Converting 21 Tons of Daily Manure to Nitrogen-Rich Compost Offers Numerous Benefits
It’s hard for the average person to comprehend what a flock of 380,000 chickens actually looks like. But for Douglas Lesher, that’s just his average day at the office. Representing the fourth generation of Leshers in Pennsylvania poultry farming, he carried this family tradition beyond the century mark and continues to bring new processes and innovation to the operation. Today, Lesher’s Poultry Farm produces well more than two million eggs weekly at peak production.
“We didn’t incorporate the name until 1985, but our family started poultry farming back sometime between 1918 and 1920,” shares Douglas. “Now we have three separate houses each with anywhere between 127 and 130 thousand laying hens.”
Farming is Manufacturing
Where most people just see a house filled with egg-laying hens, Douglas sees a complex business with all the needs and challenges of a major manufacturer, starting with key production assets. Rather than machines and equipment, it’s chickens.
“A hen typically starts laying at about 19-20 weeks of age,” Douglas explains. “And with today’s better genetics, we keep them up to week 90. So we get almost a year and a half of production from each chicken. At their peak, a hen can lay an egg a day, and we’ve been able to get as high as 97-98% daily production from our flock, which is much longer and higher than even just a decade or two ago.”
While maximizing production is always a top priority for any manufacturing business, proper waste management is a close second. As one can imagine, a third of a million birds produce tons of poop every day. Quite literally.
“About 21 tons of manure daily,” Douglas estimates.
Poultry Manure Problems
It’s a problem that certainly can’t be ignored, and one with few easy solutions. At that volume, trucking is simply not viable. Decades ago, Lesher’s directly land applied all their manure—the family also runs a traditional crop farm of corn, soy and wheat—after it was stockpiled during the growing season. At scale though, that relatively hands-off method produced plenty of headaches.
“I was pretty young back then, but I recall we’d just apply the manure to the ground. When we pulled lab samples of the soil, you could definitely tell by the phosphorous levels where the manure was applied!” recalls Douglas. “But during the growing season we’d have to stockpile in manure houses, and with a moisture content of 60-70%, it attracted flies and smelled pretty rough and the neighbors didn’t like that. And rightly so.”
About 20 years ago, Lesher’s began to experiment with composting the manure rather than just stockpiling it during the growing season. Their first efforts did not go exceedingly well.
“Back then we kept our flocks in what’s called a high-rise building, with the chickens above and the manure falling to a pit below to be scraped out at designated times,” continues Douglas. “We first tried to compost on a small pad in a field behind our layer houses. We used a Brown Bear skid-loader mounted turner, but the volume of manure overwhelmed that system.”
After a couple of years it was clear that this approach was not viable. So in the 2003-2004 season, Lesher’s increased the scale of their composting operation starting with construction of a concrete pad and the purchase of a BACKHUS turner. While an improvement, Douglas recalls the results were better but could still be improved.
“Once outside on the pad, we mixed the manure with saw dust and wood chips and would also add our mortalities and waste eggs and turn it every day until it dried out. Once it was dry it was easier to stockpile and apply in the fall. It smelled better, was a little more user-friendly and the community could also come take some for their gardens. But this dry process still contained too much ammonium and lost too much nitrogen.”
Poultry manure has an inherently high pH and contains a huge amount of nitrogen, and Douglas knew if they wanted to produce a high-quality product they needed to find a way to capture that ammonium and convert it to more organic nitrogen. And he found that solution with Harvest Quest.
More Nitrogen Less Ammonium
The Harvest Quest Modified Static Aerobic Pile (MSAP) methodology starts by inoculating the compost with a proprietary consortium of microbes designed to expedite the decomposition process and more effectively convert organics to compost. Piles are built and capped, then left untouched for the first 45 days before turning. After a second turn 15 days later, the process is complete and the compost is finished and ready to screen.
“We first started with Harvest Quest in 2015. Using their inoculant and converting our composting process over to the MSAP method definitely yielded some immediate results. I have to admit I was pretty skeptical because in our previous method if we didn’t turn every day the piles would quickly turn bad in odor.” admits Douglas. “Last summer we went full on static MSAP method with windrows 16’ wide by 7’ tall, and the first thing we noticed was the smell was way better. The compost HAS a smell, but it’s just more earthy than anything. Definitely not overpowering ammonium like we had.”
The real difference though was realized after the lab results came back.
“Our original ‘dry’ method where we turned every day would end with about a 50/50 balance of ammonium to organic nitrogen content. But the compost we produced with Harvest Quest had less than one tenth of one percent ammonium. It quite literally all converted to organic nitrogen,” Douglas says with enthusiasm. “So our compost now is much higher in quality and value.”
Reaping the Rewards
Most of that compost still ends up back on their own fields, but a small portion does get sold off to a few landscape companies and area residents. Still, the increase in organic value of the compost acts as an investment in better crop yields which in turn delivers a financial benefit to their bottom line. The savings from fewer turns is also significant. And in addition to better corn, wheat and soybeans, there is one other crop that the community looks forward to annually.
“Sunflowers!” shares Douglas. “We plant about 200 acres in July. And if you can imagine what 200 acres of fully bloomed sunflowers looks like, it’s that and more. The community really makes a big thing out of it and it brings everyone together for many festive weekends, much like a fall apple farm experience. Last year especially, we had nearly three times as many sunflower visitors as in previous years. It’s a great way for us to connect with our neighbors and the surrounding community.”
While not composting all of the manure the chickens produce, Lesher’s Poultry Farm now generates nearly 1000 tons of finished screened compost annually, extraordinarily high in organic nitrogen and without the vectors and odors that were a recurring problem previously. And in just two turns. With a better compost and virtually no complaints from neighbors, that transformation with Harvest Quest as the catalyst, has made a big difference overall. And that’s a great legacy that Douglas can leave for future generations of Lesher poultry farmers.