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Getting wood chip compost to heat up

 
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Mike,

I am following this as well. I really appreciate your diligence and data. The crappy part is... you have already done what I think I would do. One other thing I am doing on my piles (my motivation is not heat- yet, just mature compost in a year) is the addition of Sesbania. This is a contaminant in my garden fertilizer (Coop Poop) that grew 10' or more in relatively young chips and it is a legume. I have been using a machete to hack them down, adding them to the piles. I am thinking I need to do this on a much larger scale next year since I am assuming the amount of nitrogen is the issue. I know you have done a lot of coffee addition but assuming you need 25% nitrogenous components that is a lot of material. My chips weigh about 350# per yard dryish and so I am assuming 100# sesbania per yard. I probably have under one yard worth since it was a contaminant, next year I am planting it on 4 acres with the idea that I can cut it and try to get several hundred pounds incorporated into a small (maybe 10 yard) pile. This would NOT be the steady state, my idea is to use the sheep to collect nitrogen in manure (keeping their winter abode near the pile location) and then adding it to the piles. My other idea is to have a mobile coop I can literally move over a good pile of chips (the chix seem to poop largely on the roost in the winter) that will act as both deep bedding and as a heater.


I don't know if with all the work you have done on your greenhouse if you would be willing to have your birds participate in the endeavor, because it would basically turn your beautiful greenhouse into the Taj Majal coop, but this seems like a combo of the Edible Acres deep litter heater to make up for Jean Pain somehow not quite viable.
 
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Mike, i saw this very old german film of Jean Pain's project. It has english subs. His chips are much finer and fibrous than yours. Look around 3 minute 55 in, if anything, it shows clearly it's fluffy. They then compact it down again by stepping on it. Could be that because his stuff is ground finer, it has a better surface/volume ratio. More surface, means more exchange in oxygen, means the bacteria can continue their work better, means more heat.
It would explain the heat at first, in your pile which then declines. When the oxygen hits the surface, the bacteria burn off the "fuel" in the beginning, and then there is lots of "fuel" inside the woodchips, but oxygen can't get to it because the old stuff is in the way, too little surface. Maybe... Or something else.
I have no personal experience at all, so could be useless info as insights have progressed, but i thought to let you know my observation any way.



 
Tj Jefferson
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Mike,

I have been thinking about this all day you turd. Some ideas- it seems like you need bacterial decomposition for those temperatures. To my knowledge thermophilic bacteria are the most likely source for the heat. I just looked it up and that seems true. So there is fungal decomposition but no bacterial, or at least not enough to self-sustain.

I am thinking this is a phosphate issue. Jean Pain may have had wood chips rich in phosphate. Our soils are very depleted, to the point where it is practically unmeasurable in some samples. We have no significant rocks in the soil for trees to obtain phosphate, so they seem to just cycle it from very superficial roots after the leaves fall. My best piles have been from summer, the ones I get (ramial or not) in the winter never seem to steam in retrospect. In fact I went out this morning and the only pile steaming is the oldest of this years' chips, from a couple months ago before the leaves started to fall. Many leaves dropped this summer due to the drought.

While traditionally you don't want much phosphate in a fungal system, I am thinking that is a likely deficiency as phosphates are the rate limiting step in bacterial synthesis in my opinion in this system. The ones I buried deer in steamed last winter, the ones I have not buried carcasses in have not despite being much bigger and less mature.

Chickens being fed external feed are going to increase the phosphate. Coffee grounds may be pretty depleted, as it appears the phosphates leach out considerably when brewed. So coffee is high but the grounds are not.

I am getting three trailer loads of deer carcasses this year, and will see if they break down quickly. They are stripped and low in protein, but high in calcium and phosphorus. I'm guessing they will get piping hot. You may be able to get carcasses from a butcher during deer season. I was offered $50 a load to take them, but I traded for free processing of a deer. Then again I have about 150 yards of chips to bury them in. This is similar to Joel Salatin's compost production. I stole his idea. I'm not smart enough to come up with this on my own!

Or you could use bone meal but it's kind of steep in bulk.
 
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Thanks Eric!  I'm really surprised that adding the extra coffee grounds and the arm loads of green garden debris wouldn't be enough to at least show that one side is doing better than the other.  When I say an "armload" I'm talking about as many squash vines I can get my arms around and walk sideways to the greenhouse and kind of see where I'm going.  On that half of the pile I'm guessing the mix is 1/2 chips and 1/2 green materials by volume.  The vines were about a 6" thick layer and then I shoveled on enough chips to cover them (maybe 4 inches).  I walked on them to squish down the fluffy air gaps of the jumbled squash/zucchini vines.  They were freshly killed greens since I put them in the day to two after the frost killed them.

I guess my next option is to mix up some really high nitrogen liquid and pour it into one of the tubes.  I'll probably do the upper tube on the side that doesn't have the greens in it.  Then if it heats up, my compost thermometer can reach down to the hot spot.  

I just re-read this whole thread and wanted to let you all know that I have a good thermometer now that is accurate :)  And thanks for all the great advice!
 
Mike Haasl
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Sorry Hugo and TJ, I didn't see your replies (end of the page tricked me).  I have to run to a Packer game but I'll read your thoughts tonight and get back to you. Thanks!
 
Mike Haasl
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Ok, the Packers got their asses beat bad and I'm back at the computer.  

Thanks for the video Hugo!  Those ARE some fluffy pieces of wood.  I had heard they were ideally toothpick shaped and that confirms it.  I heard Jean had to build his own grinder to get the wood the way he liked it.  I have a wood chipper but it would just chop them into smaller rectangular bits.  Maybe it would still be better than the stuff straight from the city.  You very well may be onto something with the surface area versus the volume of the individual pieces of wood.  Can't really do anything about that now...

TJ, sorry I kept you thinking about this all day.  But I'm happy you did  I believe my soils are already high in phosphorus.  When I got my garden soil tested 4 years ago it said I'm off the chart for phosphorus (223 ppm).  I believe I've heard our whole region is high and I've heard they don't sell fertilizer with phosphorus in our area for that reason.  So, I'm thinking I can assume the trees that these chips came from also had enough phosphorus.  Did you have a reason to link phosphorus to thermophilic bacterial or is it just that since you don't want phosphorus in fungal systems it may be helpful in my case?  To be honest, I had never considered any element, mineral or chemical mattered to my process outside of C, N, O and H2O...  But I'd be willing to try.  I see my local Menards sells organic bone meal (6-8-0) and blood meal (12-0-0) in 3 lb bags.  I don't know how many I'd need to get a spot cooking enough to prove that it's the issue.  

For instance, I could mix up a couple 5 gallon buckets of water with a few bags of the bone meal and pour it on the pile in one spot (or in one tube).  Would that be enough to kick start something in one place?  If so, I could get more or find a bigger source.  Liquids or powders I could mix with water would be easiest to apply to my pile.  Burying a carcass would be tricky unless it was a raccoon sized critter.

Maybe I should choose three things to try in liquid form.  Mix each up in a bucket of water and pour them in different spots in the pile so they soak downward.  Then I can use the compost thermometer to check at each spot and see if any of them makes a difference.

I could try bone meal for a N and P test
I could try blood meal and urine for a N test
I could try .......
 
Tj Jefferson
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Mike phosphate is the energy molecule. The link from energy in one form to energy in another if you will. It is a bit like the battery of the cell. Lack of phosphorus looks like every other deficiency in the leaf (ok hyperbole) because if you can’t store energy you never made it. Expensive molecules like DNA and RNA need a ton of it. I used phosphorus on the field 15# an acre which is nothing and it made a huge difference. You are lucky you have it in plenty must be from glacial moraine.

I’m always interested in the micros. We are desperately short of three things in our soil. PO4, zinc and boron. I added a tiny amount of borax and a little more each year and am hoping the wood chips help the zinc, but that’s altisols for you.

Your chips are a system less complex than soils but still with fast growing microbes and 80F should be hot enough to support vibrant microbes. I don’t think it’s co2 building up that is a couple hundred ppm, and very soluble and mobile. Maybe sulfur? Since coal plants are shutting down I’m having to use that on the garden and fields. Fortunately that’s OMRI.

Get some deer skellies and try outdoors under a tarp.
 
Mike Haasl
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Ok, so if I'm understanding you correctly, I should still give the phosphorus a shot.  Any idea how many pounds of 6-8-0 bone meal I'd want to use to do a spot test in my pile?  I never was very good at chemistry...
 
Tj Jefferson
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I have no idea I would just dump in a bag and see if it goes up in temperature. If it goes up but not enough addd another bag. Or ask Dr Redhawk!
 
Mike Haasl
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Woo hoo!   That's my kind of biology/chemistry.  Will do
 
Mike Haasl
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Ok, midday update...

The thermometer on the right side dropped to 81 since yesterday when it was at 83.  I moved it to the left (no green garden scrap) and it was still around 86.  I reached way back to the middle of the pile and poked it straight down and it read 98 (closer to the core of the pile).

I went shopping and got blood meal (12-0-0) but they were out of stock in bone meal  But I have some old organic fertilizer laying around that's 5-7-3 with 8% calcium and 2% sulfur.  So I mixed 5 lbs of blood meal into 5 gallons of water.  It was a bit granular so it didn't dissolve perfectly.  I picked a spot as far in as I could reach and dumped half the slurry there.  Unfortunately some of it ran off the spot and went downhill.  I dug a hole in the chips for the other half of the batch and that stayed put.  I'll dump 5 more gallons of water on that spot shortly to wash more of the blood down deeper into the pile.

I mixed up the fertilizer with 5 gallons of water and it also had a bunch of settled granules.  So I'll go back out and mix it again and hope it dissolves better before applying it in a different spot (with a divot dug in advance).

Both spots are on the wood chip only side.  The blood meal (Nitrogen) trial started at 98 degrees and the fertilizer (NPK) trial started at 84 degrees.
 
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Mike,

Yeah, it kinda blows my mind as well considering how far greens *don’t* go.  If I want my compost to heat up I really need to charge it with greens or cheat and go for blood meal.

I have used my own urine which works just fine outside but you might not like the results inside your greenhouse!

Best of luck!

Eric
 
Mike Haasl
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Well, something happened.  As background, for the amendment experiment, I put blood meal in a slurry (lots of granules sinking in the water) in the farthest in spot I could reach.  Some ran down the mounded top of the pile and infiltrated it the wrong place. But 80% ended up in the place I wanted.  The solids probably all stayed on the surface but 5 gallons of liquid went down into the pile.  I put a similar amount of fertilizer with 5 gallons of water in a spot on the left side and again, the granules stayed on the surface.  This time all the material stayed in that spot and I used a stick to poke and work a series of holes down into the wood chips so the fertilizer solids and liquids could get into the pile better.

Today I checked and the blood meal spot has heated up from 95 (two days ago) to 98 degrees.  Plus when I pulled the probe up so the tip was about a foot under the surface it was at 103.

For the fertilizer spot it heated up from 84 (two days ago) to 96.  Plus 1 foot deep it was at 112.

So...  I think the fertilizer is having an impact.  The blood meal may or may not be doing anything.  I don't know which component of the fertilizer is doing the magic or if it's all of the parts and pieces combined.

I'm not sure if I should wait till tomorrow to see if it continues to heat up or if I should start buying fertilizer today.  And I'll want to find a liquid soluble fertilizer that I can apply to the surface and via the PVC pipes...

(For the record, I also ran the aeration fan for 10 minutes yesterday)
 
Eric Hanson
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Mike,

Very interesting!  I was wondering if you were going to have to go the blood meal route, and It looks like that was the best way to really get things to heat up.  Nice to see that your project is working.

Like I said before, I am always amazed by how far greens DON’T go.  My best hot pile ever was just a 5’ tall pile of grass clippings.  It was spring, we had lots of rain and by the time I got around to mowing I had hayfields that really needed raking (I usually leave the clippings, but these were THICK!).  I hauled them off to a part of our property that I was using for an orchard.  That pile got HOT!  I mean I nearly burned my hand reaching into the pile kind of hot.  It eventually decayed away to a layer of finished compost only about 2” thick which I scraped together and added to my garden.

The real moral of the story though is what happened later.  That pile of grass was on a very gentle incline, ever so slightly sloping down towards a newly planted peach tree, one of three in a row.  The nutrients/microbes leached downhill towards that peach tree.  The grass in that leach field was tall, lush, dark and plainly more healthy than grass around it.  And that peach tree grew at twice the rate of the others in the same row.  That green leach field lasted for 3-4 years and the tree is taller and more vibrant than any of the others.

Mike, I am not trying to hijack your thread, but I am afraid that I am terminally over verbose.  Where I was going with this is that that pile of clippings was the only compost pile I could ever get to heat up.  I still make compost piles, but now I make them in the garden in an unused corner.  I don’t even care if the material does not completely break down.  All that compost goodness is seeping right into my garden soil and any material left over I either spread or use as starter for a new pile in another place that needs the fertility.

I think your woodchip pile project is great and I am pleased that you are having better luck getting it to heat up than I ever did.  I am really looking forward to seeing how your project works out.

Eric
 
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Great to hear that you are getting some heating going on Mike.
I have used Urea fertilizer as a jump starter for a  farmer who changed over to no-till, no chemical farm methods.
He built a 100 yard long windrow and  we used some of his left over Urea in the center of that windrow as we built it, the heat up was impressive.
Now he only buys urea as his compost starter but he has since the beginning, used the urea to get his compost windrows (has three now) heating up.
I am hoping he completes the conversion this next season so that all his acreage is almost organic certified ready (he isn't so far interested in getting the designation).

Redhawk
 
Mike Haasl
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So if the blood meal (12-0-0) is barely heating up its spot, and the Dr Earth fertilizer (5-7-3) is clearly heating its spot, does that mean that I might need the Phosphorus as TJ was supposing?  

Or, in other words, if nitrogen was the only thing I'm missing, why didn't the blood meal do as good as the fertilizer?
 
Bryant RedHawk
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You actually need the big three (N,P&K) to achieve high heat compost.

So if you know that blood meal alone didn't reach your desired temp in compost, I'd try an equal parts fertilizer for seeding my compost heaps.
 
Mike Haasl
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Today we have a clear trend!

Blood meal (straight N) spot has now gone from 95 to 98 to 100 today at full probe depth.  1' deep it was 103 yesterday and 108 today.

Fertilizer spot (5-7-3) spot has now gone from 84 to 96 to 106 today at full probe depth.  1' deep it was 112 yesterday and 135 today.

Downside is that it smells a little funky in the greenhouse now.  

But I think it's time to get some more fertilizer.  I don't want granular stuff since it doesn't dissolve well for application deep into the pile.  I don't know if it's the exact amount of N, P or K that is doing the trick so I'm looking for stuff that has a decent amount of each.  I'm currently thinking of getting a gallon of 6-4-4 concentrate with earthworm castings, kelp and trace minerals.  $52 with free shipping.

I'll buy that in an hour unless someone speaks up quickly.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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6,4,4 should be great for you Mike.

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wood chips eat nitrogen for lunch
 
Eric Hanson
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Mike, Redhawk,

I am beginning to wonder if my old compost piles failed to heat up because I over focused on nitrogen and then ignored the P & K.

Eric
 
Mike Haasl
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My unreasonably premature data would agree with that sentiment...
 
Eric Hanson
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Mike, Redhawk,

I guess I got stuck in the mindset of N+C=heat.  But of course it creates heat because we are building microbes.  And microbes need NPK plus a bunch of other chemicals which are probably present.

Increasingly, as I am finding with my woodchips, it’s about the microbes more than the chemistry.

Eric
 
Eric Hanson
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Mike, Redhawk,

Just further clarification my thoughts and previous misconceptions.

So Eric old school basically was told and believed that a hot compost pile was essentially a chemistry experiment and followed a basic formula that C+N=Heat+Compost.  Further, I assumed and was basically told that the additions of C & N allowed Bacteria to devour organic matter and in the process of microbial digestion release heat as a byproduct.

The problem with this line of thinking is multi fold and begins by being not exactly wrong.  Digestion does release heat and well fed microbes release more heat.  But they can only release so much heat.  No microbe is going to release so much heat that it can heat a pile up all by itself.  It needs buddies to do this, as in legions of microbes and this is where the P & K come in to play.  The real heat is given off by rapidly producing vast numbers of of the little bacterial critters, all of them eating N and C along with P and K.  

Chemistry is certainly involved, but not just chemistry.  It is easy to get caught up in the mindset that the bacteria are there and hungrily awaiting loads of N, but that is only a partial truth.  They need to reproduce rapidly before they can collectively make that heat.

I am sure I have more to learn, but this is a lesson I have learned.

Eric
 
Tj Jefferson
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I added azomite in my initial piles. Now I get truckloads of granite dust. It’s not as good but it’s free... I think if you get the raw materials in a pretty broad window the microbes do the lifting. If you need it to heat up fast maybe a little smaller window.
 
Mike Haasl
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I didn't take measurements today but yesterday I added a bunch more fertilizer.  I mixed up some liquid fertilizer in water and dumped 10 gallons each into three spots on the pile, then also poured 10 gallons into two of the lower pvc pipes.  I'd expect by tomorrow to start seeing some effect.  I kind of hope so since it's supposed to get down to 2F for the low Monday night...
 
Eric Hanson
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Mike,

I am interested in how well your pile’ heat will stand up against that cold.  Optimistically I am thinking that while you will likely have a frozen/almost frozen outer crust, you will have a hot center that will steam prolifically if/when you open it up on a cold morning.

This is an interesting thread and I am glad that you started it!

Eric
 
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This has been a great thread.

After your season, from building it to dissassembly, what was the volume decrease?

After adding amendments and getting some positive results,  what are your thoughts for the next season? Will you consider layering in manure or is that still out of the question? I think of salitans woodchips with sloppy bloody chicken guts mixed in on such a huge scale. Yes, it is in open air under a roof. But it may be 100x bigger than yours. Apparently there is very little smell or pest pressure. When looking at that set up, it seems some manure layered in the top 2/3's would be minimal from a smell/ammonia standpoint.

 
Mike Haasl
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Thanks gents, I'm curious how it will work too.  In one of the dump spots I buried the thermometer vertically to full depth.  Yesterday it was at 83, today it was at 80.  The fertilizer water poured into the chips like they weren't there so I think it penetrated well, unlike the granular fertilizer mixed with water.  If I don't see any heat tomorrow, I'll repeat it with 2-4x the dose.  If that doesn't do it, I'm pretty much out of knobs to turn.

I am going to run to the hardware store and pick up a timer that can run the aeration fan for 15 minutes once a day.  I figure I should be pushing some air through but not a lot.  I ran the fan yesterday for 10 min or so.

The pile does stink like ammonia currently but I'm hoping it's due to the granular fertilizer that didn't sink into the pile.  Luckily it's contained in the semi-airtight hopper but when I run the fan, it pushes that air out, through a planting bed and back into the greenhouse.  So if this new fertilizer adds significantly to the smell I could have problems.  I'd run the fan at dusk so the smell dissipates by daytime but it could still be an issue.

Wayne, last year's pile (which didn't cook much at all) only shrunk 10-20%.  If the fertilizer works, I'll debate if I just do that next year or try to replace it with a farm style of source (manure, carcasses, more greens).

Eric, if this pile generates any heat at all, I'm sure it can stand up to the cold since it's inside.  Last winter with the pile not cooking at all, I only had two mornings in the greenhouse under 21 degrees.  Probably 60 under 32 degrees.  But a 8 cubic yard pile of compost should be able to laugh that off (if it's cooking).  Even without cooking I'm guessing the pile last winter didn't freeze.

Overall I think the root of my issue is the size of the wood chips.  In Gaelan Brown's book one recommended recipe has mainly wood chips and 10% sawdust.  I'm thinking there was enough dusty bits in my municipal chips to equate the 10% sawdust.  I don't think I can find Jean Pain shaped chips very easily.  I do have a homeowner sized chipper that I could run the city chips through.  It would cut them down to probably the size of a playing dice sliced into thirds.  So it wouldn't be toothpick shaped bits but there'd be much more surface area to volume.

I also don't want to spend another winter struggling with it.  I might be up for another experimental run during the summer (fill it in April with a new recipe and see if it cooks through summer).  But I might be sick of it too...
 
this is supposed to be a surprise, but it smells like a tiny ad:
Heat your home with the twigs that naturally fall of the trees in your yard
http://woodheat.net
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