I have been composting for a long time. By composting, I mean the capturing of wastes to grow plants. My first memory was burying a pine cone with some dog manure with the hope that it would some day be a tree. In that first experience was an understanding that soil fertility is built rather than just assumed. Good soil takes work and is easy to destroy. In the natural world Nature will build soil on its own through the natural cycles of growth and decay. On a farm it is up to the farmer to manage the growth and decay cycle. If one assumes that in order for more growth to occur that more decay must happen simultaneously or the net fertility of the soil will diminish, relative to the balance of the growth/decay cycle, then it is up to the farmer to increase decay in places where nutrient hungry crops are grown. One way is to use animal waste. An animals digestive system accelerates the decay process. Another way to accelerate decay is to use compost heaps. A compost heap is essentially a place for bacteria to be happy, multiply and digest wastes in a thorough and timely manner. The main bacteria one wants for this scenario are aerobic. Very roughly, they need air, moisture and stuff to eat. Happy bacteria will give off heat and break down most wastes in a few weeks. Therefore, one can use their eyes to see that wastes that have been added are breaking down, their hands to feel if the heap is warm and nose to tell if the ingredients are in balance.
On our farm all of the animals are raised out-of-doors on pasture, except for the few weeks that the chicks spend in the brooder and the hoop houses that the layers spend part of their time during the winter in. So most of the time our animals waste is being directly applied and used in the pasture. That is great for the pasture, not so good for the vegetable gardens. The wastes that we can capture- the bedding in the brooder, the hoop houses and the offal that comes from butchering the animals on the farm - is still not enough to build the fertility of our garden spaces. We have a few options: 1. decrease out vegetable growing space, 2. increase the number of animals we raise or confine the ones we raise, or 3. import fertility to the farm. 1. I don't see our vegetable space decreasing, it will actually be increasing, so that scenario is out. 2 The animals and I are happy with the current growing situation. So that leave us with option 3.
Some would recommend purchasing chemical fertilizers made from petrol-chemicals. My experience has been that they have short-term benefits and long-term damaging effects. Chemical fertilizers don't improve the composition of soil they just give a boost to the plants. Sort of like eating candy bars, they give you quick energy but in the long run they're not that good for you. So, chemicals are not really an option to increase long term fertility.
One product I could buy is pre-made compost. It costs about $32/ yard delivered. It is often made with wood wastes and chemical fertilizers. Another option is to purchase excess manure from neighboring farms. One of the problems with raw manure is that some of it contains weed seeds that will sprout when you put them directly into a planting area and in the case of chicken manure it is too volatile to use much of directly.
The pre-made compost is a little expensive as I would be needing about 30-50 yards. I can buy a lot of vegetables for that much money. So, I have opted for importing some raw ingredients and making my own compost. In very basic terms one needs to add ingredients to the compost pile that when mixed together have an average carbon/nitrogen ratio of 20:1 to 30:1. A mixture with too much carbon will decay too slowly or not at all and a mixture with too much nitrogen will stink like ammonia (that's volatilizing nitrogen which means wasted energy). It will also stink like a feed lot of cows (that's methane from anaerobic bacteria) if parts of the pile aren't getting air from being too wet or layers of material that don't breathe like grass clippings.
I started out by buying a 40 yard load of hog fuel. Hog fuel is coarsely ground chunks of wood that has a C-N ratio of about 100:1. The load cost about $8/ yard delivered. I originally bought it to help build the bedding in one of the winter chicken houses and to use in the well traveled muddy areas of the pasture. After using what I needed I still had about 30 yards left. The next ingredient I got was chicken manure from a farm down the road. Chicken manure has a C-N ration of about 10-1. They sell it for $15/ yard. I bought 2 yards and brought it back to the farm.
Now, I already had a compost pile going from my own food scraps and the wastes from animal processing combined with wood chips and straw. This pile was only about 5 yards and wasn't enough material for what I will need in a few months. And rather than start a new pile I decided to add to it. I started by turning the mountain into a volcano. I took a pitch fork and started flinging material out of the middle to the sides. Once it was sufficiently hollowed out in the middle I started adding a few shovels full of chicken manure followed by a tractor scoop of hog fuel and then spreading it out. I did this until the pile was 6' high and 12' across. My methods of measurement are not scientific. The main goal was to combine the 2 ingredients and watch what happens. I should also note that the chicken manure was dry and that the hog fuel was very wet. If I was doing this in the summer I would have needed to add water. Being that it is raining, there was no need to add water. I finished the pile off with a solid layer of hog fuel to hold in the moisture.
Within 3 days the pile was steaming and when I pulled apart the first layer and stuck my hand in it was hot to the touch.
The pile will cook down and lose volume. My hope is that in the long run I will make a mulch that is superior to what can be purchased and save some money. It is my goal to create all of the humus the plants need on the farm. I am still a year or 2 away from that. I will let you know how this goes.