Organic Farming :: Compost


Composting - an overview

Composting is the natural process of 'rotting' or decomposition of organic matter by microorganisms under controlled conditions. Raw organic materials such as crop residues, animal wastes, food garbage, some municipal wastes and suitable industrial wastes, enhance their suitability for application to the soil as a fertilizing resource, after having undergone composting.

A mass of rotted organic matter made from waste is called compost. The compost made from farm waste like sugarcane trash, paddy straw, weeds and other plants and other waste is called farm compost. The average nutrient contents of farm compost are 0.5 per cent N, 0.15 per cent P2O5and 0.5 per cent K2OThe nutrient value of farm compost can be increased by application of superphosphate or rock phosphate at 10 to 15 kg/t of raw material at the initial stage of filling the compost pit. The compost made from town refuses like night soil, street sweepings and dustbin refuse is called town compost. It contains 1.4 per cent N, 1.00 per cent P2O5 and 1.4 per cent K2O.

Farm compost is made by placing farm wastes in trenches of suitable size, say, 4.5 m to 5.0 m long, 1.5m to 2.0 m wide and 1.0 m to 2.0 m deep. Farm waste is placed in the trenches layer by layer. Each layer is well moistened by sprinkling cow dung slurry or water. Trenches are filled up to a height of 0.5 m above the ground. The compost is ready for application within five to six months.

Composting is essentially a microbiological decomposition of organic residues collected from rural area (rural compost) or urban area (urban compost).

Methods of composting

In Coimbatore method, composting is done in pits of different sizes depending on the waste material available. A layer of waste materials is first laid in the pit. It is moistened with a suspension of 5-10 kg cow dung in 2.5 to 5.0 I of water and 0.5 to 1.0 kg fine bone meal sprinkled over it uniformly. Similar layers are laid one over the other till the material rises 0.75 m above the ground level. It is finally plastered with wet mud and left undisturbed for 8 to 10 weeks. Plaster is then removed, material moistened with water, given a turning and made into a rectangular heap under a shade. It is left undisturbed till its use.

In the Indore method of composting, organic wastes are spread in the cattle shed to serve as bedding. Urine soaked material along with dung is removed every day and formed into a layer of about 15 cm thick at suitable sites. Urine soaked earth, scraped from cattle sheds is mixed with water and sprinkled over the layer of wastes twice or thrice a day. Layering process continued for about a fortnight. A thin layer of well decomposed compost is sprinkled over top and the heap given a turning and reformed. Old compost acts as inoculum for decomposing the material. The heap is left undisturbed for about a month. Then it is thoroughly moistened and given a turning. The compost is ready for application in another month.

In the Bangalore method of composting, dry waste material of 25 cm thick is spread in a pit and a thick suspension of cow dung in water is sprinkled over for moistening. A thin layer of dry waste is laid over the moistened layer. The pit is filled alternately with dry layers of material and cow dung suspension till it rises 0.5 m above ground level. It is left exposed without covering for 15 days. It is given a turning, plastered with wet mud and left undisturbed for about 5 months or till required.

In Coimbatore method, there is anaerobic decomposition to start with, following by aerobic fermentation. It is the reverse in Bangalore method. The Bangalore compost is not so thoroughly decomposed as the Indore compost or even as much as the Coimbatore compost, but it is bulkiest.

Compost is a rich source of organic matter. Soil organic matter plays an important role in sustaining soil fertility, and hence in sustainable agricultural production. In addition to being a source of plant nutrient, it improves the physico-chemical and biological properties of the soil. As a result of these improvements, the soil:

(i) becomes more resistant to stresses such as drought, diseases and toxicity;
(ii) helps the crop in improved uptake of plant nutrients; and
(iii) possesses an active nutrient cycling capacity because of vigorous microbial activity.

These advantages manifest themselves in reduced cropping risks, higher yields and lower outlays on inorganic fertilizers for farmers.

Dung and urine produced by animals per day

Animal Urine
 (ml / kg live wt)
Quantity of dung (Kg) per day
Horse 3-18 9-18
Cattle 17-45 18-30
Buffaloes 20-45 25-40
Sheep and goats 10-40 1-2.5
Pigs 5-30 3-5
Poultry - 2.5-3.5

Nutritive value of animal solid and liquid excreta

Animal  Dung (mg/g) Urine (%)
Cattle 20-45 4-10 7-25 1.21 0.01 1.35
Sheep and goat 20-45 4-11 20-29 1.47 0.05 1.96
Pig 20-45 6-12 15-48 0.38 0.1 0.99
Poultry 28-62 9-26 8-29 - - -

Why composting is necessary?

  • The rejected biological materials contain complex chemical compounds such as lignin, cellulose, hemicellulose, polysaccharides, proteins, lipids etc.
  • These complex materials cannot be used as such as resource materials.
  • The complex materials should be converted into simple inorganic element as available nutrient.
  • The material put into soil without conversion will undergo conversion inside the soil.
  • This conversion process take away all energy and available nutrients from the soil affecting the crop.
  • Hence conversion period is mandatory.

Advantages of Composting

  • Volume reduction of waste.
  • Final weight of compost is very less.
  • Composting temperature kill pathogen, weed seeds and seeds.
  • Matured compost comes into equilibrium with the soil.
  • During composting number of wastes from several sources are blended together.
  • Excellent soil conditioner
  • Saleable product
  • Improves manure  handling
  • Redues the risk of pollution
  • Pathogen reduction
  • Additional revenue.
  • Suppress plant diseases and pests.
  • Reduce or eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers.
  • Promote higher yields of agricultural crops.
  • Facilitate reforestation, wetlands restoration, and habitat revitalization efforts by amending contaminated, compacted, and marginal soils.
  • Cost-effectively remediate soils contaminated by hazardous waste.
  • Remove solids, oil, grease, and heavy metals from stormwater runoff.
  • Capture and destroy 99.6 percent of industrial volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) in contaminated air.
  • Provide cost savings of at least 50 percent over conventional soil, water, and air pollution remediation technologies, where applicable.

Drawbacks of Using Composts
Agricultural use of composts remains low for several reasons:

  • The product is weighty and bulky, making it expensive to transport.
  • The nutrient value of compost is low compared with that of chemical fertilizers, and the rate of nutrient release is slow so that it cannot usually meet the nutrient requirement of crops in a short time, thus resulting in some nutrient deficiency
  • The nutrient composition of compost is highly variable compared to chemical fertilizers.
  • Agricultural users might have concerns regarding potential levels of heavy metals and other possible contaminants in compost, particularly mixed municipal solid wastes. The potential for contamination becomes an important issue when compost is used on food crops.
  • Long-term and/or heavy application of composts to agricultural soils has been found to result in salt, nutrient, or heavy metal accumulation and may adversely affect plant growth, soil organisms, water quality, and animal and human health

Composting organic materials with high lignin content - lime treatment

  • By adding organic wastes such as sawdust, wood shavings, coir pith, pine needles, and dry fallen leaves, while preparing organic waste mixtures for composting, one can ensure that the compost produced contains sufficient and long-lasting humus. However, gardeners often find that where they use lignin-rich plant materials, the compost does not ripen rapidly. A technique for making good compost from hard plant materials involves mixing lime in a ratio of 5 kg per 1000 kg of waste material. Lime can be applied as dry powder or after mixing with a sufficient quantity of water. Treatment with lime enhances the process of decomposition of hard materials.
  • Liming can enhance the humification process in plant residues by enhancing microbial population and activity and by weakening lignin structure. It also improves the humus quality by changing the ratio of humic to fulvic acids and decreases the amount of bitumen, which interferes with the decomposition process. Instead of lime, powdered phosphate rock can be used in a ratio of 20 kg per 1 000 kg of organic waste. Phosphate rock contains a lot of lime. The phosphates and micronutrients contained in phosphate rock make composts rich in plant nutrients.
Composting weeds
  • This method has been developed for composting weeds such as parthenium, water hyacinth (Eichornia crassipes), cyperus (Cyperus rotundus) and cynodon (Cynodon dactylon).

Materials Required

  • 250 g of Trichoderma viride and Pleurotus sajor-caju consortia, and 5 kg of urea. An elevated shaded place is selected, or a thatched shed is erected. An area of 500 cm × 150 cm is marked out. The material to be composted is cut to 10-15 cm in size. About 100 kg of cut material is spread over the marked area. About 50 g of microbial consortia is sprinkled over this layer. About 100 kg of weeds are spread on this layer. One kilogram of urea is sprinkled uniformly over the layer. This process is repeated until the level rises to 1 m. Water is sprinkled as necessary to maintain a moisture level of 50-60 percent. Thereafter, the surface of the heap is covered with a thin layer of soil. The pile requires a thorough turning on the twenty-first day. The compost is ready in about 40 days.

Compost enrichment

Farm compost is poor in P content (0.4-0.8 percent). Addition of P makes the compost more balanced, and supplies nutrient to micro-organisms for their multiplication and faster decomposition. The addition of P also reduces N losses. Compost can be enriched by:

  • Application of superphosphate, bonemeal or phosphate rock: 1 kg of superphosphate or bonemeal is applied over each layer of animal dung. Low-grade phosphate rock can also be used for this purpose.
  • Use of animal bones: these can be broken into small pieces, boiled with wood ash leachate or lime water and drained, and the residue applied to the pits. This procedure of boiling bones facilitates their disintegration. Even the addition of raw bones, broken into small pieces and added to the pit, improves the nutrient value of compost significantly.
  • Wood ash waste can also be added to increase the K content of compost.
  • Addition of N-fixing and P-solubilizing cultures (IARI, 1989): The quality of compost can be further improved by the secondary inoculation of Azotobacter, Azospirillum lipoferum, and Azospirillum brasilence (N-fixers); and Bacillus megaterium or Pseudomonas sp. (P solubilizers). These organisms, in the form of culture broth or water suspension of biofertilizer products, can be sprinkled when the decomposing material is turned after one month. By this time, the temperature of the compost has also stabilized at about 35 °C. As a result of this inoculation, the N content of straw compost can be increased by up to 2 percent. In addition to improving N content and the availability of other plant nutrients, these additions help to reduce the composting time considerably.

The Benefits of Using Composts to Agriculture

Compost has been considered as a valuable soil amendment for centuries. Most people are aware that using composts is an effective way to increase healthy plant production, help save money, reduce the use of chemical fertilizers, and conserve natural resources. Compost provides a stable organic matter that improves the physical, chemical, and biological properties of soils, thereby enhancing soil quality and crop production. When correctly applied, compost has the following beneficial effects on soil properties, thus creating suitable conditions for root development and consequently promoting higher yield and higher quality of crops.

Improves the Physical Properties of Soils

  • Reduces the soil bulk density and improves the soil structure directly by loosening heavy soils with organic matter, and indirectly by means of aggregate-stabilizing humus contained in composts. Incorporating composts into compacted soils improves root penetration and turf establishment.
  • Increases the water-holding capacity of the soil directly by binding water to organic matter, and indirectly by improving the soil structure, thus improving the absorption and movement of water into the soil. Therefore, water requirement and irrigation will be reduced.
  • Protects the surface soil from water and wind erosion by reducing the soil-dispersion action of beating raindrops, increasing infiltration, reducing water runoff, and increasing surface wetness. Preventing erosion is essential for protecting waterways and maintaining the quality and productivity of the soil.
  • Helps bind the soil particles into crumbs by the fungi or actinomycetes mycelia contained in the compost and stimulated in the soil by its application, generally increasing the stability of the soil against wind and water erosion.
  • Improves soil aeration and thus supplies enough oxygen to the roots and escapes excess carbon dioxide from the root space.
  • Increases the soil temperature directly by its dark color, which increases heat absorption by the soil, and indirectly by the improved soil structure.
  • Helps moderate soil temperature and prevents rapid fluctuations of soil temperature, hence, providing a better environment for root growth. This is especially true of compost used as a surface mulch.

Enhances the Chemical Properties of Soils

  • Enables soils to hold more plant nutrients and increases the cation exchange capacity (CEC), anion exchange capacity (AEC), and buffering capacity of soils for longer periods of time after composts are applied to soils. This is important mainly for soils containing little clay and organic matter.
  • Builds up nutrients in the soil. Composts contain the major nutrients required by all plants [N,P,K, calcium (Ca), magnesium(Mg), and S] plus essential micronutrients or trace elements, such as copper (Cu), zinc (Zn), iron (Fe), manganese (Mn), boron (B), and molybdenum (Mb).
  • The nutrients from mature composts are released to the plants slowly and steadily. The benefits will last for more than one season.
  • Stabilizes the volatile nitrogen of raw materials into large protein particles during composting, thereby reducing N losses.
  • Provides active agents, such as growth substances, which may be beneficial mainly to germinating plants.
  • Adds organic matter and humus to regenerate poor soils.
  • Buffers the soil against rapid changes due to acidity, alkalinity, salinity, pesticides, and toxic heavy metals.

Improves the Biological Properties of Soils

  • Supplies food and encourages the growth of beneficial microorganisms and earthworms.
  • Helps suppress certain plant diseases, soil borne diseases, and parasites.
  • Research has shown that composts can help control plant diseases (e.g. Pythium root rot, Rhizoctonia root rot, chili wilt, and parasitic nematode) and reduce crop losses. A major California fruit and vegetable grower was able to cut pesticide use by 80% after three years of compost applications as part of an organic matter management system. Research has also indicated that some composts, particularly those prepared from tree barks, release chemicals that inhibit some plant pathogens. Disease control with compost has been attributed to four possible mechanisms:
  • 1) successful competition for nutrients by beneficial microorganisms;
    2) antibiotic production by beneficial microorganisms;
    3) successful predation against pathogens by beneficial microorganisms;
    4) activation of disease-resistant genes in plants by composts; and
    5) high temperatures that result from composting kill pathogens.
  • Reduces and kills weed seeds by a combination of factors including the heat of the compost pile, rotting, and premature germination.

Economic and Social Benefits of Composting

The economic and social benefits of composting include the following:

  • Brings higher prices for organically grown crops.
  • Composting can offer several potential economic benefits to communities:
  • Extends current landfill longevity and delays the construction of a more expensive replacement landfill or incinerator.
  • Reduces or avoids landfill or combustor tipping fees, and reduces waste disposal fees and long-distance transportation costs.
  • Offers environmental benefits from reduced landfill and combustion use.
  • Creates new jobs for citizens.
  • Produces marketable products and a less-cost alternative to standard landfill cover, artificial soil amendments, and conventional bioremediation techniques.
  • Provides a source of plant nutrients and improves soil fertility; results in significant cost savings by reducing the need for water, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and nematodes.
  • Used as an alternative to natural topsoil in new construction, landscape renovations, and container gardens. Using composts in these types of applications is not only less expensive than purchasing topsoil, but it can also often produce better results when establishing a healthy vegetative cover.
  • Used as mulch for trees, orchards, landscapes, lawns, gardens, and makes an excellent potting mix. Placed over the roots of plants, compost mulch conserves water and stabilizes soil temperatures. In addition, it keeps plants healthy by controlling weeds, providing a slow release of nutrients, and preventing soil loss through erosion.

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