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Few Profits Grow In Compost

For a smaller feedlot operation, even based at the doorstep of a million people, it’s a tough job trying to make a dollar selling compost, says a southern Alberta beef producer.

Todd McKinnon, who along with his family runs a 4,000 head feedlot, just north of Calgary, dabbled in the compost business for nearly 20 years, before deciding three years ago, the marketing hassles and regulations involved in commercial compost production, just wasn’t worth the effort. The last truckload was sold earlier this year.

“I don’t want to sound negative,” says McKinnon, who operates Three Cross Cattle Ltd. at Airdie, almost in sight of the high rise office towers of the city. “But it is a lot of work, and you really can’t sell it for what it is worth. There might be some potential if you were properly set up with the specialized equipment and then had someone doing the marketing. But to try and do it all yourself, the money isn’t there.”

McKinnon first looked at composting in the 1980s after a lot of home gardeners came to his yard wanting feedlot manure for their gardens. He began making a little compost — it seemed to be a popular product — so he made more.

“My thinking too was to make it with the machinery we had on the farm,” he says. “And we could make a very nice product, it was beautiful stuff.” He would start the composting process in the feed pens and then finish it in windrows just outside the feed yard. He would turn the composting material with a front end loader, and occasionally run it through a manure spreader, which fluffed it up and got a lot of oxygen in the material, which aided the composting process.”

He advertised compost for sale, a lot of gardeners came to the yard, but many also wanted it delivered. He was one of the first to come up with the idea of delivering it in mini-bulk bags. “One really good market is selling compost to the oil companies for site reclamation work,” he says. “The problem there is, you go along, you don’t hear anything for a long time, and then when they do want it they want 100, 200, or 300 truck loads and they take everything you have. So either you are out of stock or you always have to have extra so if they do show up, you have product available for other customers.”

The clincher that determined the fate of his composting project, were impending stiff regulations imposed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Once an operation crosses the line from being a hobby business to a commercial compost business there are regulations regarding the actual compost site, requirements for a solid surface for making compost, the need for birms to prevent run off, and the operator also has to provide guarantees about the quality of the product.

“We had a good product, but I started to think about liability issues,” says McKinnon. “Suppose somehow something got in there that sterilized the soil and then you sold that to greenhouse or sod farm and their crops were damaged. Where would that put you? We didn’t want to invest any more, so decided to shut it down.

It was a seasonal market too, with about 90 per cent of sales to home gardeners during two weeks in May and 10 per cent in the fall. “I think there is a market there for the home garden and horticultural industry, but you should have the proper composting equipment to reduce your workload, and then you need someone to do the marketing,” he says.

Cattle in his feedlot produce about 4,000 tons of manure per year, which he would process into about 1,200 tons of compost. For his own farm, he has the land base so it is much simpler just to apply manure, and as far as selling compost to other farmers, he says while compost benefits the soil beyond its pure nutrient value, it is hard to convince farmers to pay more for compost over commercial fertilizer rates.

Virginia Nelson, an agricultural engineer with the Alberta Ag-Tech Centre in Lethbridge agrees making money in the compost business can be tough.

“I love compost. It is an exceptional nutrient source and soil amendment product in so many ways,” she says. “But it is difficult to make money with it, at least at this time.”

Nelson, who researched the composting process for years, says from a commercial standpoint a ton of compost may have $90 to $100 in real nutrient value, but the fact is the retail value is only $30. “Most people can never get paid what it is really worth,” she says.

For an individual family farm, like a cow-calf operation, if they do have enough manure stockpiled for composting, making the product becomes another process or job on a busy farm.

And for commercial operators — like larger feedlots — the challenge is finding a market that provides a decent return. “Some of the commercial compost processors have to be very creative in making a good product as efficiently as possible, and then plan deliveries and arrange backhauls with other products, just to keep costs down.”

Nelson’s research over the years has shown that just about any “waste” agricultural product can be composted, from manure to dead animal carcasses. The challenge is to get a decent return on the time and money invested in producing it.

There is plenty of good information on composting on the Internet. Alberta Agriculture has an excellent fact sheet posted on the website www.agric.gov.ab.ca called Composting Benefits and Disadvantages.

LeeHartiseditorofCattleman’sCornerbased inCalgary.Contacthimat403-592-1964orby emailat [email protected]

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart

Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary.

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