Compost is very valuable to us.
On our farm, we use compost to provide nutrients and to increase organic matter in the soil (for water retention, reduce soil erosion, and prevent nutrients from leaching off the farm).
Over the past few years, we have been trialing different methods to reduce tillage without herbicides (aka organic no-till). One of these methods has been using compost as mulch (to suppress weeds and prevent soil erosion).
Which led us to our newest favourite tool on the farm…
Our Self-loading Compost Spreader!
We’ve been getting lots of questions from other farmers about it….and promising to write up a blog post…..so here it is.
Every year, during the early winter, we spend time doing a Bottleneck Assessment.
For us, this looks like 2 hand-written tables. They are both exactly the same. One is for Shannon and one is for Bryan. We list the different categories of work on the farm (like greenhouse seeding, transplanting, record-keeping, post-harvest, etc.) and then have 2 columns – one for The Biggest Bottleneck. The other for Solutions/Strategies to Improve.
For a few years, a bottleneck that had been consistently coming up was Spreading Compost. This was on there both because it took time and slowed down planting. And also because we didn’t enjoy (and so would avoid) the job of shoveling compost. As we have been reducing tillage on our farm (and wanting to reduce weeding), one of the strategies we were planning to do more of was to apply compost as a mulch layer on top of the soil. This would require spreading more compost (which we wanted to avoid due to more required shoveling).
To apply compost, we previously used 3 methods:
- Borrow our neighbour’s manure spreader. A few of the downsides to this were:
- It required the use of 2 tractors (and operators): one to load the spreader and one to spread the compost.
- The wheels of the manure spreader are wider than our growing beds and tractor’s tires. This increased compaction and didn’t focus the compost where we needed it. It also limited the timing of compost spreading to when growing beds weren’t prepared.
- The manure spreader wasn’t able to put enough compost on to serve as mulch (especially since our tractor doesn’t have a creeper gear and so can’t go super slow).
- It is a fairly long implement in length and was a challenge to turn around in some of our fields.
- Shovel the compost by hand into a trailer behind our tractor and shovel the compost out onto the growing areas.
- This requires a lot of physical labour and 2 people (one to operate the tractor and one to shovel out the compost, or one person running back and forth between the two jobs).
- Sometimes we’d spread compost with a shovel and wheelbarrow, though we’re not huge fans of it (except in small amounts, like in our tunnels).
The Innovation Process
We started brainstorming solutions over the years and asked others about smaller scale manure spreaders or other strategies they were using. We spent a lot of time researching online.
A few years ago, a new machinist named Dan moved to our area and started a company called Community Machinery. His goal was to collaborate with farmers, in particular small-scale ecological farmers, to make specialized equipment to suit their needs. He came out to visit the farm, we’d chat with him, and, after a while, we started to think of some of our bottleneck solutions as things that Dan could help us out with.
In 2017 and 2018, we worked with Dan to first brainstorm, communicate our needs and the realities of our systems. We talked about our tractor’s capacity, the density of the compost we use, the length of our growing beds, and the amount of compost we wanted to put down on each bed. First a sketch was made, then plans, then various stages of prototypes. Dan created a working prototype and came out to the farm to watch us trial it, make adjustments, take it back to the shop, and repeat.
And suddenly this job that we had avoided and we would set a significant portion of time to finish…..became very fast and enjoyable! We had so much more time to do other jobs on the farm.
Besides our happiness with the success of this particular tool….the whole process of collaborating with Dan was very empowering. We realized that we could do more of this kind of thing in the future. We had been nervous that the “innovation process” would be overly lengthy, take up too much of our time, and be expensive. And there are certainly more expenses and time that go into creating a custom tool (rather than buying something off the shelf). With that, we were lucky to be granted an Innovation Grant through the Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture (though it is work to apply, first a letter of intent, before being accepted to submit a 12-page Application).
Why did we want this tool?
- To reduce the time and physical labour required to spread compost (a large task on our farm).
- Spread more compost than we have been able to in the past (due to labour constraints).
- Reduce tillage by being able to spread compost thickly as a mulch. This will increase soil organic matter (which will increase the water holding capacity of the soil, reduce erosion, and increase fertility) and reduce weeds and labour hours spent weeding.
- To expand our farm sales without expanding land or labour by increasing the quality of our produce (through easier ability to increase fertility and reduce weeds).
- Reduce labour hours and the physical demands (shoveling) of spreading compost.
- Not require 2 tractors.
- To straddle our growing beds and not have wheels with different spacing than our tractor.
- Short turnaround length to make it easier to turn around in any of our fields.
- The ability to adjust the rate of application – up to a fairly high amount to be used as mulch.
- Grow more produce with the same space by increasing the re-planting turnover rate.
- Increase the quality of our crops.
- Reduce time applying compost so we can do other jobs on the farm.
- Increase the productivity of our farm without increasing labour hours.
- Reduce labour hours weeding by suppressing the weeds with thick compost mulch.
We’ve also used it for moving wood chips and carrying harvested garlic (like you would a typical tractor loader).
Now, for those of you interested in the details of how it works:
I pretty much think of it as a Transformer. It scoops the compost like a bucket/loader on a tractor. Then it transforms itself upright into a compost spreader – but one that puts the compost right where we want it (instead of the compost flying around).
Some more technical details:
- The 5-foot wide loader is mounted to our tractor (Kubota L4150) with category 1 pins and around a 3500lb lift capacity.
- One set of hoses is plugged into the hydraulic ports on the tractor running to a valve selector (an easy-to-reach switch).
- The valve selector runs to either a hydraulic top link that moves the bucket, or hydraulic motor that runs the agitator in the bucket.
- There is a second fixed top link running from the tractor to a lever arm attached to the bucket to allow for extra travel/extension.
- The hydraulic link is located below the fixed link attached to a lower point on the level arm.
- To load compost the hydraulic arm is extended and lift arms are lowered, tractor backed into the pile, and then contracted and lifted.
- Once bucket is fully upright, the valve selector is switched so the bucket won’t accidentally be moved in transit.
- At the growing bed to be covered, the appropriate ground speed and hydraulic motor speed is chosen, and the hydraulic motor and engine are engaged to start spreading.
Here’s a video of it in action:
Dan from Community Machinery is very happy to make more Self-loading Compost Spreaders for other farmers.
Ours was built to our needs (the holding capacity/size of our tractor, our bed width, etc.). You shouldn’t feel limited by this, you can make one that is more suited to your needs. Since he’s the one who actually made it, please reach out to him for more technical questions. He’s happy to hear from you! You can find his website here. His facebook page here. And his Instagram page here.