Larry Schnell, owner of Stockmen's Exchange in Dickinson, ND, began composting manure from his auction facility in 2005. Motivating him were new North Dakota Department of Health (NDDH) regulations on manure handling that allowed application of raw manure on a pasture only once every five years, he says.

At the time, Schnell was spending anywhere from $7,000-$10,000/year to haul and spread manure within a three-mile radius of the auction market.

Compost differs from manure, Schnell explains, in that NDDH allows compost to be applied to pastures annually and to crops any time of the year.

“You can take a cutting of alfalfa and put compost on. You'd never do that with raw manure,” Schnell says.

What he likes most about compost is that, if done correctly, there are “no weed seeds, odor, chemicals or pesticides. All that stuff gets burned up in the pile.”

Schnell calls composting “a learning experience.” One of the first lessons was that a cubic yard of raw manure — without any used bedding or waste hay — has a carbon to nitrogen ratio of about 15:1. To get it to the desired ratio of 30:1, more carbon should be added. Manure from feedlots or auction markets is ideal, as it typically contains a mixture of manure, straw and hay.

For Schnell, composting's biggest benefits, aside from the nutrient value, is the reduction in manure volume by half and the fact it can be hauled any time of the year.

But he recognizes compost is a tremendous product for growing crops, too. When Schnell isn't applying compost to his own fields, he markets it to nurseries and gardeners. If the end use is for crop production, he'll turn piles 4-5 times. For commercial purposes, it may be turned up to 20 times. It's also screened for large particles and retails for $20/skid steer load or $25/payloader load. Unscreened is $10 less for both types of loads.

The biggest rookie mistake Schnell sees in composting is to rush to buy equipment. He recommends first-time composters visit with others who have actual compost experience, or visit www.acresusa.com. The site's “book” tab lists multiple composting resources.

Schnell's composting equipment consists of a compost turner, hydrostatic tractor and water tank. It's slow going the first few times through a pile, about 0.2 mph, pulling the compost turner that fits over a single windrow. Paddles shape the pile into a teepee-like windrow to help shed rain. Three nozzles within the compost turner add water — Schnell's goal is to keep the pile at about 50% moisture.

“It's nice to be able to take something that was costing us a lot of money every year, and not only making money on it but doing the right thing,” Schnell says.