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Composting Experiment

 
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I bought two Envirocycle Compost tumblers recently and am trying an experiment.  I just bought my house recently so Don't have much laying around to add to the bins until my cover crops mature.  So I decided to try an experiment.  100lbs of Alfalfa Pellets, half a pound of blood meal, a small amount of untreated pine bedding (the stuff you sue for hamsters/rabbits), and what little veggie/fruit scraps I had lying around.  I will add a little Urine and some old mushrooms I got for free from a local grocery store.  Being a sterile bin I've added about a handful of black kow composted cow manure into the bin though I'm not sure how much this will help.   I don't have any rainwater or well water available atm so I am having to use tap water which isn't ideal but should work.  

From what I've read Alfalfa pellets are between 20-30:1 C:N so it should be pretty close to 'ideal' for composting.  The Blood Meal is added to offset the pine shavings which are there to help provide additional tilth when the compost finishes.  If it works out for $40 (not including the tumbler of course) I should end up with 2-3 cu ft of very high quality compost for the garden.  If it doesn't work out I'll empty the partially composted alfalfa pellets directly into the bed area and cover with topsoil/compost purchased from the store.  Not the "permie" way exactly but I have to start somewhere and the sands that pass for soil around here need a helping hand getting started.  

The other Tumbler is in standby mode waiting on the cover crop mix- hulless oats, Snap peas, Buckwheat, Daikon radish, and globe radish to mature.  This mix will be added to the second tumbler along with whatever leaves I can obtain plus all the veggie/fruit scraps I accumulate over the next month and a half or so.  I suspect this mix will break down more quickly and thoroughly than the pure alfalfa mix but I could be wrong.  In fact I am frequently wrong which is what makes gardening enjoyable to me-trial and error and learning new things.
 
gardener
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Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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Question, did you make sure the feed pellets were organically grown or at least not sprayed with insecticide or herbicide?

I am looking forward to reading about your results.

Redhawk
 
Glen Kowalski
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Bryant RedHawk wrote:Question, did you make sure the feed pellets were organically grown or at least not sprayed with insecticide or herbicide?

I am looking forward to reading about your results.

Redhawk



I did not.  However the worst of the Herbicides Grazon and its contemporaries are fatal to Alfalfa.  Even so I will do a bio-assay before applying any to the garden beds.  One of the reasons for this experiment is to see how well it breaks down-if it does well I will grow a smallish-stand of Alfalfa at the house for future runes.  I won't pellet it but a lawn mower running over it a few times will cut it small enough.  Since I won't be grazing it I don't mind leaving a bit to go to seed and reseeding it every year.  As to pesticides I'm hoping that the composting process will remove any residues that are left.  The pellets are feed-grade for horses so pesticide residues shouldn't be high.

Results will likely be a few months away as it stands now.  The Tumblers are brand new and I began the experiment just 2 days ago.  The weather here will remain in the 80-90 degree range until the end of this month/potentially into early NOV before cooling off.  We rarely get below freezing here.  
 
Glen Kowalski
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3 OCT 2019-  2.5 days after starting the pile the pile has heated to 138-140F.  Heating up would likely have occurred more quickly if I had maintained proper moisture levels from the start-pile was too dry.  I will try and do daily/every few day updates with results.  
 
Glen Kowalski
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4-5 OCT  Temps steady at 140-142.  Smell isn't quite 'earthlike' but not offensive at all.  turned the tumbler several times in effort to mix material but with limited results-alfalfa pellets have swollen 33% and tumbler is almost packed full now.  
 
Glen Kowalski
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6 Oct 2019  Temps range from 142-150.  I measure the temps in the corners and the center (imagine a the 5 on dice).  added a little water today as well since the outer layer of compost was a bit dry.  If temps stay steady in the 140-150 range I should have pretty good rate of decomposition and potentially have usable compost in about a month-just in time for winter veggie season.  Our winter veggies are mostly spring veggies in the rest of the US- Lettuce, Carrots, Peas ect.
 
Glen Kowalski
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Temps holding steady ~142-150 with one reading at 153.  Going to give it another day then tumble it again.  
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Sounds like your tumbler is working very well Glen.

Redhawk
 
Glen Kowalski
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8 OCT 2019  Temps steady around 145 throughout the pile.

It is going pretty well however I've reached a turning point in the process.  The alfalfa has swollen to the point that the bin is now overfilled.  I think this weekend I'm going to take about 20% out and put it in a second bin so that tumbling it will have the desired effect.  
 
Glen Kowalski
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9 Oct 2019 Temps holding steady at 143-145.  Near-surface temps at 120 and fine white fungus spreading through compost at surface level.  Moisture levels were a little low so added a small amount of water and used garden spade to lever apart the pile and introduce additional o2.  
 
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Did you figure a total cost for the inputs? Sounds like it should make some high quality compost, it will be interesting to compare yield and cost to comparable bulk compost (although decent commercial compost is often hard to find)
 
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Another good way to get compost material is to see farmers in your area. Many have bales of mulch hay sitting around; hay that did not sell a year or more ago, and so you can get that cheap, and start composting with it, although there is nothing wrong with what you are doing.

I am rather surprised the temps are not hotter though with the pine straw in there. Wood is usually the ingredient that makes them really cook!
 
stephen lowe
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stephen lowe wrote:Did you figure a total cost for the inputs? Sounds like it should make some high quality compost, it will be interesting to compare yield and cost to comparable bulk compost (although decent commercial compost is often hard to find)



Reread the first post and saw the 40$ figure. If that gets you a couple cu yds of nice compost that is an excellent deal. And I'll second the recommendation to seek out old /moldy hay or straw. It's amazing stuff
 
Glen Kowalski
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10 OCT 2019 Temps steady between 140-145.  Lots of fungal activity on outer edges of compost while the inside is very warm.  Moisture levels are probably a bit on the low side so added a little more water tonight.  Still haven't made up my mind on whether I should remove part of the composting alfalfa to the other (currently empty) tumbler to allow for more room for tumbling/airflow or just manually aerate the pile each day and let it cook.  

A couple of yards of compost would be a steal  Alas it will produce about 1.3 cubic yards or roughly 9.50 a cu/ft.  However it should be very high quality in the end.  I believe I can halve the amount of alfalfa pellets (the most expensive input) and make up the difference with free coffee grounds from Starbucks and a local gas station.  Trying to work out a deal to buy all the spoiling bananas as well for cheap.  

Temps have stayed at 140-145 consistently since they reached there-I do aerate the pile every couple of days by way of garden spade/shovel.  I think moisture is unevenly distributed through the pile as well affecting temps.  Still mostly going well and if I can halve my input costs and get it under $5 a cu/ft it would be worth it to me.  No farms near me sadly only a few horse barns which don't know where their straw comes from.  
 
stephen lowe
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Glen Kowalski wrote:A couple of yards of compost would be a steal  Alas it will produce about 1.3 cubic yards or roughly 9.50 a cu/ft.  However it should be very high quality in the end.  I believe I can halve the amount of alfalfa pellets (the most expensive input) and make up the difference with free coffee grounds from Starbucks and a local gas station.  Trying to work out a deal to buy all the spoiling bananas as well for cheap.  



A cubic yard is 27 cubic feet. 9.5 cubic feet would be about 1/3 of a cubic yard. In my area you can get municipal compost for 40-50 a yard, I think even down toward 25 a yard if you buy a lot. This stuff is pretty low quality and is basically filler that may contain annoying seeds. And you can buy super high quality compost for around 125 a yard with better pricing if you buy a lot. So if 40 gets you 1/3 of a yard you are paying a premium price and potentially getting a premium product, if it's 1.5 cubic yards you are getting a a great deal, especially since it should be quality and seed free
 
Glen Kowalski
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You are right of course  I realized my mistake almost as soon as I submitted the message.  We have Municipal compost here but it is very low-quality (trash and plastic often mixed in it).  It includes roadside cuttings as well with who knows what sprayed on it.  

Buying Compost in Bulk isn't feasible for me.  The only place that responded wanted almost $200 a cu/yd for compost of unknown quality since they buy it from somewhere else.  The nearest bulk composting company is over 200 miles away and doesn't deliver to my area.  

So with this situation I have 2 choices.  Either make my own compost or buy it bagged at the store.  The better quality stuff runs around 8-9 dollars a cu/ft.  So for my situation if I can produce High quality compost for under $5 a cu/ft it is worth the effort.  Plus there is always the journey-experiments are fun and $40 is a cheap price to pay for the joy of learning.
 
stephen lowe
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Heck ya Glen, I like your attitude. I know we are lucky with the availability of commercial compost around me but I am often shocked at how lucky. Your experiment sounds like it's going swimmingly and even at only 1/3 of a yard yield for $40 you aren't doing bad given the quality. And like you said, you could reduce the most expensive ingredient and still get similar quality and I think you could probably reduce the blood meal and maybe turn some of the alfalfa/blood meal expense into trace mineral sources, then replace the bulk with your coffee grounds or bananas or something and end up with an even higher quality compost for less. I consider 100/yd of very high quality compost to be a fair deal (as in you are getting a comparable value out of the product you're buying and the producer is doing well enough to make it worth while and to do it right) so 9 cu ft for $30 is a great place to be, especially as you will probably be able to reduce that cost as you build up your inputs
 
Glen Kowalski
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11 Oct 2019  Temps cooled a bit to 137-141 today so I added a fair amount of water and some urine.  Also aerated the pile again.  I'll check the tumbler around noon tomorrow-if it continues to cool or doesn't heat up I'll split the contents into the second tumbler and add about 10lbs of coffee grounds to each and a lot of pinewood chips and pine shavings to the both.  This would put back the completion time but that's ok we are having a warm fall and cool season crops can afford to be planted a little late.

With both tumblers going I should get slightly more than 9cu/ft for less than $20.  That is well worth the cost and composting is fun-at least for me  Note-this will be after this batch is done of course.  I'll be using only 1 50lb back of alfalfa and lots of coffee grounds, out of date fruits/veggies, and more woodchips/shavings next batch.  
 
Glen Kowalski
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12 Oct 2019  Temps steady at 140.  Decided to leave the pile as is for another week if temps stay steady.
 
Glen Kowalski
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Temps cooled a bit to 138 today.  Pile is overly wet now-left the lid up to let it 'air out' and of course got the first rain we've had in 7 weeks tonight while I was not at the house!!.  Will attempt to 'air it out' tomorrow a bit if it doesn't rain-luckily temps are still in the mid-80s here so it should be warm enough.  

As a side not I also started an experimental garden bed.  I hate tillage but the dirt here is mostly hard packed beach sand.  Very little grow in it without massive use of chemical fertilizers for several years.  Since I don't want to use chemicals in my food supply I'm trying something different.

I built a 10x4 garden bed the following way- First I layered 80 lbs of alfalfa pellets on the ground.  On top of that I spread 35lbs of spent coffee grounds.  Then 8 cubic feet of cheap 'topsoil' that is really just wood fines from evergreens.  Finally I added 4 cubic feet of mushroom compost and 2 cubic feet of composted cow manure.  The bed is about 5 inches tall in all.  It is on top of a bunch of dead sod the previous owner of my home had installed before I bought it that didn't make it through the summer without watering-which I consider a win.  A few clover plants were growing in the sand but they were very weak and spindly so I don't think I'll have much issues with them.

The theory is that the top level of 'good stuff' will provide a nice starting place for seedlings.  They can then extend roots through the cheap stuff to the coffee ground/alfalfa layer which should be full of nutrients.  If it goes as planned I should see a nice winter crop of radish, lettuce, and snap pea.  If not and the coffee grounds and alfalfa decomposing rob all the N from the soil then hopefully it will be ready by spring/summer next year  

 
Glen Kowalski
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temps climbed today to 140-142 range despite cooler temperatures and *finally* some decent rainfall.  
 
Glen Kowalski
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The tumbler has gone anaerobic.  Decided to split the contents of the tumbler in 2 and add a lot of pine shavings to both to absorb the excess moisture.  Temps were still at 142-144 but the smell was intense.  Thus ends the compost experiment in its original form- doomed by an untimely (but needed) rainstorm.

Lessons have been learned though.  100lbs of pellets is too much for a single tumbler due to expansion of the alfalfa when it becomes wet.  for future batches I will use half as much or less with more carbon items (bark, leaves, pine shavings ect).  The plus side is that pile did heat up quickly and stayed hot so it may have worked out without the rain incident.  
 
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