ASK Jeff: The Rodale Institute’s farm manager, Jeff Moyer, answers your hardcore farming questions

About that compost turner of yours . . .
The tale of our farm-scale compost turner and how it was built generated lots of interesting comments, including a story from a farmer in Canada who has come up with his own compost management system.

Posted August 31, 2004

What Jeff brings to the table

Jeff Moyer, who’s been the farm manager here at the 333-acre Rodale Institute research farm for more than a quarter of a century, receives lots of mail from farmers just like you asking for advice. Jeff’s hands-in-the-dirt experience over the past 26 years has run the gamut from refining the farm's cover cropping and crop rotation systems (including managing 270 acres in a rotation of corn, small grains, hay, and edible soy beans for a Japanese market) to overseeing The Rodale Institue Farming Systems Trial®, the world’s longest running side-by-side comparison of organic and conventional agriculture. We thought it would be fun and informative to share some of these farmer-to-farmer exchanges, and Jeff’s practical wisdom, with our NewFarm.org readers … and we’ll be doing it on a regular basis.

Got a question of your own? Send it to Jeff at:
jeff.moyer@rodaleinst.org

Editor's Note: Last issue, New Farm Senior Writer Laura Sayre wrote about The Rodale Institute's on-farm compost program and the star of that program, one of the most ingeniously crafted pieces of machinery we've ever seen--a homespun compost turner fabricated from the chassis of a salvaged dump truck. Lots of you took notice, too. Here are a couple of letters Farm Manager Jeff Moyer received about the article, followed by his responses:

 

Dear Jeff,

I read with interest the article on your composting experiences and thought you might be interested in what we do.

About six years ago, I was doing all of my manure spreading with an old New Holland 510 box spreader. This was one of those classics—you know, five loads to the field, then half a day in the shop.

Obviously, I needed a new spreader. I was also interested in being able to do a better job of composting our manure (about 90 percent sheep, the balance horse and poultry—all fairly heavily bedded). The raw material also includes a small amount of rotten hay from the bottoms of round bales and household wastes like peelings, egg shells, etc.

I opted for a slightly more expensive machine—a Gehl Scavenger side-discharge spreader. My idea was that I would put all manure through the spreader and into the pile as I cleaned out the barn.

This has worked out well. The spreader breaks the pack manure down into small, uniform particles. About three or four times a year, I have a neighbor with a huge Payloader come over to turn the pile. He can turn half a year’s manure production from our 300-ewe flock in about an hour.

The end product is a black, crumbly compost. Any given pile usually ‘works’ for a minimum of four months prior to spreading and will have been turned a couple of times at least. Most field spreading takes place in late summer/early fall because: (a) I have the time and the field situations to get the job done, and (b) there is much less chance of compaction at this time.

I get a wide, uniform spread pattern with the Gehl spreader (about 60 feet). I typically put the compost on at a lower rate than you do—about five to eight tons per acre. Our hay and pasture fields are really thriving, and the earthworm population is amazing. Three weeks after spreading, it's tough to find any sign of the compost on the surface of hay fields—the worms pull it down. I try to get over our full 250 acres at least once every three years.

When I first looked into composting, I was overwhelmed by the systems recommended by compost zealots. The trouble is, I do have other work to do. Our current system seems to be doing a reasonable job, although I am sure it would be unsatisfactory to composting purists.

Best wishes from southern Ontario, in the Great Lakes basin. With this year's weather, it might better be described as the toilet bowl of North America. I'm a bit concerned that we could be in the early stages of the next glacial period. Here in Ontario, we haven't had spring in four years. This year, we've pretty well had to do without summer as well.

Ian Campbell


Dear Ian,

Thanks for the email and for reading New Farm. I enjoyed your letter very much. I had a spreader just like yours only it got to the point where we couldn't finish a load without stopping by the shop and beating it back into order with a sledge hammer.

If you have any photos you might care to share, I'd enjoy seeing them. You might even be willing to share them with other New Farm readers. It sounds like you are happy with your system.

I enjoyed your comments about the weather. At least you seem to have a sense of humor about it. You can always come visit us if you need to see summer. While ours was a bit cool and very wet, it was still summer (very pleasant, as a matter of fact).

Again, thanks for the email and please keep in touch.

Jeff


Dear Jeff,

I am a turkey grower in Central Texas who markets manure and produces compost for retail sales. I am very interested in the ‘homemade’ compost turner in your most recent article.

I would love to travel to see the unit with hopes of building one here. We have access to used trucks and excellent welding folks who work with us.

Please advise.

Thanks,
Mike Neal
Crawford, Texas


Dear Mike,

Thanks for the email and for reading New Farm. I’m around the farm most week days from 7:30 in the morning until early evening. We’d be glad to have you come and visit to see the compost turner and discuss how we built it. It may not be fancy, but for us it does the job. If you do plan on coming out East, let us know in advance to make sure we schedule some time to spend together and that I don’t plan to be off site (I do travel from time to time).

I’d like to hear more about your current operation. If you come, bring some photos of your farm.

Jeff

 

Have some questions to Ask Jeff? E-mail him directly at jeff.moyer@rodaleinst.org.