Composting Pen Pack Cattle Manure for Improved Nutrient Transport


The overall purpose of this research was to demonstrate the volume, weight and moisture reduction from composting pen pack cattle manure so that organic nutrients can be transported farther from the livestock barn. Simultaneously, through laboratory analysis, the goal was to measure the nutrient density of the compost from the start of the process to the finish. The reduction in volume will allow cattle farmers to store more manure in their dry stack (manure) barns to be land-applied at more ideal times, thus avoiding winter application on frozen and/or snow-covered ground.

Due to the overwhelming weight and volume logistics of unprocessed (raw) manure in general, often the manure is land-applied to fields relatively close to the livestock barn. This phenomenon has historically resulted in some fields or areas within fields that have high or luxury levels of soil test phosphorus and potassium. Manure is a great source of nutrients and organic matter for crop production. Avoiding application of manure on fields that are farther from the livestock barn can result in lower soil health and missed economic opportunity for these fields. Once a drier, more nutrient-dense compost is created, a second purpose of the research is to promote transfer of the compost to fields that are farther from the livestock barn or to fields with lower soil test phosphorus or potassium levels.

A final purpose of the research is to utilize compost in corn production systems to evaluate its benefit when applied at the same nutrient rate as its raw manure or commercial fertilizer counterparts. When manure or compost are added to a crop production system, the health and biology of the soil are improved.

What Did We Do

The study began by working with local cooperators who currently raise cattle and manage manure nutrients. This peer learning group included five (5) cooperators. Each cooperator was asked to build at least one windrow of pen pack (solid, dry bedded) manure removed from their cattle barn. The windrow was not to exceed 6 feet in height by 12 feet in width and could be of any length. All manure was weighed at the start of the composting process and then at the end of the process to measure weight reduction. To measure volume, windrows were measured (height x width x length) at the start and finish; cooperating farmers recorded ‘trucks in’ and ‘trucks out’. The five cooperators built eight (n=8) windrows for the purpose of this study.

For baseline data, all cooperators were asked to dedicate one windrow for weekly mechanical compost turning inside a dry stack barn for eight (8) weeks. Any additional windrows composted were to address research questions raised by cooperators. Two ‘additional’ windrows were turned every 2 weeks and a third ‘additional’ windrow was turned weekly, but in an outdoor setting. Mechanical composting was achieved with an HCL Machine Works pull-type compost turner (Figure 1). The compost turner accomplished two key things: consistently mixing compost ingredients (manure, sawdust, wheat straw), and adding oxygen into the composting system. The compost turner was pulled by a Case IH 190 Magnum tractor equipped with a continuously variable transmission (CVT). The CVT allowed for critical ultra-slow speeds (.05-.15 mph) necessary for early mixing passes with the compost turner and raw ingredients.

Figure 1. A pull-type compost turner (6 foot x 12 foot) used for this study

Another significant part of the research was manure nutrient analysis. Every windrow site (n=8) had 3 samples pulled for analysis: once at the start of composting, after every compost turn (6-8 turns on average) and when the compost was land applied or at the last turn. Key nutrients analyzed were nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur and calcium. Additionally, temperatures were monitored using a 36” dial compost thermometer (Figure 2) prior to every turn to ensure adequate composting temperatures (120-140 deg F ideally) were maintained. Each windrow also had a HOBO temperature logger inserted in the center of the pile for temperature logging every 15 minutes for the duration of the process.

Figure 2. Compost thermometers (36”) were used to double-check pre-turn temperatures each week

Finally, cooperators were asked to work with the researcher to develop a replicated field trial in field corn utilizing the finished compost product from their farm. Generally, the goal of the field trials were to compare a ‘normal’ rate of manure against a half rate of compost (Figure 3). Yield and moisture data from field trials were collected and analyzed.

Figure 3. Land application of manure (light in color) and compost (dark in color) for replicated strip trials in corn.

What Have We Learned

This research began with an aggregated 258 tons of unprocessed (raw) pen pack cattle manure among 8 sites (windrows) and yielded 121 tons of finished compost, a 53% reduction in weight. However, the volume reduction was less significant than the reduced weight. The number of ‘trucks in’ versus ‘trucks out’ resulted in 28% reduction in volume. The average initial moisture of raw manure was 66% as compared the average final moisture of 48%.

Cooperators turned compost for a minimum of five weeks with some turning up to eight weeks. The average number of turns was seven weeks for each of the eight windrow sites.

The starting nutrient analysis of the manure on a per ton basis was 8 lbs total nitrogen (TKN), 8 lbs phosphorus (P), 14 lbs potassium (K), 1.5 lbs sulfur (S), and 4.5 lbs Calcium (Ca). The finished compost averaged 7.5 lbs TKN, 20 lbs P, 31 lbs K, 3 lbs S, and 12 lbs Ca per ton. Except for total nitrogen, nutrient density more than doubled for these key nutrients as a result of the composting process (Figure 4). It is assumed that nitrogen was consumed in the composting process resulting in increased organic matter and organic carbon.

Figure 4. Density of key nutrients doubled for phosphorus, potassium, sulfur and calcium from the start of composting to the finished product (n=8 sites)

Temperatures were monitored weekly and temperature data indicated that only one windrow dropped below 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the 8-week process. This windrow was smaller than the others and the compost was happening in below freezing temperatures that occurred in the month of February 2021.

Figure 5. Buried temperature loggers monitored compost temperatures throughout the research. Temperature drops resulted when loggers were removed for compost turning and then replaced

Finally, three replicated field trials were conducted in field corn to compare full rates of manure versus half rates of compost (Tables 1, 2, 3). One more comprehensive trial included a university recommended fertilizer rate as well (Table 4). On average, the compost was hauled 4.5 miles from the livestock barn, thus giving some promise to improved transport of manure/compost to farther field locations. The results below are from one year of data at each respective site and should be interpreted as such.

Table 1: Site 1 – Corn for grain
Treatments Harvest Moisture (%) Yield (bu/acre)
10 tons/ac MANURE 17.5 252 a
5 tons/ac COMPOST 17.8 245 a
LSD: 11.5, CV 2.0
Table 2: Site 2 – Corn for grain
Treatments Harvest Moisture (%) Yield (bu/acre)
Check (no manure or compost) 18.0 258 a
6 tons/ac MANURE 17.9 259 a
3 tons/ac MANURE 18.1 258 a
LSD: 9.7, CV 2.1
Table 3: Site 3 – Corn for silage
Treatments Harvest Moisture (%) Yield (bu/acre)
10 tons/ac MANURE 57.8 23.8 a
5 tons/ac COMPOST 57.8 22.7 a
LSD: 1.7, CV 3.1
Table 4: Site 4 – Corn for grain
Treatments Harvest Moisture (%) Yield (bu/acre)
Fertilizer (22-52-120-12s/ac) 17.6 190 b
10 tons/ac MANURE 17.7 213 a
5 tons/ac MANURE 17.5 202 ab
LSD: 14.9, CV 4.3

Future Plans

Future plans include adding 4-5 more windrow sites before this 2023 grant expires. In 2022 and 2023, the hope is to compare static windrows versus those that are turned mechanically. In the first 8 sites, compost turning was based on time (weekly or bi-weekly turn). In the future, oxygen level or temperatures should be evaluated to help determine timing of turning. From a crop yield perspective, measuring soybean yields in the year following corn where the compost, manure or fertilizer was applied would be informative for growers as they make decisions about improving placement (transport) of manure or compost further from the livestock barn or to fields that have low soil test phosphorus or potassium. Finally, a complete economic analysis of the composting plus further transport needs to be conducted via a case study model.


Eric A. Richer, Assistant Professor and Extension Educator, Ohio State University Extension

Additional Authors

-Jordan Beck, Water Quality Extension Associate, Ohio State University Extension
-Glen Arnold, Field Specialist, Manure Nutrient Management, Ohio State University Extension

Additional Information

Hawkins, E. et al. 2021 eFields Report. Retrieved from

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This work is supported by a Great Lakes Sediment and Nutrient Reduction Program grant. Thanks to the five cooperating farmers who participated in this research study with Ohio State University Extension. Thanks to Stuckey Brothers Farms for use of compost turner and Redline Equipment for rental of Case IH 190 Magnum tractor.


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