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Store-Bought Nitrogen for Compost - Best Bang for the Buck

 
Posts: 59
Location: Central NJ, Zone 6b
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There is no shortage of lists of sources for free or cheap greens to add to your compost.  The problem is that most of them require scrounging and/or collecting smaller amounts over time.  Materials like manure may be effectively unavailable to urban/suburbanites.  

Under certain circumstances, a person might want a nitrogen source they can just go ahead and buy in a store.  What material would give you the best bang for your buck in terms of 3 factors:
1. Dollars per unit of nitrogen
2. Actual effectiveness in the complex environment of a compost heap
3. Sustainability and similar concerns

(Now, I know that purchasing materials for compost might be unthinkable to many of you, but please remember that everybody's circumstances are different.  Feel free to treat this as a hypothetical.)

It's difficult to compare materials because the the nitrogen content is expressed in so many different ways.  Trying to arrive at a useful figure such as dollars per pound of nitrogen can be pretty daunting when you're trying to extrapolate from everything from published C:N ratio to % of nitrogen by weight to grams of protein per serving. I've tried to find straightforward conversion factors but haven't had much luck.

Sale prices of different materials can also vary wildly enough that we also need to know the % of nitrogen by weight.  For example, it looks like alfalfa meal can be found in sacks at a feed store for about $0.50/lb, but when purchased in little bags at the garden center, prices are about $4.00/lb.  What might be a great value for one person might not be for a person without access to a feed store.  (Of course if we knew the % of nitrogen by weight of various materials we could easily get the $/lb of nitrogen based on what we'd actually be paying.)

Also, the answer will probably differ based on whether the store-bought material is used to supplement the nitrogen of a pile that already has some greens mixed in or whether it's to be the primary nitrogen source in the pile.

Are there any non-traditional sources that are worth considering?  One interesting option I've seen floated around is high-protein dog food, but I'm not sure how economical it really is and how well it would work out in practice. How about beans?

Thanks in advance for any and all input.
 
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I use ammonia, comes in a handy one gallon container and all I have to do is pour it over the compost heap if I think I need/want an extra nitrogen source.
Ammonium compounds are what bacteria process fastest and My compost heaps usually have plenty of microorganisms growing and multiplying in them after the first week.

These days I seem to have to gather materials prior to building a heap, so as I stack these materials I give them a splash of ammonia, then when I have enough gathered, all I have to do is layer the heap up, water it, cover it and walk away for a week or two.

Redhawk
 
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Wood chips...keep the percentage to about 40% of the "greens" of the pile...that pile will cook.
 
Elizabeth Geller
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Travis Johnson wrote:Wood chips...keep the percentage to about 40% of the "greens" of the pile...that pile will cook.

I’m not sure I understand you.  How are wood chips a store-bought nitrogen source?
 
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I had never considered Dr. Redhawk's suggestion, and it still seems odd to me and slightly scary, but he has more experience than I so I certainly trust that It works.

My first thought is bagged chicken manure. Around here we can get some called 'supr green' from the Stutzman company for around 2.50 a bag and, especially in the spring, it usually isn't very well broken down so heats up extremely well. We have a bigger problem with soggy piles than dry piles where I live as well so a dryish source of nitrogen is nice. You may also be able to get totes of blemished veggies from a natural grocer, it's usually best to tell them you have pigs since they are wary of liability in my experience with other uses. That might be more hassle than you want though, but it is only the cost of gas to and from and time.
 
pioneer
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The free coffee grounds is a very good idea, and I get lots of them.  If you look around, you can get 50 lb bags of blood meal for $1 a lb or so and it works very good.  If you have a small brewery anywhere nearby, spent brewery grains are a nice addition.
 
pollinator
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When I start growing in a high tunnel next Spring, I'm going to buy compost. We've always had trouble collecting enough stuff to compost. We have some chickens now and will be getting goats next year. That plus the high tunnel and other garden beds and all the oak leaves I could ever want should give us enough to maintain. I just need a whole bunch at once to get started. Luckily St Louis Compost isn't too far from me and I have a truck & trailer. It's $25/yd and I think 4 cu yds will do. $100 to get started and then I absolutely must become an avid composter.

For liquid nitrogen, pee is pretty good. I know it needs to be diluted to put directly on the garden but probably not to put on a compost heap.

 
Elizabeth Geller
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stephen lowe wrote:I had never considered Dr. Redhawk's suggestion, and it still seems odd to me and slightly scary, but he has more experience than I so I certainly trust that It works.

Seems scary to me too, but I was looking for information other than what everybody is always saying.  I guess I got it!

You may also be able to get totes of blemished veggies from a natural grocer, it's usually best to tell them you have pigs since they are wary of liability in my experience with other uses. That might be more hassle than you want though, but it is only the cost of gas to and from and time.


The real hassle there would be trying to convince anybody that I keep pigs in Union County, NJ.  I'm definitely going to use "I'm feeding my pigs" in my back pocket as a potential explanation for...well, anything, really.  Anybody I used in on would just think I'm crazy and leave me alone.  :-D  It's really quite urban around here.

Trace Oswald wrote:If you look around, you can get 50 lb bags of blood meal for $1 a lb or so and it works very good.  If you have a small brewery anywhere nearby, spent brewery grains are a nice addition.

Blood meal was amongst the top potential contenders according to my initial research, even at 3 bucks a pound. I didn't know you could get it so cheaply.  (I really need to find a reasonably local place to buy that kind of thing.)

As for breweries...oy do we have breweries, and I've been to most of them too.  I guess spent grains would fall under "scrounging," but I'll definitely scrounge some when I can.  Would they still be considered "browns" after the brewing process?
 
Travis Johnson
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Elizabeth Geller wrote:

Travis Johnson wrote:Wood chips...keep the percentage to about 40% of the "greens" of the pile...that pile will cook.

I’m not sure I understand you.  How are wood chips a store-bought nitrogen source?




Here we can buy bags of bark mulch at the store, or playground wood chips, or even shavings for animal begging...
 
Elizabeth Geller
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Travis Johnson wrote:
Here we can buy bags of bark mulch at the store, or playground wood chips, or even shavings for animal begging...

Wouldn't wood chips be considered browns (carbon) and not greens (nitrogen?)

I've never run into a shortage of browns.  Our paper-happy society means I always have something carbonaceous to throw in the bin.  Others' experiences may vary.
 
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I've used bloodmeal before in compost, it definitely worked well on a winter leaf compost pile.  $3 a pound is what I usually see for it here, too.

I haven't tried it, but I'm guessing seed meal would work well.  Cottonseed meal is usually 6-2-1, so half as potent as bloodmeal on nitrogen, but you can get it for under $1 a pound if bought in big sacks. A lot of hydroponics places carry it.
 
stephen lowe
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All the talk of blood meal makes me think you might be able to get blood directly from a slaughterhouse if you have a small one near you. We have a smaller local slaughterhouse that sells 50 pounds of bones for 10$ and I bet they would fill me up a bucket or tote of blood if I dropped it off.

Also, knowing you are in NJ, any kind of fishery waste you could get would be good. This might be a cannery, straight from some dock, or even from a shop that sells fresh local fish and does their own filleting. Fish guts are awesome compost inputs
 
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After losing a big section of the farm to undisclosed, persistent herbicide in the officially certified organic straw I bought, I am really hesitant to acquire soil amendments from elsewhere.  Plus, it also costs money which goes against my frugal nature.

When we did try seed meals, it attracted rats and smelt terrible.  So we won't bother with this again.  It also seemed to take up nitrogen while decomposing.  

Personally, I prefer adding legumes to the rotation - or interplanting lentils with the other crops and tilling them under, cut and drop, or composting them when I need the space.  

I heard that urine is also pretty high in nitrogen.  We can age it into ammonia if pathogens are an issue.  
 
pioneer
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I'm an urban permie and would also like to know the cheapest N source .Currently researching the price of alfalfa meal, as I hear some organic farmers use it as a high N fertiliser that can be bought in bulk.
 
Travis Johnson
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Elizabeth Geller wrote:

Travis Johnson wrote:
Here we can buy bags of bark mulch at the store, or playground wood chips, or even shavings for animal begging...

Wouldn't wood chips be considered browns (carbon) and not greens (nitrogen?)

I've never run into a shortage of browns.  Our paper-happy society means I always have something carbonaceous to throw in the bin.  Others' experiences may vary.




I always considered woody debris as nitrogen, but maybe it is my perception of it.

I clear a lot of forest back into farmland, both for other people, as well as quite a few acres for myself. In that process, the woody debris causes something called nitrogen rob, which lasts about 7 years. I can get around that by adding copious amounts of manure to make up for the nitrogen shortfall, but I can get things to grow at least. After those 7 years, the woody debris goes the other way and all that organic matter helps to provide nitrogen.

Of course this is the same principal of a hugel...rotted woody debris to provide nitrogen to the plants above the mound. I do the same exact thing, it is just a hugel a foot deep, and spread out over many acres.

So you might be right in terms of a traditional compost pile.

My compost pile consists of tons of sheep manure, so the challnge for me is getting enough woody debris into it if I really wanted it to cook. Most of the time I just turn it over with the tractor and just use pure sheep manure as compost,



 
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Used coffee grounds.

Yes, they get produced gradually. But "gradually" for a big coffee shop can be a decent bin worth each day. If you have a shop near where you work that you can set up a good relationship with then you can get an endless supply of coffee ground. Better still if it is a place you visit regularly anyway.

Provide them the means to do it simply, cleanly and efficiently. Maybe 3 sturdy stacking bins with lids.

They fill one, you take it home. Give it a rinse out and return it.
While you do that they fill the next one. The third is back up for if you miss a collection day etc...

Key to a relationship like this to be really reliable and communicate clearly.
 
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Elizabeth Geller wrote:
The real hassle there would be trying to convince anybody that I keep pigs in Union County, NJ.  


My pet rabbits are often the justification for the crazy things I'm always trying. Just a thought. (I had to go check, my mother had a tiny backyard farm near there, but it was Bergen County, not Union!)
I would also think coffee grounds would be the way to go in terms of price and convenience. If you know any beer brewers, the trub (spent yeast and any later additives) that's left when you bottle is pretty good, and also has lots of nutrients.
 
Trace Oswald
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Elizabeth Geller wrote:Blood meal was amongst the top potential contenders according to my initial research, even at 3 bucks a pound. I didn't know you could get it so cheaply.  (I really need to find a reasonably local place to buy that kind of thing.)



You can get it on Amazon for $74.00 for 50 lbs with free shipping if you don't have a local source.

Blood meal on Amazon - NOT an affiliate link
 
Elizabeth Geller
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Thanks for all the great ideas and feedback.  There are some really innovative ideas here.

You don't have to talk ME into making an arrangement for getting coffee grounds from a local shop.  I already have one.  Coffee grounds are amazing!  There are never enough, though...

Collecting free waste materials (aka scrounging) is obviously an excellent solution in many cases.  Unfortunately, for many of us, logistics and practicality limit our ability to take advantage of many potential sources of nitrogen.  There is the matter of time - not so much that it takes time to collect materials, but that those of us with 9 to 5-ish jobs and long commutes and the usual round of other obligations just aren't around at the right times or consistently enough to take advantage of many sources which would be viable for others. There is also the matter of transportation.   What one can easily transport in the bed of a truck doesn't necessarily work so well in the trunk of a Subaru.    

It's also important to consider that not all stores are created equal, and by taking care with where I purchase, I can support selected local businesses.  I consider every dollar spent at my exceptional local garden center a good investment into the future health of my community and my garden.  They stopped selling things like big sacks of alfalfa meal long ago, however, as there is effectively no call for that around here.  Fortunately, they pointed me toward a real feed store about 45 minutes away that stocks a lot of what I might be looking for and can order in other items as well.

Ultimately, I  may or may not choose to bring in a store-bought material, but you all are providing some excellent food for thought.
 
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The trick is more the size of the place you ask than the actual source. A large coffee shop can give you 30lbs. a day whilst a small one might give 5lbs; if you find several large cafes near each other you could take 100lbs. of coffee grounds a day. A small grocer might give a small box of vegetable scraps, but a supermarket could give you many garbage bags’ worth.
 
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well this thread is involved so much of what i would suggest is already mentioned.

feed stores are mentioned and definitely, these are the best deals i have found...as they usually sell blood meal, bat guano, and bone meal, etc etc...and additionally things like clover seed and other cover crops, very cheaply in bulk. i know i have walked out a feed store with less than 10$ worth of bulk bin stuff...and that was like 100 times more dense in plant foods...than one of the little bottles of expensive "fertilizer" that can be bought at garden centers.

and of course - not store bought- but agree with others here - pee, coffee grounds, some places give 2 day old breads or other food waste from restaurants, and also lawn clippings...especially grass clippings (get it before it seeds!), leaves, etc.  if you don't have enough lawn, go rake someone else's for the leaves....or in some places people have programs where they put out lawn clippings/leaves yard clippings ...

i have done some work doing landscaping...and landscapers generally have to haul everything off to a place, and even PAY to dispose of it. most traditional people want everything looking very clean when you landscape for money...so yeah maybe connect with a landscape company, tell them any time they want to they can dump their branches/clippings...etc...
 
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