From the perspective of soil microbiology, how would you rank the effectiveness of the following composting methods? I've ranked them in ascending order of work or attention required.
1) Chicken sheet mulch: all waste is chucked in the chicken enclosure. Wood chippings added if necessary to keep soil covered. Periodically, the chickens are moved on and the plot is planted in annual vegetables.
2) Cold compost heap: all waste is chucked on a heap as it becomes available. After about a year (autumn) the non-decomposed material forms the basis of a new heap while the decomposed material is scattered over annual veg beds or used as mulch.
3) Worm bin. Use castings to make potting soil or compost extract. Use tea to water plants (diluted)
4) Hot compost: waste is stored until enough is available to make a hot compost pile. This is turned at least three times or until sufficiently decomposed. Then see 2.
5) Cold or hot compost with herb mix or biodynamic preparations added
6) Bokashi fermented scraps buried or fed to worms, homemade bran.
7) Bokashi compost (all the steps starting with capturing indigenous microorganisms)
I currently practice no. 1 out of laziness but am feeding my chickens fermented feed and home made applecider vinegar. What effect will this practice have on the microbiology of the chicken run soil? Will I have to compost the droppings I occasionally need to clear out of the mobile henhouse? I currently scatter them in the hen run.
I'm wondering is it worth the trouble making a really awesome heap 1x/year just to use it for compost extract (or I might be lazy and use some homemade compost from our community garden)
This is focusing more on the ease than the soil microbiology, since these kind of methods all do that and it's hard to quantify which does it best, and not necessary anyways. I'm adding to your list since I don't know what good it'd do you just to rerank it.
I would make #1 manure from a healthy cow and #2 composting in place aka lasagna bed gardening.
The manure from the cow is basically compost thanks to the animals highly complex digestive system. Some people might take issue with using it uncomposted but that would be very nitpicky IMO since it was the preferred fertilizer in the west right up to the introduction of chemical fertilizers (the whole guano thing notwithstanding). At your own risk I suppose. But if you're old-ish your grandparents' food was probably fertilized with it. I'd spread it flat with the back of a shovel on an afternoon or evening when you're expecting rain that night or the next morning.
Lasagna bed gardening I think everyone knows about but if you don't you can just do a search.
Also, I think hot composting is easier than a worm bin. But maybe that's a physical effort vs mental stress trade-off. I would take the small amount of work turning a pile over the fretting about with worms anyday though. Mental stress is a killer and enjoyable physical work is a lifesaver. Worms are nice but they show up in good soils on their own.
Since you mention chickens I'm assuming you have them and are going to use their manure. You might want to think about whether it's easier to move fencing or chicken tractors and let the chickens spread their own manure or to leave the chickens in place and muck out and spread their manure. Just a thought. Also if you do the former straw isn't needed since they mix it in at a reasonable rate. Not saying I would definitely pick that one if I kept chickens though, it would depend on the circumstances.
I didn't have good luck with making a pile of stuff, leaving it a year, and calling it compost. My best results came from making a more traditional compost bin and turning it once a week while making sure the moisture content was correct. This gave me really great compost full of worms and other little creatures and it took me about 15 minutes of work once a week to turn it from one bin into the next, and I find it to be light and enjoyable work, and the results were vastly superior. The leave it in a pile for a year method didn't really compost much in a year and I wasn't happy with it at all.
I wish I had more to offer... but the only composting that I've done is sheet mulching (gathering all the leaves on our property and other peoples property and covering them with a bit of soil in late fall then planting shallow rooted plants come spring and deeper rooted plants come summer... this worked very well) and what you call cold composting (my piles were hot... but I tended to layer garden scraps (weeds and end of season plants with kitchen scraps and pee) and that produced very nice compost for me as well. If you live in a dry area be sure to water the compost pile once in a while and/or leave it uncovered... and if you can't mix green/brown and get plenty of moisture no turn composting takes a lot longer than you would think.
After learning about hugelkultur and simply using arborist "waste" as per a video called something like edens garden I'm trying both of those... I wish I had chickens! (I'll get there...).
From what you are doing you might want to consider using a service such as getchipdrop to have arborists come and dump off a mass of chips/leaves/etc that you can throw down on the soil before moving your chickens onto them. I'd expect that to help build your soil significantly faster and be less relative work (though moving 10 to 20 yards of chips/leaves is work... it's not that bad).
Hopefully someone will have had experience with everything you list and be more helpful than I could be.
There are two types of people in the world: Those who want to be left alone and those who will not leave them alone.
I can't give you advice, or even my simple opinion, on comparing the various types of composting on your list because I haven't tried them all, or use them all. But I can give a brief overview of what I have tried. I have a 20 acre homestead farm that creates its own "fertilizer". With the addition of foraging, hunting, and trading, the farm is capable of producing the food we and our livestock need, plus a bit extra.
Hot compost: this takes the most time and labor, but it has the benefit of producing usable compost in 60 days, though I normally turn the pile an additional time then use it at 90 days. I'm creating enough compost that I don't need to rush it, plus I prefer to 90 day target because I am using livestock manure in the piles. The 90 day compost has gone through 3 heating cycles to help eliminate pathogens. I start this compost by laying "greens", "browns", manures, and a tad of old compost or garden soil to create a cubic yard of material in a lined pallet bin. I cover the top with a sheet of cardboard to help keep out excess rain and keep an even moisture level. At 30 days the material is turned into another bin (water added if needed). At 60 days I usually turn it again into another bin (water added if needed). At 90 days it's cooled down sufficiently to use. The volume has reduced significantly by then. I use a Mantis tiller to help turn the material, then shovel it into the next box. Most of the original material had been chopped prior to going into the compost bin.
Pro-- fast results
Con-- takes labor
Cold compost: I use cold composting in areas that I'm creating for future growing of certain crops -- bananas, chaya, taro, sweet potato for leaf production, cholesterol spinach & Okinawan spinach, pineapples. It is also used for hugelpit beds, the difference being that hugelpits are a way of filling in deep holes with waste wood and thus creating non-irrigation dependent banana patches. This method is not very labor intensive and has no time schedule.....a huge benefit to me since I'm perpetually short on time. Cold composting consists of lots of layers, plus I can dig in a bucket of whatever I need to dispose of (rotted mangos, rotting citrus, etc). It takes longer for this material to decompose, so I use this method when I don't need to plant anything for the coming year. In my climate, some of the ingredients take more than a year to decompose, such as bananas trunks & brush trimmings. Typically, not all the ingredients are chopped prior to being added, thus much of the material is coarse. In the course of creating a cold composted bed, I also layer in some shovels of soil and lava gravel & coral sand, more or less creating my own "garden soil" on location.
Pro-- low labor
Con-- takes time to mature
Chicken Sheet Mulch: I haven't tried your method, but it should work depending upon how much material your chickens process. I use chickens are part of my fertilizer program, but the hens are penned in a stationary pen. In additional to their feed, I bring grass clippings (2 to 3 trashcanfuls) to them daily. Once a week I lightly till the pen litter. Whenever I need material to add to the hot compost bins, I harvest pen litter. My set up normally includes 60-80 hens in a 10' by 50' pen.
Pro-- produces wonderful high nitrogen material. A side benefit is eggs and meat.
Con-- some daily labor required
Worm bin: I don't have extra time on my hands, so I don't raise confined worms. Instead, I tend the worms directly in my garden soil via compost and mulch.
Pro-- grows plenty of worms to benefit the garden soil. Zero extra labor required.
Con-- cannot make worm tea, but I don't need it in my system.
Compost with herb or biodynamic additions: I don't use this method.
Bokashi: I often bury organic waste directly into the garden soil. I see no need to ferment it first. No need to capture IMO. My compost grows IMOs. Original inoculation occurred years ago and I have no need to collect IMOs for each new batch of compost. I simply add a few shovels of my garden soil or finished compost to each compost batch in order to introduce the IMOs I'm interested in.
Pro-- quick and easy way to dispose of a small amount of waste. No need to go about a fermentation process.
Con-- have to be careful not to dig it up too soon since it takes a couple of weeks to decompose. Not a good method to handle the volume of waste that I process.
The compost methods I use are tailored to my own location and climate, and availability of input materials. Plus it is dependent upon the time I have available to do it. Thus choosing a compost method is highly individualistic. As long as it is a method that is pleasing to you and it produces fertilizer, it's just fine. One method isn't superior to another if the end product works.
As for adding the chicken tractor waste to the chicken pen, it sounds fine. The chickens will work it into their pen litter. Chickens prefer to scratch apart piles, not bare flat ground, so I will daily rake up pen litter into piles. The chickens flatten them pretty much by the next day. It's a great way to mix up the litter and keep the flooring from getting compacted.
One more comment.......I'm a believer in keeping things simple - the K.I.S.S. method. Thus I don't use all the complicated, intensive methods often talked about.
It's never too late to start! I retired to homestead on the slopes of Mauna Loa, an active volcano. I relate snippets of my endeavor on my blog : www.kaufarmer.blogspot.com
Just need to remember that chicken manure is very volatile and, in its un-composted or undiluted form, will burn or otherwise kill many plants.
It’s an excellent compost activator and liquid fertiliser. Though, it has high nitrogen content, so use it sparingly on fruiting plants like tomatoes because it encourages green growth rather than fruiting – it’s great on leafy green vegetables.
(Avoid stockpiling it too, I did that and it effectively sterilised the ground beneath the pile for several years!)
The normal routine is to rake up the chicken enclosure and put that in the compost as the activator, the concentrated poo pile under the roost can be used either in the compost or, as a pure source for liquid fertiliser. It is also high in phosphorus and potassium so will only benefit compost e.g. improves flowering and plant cell strength.
I use a few of the dried nuggets as ‘slow release’ fertiliser - simply lay them on the surface and in a circle around outdoor potted plants. (Wouldn’t recommend doing that indoors though!)
2. Cold compost heap:
That’s my primary way of composting because it’s lazy! I have several cold compost bins managed on a rotation basis that simply sit there for two or so years and get watered regularly. The resulting mixture is more of a high-rise living community than compost – there’s definitely a balance of organisms in the black, moist, carbon rich matter. (May be an issue in cold climates, but not a problem in the Subtropics.)
3. Worm bin:
It’s not a composting method; just another animal providing very fine, non-volatile, super beneficial manure. It’s a slow process. I use it in a similar fashion to DRIED cow or sheep poo = throw a bit in and around the hole before planting a seedling, and if volume permits, as sheet mulch. (Note: Horse manure really needs aging before sheet mulching because of its urine content.)
4. Hot compost:
My secondary way of composting, though I use one of those horizontal bin tumblers because the traditional pile method is just too time consuming, and, the open system creates a vermin problem.
No doubt animal manures increase compost fertility and aid decomposition, though, from a soil microbiology perspective, the composting method used is fairly irrelevant. It’s just a matter of getting well composted, carbon rich, organic material into and on top of the soil to improve its microbial ecology, nutrients, and water/nutrient holding capacity.
In regards to feeding animals concoctions of apple cider vinegar, etc; it can’t hurt, but may damage the back pocket! A natural healthy diet, good genetics and health care will provide high quality meat, eggs and, yes, poo.
As for 5, 6 and 7, never used them – am a bit sceptical regarding herb/biodynamic preparations having any real (measurable) benefits over traditional composting.
'Every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain.'
Add biochar to any and all methods. I've had 3'x3'x3' unturned compost piles built with 20% of volume biochar heat up to 160F and make gorgeous compost. Also add it to any sheet mulching lay down. Really, add it anywhere where organics are breaking down. You will like the biochar compost final product you get!
My favorite method is sheet mulch composting, but dropping my kitchen scrap bucket into my unturned hot compost pile sure is super easy.
Caveat: I'm in my 2nd year of home gardening with no formal training.
Right now I use a 2-bay composting setup (each bay has roughly 1.2 m X 1.2 m footprint) so the pile can be quickly turned from one bay to the other to aerate (or if I am doing Berkley-style turning on it). I empty a kitchen scrap container (~3 liter, I think) every other day by digging into the pile, dumping the fresh scraps, mixing it in with a fork, and then covering it over with old compost. Adding scraps takes maybe 5 minutes. Turning the pile completely takes me about 20 minutes with a bedding fork. I have some wood-chips on-hand to add, if needed, and routinely add napkins, paper-towel rolls, paper bags, and compostable take-out containers to our scrap container.
I used to vermicompost in a Worm Factory, but it attracted creepy crawlies and was a chore to maintain, so the Red Wigglers live in the compost pile now. This habitat seems a lot healthier for the Red Wigglers than the comparatively small worm-bin was. Even when the compost is "hot" there is a spectrum of temperature zones and the worms move freely as they please. My compost looks pretty amazing.
My city-provided black composter wasn't doing the job of hot composting everything, and that was frustrating. Getting it hot was labourious, and turning it evenly was a chore.
Then we got a Flemish Giant rabbit, and the nature of our compost contributions changed. We decided to use an unbleached paper bedding, and I would change out the litter box once a week, scooping accumulated solids into the composter daily as necessary.
So our compost contributions became mostly used rabbit bedding and waste, along with varying amounts of kitchen scraps and coffee grounds, as I add three tablespoons of beans (after I have ground them and made coffee, of course) a day, at a minimum.
It was still mostly a cold compost, but I noticed an uptick in all visible soil life, and the mushroom slurries I added would routinely cause mushrooms to grow in the composter.
Well I guess they weren't anywhere in the soil in any quantity, so I went to a local Farmers' Market and bought a carton of red wigglers in bedding for a donation.
I had intended to build an indoor, charcoal-filtered tupperware-based bin, but that plan got shot to hell by some hungry raccoons, so I dropped some handfuls strategically in my garden, and about two-thirds of the carton, maybe a light spadeful of material including worms, went into the composter.
I tried last weekend to empty the finished compost out of the bottom of the bin, onto my beds, to be covered with leaves before the snow, but the air temperature was too low. As it turns out, my composter made a most excellent ground-connected vermicomposter. There were more worms in my first half-spadeful than had been in the container I originally purchased!
One of the things I like best about this setup is the fact that there is no turning. I incorporate new additions into the top six inches of the composter, and then leave it. When I come back the next week, the only paper that remains is on the very top and around the sides of the composter; the worms do the turning.
Ultimately, you have to decide what system works best for you considering your resources, inputs, and habits. If you have chickens and want to use them to break down compost, the addition of their manure to what they deem inedible might make most of a perfect hot compost. So the best idea for you might be to have a "sacrificial paddock" of sorts that gets the chickens and all the compost until the compost is picked over. Then the paddock is shifted, and either the pile is moved to where you compost, or you build a pile in place.
I like the method I use at home for me, because it works with what I have and the level of work I don't have to put into it. Your best composting method should likely be informed by what you have, the nature of your contributions, and how much work you're willing to do to make compost generation fit your timescale.
Let us know how it goes, though, and good luck.
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
-Robert A. Heinlein
Susan Wakeman wrote:From the perspective of soil microbiology, how would you rank the effectiveness of the following composting methods? I've ranked them in ascending order of work or attention required.
First I want to thank you for this question and I also want to give big kudos to SuBa for a very good post about this subject.
Your first line indicates you are interested in soil microbiology and building the soil full of microbiology.
Then you delve into methods that are listed in amount of laziness allowed but with still good results of compost making.
These are really two separate things, you either build soil or you do lazy man's methods of composting, they will eventually come to a point of convergence but it will be a while before this happens.
The best way to improve soil microbiology or the microbiome of your soil is to make good compost.
Good compost is balanced between nutrients and microorganisms, it usually comes from hot composting methods and it should be noted that using bokashi or biodynamic methods indicates that you are going to be adding these to a hot compost heap to reap maximum rewards for your soil.
Sheet mulching is more for controlling weeds than for building the soil microbiome, that occurs as a side bar type process.
Cold composting is more along the lines of leaf mold making than good, microorganism rich compost.
Worm bins give you a ready to use manure, you simply apply these like a natural fertilizer.
Hot compost is the method used for building good, oxygen rich, microorganism rich, nutrient dense material for applying directly to soil or making compost teas for increasing Microorganism numbers in your soil and protecting plants from disease or infestation.
Methods to create good things to add to a hot compost heap for the purpose of increasing the numbers of microorganisms are:
"the preparations most call biodynamic" (biodynamic is a registered trade mark and the preparations they promote were created by Steiner in the 1920's at the request of some farmers.
Use of Steiner preparations is a very good way to build Microorganism rich compost, but first you have to make the preparations before you add them to the working compost heap, this adds large amounts of time to end goal.
Making bokashi (fermented vegetative scraps) requires the time to ferment then you need to aerate this soup and then you add that to the working hot compost heap. again, time is consumed to get to the end product.
Simply making hot compost will grow the multitude of microorganisms we are looking to add to soil to make it really good soil, the other things are great for boosting these numbers but they are not necessary if you build well constructed compost heaps.
The main purpose of turning compost is to get air into the whole of the heap, compost settles as it decays which means that air pockets are getting smaller and smaller while this happens.
I turn a heap usually three times, but you don't really need to turn it, you do need to get air into the whole of the heap.
This can be done by using a piece of 3/4" pipe by ramming it at an angle all the way to the soil beneath the heap, go all around the heap from about 1 foot above the soil level, then repeat every foot above that first round until you are at the top of the heap.
This method of adding air takes far less effort than turning (unless you are doing windrow style composting in which case you should have a mechanical compost turner).
The only other requirement is that moisture remains constant, moist not dripping is the key here, misting works best for filling this requirement.
Everybody probably knows this but it wasn't mentioned specifically here.
With hot compost there are four ingredients - nitrogen, carbon, oxygen and H2O. A minimum of 1 cubic yard of material is required to maintain temperature and moisture. You can go smaller but it will take longer. You can give the compost a head start by making the particle size of the nitrogen and carbon smaller. It depends upon the materials themselves but I have gone anywhere from 30:1 to almost 1:1 (carbon/nitrogen). As previously mentioned adding some microbe rich already finished compost to your new pile works wonders to speed things along. And this is really scientific - the moisture content is right when you grab a handful of your compost, squeeze hard, and only a couple of drops comes out. A tarp, some burlap or cardboard to regulate moisture and temps. I have seen steaming piles mid winter, a wood chip pile 1 1/2 - 2 stories tall catch fire mid winter, and a 200 lb. carcass disappear within two weeks in the middle of a well turned compost pile (urine was added to that last one as needed).
Thank you all for the very interesting discussion on preferred composting methods.
Thank you Dr Redhawk for answering my question as concerned the optimal method for maximizing microbial life in my soil.
Do any of you have suggestions as to how to incorporate hot composting into my mobile chicken operation. Maybe I should set up a hot compost whenever there is sufficient greens available (for browns I could just rake out the hen run)?
I have a m3 plastic compost bin available, two wire bins, and pallets. I suppose it will work to use the plastic bin for the first stage, and the wire bins for subsequent stages if necessary?
What effect would it have on the microbiology if I set up the hot compost IN the run, and let the chickens access it (by taking away the sides or lifting up the plastic container) just before it's turning time (i.e. when the heap has cooled down). Re-heaping it in a wire bin after the chickens have scratched through it?