Compost

Composting livestock manure and other organic matter stabilizes the nutrients by partially decomposing the materials.  Nutrients from finished compost are more slowly released than from fresh livestock manure.  Compost is considered mature (i.e., finished) when most of the easily decomposed components of the material have been broken down and biological activity has slowed. At this time, the pile returns to ambient temperature, and it does not reheat when mixed or turned. The composting process results in a dark-brown material in which the initial constituents are no longer recognizable and further degradation is not noticeable. The length of time needed to achieve finished compost will vary with many factors and can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to over a year.

Application of unfinished compost could affect plant growth adversely because the compost-making microbes may compete with the crop for nitrogen. Applying compost at least one week before transplanting or seeding a crop will allow a margin of safety in case the compost is immature. Immature composts made from nitrogen-rich feedstock are also often high in ammonium, which can change to ammonia gas and be toxic to plant growth. High ammonium concentrations are not typically a problem if the compost is field applied, but if compost will be used in a greenhouse mix, it is important that it be low in ammonium. 

Vegetable growers can make compost on the farm although most don’t have enough raw materials to satisfy their needs. Some bring in additional materials such as manure or municipal yard wastes to compost on-site. Others purchase compost from the increasing number of commercial composters. 

Compost as a nutrient source. Finished compost is a dilute fertilizer, typically having an analysis of about (1-1-1 N-P2O5-K2O), but the analysis can vary greatly depending on the types of materials used to make the compost and how they were composted. Composts should be analyzed for their available N, total N, P2O5, and K2O content before application to agriculture fields.

Carbon to Nitrogen Ratio. The recommended C:N ratio for finished compost is 15-18:1.   The C:N ratio plays a crucial role in the availability of nitrogen in any organic material added to the soil. If the C:N ratio is much above 30:1 microorganisms will immobilize (i.e., consume and make unavailable for plant uptake) soil nitrogen.  This soil nitrogen will remain unavailable until the carbonaceous material is consumed by the bacteria.

Table 8: Typical Carbon-to-Nitrogen Ratios

Material

C:N RATIO
Legume hay 15-19:1
Non-legume hay 24-41:1
Corn stalks 42:1
Oat straw

70:1

Rye straw 82:1
Cow manure 18:1
Finished compost 17-20:1
Agricultural soils 8-14:1
Hardwood sawdust 500:1

 

Nitrogen. The majority of the nitrogen in finished compost (usually over 90%) has been incorporated into organic compounds that are resistant to decomposition. Rough estimates are that only 10%-30% of the nitrogen in these organic compounds will become available in the first season following application. Some of the remaining nitrogen will become available in subsequent years and at much slower rates than in the first year. Repeated annual applications of compost at high rates above 400 pounds of nitrogen per acre can result in excessive amounts of nitrate in the soil.

Phosphorus. There is not much research information published about the availability of phosphorus from compost. The few papers published show that composts made primarily from manures supply phosphorus over the growing season at 70%-100% of the availability of triple superphosphate fertilizer. The amount of organic amendments that can be added without building up excessive phosphorus depends primarily on: 1) the existing soil test P level of the field; and 2) the P2O5 content of the amendment. Table 9 shows the effect of both soil test P categories and the P2O5 concentration of an organic amendment on the suggested maximum amount of material to apply. If these rates of amendments are applied every year, analyze the soil for extractable P annually to ensure that soil test P has not risen to excessive levels. Additional compost applications to soil that tests optimum for P could increase P to above optimum levels. If a soil test shows an above optimum P level, avoid compost applications until P returns to the optimum range. 

Table 9. Maximum Compost or Organic Amendment Application and total P2O5 per Soil Test Category and P2O5 Concentration1

  Soil test phosphorus (P) Category
Compost/organic amendment P2O5 content Very Low/Low Optimum  Above optimum 
% P2O5 (dry wt.) P2O5 (lb/acre) Compost (tons/acre) P2O5 (lb/acre) Compost (tons/acre)  

Low (0.1%-0.5%)1

330 120 82 30 No application
Medium (0.5%-1.5%) 330 30 55 5 No application
High (1.5%-3.0%) 330 15 No application No application

1 Assumes moisture content of the compost or organic amendment of 45%.

2 Average rates used to calculate amounts of P2O5 applied for various rates of compost applications.

Potassium. Potassium in finished compost is much more available for plant uptake than nitrogen because potassium is not incorporated into organic matter. However, some of the potassium can be leached from the compost because it is water soluble. In one study, potassium levels were reduced by 25% when finished compost was left uncovered in the open over a winter.

Soluble Salts. In general, soluble salts are not a concern from additions of composts to field soil. However, soluble salts can be a serious problem when using compost in greenhouse mixes. Incorporation of 40 tons per acre of compost in the top 6 inches of field soil would be a ratio of 50 parts soil to one part of compost. Compost used in the preparation of greenhouse media will make up a much greater percentage of the whole mix and therefore will have a greater influence on all aspects of fertility, including soluble salts. It is important to have composts tested for salt levels. Electrical conductivity (EC) is a measure of salt level, and compost used in greenhouse mixes should have EC < 1 mmhos/cm.

Compost and pH. The pH of finished compost is usually slightly alkaline. In general, composts will not raise soil pH to undesirably alkaline levels because of the low total alkalinity of composts. However, caution should be taken if the compost has been “stabilized” with the addition of lime (thus increasing the total alkalinity) or with heavy applications to certain crops such as potatoes, for which the soil pH should be about 5.2. Heavy applications can cause increases in soil pH that might last for a growing season.

Heavy Metals and Trace Elements. The danger of heavy metals in some composts has received much attention. At one time, some heavy metals in some composts were high enough to be toxic to plants (copper, nickel, zinc) or of concern to human health (cadmium). There have been documented cases where elements such as boron have been raised to toxic levels with repeated applications of compost. These composts with high metals or boron were made from materials with high concentrations of these elements. Governmental regulations control the materials that may be used in composts for applications to farmland. None of these toxicity problems are likely to occur with compost that has been made from farm manures or crop residues or with the commercially available composts of today.

Herbicide Residues in Compost. There are broadleaf herbicides registered for use on turfgrass, pastures, and hay crops that retain activity in the manure of animals that have fed upon them, as well as through the composting process of crop residues from areas treated with these herbicides. There have been many cases where vegetable growers have unknowingly purchased organic amendments such as manure and composts that are contaminated with herbicides and have damaged vegetable crops. If you purchase organic amendments, you should be aware of this possibility and get assurance that herbicides are not present in the manures and composts that you purchase. 

Have Compost Analyzed. No compost should be applied to field soil or used in greenhouse mixes without testing for nutrient content. If the compost will be used in greenhouse mixes, it should also be tested for maturity. Some soil test labs will test compost. Check to be sure the lab analyzes compost before submitting samples, and make sure to have it tested as a compost sample, not as field soil.

Take Soil Test After Applying Compost. A good way to evaluate the effect of compost on the fertility of a soil is to obtain a soil test after applying compost. It is best to wait six to eight weeks after application before testing the soil to allow the compost and soil to equilibrate. The soil test can measure available plant nutrients, soil pH, organic matter, and heavy metal content of the soil.