Compost barns a viable option for Ohio dairies

Farmers report increased cow comfort and improved health

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Compost pack
“A compost barn is a one size fits all,” said Alan Kozak of Clover Patch Dairy in Millersburg, Ohio. The cows “are so comfortable” and able to spread out and lie where they please. (Catie Noyes photos)

WOOSTER, Ohio ­— When a tornado took off the roof of a barn that housed Richman Farms’ dairy cows in August 2007, Richard, Bill and Tom Indoe had to come up with a solution fast.

The Indoes, of Lodi, Ohio, knew they wanted something easy and more manageable if they were going to continue their dairy operation.

Richard had seen a compost dairy operation during his travels in southeastern Ohio and decided he liked the look of them.

“Compost barns were a new concept in Ohio at the time,” explained Bill Indoe, Richard’s son and herd manager. “We wanted to keep it simple, economical and provide maximum cow comfort.”

Feed alley
Cow comfort is important to milk producers Richard and Bill Indoe of Richman Farms in Lodi, Ohio. Soft compost makes up the cows’ bedding area and rubber mats cover the feed alley floor.

In November 2008, they moved their cows into their new home, a compost barn.

“The cows love it, that’s why I love it,” said Richard.

Most Ohio dairies handle liquid manure, which requires careful management and have higher costs associated with transportation and application of that manure. Ohio State Extension conducted a research study on four Ohio dairy farms, from 2008-2009, that use compost bedded systems, and found it’s a viable option for dairy facilities.

“It is a great way to combine living and bedding options with manure storage,” said Amanda Douridas, Ohio State Extension educator and part of a research study on compost bedded pack dairy barns in Ohio.

Barn layout

“A compost barn is a one size fits all,” said Alan Kozak, describing the open concept of a compost dairy facility. He and his wife Sharon own Clover Patch Dairy in Millersburg, Ohio.

Compost barn
Compost barns, like Kozaks, are similar to freestall barns, with open sides and a high pitched roof to stimulate air flow.

A compost barn is similar to a freestall barn — without the freestalls. The area that would normally have individual freestalls for each cow is now just one large, open space.

The sides of these barns are typically more open to provide better airflow for the compost pack. Large fans are also installed to keep the air flowing so the pack can compost properly.

The pack

One to two feet of sawdust is laid down to start the pack. As the cows begin to use the sawdust, fresh sawdust is applied to the pack as needed.

During the summer, Bill Indoe said they bed the pack once every 10 days or more because the cows spend most of their time outdoors. In the winter months, fresh bedding is needed more frequently — about once a week. Fresh sawdust is usually needed once the pack material starts sticking to the cows.

Compost barn
Fans create a steady airflow throughout the Indoe’s compost barn and keeps the pack from getting too warm and stimulates the aerobic process needed to break down the compost.

Bedding

Sawdust was found to be the best bedding option for farmers, as it breaks down more naturally. Kozak had tried using dried corn stalks and straw, but found they did not stir as well and the pack rose very quickly.

Sawdust also needs to be dry when applied. Bill discovered an increase in bacteria after once using wet bedding to bed the pack.

Both farms reported sawdust availability and cost to be one of the biggest obstacles of a compost system.

Keep it clean

The pack can reach 4 to 6 feet in height before a full clean-out is needed. Typically, a full clean-out takes place before the winter and again in the early spring. Some farmers even reported only needing to clean the pack once a year.

Kozak said they last cleaned the barn around late April or early May and “the level of the pack hasn’t changed,” due to the natural composting.

Cultivator
A simple cultivator attached to the back of a loader tractor is all that is needed to stir the compost pack twice a day. Stirring the pack is essential to the composting process.

The pack needs to be stirred at least twice a day to stimulate the anaerobic activity that composts the manure. A small cultivator attached to a loader tractor works best for stirring the top layer of the pack.

Warm temps.

During the winter, the pack provides a warm place for the cows. The warmth and softness of the pack also makes it an ideal place for calving to take place, which is why a section of the pack at Richman farms is reserved for cows about to give birth.

Large fans keep the cows from getting too hot during the summer at Richman Farms, and Bill said their cows spent a majority of their time indoors, even on hot day.

However, Kozak reported his pack was a little warm for his cows during the hottest days of the year. Cows would position themselves to the cooler ends of the barn for comfort.

Cow health

Since converting to the compost system, Bill said his cows rarely have health issues. The somatic cell count has been low, mastitis and milk fever have not been an issue, and the cows stay clean.

Kozak agreed. “They are the cleanest they have ever been,” he said of his herd since implementing the compost operation. Even his veterinarian commented on how clean his cows were.

Comfort is key

“They are so comfortable,” said Kozak, looking over his herd, which was lounging comfortably.

“We have all this rolling pasture land, and they are all in here. They love the compost. It’s soft and comfortable,” said Bill.

Due to the increased comfort, Bill feels his herd has had a slight increase in milk production (he was unable to provide an actual amount).

Piles of compost

After cleaning out the pack, Kozak piles the compost just outside the barn until he is ready to spread it on the fields. While in the pile, the pack continues to compost into a nutrient-rich matter.

Compost pile
When Kozak cleans his compost pack, the compost is piled outside the barn where it can continue to compost until it is time to spread it on the fields. Kozak has also given his compost to neighbors and family who say it works great on their home gardens.

The compost nutrient levels from the dairy compost barn were lower compared to liquid manure, but higher than most average composts, said Douridas.

Kozak has shared his compost with neighbors and family members who tell him it works the best on their gardens.

“I think we are missing an opportunity with the compost,” said Kozak, who would like to find a way to market more of it.

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Catie Noyes lives in Ashland County and earned a bachelor's degree in agriculture communications from The Ohio State University. She enjoys photography, softball and sharing stories about agriculture. Formerly a reporter for the Farm and Dairy, Catie is now pursuing her master's degree in education.

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