DUNDEE, Ohio — Welcome to the manure fortress, said Tim Sigrist, stretching his arms to show off 3 acres of composting manure. What started as trial and error and homemade contraptions, continues to be trial and error and homemade contraptions, but has become a successful business venture for the Sigrist family.
Bull Country Compost, in Tuscarawas County, sold 44,000 bags of compost in 2015, which is a significant jump from the 10,000-12,000 bags they sold their first year back in the early ’90s.
Long before it was a compost operation, Tim’s grandpa, John Sigrist, started the farm as a dairy, beef and horse enterprise. Being located in Amish country made it an ideal place to raise Percherons and offer stud services to the Amish community.
When Tim’s father, John, took over the operation, he turned the focus to dairy. But, as many dairy farmers know, there is always plenty of work to go around and not always enough money. When Tim Sigrist returned home from attending Marietta College with the hopes of working on the family farm, his father told him, “If you are going to be here, you are going to have to find a way to make more money.”
Composting was a relatively new concept at the time, and there was limited research on it, explained Sigrist. So the Sigrists started a sort of trial-and-error operation by composting their own manure from the dairy. “We had so much being spread on the fields that they were getting over-nutriented,” he said. Composing was “possibly a way to make money, but also another way to handle manure storage.”
Bull Country Compost was officially incorporated in 1994 by Tim and his parents, John and Linda Sigrist.
They started by using windrows, said Sigrist, with compost laid out in long rows and turned every so often by tractor. But Ohio weather was not conducive to this method of composting, and rains prevented the compost from drying and composting properly.
“We needed a way to control the water,” he said. Composting by windrows also consumed a lot of fuel and was labor intensive. So Tim began to research vessel structures and fabricate his own.
The original composting area started out as a 150-by-80 foot concrete slab with a homemade vessel positioned overtop. The original vessel looks like a long concrete bunker divided into two alleys of material. The roof sits a few feet above the concrete walls, supported by wood beams, to allow air for air flow. Sigrist said researchers were doubtful his makeshift setting would work, noting that airflow would be a challenge.
“But we must have done something right,” said Sigrist, adding Ohio State and the local soil and water conservation districts have hosted tours at his operation multiple times, and he’s had visitors from Alaska, California, and Tennessee.
The first vessel, although revamped to be more efficient, is still a part of what has grown to become a 3-acre operation. The newest vessels feature the same type of concrete base, but have a hoop house structure for the top to allow for even more airflow. Sigrist currently has eight vessels with 3,000 yards of material composting at all times.
After about three years, the Sigrists had enough business, but not enough material to keep up. “We needed more manure and we needed different types of manure,” said Sigrist. “Different types of manure provide different microbes and a greater diversity of microbes creates a better (composting) process.”
The Sigrists began collecting horse manure from their Amish neighbors as well as other farms that needed to get rid of extra manure. Sigrist worked with local farmers to provided large collection bins at farms to collect extra manure.
Sigrist invested in a couple of roll-off trucks to collect the bins and bring them to and from the compost operation. The boxes can be loaded and unloaded in about two to three minutes and “we can unload a box while another is being loaded,” Sigrist said. Sigrist has also contracted work with the local auction barn to collect extra manure from their facilities.
Yard waste composting has really taken off in the last five years, and Sigrist decided to capitalize on people’s care for their lawn and gardens. A contract with the county allows Sigrist to collect yard waste from the residential areas to use for a new product call Hayseed Hanks. Hayseed Hanks is a new “super soil” that incorporates yard waste, compost, topsoil, and a small amount of sand to aid in drainage.
“Landowners are becoming more aware of what they put on their yards and gardens,” he said.
Bagging and selling. Bagging of compost is done onsite with a homemade conveyor system to fill the bags. “We can fill bags at a rate of five seconds per bag,” said Sigrist. “Not bad for homemade stuff.”
And that speed and efficiency is reflected in their sales. “Every year we are growing. Last year, we sold 44,000 bags, up from the year before; we sold 36,000 bags,” said Sigrist. “Our very first year we sold 10,000-12,000 bags.”
It all comes down to marketing, which Sigrist said has always been a challenge. “When we first started, the biggest challenge was finding a market for (compost),” he said. Because it was such a new concept, people were not familiar with it. Even now, as people are becoming more aware of it, “it’s still our biggest hurdle.” A common misconception? Many people still think it is manure. “But you can pick it up and see that it has a nice earthy smell” and soil-like texture, he said lifting a handful to his nose.
Over the years, Sigrist has worked to make his operation more uniform. Barn space was improved and older vessels were revamped to deal with excess water. The new vessels were constructed using hoop house structures, timer-operated fans and inground cooling systems to regulate temperature and airflow. Over the summer, Sigrist plans to extend the curing shed an additional 100 feet behind the existing shed.
Not in any immediate plans, but a project Sigrist hopes to see come to life is a heating project. Using a piping system, Sigrist wants to capture the heat generated from the compost and flow it into the bagging shed. “Bagging can start in February if the weather cooperates,” he said, noting that he could extend his bagging season if he could work in the colder months.
Although John Sigrist sold the dairy cows in 2013, the family continues to raise heifers on the 300-acre farm near Dundee. They custom raise heifers, which contributes to 10 percent of the manure used in the composting process. Like any good entrepreneur, Sigrist is always looking for new ways to grow the business. “We’ve always stressed quality and kept our product neat and ready to go for customers,” said Sigrist.
A closer look at the composting process
Bull Country Compost, in Dundee, is a Class III EPA-inspected facility, which means it can accept only separated yard waste and/or animal wastes. Tim Sigrist uses eight vessels in his compost operation, roughly 12 feet by 132 feet in length, and keeps 3,000 yards of material composting regularly.
Compost remains in the vessels for six weeks, reaching a temperature of up to 160 degrees before it is moved to the curing shed. EPA regulations require compost to reach a minimum of 140 degrees for 72 hours, but Sigrist likes his compost to be a little higher and compost for a little longer. And reaching those temps is not difficult. After loading a vessel with fresh manure, Sigrist said in four days the compost had already reached 160 degrees. “In 72 hours, it will reach 140 degrees, no problem.” At 180 degrees or above, compost begins to burn off too many nutrients.
Oxygen is a key component in composting. Older vessels are fitted with aeration pipes and newer vessels have aeration constructed into the concrete floor to maximize air flow. Compost is then moved to the curing shed for six to eight months to finish any biological processes. The compost is then screened to create a uniform product that is then bagged for customers.