the time of the tour, Endres had just received delivery of a custom-built compost turner, which should help him maximize the facility. Since it is narrower, he figured he would be able to fit four windrows under the roof instead of the two he has now.

In addition to blending the compost into the heifers’ freestall bedding, Endres applies it as fertilizer for his crops.

“We are able to use everything we produce on our farm,” Endres said. Because the manure has been composted, he can apply it to growing crops without burning them. This allows him to take it to field in the summer when it is environmentally friendly to do so.

Every windrow is tested for nutrient content before it is removed. “I want to know what we’re putting on our fields,” he told the group. The compost is high in phosphorus and potassium, which is great for alfalfa. Some nitrogen is lost during composting and what remains is converted through the aerobic digestion process of composting to a more plant-available form.

Endres said there aren’t a lot of barriers to starting a compost operation, but more needs to be done to figure out the economics of it. He noted there are additional expenses and time required to make compost compared with a lagoon for liquid manure storage.

Still in the start-up and learning phase, Endres is fairly confident it will work out. “I have enough faith in this process that I think we’ll see our way through it,” he said.

In some cases, the economics just need to be quantified better. For instance, he has applied compost to the same hay field for the past two years. Last year that field out-averaged all of the other fields enough to notice, he said. This year, Endres reported, the field is in its last stand and is still holding its own.

The compost operation is also fulfilling the main goal for this conservationist – to recycle nutrients back to farm fields with the least amount of environmental impact.  end mark

Karen Lee
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PHOTO 1: The compost windrows are mechanically turned twice a week to aerate the mixture.

PHOTO 2: As a leader in conservation, Jeff Endres decided to compost heifer manure to reduce the environmental impact of his family’s farm.

PHOTO 3: A mixture of compost, sawdust, cornstalks and sand is used to bed freestalls for the older heifers. Photos by Karen Lee.

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