BLACK RIVER FALLS, Wis. – Profitable dairying starts with that other end product on the Wagner Family Farm near Black River Falls.

Jerry Wagner and his son, Brandon Wagner, say composting helps them increase soil fertility and consequently feed value. Jerry Wagner says composting seals in nutrients and creates a slow-release stable fertilizer that will continue to be effective for as many as 10 years.

The Wagners source local turkey manure, turkey bedding and bird remains to use in their compost. They start by chopping old hay; they then cover it with raw turkey by-product or their own cow manure. They turn the pile daily with an automated compost turner. Between turnings the pile is covered to contain heat, odors and nitrogen.

After a few days the pile begins to collapse or “dimple” as everything in the pile decomposes. By the end of the first week the piles are being turned every other day. During that time microbes are working on the cell walls of the compost ingredients, breaking them down. By the time the compost is finished, in about two months, the piles are being turned once each week.

It’s at that time that the temperature of the mix increases. Wagner said the pile can reach as much as 160 degrees. Because Wagner Family Farm is certified organic, the producers need to assure the pile attains between 131 degrees and 170 degrees for 15 days with a minimum of five turnings. Wagner said more wood shavings from the turkey bedding results in hotter compost.

It’s the temperature that makes it true compost instead of aged manure. The benefits to achieving heated compost are the breakdown of organic matter, the killing of disease microbes and the destruction of weed seeds. Turning the compost pile helps take carbon dioxide out of the pile and puts oxygen into the pile. It also mixes the compost well to make a uniform product.

Wagner attended a week of classes to learn the composting process. He at first took time to have his pile tested at intervals. But now he uses experience to tell him what to do and when.

To illustrate how well the compost works, Wagner told of a farmer who bought some for growing his giant pumpkins. The grower buried his vines in the compost. He was able to increase his pumpkin’s weight from 1,500 pounds in 2017 to 2,000 pounds in 2018 – the 35th-largest in the world.

Wagner spreads his compost after second-crop hay and each succeeding hay crop. Brandon Wagner said he would also like to spread after first-crop hay, but in most years the compost isn’t ready in time to spread. First-crop hay will have a sugar content of 4 percent – compared to 13 percent for second and third crop. It’s the sugars that make energy. Jerry Wagner said because of that they can reduce feeding corn to the dairy herd.

The two Wagners modified a manure spreader by adding lift, taking off the beater and adding a spin kit. With their modified spreader they apply 1,000 pounds or more of compost per acre.

Applying the compost has paid well. When Jerry Wagner bought his farm in the mid-1980s it was nutrient-poor. The soils of sandy loam, Tarr sand and loamy sand were depleted, according to soil tests and the presence of sand burrs. That’s changed.

“I haven’t seen a sand burr in years,” he said.

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LeeAnne Bulman writes about agriculture from her farm overlooking the beautiful Danuser Valley on Wisconsin’s west coast. She is the author of “Haffa Huffy or All Huffey.”