An enormous thank you to Nigel Griffith for this guest post on Farm Scale Composting at Landews Meadow Regenerative Agriculture Center, Challock, Kent in the South East of England. It is full of incredibly helpful, practical advice!
At Landews Meadow one of our main goals is to improve and regenerate our soils.
Our farm is just under 56 acres of very open land on the top of the North Kent Downs, we can see the North Sea from one field and a short walk away and we can see the English channel, so we have a very exposed site. Our soil is a heavy clay with lots of flints in and 8 feet down you hit the chalk downs. The soil gets boggy in winter and bakes hard in the summer and suffers from compaction, wind erosion and water erosion. For the past 30 plus years the fields had been used for set stocking sheep or cut for hay. The previous management system had been spraying nitrogen fertilisers and weed killers on the pasture.
We have implemented systems (swales, keyline ploughing and tree planting) to reduce the run off, increase filtration and water retention and reduce wind burn. Our initial tests on the soil showed that whilst it has a good mineral content but the only soil biology to be found was bacterial. With only bacteria in soil it will become more compacted and more acidic.
For the past 2 years we have been researching and trialling compost and compost teas to find a workable solution to kick starting the life in our soil. As the vast majority of our livestock lives outside 365 days a year we don’t generate lots of soiled bedding so we don’t have vast supplies of materials for making compost.
In April of 2016 we attended a course with Zach Wright of www.livingsoil.net who is one of a very few people certified and approved by Elaine Ingham. Zach describes himself as a Decompiculturalist and has spent most of his adult life making compost. He has refined the process and his course taught us not just how to make quality compost, but how to make quality compost that was full of soil life and how to test it with a microscope.
In this blog I want to share with you the basics of making ‘Biologicaly alive beneficial compost’ and how we apply this to our land. Field trials conducted by Zach and Elaine and trials sponsored by The Duchy of Cornwall are starting to show huge benefits for both pasture and crops when the soil is brought back to life, this soil food web breaks down available matter in the soil, making the the nutrients soluble and available to the plant, so that no artificial fertilsers are required. Once you have re-established this lost biology in your soil all you have to ensure is that you are feeding the soil food web and not damaging it by pouring on chemicals, we feed our microbes with holistically grazed animals (Cattle, chickens and ducks), the cattle trample grass and manure and the chickens scrape and manure as they go providing food for the soil food web.
- Square mesh wire with 2 inch mesh, 4ft wide or higher
- A pitch fork
- A shovel
- 2 pallets
- Some fine mesh or landscape cloth
- A thermometer (12 inches long minimum)
- A hose pipe
The main constituent parts of any compost fit in to 3 categories:
- High Nitrogen (Hot): Manure, Soiled hay bedding, used brewers grains, coffee grinds
- Browns: Straw, Wood chips, leaves
- Greens: grass cuttings, hay, green hedge cuttings, green kitchen waste
The more local diversity you can add the better, you are looking to create environments for a huge variety of microbial life. We do a walk around the farm and find other things to throw in, feathers, mushrooms (No shelf or conch type) and whatever else we can find that will decompose.
We also add ground seaweed meal and crushed up bio char.
- Put your fine mesh or cloth on your pallet then roll out your mesh in to a tube that will fit on top of the pallet (see pictures)
- Collect sufficient quantities of all your 3 ingredients, this is the longest part of the process, we get wood chips delivered to site and save the small amounts of bedding or spoiled straw. We usually have to mow a lawn to get the greens or cut our hedge or reeds in the lake. A bale of hay soaked in water is our last (lazy) resort.
- Building the Pile: Have all your materials placed in piles around your pallet and mesh, place a few forks of straw in the bottom to aid aeration then start adding materials in the ratio of 2 Browns, 2 Greens 1 Hot, work round the pile adding material, mix it all in, you want as much cross contact as possible and water well as you go.
Critical Tip : I had never seen as much water used before in building a pile, I was always under the impression you did not want water or it would become anaerobic, but Zach’s method you keep spraying the pile as you go and keep it all moist. To test the moisture level (when building and each day after) pull out a handful of material and squeeze it tightly, at the correct moisture level you should get a few drips of water coming out between your fingers, if you don’t get anything, it is too dry, if it is like wringing out a wet cloth then it is too wet.
- Keep building, mixing and watering, adding your extra bits for diversity along the way until the mesh is full.
Your pile will be impacted by the elements depending on the time of year and its position, if it is exposed to rain and wind you may want to cover it with a tarp or it could get too dry or too wet, we leave ours open for the first few days to get the aeration of the wind but cover it if we are due torrential rain and after 7 days to stop it drying out.
Managing your Pile
Check both the moisture and temperature daily and record them in a table like this:
If your pile is too dry, water it, as soon as your pile is over 70 degrees it needs to be turned.
Work to this turning schedule
|Temperature||Days Before Turn|
|55 – 59 degrees C||3 days|
|60- 65 degrees C||2 days|
|66 – 70 degrees C||1 day|
|Above 70 degrees C||TURN NOW|
The target is to keep the pile between 55 degrees and 70 degrees with a minimum of 5 turns so every part of your pile has spent 3 days at the core. This will kill weed seeds and pathogens but allow your beneficials to grow and speeds up the decomposition of the matter . Lower than 55 degrees and pathogens and seeds can survive, above 70 degrees and you are killing everything.
Interestingly the UK regulations for commercial compost require PAS 100 compost to have been kept at a much higher temperature for much longer periods (understandable when they are cleansing all types of waste in their process) but we want our pile to be a breeding ground for our soil life so it is critical that as soon as you go above 70 degrees to turn it. Every commercial compost I have examined under the microscope is devoid of anything but bacteria.
The Turning Process
- Top third goes on to a tarp on the floor
- Middle (the hot steaming bit!) goes to the bottom
- The top goes back in to make the sides (dig out a hole as best you can)
- The sides go in to the middle
- Bottom goes on the top.As you are turning the pile you are getting oxygen back in to it and you may need to wet it with your hose pipe. Mix it up as best you can as you go.Check you pile daily, note the temperatures and moisture and anything else , smell, insects fungi and turn and water as required.In under 20 days you should have a well decomposed pile. We examine our compost under the microscope to check we have the beneficials we were after and leave it under a tarp to continue decomposition for another month then start to use it in compost extract or tea.