It’s Joe Breker’s 40th year farming in southeastern North Dakota on the northern tip of the Coteau Prairie.
He’s tried a number of conservation methods in that time to build his soil and get the most out of his nutrients. Breker hasn’t tilled his ground since he started farming. He’s used rotational grazing methods for 30 years, planted cover crops for 20, and for 10 years he’s been composting manure.
“It’s that conservation-type mindset that I came from,” he said, giving a presentation at the North American Manure Expo in Brookings Aug. 16.
Breker bought a composting machine, and because the waste from his small cow-calf herd wasn’t enough, he started purchasing manure from a dairy in Veblen, South Dakota.
He loves the micronutrients it adds to his soils, he said. He likes the bigger soil helpers, too.
In a pitchfork full of dirt, he counted 40 worms, he said. “They all come to the surface to eat organic matter,” he said.
One challenge of composting manure is having the space to windrow piles of manure and the time to work through it, he said. It also takes some time to process.
The tunnel composter is pulled by a tractor, working through long windrows of manure. He goes over the pile three times within the first 10 days of receiving a truckload at his farm. He makes additional passes with the composter over the following weeks, making six passes in all.
What’s delivered at 70 percent moisture gets to under 50 percent once he’s worked it through. That’s when it works best in his manure spreader.
“Plus, I don’t want to haul all that weight to the field,” he added.
Along with removing water weight, composting concentrates the nutrients in the manure.
“It’s a low density nutrient product, but it’s got everything in there. You’ve just got to work through the process,” he said.
Each field of his gets spread with 8 tons of manure every four years. He applies commercial fertilizer during the other years.
He’s figured that his nutrient levels are pretty well balanced. A corn crop removes an average removes 122 pounds of potash, by his calculations, and the manure he applies totals about 128 pounds.
Keeping the right balance is key when it comes to soil health and producing a good crop.