Composting offers challenges, but benefits crop production

Faced with the perennial challenges of producing crops on low organic matter soils, Nate and Paul Andre, of Andre Farms LLC, began looking for some solutions to boost productivity on the Fulton County farm. Taking materials destined for landfills and composting them to produce fertilizer seemed like a good solution for the farm.

“We had been no-tilling since the 70s and still weren’t getting our organic matter built up. We were looking for nutrients and carbon for our soils, that’s what got us started with composting,” Andre said. “The compost originally was started to bring in organic matter for the farm and it works with the labor flow when we are not active with the crop production. We did this because we are trying to create fertilizer here. We started composting in the early 90s.”

What may initially seem a simple undertaking — taking waste products, composting them and applying the material to fields — is anything but simple.

“It is a learning process and it is a lot of work. We get to deal with the EPA and the ODA and everybody else watching us. We are out working it every day. It is kind of like having a dairy farm. We are always learning how to better manage stuff. We have odor issues that we have to manage and we have five million gallons of storm water to deal with,” Andre said. “Anything that comes in needs to be blended and mixed and covered and we have to file paperwork every day whether we get anything in or not. I could put a dairy in or a hog barn or I could do this. They have to do chores every day and I do too. We turn it every two weeks and we may need to do more or less depending on the weather and conditions. We can be ready with compost in six months but most of the time it is more like a year.”

The farm composts a combination of food waste, dry dairy and horse manure, and municipal yard waste.

“We’ve been in the composting business now for about 15 years. The food waste we have been doing for three years,” he said. “We compost leaves and grass from the cities and horse manure and waste feed from the dairies. We get the food waste from Walmart, Kroger and food processing facilities. Food waste is 20% to 30% of what we are using and the rest is leaves, grass and dry dairy and horse manure. We truck material in and we have two or three other companies that deliver to us.”

Once the materials arrive on the farm and are placed on concrete, windrows are created so the process can begin.

“We try to rotate it when we get up to 160 degrees. There is a science and an art to this and the composting industry is still trying to figure it out. I think we are doing a pretty good job because of our nutrient levels from the stuff we are bringing in,” Andre said. “We have concrete slabs that we work off of and a 6.5 million gallon lagoon that catches 100% of the leachate or runoff from the property.”

The compost also needs to be carefully sorted to maintain a consistent end product.

“We screen and take all contaminants out which takes around 100 hours. We use a screener that costs $550,000. It has conveyer belts and screens. It is a complicated machine kind of like a huge combine. We have to run loaders to fill it and take away from it,” Andre said. “It sorts things into five different locations. It pulls out plastic and other non-composted materials and sorts the compost into ‘course’ for use on farms and ‘fine’ for use in yards.”

Some of the compost is sold in bulk.

“We are selling bulk now going to lawns and gardens, other farmers and athletic fields. I think we sell around 25% of it now and we are looking to increase that,” he said. “The rest we are applying on our farm to meet our nutrient levels. We have very low organic matter soils so that humus is very important to us. I don’t think the quality varies too much, but we are still learning how to get better.”

The compost is applied according to soil test results and crop nutrient needs.

“On the farm we are putting 20 tons to the acre before we go to corn. We apply it when the ground conditions permit. We like to do it in the fall and we apply it with the same rules used for manure. With the nutrients, we test it and apply it just like it was manure,” Andre said. “We are using mostly composted manure for all of our nutrient levels except for nitrogen. We use starter fertilizer and put commercial fertilizer on the edges of fields where we can’t put the compost. Most of our phosphorus and potassium comes from the compost. We use some starter and then do a nitrate test to see what we need to with sidedressing. The nitrate tests vary from year to year. We’re probably putting down 50% to a full rate of nitrogen depending on the year. Weather makes a difference and N is something you do not want to be short on.”

The material is broadcast in the fields.

“We use a large dry box to broadcast the compost on the surface. Depending on the ground conditions, we will do a light tillage. We use a Blu-Jet where we just lift things up and then a disk and a J&M roller in the spring,” Andre said. “We aren’t spending as much money on fertilizer. Yields have been getting better, but we are doing a lot of other things too that may be contributing to the yield increase. We use variable rate with the compost with the lower OM soils getting heavier applications.”

Though the results are not clear as to the total value of the compost, Andre knows that it has been a benefit to crop production on the farm.

“We think we have more than $100 of nutrient value or more per acre and we really need the humus and the organic matter on our sandy soils here. We have had compost with 25 pounds N and 16 pounds of P and K per ton,” he said. “It is a way to bring nutrients home to the farm. Its value is more than just N, P and K.”

 

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