Managing manure in ways that maximize its benefits while protecting water resources has long been a challenge for feedlot operations. But a Texas-based compost company is helping change this with a cost- effective solution that is helping feedlot operators address the bulk of their manure management concerns.

Jack Moreman, a former feedlot operator and college professor who spent more than 25 years educating others about sustainability, started a composting business that helps feedlot operators better manage the staggering amount of manure produced by their herds each year. The composted end-product also serves an important role in agricultural crop production as a natural fertilizer and soil amendment that has proven to enhance yields and improve overall soil health.

Rolling Plains Ag Compost, appropriately named for the geographic region where the bulk of the feedlots they serve are located, was founded six years ago by Moreman and business partner Don Lyles. Today, the combined one-time herd population capacity of the seven feedlots served by Rolling Plains Ag Compost is approximately 200,000 head and the company processes more than 720,000 tons (653,173 tonnes) of manure annually. 

“At the time I was in the feedlot business, we couldn’t give it [manure] away,” Moreman says. “But since then, environmental concerns have stepped up regulations on feedlots — specifically manure and runoff — so it behooves feedlot operators to partner with someone like our organization that will remove manure and compost it. We convert raw manure to a compost that is sold to local farmers as fertilizer. Since water and moisture retention is a big concern for farmers in this area, the compost product we produce is a win-win; for feedlots, farmers and environmental concerns.”

Moreman calculates the manure-to-compost conversion rate at approximately 5-to-1; hence the nearly three-quarters of a million tons (680,400 tonnes) of manure his company composts each year yields about 300,000 tons (272,155.4 tonnes) of rich, fertile compost. 

“We feel like we’re serving the agricultural interests of this area with a product they couldn’t access otherwise,” Moreman says. “At the same time, we’re helping the feedlot industry get rid of the many tons of manure produced by their herds each year. It works well for all of us. It’s a fantastic business and we feel really lucky to be doing so well.”

The process: Once removed from a feedlot, the dry manure is hauled to laydown yards adjacent to a feedlot and fashioned into windrows; approximately 14 to 16 feet (4.3 to 4.9 m) wide at the base, and 5 to 6 feet (1.5 to 1.8 m) tall. The area for windrow laydown yards is the only investment required by feedlot customers. Removal of the manure from the feedlot and subsequent expenses associated with the compost process are covered by Moreman. Depending on the size and configuration of the laydown area, windrows may extend up to one-quarter mile (402.3 m) long, and cover up to 20 acres (8.1 hectares) of surface area. 

Rolling Plains Ag Compost uses a CT718 compost turner by Wildcat, a Vermeer company, with a 44-inch (111.8 cm) diameter drum to turn, mix and aerate the material. The CT718 is capable of processing up to 5000 tons (4535.9 tonnes) per hour. Once complete, a process that takes six weeks on average depending on weather conditions and moisture content of the manure, the compost is sold to local farmers as a fertilizer and soil amendment.  Moreman explains that no other materials are added to the manure to create the final nutrient-rich compost product.

“The manure itself makes a good, strong and effective soil amendment,” Moreman says. “There’s no need to add anything to it. Some compost operators will add various things they feel are needed to increase volume and enhance carbon oxygenation. The only ingredient that may need to be added is water, depending on the initial moisture content of the manure and weather conditions during the six-week timespan it takes for the compost process to complete.”

The physical condition of the manure extracted from large cattle feedlots is much different than manure historically produced in barnyards or covered confinement facilities where the raw waste is often removed and placed in piles for later use on cropland. In large open feedlots, largely due to the high density of cattle, the manure is packed to the point that when removed, it usually takes the form of large, compacted chunks. The compaction is created by the weight and continuous movement by the cattle on the feedlot soil surface. 

In this hard, compacted form, the manure is difficult to handle and nearly impossible to spread in a uniform manner on cropland. Manure in this form is also highly variable in nutrient content leaving farmers unsure of just how much fertilizer value is present in the material applied and at what rate the nutrients will become available for plant growth.   

“Without the CT718 compost turner, we wouldn’t be able to accommodate turning the larger volumes of manure, especially in the compacted form it takes when removed from the feedlot,” Moreman says. “It takes a big, sturdy and durable machine to handle it and the CT718 is certainly capable of this type of challenge. We provide compost services to seven different feedlots using just the one turner. It has been a very reliable and effective machine for us.”

All pens are excavated at least once a year, while many pens, especially in areas where cattle are coming and going a lot, may be cleaned twice annually. Given the number of feedlots served by Rolling Plains Ag Compost and the amount of surface area being excavated, the compost process is ongoing, and the compost turner is in operation nearly every day of the year.

“There are many weeks I’ll run the turner 10 hours a day, every day,” says Kelly Speed, principal compost turner operator with Rolling Plains Ag Compost. “Our yards are scattered about, so we’ll load the CT718 turner on our semi-trailer and move it about as needed. I’m amazed at what this machine is capable of getting through. It’s very durable … and just keeps on going.”   

Good for the land; environmentally sustainable.

“Freshly plowed ground” is the comparison Moreman uses to describe the look, composition and smell of the final product. “You know how ground smells when you plow it in the spring, how it smells so fresh,” Moreman says. “That’s what the final product is like. This is the result of the microbial population and activity in soil that’s just doing its thing. Conversely, with chemical fertilizers, there is a much different smell. A lot of anhydrous ammonia is applied to agricultural land, and I’m convinced ammonia destroys the microbial population of the soil. We’re restoring a lot of that activity back into the soil with a product that’s all- natural.”

Rolling Plains Ag Compost offers turnkey services for their customers that include the compost and a fleet of spreaders used for applying the compost soil amendment to their fields. In addition to serving the needs of local farmers, Moreman also supplies local golf courses with compost, albeit a more fine composition than that applicable for agricultural field applications. To accomplish this, Moreman uses a trammel screen with a 3/8-inch (.9 cm) screen size to achieve compost particle size that resembles small pebbles.

“It’s very rewarding being in a business that helps so many interests,” Moreman says. “We help minimize the concerns of feedlot operators and environmental interests with regard to manure management issues, and provide farmers with a product that helps enhance crop production. The best part is the compost process and product is fully natural, organic and sustainable and our Vermeer by Wildcat turner helps make the process more efficient. We couldn’t be happier.”

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