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Research Center Churning Farm Waste Into Compost

By Don Comis
May 28, 1998

In its first nine months of operation, the Agricultural Research Service's new compost facility has "harvested" about 2,500 tons of compost at the agency's Beltsville, Md., Agricultural Research Center. The compost is made from manure, livestock bedding, old livestock feed and greenhouse and landscape waste from the 7,000-acre research center outside Washington, DC.

The center uses its homegrown compost for landscaping mulch, supplemental fertilizer for growing crops, and for research, saving an estimated $13,000 a year in reduced landfill fees and lower commercial fertilizer and mulch use.

Business at the compost facility is brisk. During the first week of May, about 40 trucks brought in 260 cubic yards of these materials, including 120 cubic yards of manure and 64 cubic yards of bedding in one day.

During summer, the facility expects the truck traffic to continue, unloading hundreds of tons of manure and bedding from its barns and pens.

The 2-acre composting facility is bordered by 8 acres of orchardgrass designed to filter out any nutrients that might wash off the 77,000-square foot composting pad. The orchardgrass is harvested four times a year for hay that is fed to the cattle and used as bedding. Manure and used bedding come back to the pad. The 8-inch-thick pad, made partly from coal ash and cement kiln dust, holds about 900 tons of composting materials at any given time.

BARC scientists use the composting facility to investigate potential "designer composts"--blends of farm, industrial, and urban materials--for solving particular problems such as crop diseases.

An in-depth story about the composting facility appears in the May issue of Agricultural Research magazine. The story also is on the World Wide Web at:


Scientific contact: Lawrence J. Sikora, ARS Soil Microbial Systems Laboratory, Beltsville, Md., phone (301) 504-9384, fax 504-9370,