First of all, apologies for the very late publication of this post! There have been lots of changes going on at The Oak Tree Farm which have taken up lots of our time, so Green Mantle had to go on the back burner for a while…
Richard and Joanne went along to the one day course run by SoilBioLab at Rushall Farmlate last year. Simon, Andrea and Jen from the SoilBioLab team taught us how to take soil samples and qualitatively grade soils and compost & compost tea.
Their approach to qualifying the results is quicker and (in our humble opinion) more applicable to fieldwork than the full Soil Food Web Elaine Ingham method. You can use a cheaper biological microscope, closer to the student microscope end of the scale, rather than the more sophisticated microscope recommended by Elaine Ingham in her video training courses.
We found it a really useful day. In theory we “knew” a lot of this stuff, but there is nothing more useful than spending the day with people who really know their stuff, which the SoilBioLab team most certainly do, and being able to ask dumb questions, which they were unfailingly able to answer.
Soil Biolab also offer more detailed quantitative tests if you send them soil samples by post – they suggest a combination of doing your own analysis along with getting them to do more in depth tests from time to time.
An enormous thank you to Dave Beecher this guest post on his experience of hot composting. Dave has been working alongside Zach Wright who himself learned directly from the mighty Elaine Ingham herself! This post includes a very entertaining video of Dave making his compost pile, an activity the clearly fascinated everyone (including Billy the Dog!) at Caerhys Organic Farm in St Davids, Wales! You can contact Dave on (an image to protect him from spam):
So, my first attempt only got as far as turn 3 and would not heat up after that. It became very wet (liquid running out the bottom) once all the green material started to break down. I didn’t have enough high N and my green material contained a lot of internal water.
Pile shrunk down a lot as I did not compact sufficiently when building the initial pile. Using a flat head shovel every 6-12 inches works well. The second pallet was larger than first allowing for a bigger ring and making the pile look really small. Keep the diameter of the ring the same regardless of pallet size. This will allow better control when turning as you will be able to divide you material up evenly to comply with the turning break down as shown below.
I started again and treated the first attempt as 50% and then added 20% brown, 20% green and 10% high N. This worked a treat and i ended up getting 6 turns in as it was still quiet hot after the 5th.
I used a 500kg grain bag with pull cord to cover the pile. This worked well as i could open the top and release excess heat and condensation, preventing the top of the pile from getting soggy. I had to turn two days in a row as it was getting very close to 70c. I made sure to air it out well on the second turn and not compact it down at all. This allowed me to keep the temp 55-59C for 3 days.
After the first pile getting to wet i held back a little on the water when making the second pile. The temp was slow to rise only 18C the following morning. I add 7L of water to the top and sides that evening, it reached temp by the next day. I continued to add water when need and based it on visual and squeeze method.
Flies and Midges
When the pile was covered and slightly damp from condensation there were a few hanging around. Once i removed it and allowed it to dry out they disappeared
Got my first 2 mushroom on day 17 loads on day 19, by day 22 they were gone just some pin heads were visible.
After 1 month i found 5 bacteria feeding nematodes, one predatory, lots of amoeba and one our two fungi spores
After 7 weeks i was getting 30-50 nematodes per slide mainly bacteria and 3-5 predatory, a diverse range of amoeba and fungi development.
The pile is now 10 weeks old, I will be heading back to Wales next week to see how it’s getting on and will let you.
First of all, a webinar with Elaine Ingham herself next Friday 18th November at 7pm GMT. Dave imagines this will cover much of the basics, but as he rightly says, the more often you listen to Elaine the more sinks in. I’ve reserved my spot 🙂
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
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
Days Before Turn
55 – 59 degrees C
60- 65 degrees C
66 – 70 degrees C
Above 70 degrees C
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.
Nigel has been working hard to implement Elaine Ingham’s methods on his farm, and the results are visible and impressive. He hasn’t carried out controlled tests as he is keen to have the benefits of the soil improvements everywhere, something we can understand, and have done ourselves with our 2016 tomato polytunnel, but the number of wormcasts on his pasture surface show very clearly that there is a lot of biology in his soil! Like us, his farm has very low rainfall, particularly in summer, though his soil is clay unlike the sandy loam of The Oak Tree.
Nigel went on Zach Wright’s UK course Spring 2016. We were gutted to have missed this, it looked really excellent, but we understand that Dave Beecher has been working closely with Zach and will be running similar courses in the UK soon – when we hear more we’ll keep you posted!
Nigel makes compost in the “hardware cloth” cylinders recommended by both Zach Wright and Elaine Ingham. We’ve found that hardware cloth doesn’t seem to be a British English term, which makes it hard to track down to buy. “Galvanised wire mesh” seems to be similar stuff in the UK. Nigel builds his heaps on pallets covered with woven weed control fabric “mypex” and he wraps a single layer of tarp over and round the heap to keep the heat in.
Nigel’s raw ingredients are
40% green material (cut grass, or, slightly less successful, hay)
20% nitrogenous stuff. He uses a cow poo mixed with water to a fairly runny consistency: he has plenty of the raw material to hand…
He uses a hose with a finger over the end to spray materials as they are added to the heap (by contrast we have been using a fine spray head). He has had considerable success with this method, managing to match the exacting temperature profile demanded by Elaine Ingham and Zach Wright’s methods, and the resulting material certainly looks excellent.
Landews Meadow Farm is on quite an exposed site (they have a fine wind turbine!) and while the compost area is protected by a hedgerow, it takes a fair bit of incoming weather (the English Channel is visible from the farm on a clear day!) Clearly the use of animal manure slurry is a good way to get compost heaps up to temperature as we found with using poultry manure slurry in our heap 160910. We had struggled to get heaps up to temperature reliably before doing this. He does five compost heap turns, carefully manipulating the material to ensure that all parts get up to heat in the hot centre at some point.
We were particularly interested to hear the simple “Zach Wright” method of making compost extract. We had attempted to mimic this following a phone conversation with Nigel before the visit, but we had made it more complicated than it needed to be! Nigel simply takes a 30l container, adds compost to it (see the photo below for an idea of how much) and then stirs it with a stick for about 30 seconds. Easy!
Once stirred he uses the secret ingredient of a jelly bag (the sort you use to strain fruit to make sweet jelly preserves) to strain the mixture before using it in his tractor mounted sprayer – brilliant! It is just these sorts of practical details we wanted to learn – it had never occurred to me to use a jelly bag (though I have one in the loft somewhere!) He then dilutes it into about 200l of water. Apparently Zach Wright dilutes further saying that one hardware cloth/galvanised wire mesh heap can be used to treat 200 acres!
Once again, a huge thank you to Nigel and Wendy for welcoming us to their beautiful, innovative and productive farm!
Compost extract was a great success but it seems to take time to take effect. The effect on the sweetcorn was marginally noticeable with only a month and a half, whereas the beans were very noticeable the next year.
If this hypothesis is true (other differences are the crops were different, and the beans and tomatoes were in the polytunnels and the sweetcorn outside) then we need to really get the compost extract out now for next year.
The 160901 compost isn’t really ready, although it has fallen back to ambient temperature, so we chose to run the experiment to get ahead. This is much more bacterial than fungal under the microscope, which is to be expected as bacterial reproduction is so much faster. But needs must in this case.
We adopted a tip from Nigel of Landews Meadow Farm in Kent and trialled using about 0.5kg of compost stirred vigorously into about 40l of water in a trug. This is more economical with the compost than the method we used last year, so we can make more extract from a given amount of compost if it works, and it is more suited to our volumes for experimentation distributing by hand. The other method is more suited to bigger volumes and mechanical spraying, because the net curtain filter screens the particle size so it is less likely to clog pumps and nozzles.
The aim is to stir fast enough to establish a vortex in the water and occasionally reverse direction. Shades of Steiner’s biodynamics here, but also a good way to aerate a volume of water by hand.
It’s been just over a year that I completed Elaine Ingham’s Life in the Soil classes. It seems a good time to take stock, as we go into the colder part of the year when practical fieldwork winds down. So what have I learned?
There is certainly promise in the end results – very visibly in the case of the beans, and noticeably in the improved taste and productivity of the tomatoes. We only have one polytunnel for the tomatoes in 2016, but we got almost as much yield this year from this one than from two polytunnels of tomatoes 1 in 2015.
I know of no way of quantitatively analysing taste, but several of our CSA members observed the much better flavour of our tomatoes compared with shop bought ones. However, one other thing we changed across the years was have a dedicated CSA member Ann look after the tomatoes, pinching out all the offshoots and training the stems along the frames. Because we could not afford a control plot with the tomatoes, the almost doubling of yield could be the result of her extra care and attention to detail, or a combination of the her work assisted by the compost extract.
The compost extract was used in the polytunnel with the tomatoes in July 2015 and some of what was left over was also used in polytunnel 1 which was where the beans were planted, with the ribbon tied to the frame to show the extent of the coverage, the left behind compost after extraction also went into the tomatoes in polytunnel 2.
Not every attempt showed success – last year we tried some outdoor tests on defined plots in the sweetcorn crop. This crop was lost to the initially wet and dull start to 2015 and not enough manpower for weeding. I felt there was some difference in one of the plots, but not enough to make a clear picture and not enough to redeem the crop.
Both of our current compost heaps, 160901 and 160910 have now reached stable equilibrium. The two graphs below show the complete “heap lifetime” temperature against time. The tail of each chart is now reasonably steady, suggesting they are now “mature”. It’s between five and six weeks since we first built these heaps.
In both of these there seems to be a reasonable evenness through the pile when both temperature probes are active, the temperature recording tips of the probes were set in the centre of the pile horizontally, and at about 1/3 and 2/3 from the top of the compost heap material.
We had a quick look at 160901 compost under the microscope a little while back and it was very exciting!
Laverstoke Park Farm is a UK site with specialised knowledge of Elaine Ingham’s methods. Sadly their farm shop has closed, we dropped by on route back from holiday last week in the hope of buying a bag of their compost (to inoculate our soil and compost heaps), but no joy, so we’ll email them in the hope of being able to buy a bag or two, or maybe even visit (it looks fantastic!)
We had invested recently in a small compost tea brewer which Laverstoke Park developed, to learn more about how it is done, before we try this on a bigger scale. We have used compost extract rather than compost tea to date as it is easier and safer.
The kit is basically a 3W aquarium pump, an air stone and bucket
The kits came with some microbes in a tube, but the tube seemed to be out of date. Sadly our first attempt with this mix failed as the pump fell from its perch (no harm done, fortunately) and this, admittedly early aborted, brew didn’t appear to contain much exciting under the microscope.
We are now going to wait until we have some promising Oak Tree compost (from heap 160901 , or heap 160910 if either look good under the microscope) or have some Laverstoke Park compost before we try using the brewer again. We’ll keep you posted!
This heap heated up far more successfully than any of our previous heaps! and we look forward to putting some of the matured compost (when it has dropped ambient temperature) under the microscope. We put this sucess down to the pelleted chicken manure pellets mixed into a slurry with water which raised the temperature dramatically!
It is possible the fast high burn rate of the early stages has exhausted the material, or that some was pasteurised at 74C?