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Can't afford Dr. Ingham's class, but going to try thermal composting anyway...

 
Kevin MacBearach
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I'm a bit surprised at how little there is online that goes into detail on thermal composting. I guess this is why Elaine Ingham's classes are so popular. Apart from the great Molly Haviland video, I can't find much else, so I'm going to wing it from there.

The materials I have to work with at the moment are :
1. 4' high pasture grass to cut for green material
2. Cow, chicken, and rabbit manure for high nitrogen
3. Old, moldy hay for brown woody material
4. Don't have yet but trying to locate some wood-chips

For my wood-chips, should I look for very finely shredded, or will the big chunky kind (like what you'd see at a school playground) work? I intend to water them for 3 days before I build the pile.

I was going to start rounding up the fresh cow patties and place them in a pile so they'll still be fresh. Does anyone know what their "shelf life" is so I don't start losing nitrogen?

How do I measure my ratios with such unruly substances? Do I go by weight, or volume? I have a plastic rotating composter I could use for filling to different ratios, or I guess I could just use buckets.

And finally, I'm mostly confused about WHEN to turn the pile. If anyone knows of a good article, or video they could direct me to I'd be appreciative.
 
Su Ba
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I find that making a hot pile isn't all that difficult. I make mine lasagna style. 3"-6" layers of each brown & green. Manure layer is just a covering. Brown stuff, your hay would qualify. Then green stuff, I use chopped weeds or grass clippings which I have abundantly. Then a light layer of manure. By the way, i like to chop everything if i have the time. The lawnmower gets a real workout! Next I use a hose to wet the layer down. Then I repeat. I don't use wood chips in my hot piles. I reserve them for my hugelkultur pits and add mushroom spore to them.

I use four wood pallets wired together and lined with cardboard for my hot compost piles. The bottom allows excess moisture to drain away. I cover the top of the pile with a couple of sheets of cardboard to keep an even moisture content in the pile, plus to funnel excess rain away.

The main problem I have with a hot pile is that when it gets hot, it tends to dry out. Thus composting stops. So I will check the pile once a week. If the core is dry, then the pile gets turned and watered as it goes into another pallet box.

I only make hot piles in order to process my manures. I prefer not to put raw manure into the gardens.

Oh yes, as I make the layers I also incorporate some amendments. wood ash. Unwashed coral sand. Lava sand. Volcanic cinder. Burnt crushed bone. Biochar. Urine.

I don't measure anything. It's just an estimate.
 
Ken Peavey
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SIZE
Smaller is better. The issue here is the ratio of surface area to volume. The higher the ratio, the faster the material will break down. Consider a log as the example. Cut the log in half, you have increased the surface area by exposing the newly split sides, but the volume is unchanged. Keep keep on splitting that log the size of the pieces keep getting smaller but with every split you are exposing more surface area. Wood chips are the same thing as a log that has been split a large number of times. It is on the surfaces that the microbes live and do their thing. More surface area allows more microbes. The microbes generate heat as they do their thing. More surface area will allow a larger population of microbes which in turn generate more heat, but conditions have to be right.

TURNING
The microbes need a diverse diet. The woodchips offer carbon. Grass clippings offer nitrogen. A layer of wood chips on top of a layer of grass clippings has a narrow zone in the middle where the microbes have access to both N and C. I've seen lots of instruction saying to alternate layers in the heap as you build it. This is great advice to help you get the proportions of browns and green right, but these instructions stop short. Take the extra step of tossing the heap immediately. A layered heap will heat up in a few days, and will compost fine. A homogenous heap with a reasonable blend of greens and browns combined with adequate moisture throughout will heat up overnight.

Another key indicator of when to turn is temperature. When the heap begins to cool, it is because the thermophillic microbes have consumed all available food and are beginning to die off. Turning the heap brings unconsumed food to the microbes as well as much needed oxygen and moisture. Turning breaths new life into the heap and will allow higher temperatures to be sustained for a longer period. This will last until the food runs out. It is possible to keep a heap in the thermophillic phase indefinately by adding fresh foodstuffs. I've added bag after bag after bag of lawn clippings to an active hot heap. The clippings are consumed in less than a week. Bear in mind that it is possible to add too much green material. Spontaneous combustion has been documented. I have burned my hand by shoving my arm into a pile.

N LOSS IN MANURE
I've read studies that show the nitrogen loss in cow manure begins immediately. I recall one study that measured soil nitrogen: Plot A had the manure applied and tilled immediately. Plot B had the manure applied and tilled a week later. The N levels in the soil were HALF.
Gather the patties, but get them blended with browns and cover with several inches of material to absorb the ammonia as it volatilizes. Dry leaves are well suited for the task. Sir Albert Howard covered his Indore Method heaps with a few inches of soil.

PORTIONING
Use weight as the metric. The carbon is not a free molecule, it is contained in cellulose, lignin and organic compounds within the cells. The N is in the form of ammonia and urea within cells. Most plant matter has similar density once it is shredded up, about 5 pounds per gallon. Water can make it seem a lot heavier by filling the spaces between the shredded pieces. As long as the browns are about as moist as the greens, you will be able to estimate equal weights well enough for the process to work. If you can come up with similar weight, all you need is the proportions. I find a pitchfork will let me gauge the weight...as long as my back hurts the same with each forkfull, I'm able to stay consistent.
50 pounds of greens to 100 pounds of browns. This does not have to be perfect. It barely needs to be close. In the ballpark, even way out in left field is good enough. The heap will let you know what it needs. Smelly: add browns. Cool: add greens. Dry: add water


The best way to learn how to compost is to go ahead and pile stuff up. Compost happens even when conditions are not ideal. There is a certain excitement and satisfaction found in building a hot pile, tearing into it and watching the steam rise! Over time, the excitement may cool off right along with the heap, however that satisfaction can develop into pride and accomplishment.

Talking with veteran composters I find a common pattern:
Early composting attempts see great attention to detail, turning the pile religiously, strictly following the directions
Experienced composters turn it less often, keep an eye on the moisture, but generally loosen up the standards and let things slide
Veteran composters pile stuff up and walk away. Nature takes care of the rest.
 
Kevin MacBearach
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Su Ba wrote:I find that making a hot pile isn't all that difficult. I make mine lasagna style. 3"-6" layers of each brown & green. Manure layer is just a covering. Brown stuff, your hay would qualify. Then green stuff, I use chopped weeds or grass clippings which I have abundantly. Then a light layer of manure. By the way, i like to chop everything if i have the time. The lawnmower gets a real workout! Next I use a hose to wet the layer down. Then I repeat. I don't use wood chips in my hot piles. I reserve them for my hugelkultur pits and add mushroom spore to them.

I use four wood pallets wired together and lined with cardboard for my hot compost piles. The bottom allows excess moisture to drain away. I cover the top of the pile with a couple of sheets of cardboard to keep an even moisture content in the pile, plus to funnel excess rain away.

The main problem I have with a hot pile is that when it gets hot, it tends to dry out. Thus composting stops. So I will check the pile once a week. If the core is dry, then the pile gets turned and watered as it goes into another pallet box.

I only make hot piles in order to process my manures. I prefer not to put raw manure into the gardens.

Oh yes, as I make the layers I also incorporate some amendments. Wood ash. Unwashed coral sand. Lava sand. Volcanic cinder. Burnt crushed bone. Biochar. Urine.

I don't measure anything. It's just an estimate.




Thanks for the reply. I've been more, or less doing my own thing with composting with very mixed results. After watching a few of Elaine Ingham's lectures I realized that all this time I've just been making big piles of vermi-compost at best and big "reduced waste" piles at worst. So I decided to just focus on one method, thermal composting. And also, my property is quite small for the amount of animals on it so I have to really be on top of things as far as manure and grazing space.

The problem with the hot pile getting too dry is one of the things I saw addressed in the Molly Haviland video. She really soaked her dry material for 3 days prior to building the pile. Seemed to keep a 50% hydration throughout the whole process.
 
Kevin MacBearach
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Ken Peavey wrote:
The best way to learn how to compost is to go ahead and pile stuff up. Compost happens even when conditions are not ideal. There is a certain excitement and satisfaction found in building a hot pile, tearing into it and watching the steam rise! Over time, the excitement may cool off right along with the heap, however that satisfaction can develop into pride and accomplishment.

Talking with veteran composters I find a common pattern:
Early composting attempts see great attention to detail, turning the pile religiously, strictly following the directions
Experienced composters turn it less often, keep an eye on the moisture, but generally loosen up the standards and let things slide
Veteran composters pile stuff up and walk away. Nature takes care of the rest.


Thank you Ken, that was great information! Filled in a lot of gaps for me.

The "homogenous heap" is a new concept for me. So layer it to get the ratios right, then toss it?

So mixing my cow patties with a lot of wood shavings and covering would keep nitrogen from lowering for a little while? I also get a lot of urine from the cows that I soak up with wood shavings. Is that then considered a high nitrogen material?

Adding water to the browns for weight ratios is a great idea. I could not find that bit of info online anywhere.

Thanks!





 
Michael Cox
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Thermal composting as you describe sounds like a lot of effort! In our place we have two big compost 'bins' - around 4ft by 4ft by 4ft with posts and wooden boards to hold it all together.

Everything gets chucked on as it gets gathered - grass clippings, food scraps, hedge trimming, weeds, humanure (if we have composting loos running). There is no special effort to turn it or layer it. Once one bin is full the next is ready to empty, but this takes about 6 months.

From past experience these get hottest when we are adding humanure - a la 'humanure handbook', sawdust buckets - when they really get toasty, but temperature per se has never been an objective.

Your plan sounds fine but overall I'd question the value of it when walking away and leaving it does such a good job.

One last thing - do you have chickens? You mention lots of animals. If so put your heap in their run and they will do the work of turning it for you as they forage bugs and scraps.
 
Burra Maluca
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I think this is the video that was mentioned, in case anyone wants to watch it.



 
Alex Veidel
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Kevin, I wouldn't worry too much about the finer details of compost. It's really easy to get hung up on C:N ratios and whatnot, but I've always found that with all the time I've spent researching a perfect compost recipe I could have been making a lot of compost Remember, decomposition happens, regardless of how you build your compost pile. If you don't feel like you did it right, you can always re-compost your materials in another pile. A lot of perfecting your compost pile comes from seeing what happens after you build and then adjusting your process for the next one.

A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is that your going for a ratio of 2/3 of heavy carbon materials to 1/3 heavy nitrogen materials. You can layer your materials a couple inches at a time, watering each layer as you go (I usually use between 5-10 gallons of water for a four pallet sized compost pile).

Finely shredded materials break down way more quickly; there is more surface area for bacteria to stick to.

A perfectly formulated hot process compost pile doesn't require turning; turning a pile actually lowers it's nutrient value. If your pile isn't perfect (which happens more often than not), you'll want to turn it if the temperature begins to drop too soon or if the pile doesn't reach it's intended temperature. It will also need to be turned if it begins to smell; your compost pile should always smell like good, clean earth.
 
Kevin MacBearach
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I do understand by not getting "too hung up on the details." It's just that I'm trying to figure this out for my own curiosity. You have to admit there's a lot of contradicting information out there. For example, everyone knows the Joel Salatin "deep bedding" system where he lets his cows overwinter in a barn by constantly throwing layers of hay on top of the cow's manure until by the bed of winter he's created a 5' high "lasagna" of fermented hay and manure. Then in early spring he moves the cows t pasture and brings the pigs into the barn to root through the fermented bedding for the next two months. Now it's obvious that with a lack of turning, not to mention the weight of the cows on the bedding, that this stuff is way anaerobic. From what I've heard from Elaine Ingham, she would say that this bedding is releasing ammonia and other harmful gasses breathed in by the cows. And the fermenting, oxygen deprived nitrogen is turning into nitrates and nitrites which could seep into the ground and ruin Salatin's ground water. So between Salatin and Ingham, one of them is wrong. All I know for sure is animal manure is a volatile substance that depending on how it's handled can either make things thrive on the farm, or make them sick.
 
Alex Veidel
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Do we know that the hay is fermenting? From what I've seen, it looks like his deep bedding method utilizes normal composting. Turning is provided by the animals (animals are awesome aerators, especially chickens). In his articles, he says that if it smells it needs to be attended to.
 
Scott Strough
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Kevin MacBearach wrote:I do understand by not getting "too hung up on the details." It's just that I'm trying to figure this out for my own curiosity. You have to admit there's a lot of contradicting information out there. For example, everyone knows the Joel Salatin "deep bedding" system where he lets his cows overwinter in a barn by constantly throwing layers of hay on top of the cow's manure until by the bed of winter he's created a 5' high "lasagna" of fermented hay and manure. Then in early spring he moves the cows t pasture and brings the pigs into the barn to root through the fermented bedding for the next two months. Now it's obvious that with a lack of turning, not to mention the weight of the cows on the bedding, that this stuff is way anaerobic. From what I've heard from Elaine Ingham, she would say that this bedding is releasing ammonia and other harmful gasses breathed in by the cows. And the fermenting, oxygen deprived nitrogen is turning into nitrates and nitrites which could seep into the ground and ruin Salatin's ground water. So between Salatin and Ingham, one of them is wrong. All I know for sure is animal manure is a volatile substance that depending on how it's handled can either make things thrive on the farm, or make them sick.
Actually they are both right. Salatin does use anaerobic for a while, but he really uses a whole lot of high carbon material to absorb the nitrates and nitrites and prevent them from either gassing the cows or leaching into the ground water. Then in spring, he sends in the pigs to aerate the whole thing and hot compost BEFORE he uses it in the fields. This makes the end result compost much like the compost Ingham makes. Two different ways to reach the same basic end result. Just keep in mind, the way Salatin does it requires HUGE amounts of material with a VERY high carbon ratio. If you use too little, then exactly those bad things you mentioned will happen.
 
Kevin MacBearach
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Well I guess Salatin would have massive amounts of carbon at his disposal for all those animals.

What's your opinions on having the pile come up to a certain temperature for a certain amount of days in order for the good bacteria that the plants can benefit from to develop, as oppose to what I mostly see people doing which is just making a pile with the right ratio but not being particular to temp, or length of temp? Doesn't that just leave a whole different bacteria profile in the pile? It would be one thing to let such a pile sit for a year till worms created the good bacteria, but people just seem to treat these piles as if they're matured compost before even the worms take over. Seems the lines get blurred between thermal and vermi-compost.
 
Ken Peavey
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For my opinion I refer to Ken's First Rule of Compost: It's your compost and you can do whatever you like with it.

Compost is a process. In nature, the process has a lot to do with succession: what happens next. In a hot heap the thermophiles are the king. When they have consumed their resources and populated themselves into unsustainable territory they die off. As the pile cools the mesophiles have the advantage and for a while, they rule the world. There are still thermophillic bacteria around, but the conditions which allow them to dominate are no longer in place. There are also anaerobic bacteria scratching out an existence. As conditions in the pile change, so does the dominant organism. There are countless species of microbes lurking in the shadows which will grow readily the moment they are able.

The primary reasons for hot composting: kill off weed seeds, kill off pathogens, and speed of decomposition. Besides heat, other factors can kill off weed seeds. Mold, mildew, and fungus can infect the seeds, destroying their viability. They can dry out. The can be eaten or damaged by bugs and worms. Pathogens have a hard time of it. While they thrive on the host plant, the conditions in the compost heap are usually far from ideal for their needs, reducing their population. Speed of decomposition is deceptive in a hot heap. Sure, there's lots of activity, but for the compost to finish, other successors need to do their part. Some of them can do their part in the garden beds just as well as in a heap.

 
Scott Strough
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Kevin MacBearach wrote:Well I guess Salatin would have massive amounts of carbon at his disposal for all those animals.

What's your opinions on having the pile come up to a certain temperature for a certain amount of days in order for the good bacteria that the plants can benefit from to develop, as oppose to what I mostly see people doing which is just making a pile with the right ratio but not being particular to temp, or length of temp? Doesn't that just leave a whole different bacteria profile in the pile? It would be one thing to let such a pile sit for a year till worms created the good bacteria, but people just seem to treat these piles as if they're matured compost before even the worms take over. Seems the lines get blurred between thermal and vermi-compost.
I do both hot composting and cool composting. Both work fine for me. The only difference for me is how fast do I need it. If I don't need it in a month or less, I just go the slow route...less work. If I need it quick, I pay closer attention to detail and make sure my ratios and moisture are correct and turn the pile every 3 days.

Either way I feel it is important to aerate the pile one time before using in the field. Anaerobic compost seems to sometimes cause problems with the crops.
 
Kevin MacBearach
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So I built my pile 8 days ago. It's been a steady 135 - 140 degrees each day. I haven't turned it yet and was wondering what the guideline should be for turning it? Do I wait till the temp starts dropping? Or just turn it every few days regardless of internal temp readings?
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Steve Farmer
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turn it now. its not just about the temp and aeration, it's also about getting the bits on the top and outside to compost too by making sure they go to the centre of the pile when you turn it.
Congrats on the temp, maintaining those readings show your mix is good and in just a few days you should have some great compost.
 
Kevin MacBearach
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A few days? That would be amazingly quick. Ok, thanks for that tip, I'll be turning it this afternoon. I'm excited as this is the furthest I've gotten making a hot compost pile. I'll post the results of the turning.
 
Steve Farmer
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14 to 21 days in total if your mix is right and it is turned every other day or so.
http://www.compost-info-guide.com/fastcompost.htm
you might be a few days behind as you haven't turned it till day 8, but even so it should be done in well under two weeks from now.
 
Kevin MacBearach
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Well turning the pile was interesting. Some interesting smells too... Sort of like wasabe mustard. I guess it was a few days overdue, but glad it's now turned. Looks like it had the fire blight, so the anaerobic conditions were taking hold. Maybe I should of added wood-chips along with the hay to let more air in?

This is what I saw right under the top layer after I lifted it off.
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David Schmidt
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I know this post is a few months old, but I wanted to say that the idea of reusing wood chips that haven't fully broken down yet is great.

I use another compost calculator that is awesome. One can enter several ingredients, change the units (gallons, cubic feet, etc). It can be found at:


Compost Calculator from Green Mountain Technologies

http://compostingtechnology.com/resources/compost-calculator-tool/
 
Peter Ellis
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With regard to over thinking composting: Mother Nature does it haphazardly, without any system or plan. Because no matter what happens (with very few exceptions), wherever the organic matter lands, however it piles up, or does not, whether it gets oxygen, or not, Nature has mechanisms to break it down and turn it back into plant food.

Leaf mold breaks down high carbon, high lignin materials without ever getting hot and produces great nutrient value and biodiversity. Hot composting breaks things down faster and produces great nutrient value and biodiversity. The results are similar, but not the same. Hot composting is a relatively new system, so we know that the world has managed for eons without people turning compost piles twice weekly, or measuring how much of what they are piling up

Imo, the important thing is to keep as much of the organic matter produced on your land on your land as practical. However it gets back into the soil is less important han having it there to get back into the soil.
 
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