Compost turning a co-operative effort

MARCHAND, Man. – Considering the price tag of new combines, farmers and folks in the agriculture business have grown accustomed to $400,000 machines. Yet, during the annual Manitoba Pasture Tour in late July, livestock producers, industry representatives and provincial forage experts were fascinated by a peculiar piece of machinery at a farm east of Steinbach, Man.

Most of the 60 participants on the tour had never seen an industrial scale compost turner before, so Gerry Dubé, interim director of the Compostages Manitoba Services Co-op, had to field more than a dozen questions about the machine and composting.

Last summer, Dubé and other producers in southeastern Manitoba formed the compost co-operative, the first of its kind in Canada, which owns and operates the windrow turner.

The co-operative rents out the turner to members and non-members so livestock producers can manage the compost on their farm.

After holding demonstrations and attending meetings over the last year, the co-op now has 26 members — mostly cattle and dairy farmers in southeastern Manitoba.

“With one machine we could probably serve between 60 to 75 (members),” said Dubé, who farms near La Broquerie and used to run a business called BDM Composting.

The machine, a Backhus 17.50, made in Germany, can handle a windrow of manure that is 4.9 metres wide and 2.5 m high (16 by eight feet). The machine, which straddles the windrow and runs on tracks, can turn 400 tonnes of manure, or more, per hour.

Standing next to a 250 m long windrow of manure at a farm near Marchand, Man., Dubé said each lineal foot of the windrow represents one tonne of manure.

Members of the co-op must pay $500 for the first hour of compost turning on their farm and $250 for every subsequent hour. It isn’t cheap to convert manure into compost, but it does substantially cut the cost of transporting raw manure from a feedlot to the field, said Katherine Buckley, an Agriculture Canada scientist in Brandon.

Back in the late 1990s, Buckley and other scientists at the Brandon Research Centre wanted to haul manure from the centre and apply it to fields south of town.

After evaluating their options they realized that composting was the best option.

“Instead of hauling 10,000 tonnes of raw manure, we were hauling four or five thousand tonnes of compost,” she said.

While hog manure is readily available in southeastern Manitoba, composting has several advantages over injecting hog manure, Dubé said.

“Compost is about 40 percent moisture. So you’re hauling way less moisture out onto the field,” he said, noting that hog manure is nearly all water.

Further, adding compost increases the amount of organic matter and helps the soil hold more water, Dubé said, who explained that most producers in the co-op apply their compost to cropland.

From an economic perspective, producing and applying compost probably makes the most sense for high value crops like potatoes, Buckley said.

“I think that’s where the biggest bang for the buck is…. If you take the actual value of nutrients, right now with the price of fertilizer, compost is very competitive in terms of value per kg.”

Using a potato crop as an example, Buckley said the long term impact of compost isn’t well understood. Nonetheless, there is evidence that compost can build up nutrient reserves in the soil.

“After you apply compost in the potato year (of the rotation), your rotational crop may not require any nutrients. That’s a huge benefit.”

In spite of its positive attributes, only a fraction of livestock farmers in Western Canada turn their manure into compost, Buckley admitted.

The time and labour associated with composting make it less attractive than other fertilizers. Another deterrent is that the process isn’t well understood, Buckley said.

“There isn’t a lot of science required,” she said. “People are somewhat intimidated because they think it requires a lot of monitoring. But you get a feel for it.”

Composting may also have an image problem, as most Canadians likely associate compost with a box of rotting food waste in an urban backyard.

Even though it’s coupled to the green and organic movement, Dubé said most of the farmers in the compost co-operative are conventional producers.

“This is not about putting a label on things, it’s about sustainability,” he said. “And it’s about economics as well. If you’re putting a product back on the land and if you’re saving energy in the process and if you’re also improving your soil, your bottom line is improved as well.”

For more information on the Compostages Manitoba Services Co-op, please call 204 392-5471.

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