by Sally Colby

Third-generation farmer Jon McDonald and his family have a mixed farming operation in Rock Bridge Baths, VA, where they raise cattle, turkeys and field crops.

The cattle enterprise of Triple J Farm includes 275 Angus and Simmental brood cows. Most of the herd, about 175, calve in spring and the rest calve in autumn. Prior to AI breeding, heifers are synchronized using a CIDR protocol. A clean-up bull follows about three weeks after AI breeding to cover any heifers that didn’t conceive.

In spring, heifers calve first, which McDonald said allows ample time to watch for potential issues as heifers calve for the first time. After weaning, McDonald backgrounds calves until they’re ready for a feeder cattle sale.

Crops include hay made in small bales for the horse market. McDonald also grows sorghum for silage, which is stored in both trench silos and bags, and he grows some millet and Sudex (a sorghum-sudangrass hybrid) which is stored as wrapped baleage.

Triple J Farm moves ahead with efficiency

Jon McDonald and his father Jerry run multiple income streams from their farm,
including raising Angus and Simmental beeves. Photo courtesy of Triple J Farm

McDonald’s father Jerry started raising turkeys in 1992, and after Jon received a degree in animal science from Virginia Tech, he returned to the farm. While a poultry enterprise is a reliable income source, one of the realities of raising any livestock is dealing with mortalities. The McDonalds had been using a traditional compost bin system for composting mortalities, but about one year ago, Jon added a piece of equipment that speeds up the composting process.

McDonald’s purchase of a Cloverdale TMR composter has made the composting process much faster and easier. With the composter, there’s less handling involved – McDonald can add mortalities directly to the composter rather than going through the process of loading and hauling them to the compost bin. “It’s a lot quicker to the end point by months,” he said. “It used to take several months for the compost to be ready to be spread, and even then, some of the corners of the pile weren’t completely composted.”

One of the challenges in mortality composting is dealing with a variety of environmental factors – temperature and moisture vary throughout the year. The enclosed unit keeps rain and snow out, but the lid can be easily opened to add components as needed.

Composting requires nitrogen and carbon sources. Mortalities provide the nitrogen; leftover starter litter, the carbon. “We have two-stage houses – the brooding end and the finishing end,” McDonald explained. “I use the leftover brooding litter for composting.”

The length of the composting cycle varies depending on bird size and how full the unit is. McDonald said a batch could be completely composted in three days once it’s filled, started and left to work. The mixer takes up far less space than traditional composting bins, but bins already in place can be used for storage and further finishing until spreading.

After the composting process is complete, McDonald moves the finished material from the unit to a storage bin by way of a flat belt silage conveyer he assembled. The belt is situated above the compost bins and McDonald can move the conveyer to drop the compost where he wants it. “I usually leave it there and let it go through another heating before I use it,” he said. “It’s ready to spread after that.” Immediately after the unit is empty, McDonald can start another load.

McDonald said the Cloverdale is easy to operate, and it’s mostly a matter of adding the correct amount of litter to get the right moisture level. “At first, it was too wet and it clumped up more when it came out,” he said. “Now I have a better idea about whether I need to add more shavings.” He said when he was using the compost bins alone, there wasn’t as much opportunity to change the outcome as there is with the mixer.

Dennis Trissel, Trissel Equipment Sales LLC in Harrisonburg, VA, described the Cloverdale as a new concept in composting. Trissel explained that the conventional method many farms use to manage mortalities involves composting in large bins, and when the bins are full, a skid steer is used to mix the contents. The key to making such a system work is mixing regularly to ensure thorough and even composting. If contents are turned routinely and thoroughly, the breakdown for poultry averages about six months to finish.

The Cloverdale is a simple twist on a vertical mixer and allows the producer to layer mortalities with a carbon source such as poultry litter, wood chips or shavings. “It’s insulated and automatic,” said Trissel. “Put a lid on it and it will compost poultry in as little as three days to usable compost.” The system uses the same mix of components as a traditional bin system but speeds up the process by controlling the temperature in an enclosed environment.

The mixer operates with an electric motor and has a control panel that turns the motor on hourly to mix and aerate the contents for about 10 minutes at a time. The system is constructed with stainless steel components to prevent rusting. Once the lid is closed and the unit is turned on, heat begins to build up.

Foam insulation helps retain heat resulting from the composting process. Electric heaters built into the floor of the mixer can be used to facilitate the composting process by preheating the mixture, which is especially helpful in cold weather. A timer allows the mixer to run for several minutes every few hours, but the operator can adjust timing. The auger is designed to mix ingredients thoroughly and add oxygen to the mix.

Several of the problems encountered with traditional bin composting include flies, odor and rodents that move in and out of bins, creating a biosecurity risk. The Cloverdale is completely enclosed to eliminate these issues. McDonald stores finished compost in a covered shed, a structure many states and organizations such as NRCS will help provide cost share options to help finance.

In addition to help from his father Jerry, day-to-day operation is made smoother with a part-time helper in the turkey houses as well as Jon’s wife, a college-aged son, an older daughter, a 14-year-old son and 11-year-old twin daughters.