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Alternatives to a wood chipper? Or plans for making one?  RSS feed

 
Abe Connally
Posts: 1502
Location: Chihuahua Desert
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I need quite a bit of mulch to help develop my homestead and increase the organic matter in the soil.  I can get the biomass, which is mostly ag wastes like tree trimmings, but I don't have a chipper, and I can't afford one right now, either.

Are there any options for chipping stuff without a chipper?  Or does anyone have plans for making a chipper?  I've got a 40 hp John Deere diesel with a PTO, so I've got the power, just not a machine to make it happen.

I was thinking maybe biochar as an alternative, as I could cut branches down into a size for a retort, and then they would be easier to pulverize as char.

Any ideas?
 
Jordan Lowery
pollinator
Posts: 1528
Location: zone 7
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from my experience its 10x easier to make char material small and then char it. rather than make big chunks and crush the char. it creates an unholy amount of dust and is a lot of work.

can you rent a chipper for a day? we can rent some here in our town for 30$ a day. one day of chipping can = a lot of mulch or chips for biochar.
 
Aljaz Plankl
Posts: 386
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What about putting whole ag wastes as mulch, is this an option? Tree trimming decay into really good humus and creates nice mulch and top layer of soil even without chipping. I've seen really good soil underneath piles of wood, stick etc.
 
Joel Hollingsworth
pollinator
Posts: 2103
Location: Oakland, CA
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I find soaking and/or mixing with other soil amendments reduces the dust to a reasonable level, and that some breakage & shrinkage happens during pyrolysis. Chipping may well be easiest when the pyrolysis isn't complete, and the lignin is really weak but the carbon hasn't yet gained much strength (that also is apparently better for the soil). That said, I second Plankl's idea about big pieces. Char as mulch is probably only worth the work where you really need earliness.

I mulched my tomatoes last year with Christmas tree branches and bricks. Pellitory came up through the branches eventually, but not through the bricks.  I imagine cordwood would perform similarly.

Also, as mentioned in "critter care," larger pieces of wood left on the soil can be periodically lifted so that chickens can eat whatever crawled under in the past few days. This process tends to break down the wood fairly quickly.
 
jeremiah bailey
Posts: 343
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What about just burying the tree trimmings for hugelkultur? You can make easy raised beds by piling wood then dumping soil on top. Or you can dig a pit, dump in the trimmings and then put the soil back. Or you can pile leaves on top of a pile of logs... or compost or start a new compost pile on it or whatever.

I bought a tiller and a chipper last year thinking I'd use them to make mulch and incorporate OM into my soil. I don't even use the tiller to break ground anymore. I've had good enough success just planting into sod and mulching with straw for far less work. For incorporating woody stuff, I dig a hole and bury it whole.

I agree with soil on renting gear. If I absolutely needed to chip up a bunch of wood, I'd look into renting a machine. Even though I'm a bit of a gear head, I plan on selling off some of my equipment due to lack of use.
 
Abe Connally
Posts: 1502
Location: Chihuahua Desert
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hugelkultur and wholoe log composting is not very viable in my climate.  There are stumps and limps around the property that are more than 20 years old, and very little decay.  I think a lot of it depends on the water absorption of the soil, and I'm hoping to help that with some swales.

hugelkulture also seems like a lot of work compared to mulching swales.  I'll have to do a bit and see what the payoff is like.

I can see if I can rent a chipper, though my first thought is probably not available.  I am in Northern Mexico, and when I mention mulch to anyone, they just give me a blank gaze.  Most folks burn their trimmings in open fires, so not very good use of the biomass.

The char that I have done was pretty easy to break up.  I just threw it into the concrete mixer with a few rocks, sprayed with water to reduce dust, and it was pretty easy.

I don't have large diameter branches, probably less than 3 inches thick.  So, for char, I cut them to about 2-3 feet long and pack them into the barrel retort.  It is a lot less work that way.

As for using the branches as a mulch, that might be possible, though I would want to break them up somewhat so that I can get a covering on the soil.  The problem with the large diameter pieces (more than 1/2", is they take forever to break down.

I guess I'll have to try what I can for now, some biochar, some hugelkultur type things, and then see if I can find a chipper for rent.

Another idea I had was to make piles and drive over them with the tractor and blade.  It wouldn't be perfect, but it would break it down a bit.

 
paul wheaton
master steward
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Location: missoula, montana (zone 4)
bee chicken hugelkultur trees wofati woodworking
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I wouldn't mess with a chipper.  I might use loppers to cut the branches up a bit.  But a chipper would be overkill.
 
tel jetson
steward
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Location: woodland, washington
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what volume are you working with?  loppers aren't going to cut it for anything three inches in diameter, but that could work for a smallish volume of smaller diameter branches.

PTO chippers are pretty common, and 40 hp is more than enough power for a chipper that could handle 6" diameter material.  if you're going to be using it a lot and you find a really good deal, buying one doesn't seem like a terrible idea.  for someone in the EE.UU. I would recommend browsing Capital Press classified ads, but there might be an analogous publication in Mexico.  renting would probably be better money-wise, but it sounds like that might not be an option for you.  maybe you've just got to convince some other folks in the area to stop burning this stuff and go in on a chipper with you.  easier said than done, I'm sure.

building a chipper seems risky.  effective chippers have big flywheels and emergency shutoffs all over them and I wouldn't want to mess with that stuff.  you would need a lot of thick sheet metal and some expensive gears or cogs and there would be a lot of welding involved.  I don't think you would end up saving yourself any money compared to buying used equipment.

swales and hugelkultur can complement each other very well, so I wouldn't rule one out in favor of the other.  what sort of dirt are you dealing with?  swales alone might not solve your water problem if you've got really well-drained soil.  not having to chop of up the wood is a pretty big advantage of hugelkultur.

in my understanding of char, it really functions best in high rainfall areas to prevent leaching nutrients out of reach of plant roots.  that doesn't sound like the situation you're in, so char might not be your best bet.  hugelkultur does the same thing, but holds onto a lot of water as well, so it might be better suited to your arid climate.  it also involves substantially less work.
 
Joel Hollingsworth
pollinator
Posts: 2103
Location: Oakland, CA
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Based on what you've written in your semi-arid polycultures thread, it sounds like you can harvest your grasses for mulch, too...doing so near the end of the dry season might even help them to be more productive.

A layer of driven-over branches with a thin layer of grasses on top should be able to hold your spring rains long enough to decompose a lot better than the exposed wood you've mentioned, especially if a layer of living vegetation is also working to maintain moisture. I think you won't need too deep a skin of soil to make your hugelkultur work, if the soil is covered in grasses or leaves (living or dead).

Maybe setting up a windrow of partly-broken brush on contour and later planting at its feet is enough work for the first wet season, then the soil from the uphill side plus the residue can go on top of the brush for the second season's planting. Some crop roots are particularly good at softening & improving moisture retention, and there are some good climbing nitrogen fixers, so maybe sesame and company on the uphill side & fenugreek and company on the downhill?

What sort of earth-moving can your tractor be set up for? There might be a clever way to throw some soil onto one side of the windrow with relatively little effort.
 
Abe Connally
Posts: 1502
Location: Chihuahua Desert
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yeah, I can definitely harvest some grass for mulch.  It is somewhat labor intensive, as the amount of rocks around here pretty much prevents mechanical harvesting, so I have to do it by hand.  No big deal, but it takes a lot of time.

I can also get some moldy hay and straw most years, so that helps as well.

Interesting about a windrow on the contour idea.  I may give that a try and see.

I have a pull behind blade for the tractor, and it is pretty good, though it is light, so I have to make a lot of passes to go very deep or move a decent amount of material.  It could definitely throw some cover material on top of a windrow.  I could also make a swale, especially if I weighted it down some.

PTO chippers are common in areas that use mulch.  But they are not common here.  I am sure I can find one eventually, but because they are sort of rare, the cost will be very high.

I haven't come across hugelkultur being used in arid areas.  I think because you expose the soil on top, there might be a risk of erosion. And the amount of time to decompose woody material is a drawback here as well.  But who knows, cause I haven't seen it done in a dry area. 

Char holds water AND nutrients.  It has been used very successfully in arid areas. Without a chipper, char is a lot less work for me.  But char is not a great mulch.

I think windrows of cut grass and hay, plus some woody stuff in there might be a good start.  I can always do a pass or two with the tractor and blade on contour to get a little bit of a swale going, and then to the windrow there.
 
Joel Hollingsworth
pollinator
Posts: 2103
Location: Oakland, CA
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velacreations wrote:Without a chipper, char is a lot less work for me.  But char is not a great mulch.

I think windrows of cut grass and hay, plus some woody stuff in there might be a good start.  I can always do a pass or two with the tractor and blade on contour to get a little bit of a swale going, and then to the windrow there.


Do look into stopping the char process partway, if you can: it sounds like that would suit your purposes a lot better than the complete pyrolysis process that has been developed to make fuel.

Also, having seen the keyline videos from another thread, maybe the windrows shouldn't be perfectly on contour, but should channel water from valleys out to ridges.
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