Smallholder Composting: Can I Compost Alpaca Manure?
HOTBIN owner Clare has a smallholding with 50 chickens, 6 alpacas and is now about to open a cattery (www.clarescattery.co.uk). Following her success with her first two HOTBIN compost bins, she has asked us a number of “smelly based” questions over the past couple of months, the latest of which is HOTBIN’s ability to compost alpaca manure.
Clare asked us:
- Can I compost alpaca manure?
- Can I compost chicken poo with my food waste?
- Can I compost cat poo?
- Should I have separate compost bins for the alpaca, cat, and chicken/food waste?
Let’s begin with a cute picture of an alpaca before getting down and dirty with the issue of composting alpaca manure and other animal waste. Hopefully you are not feeling queasy and are ready to read on!
Can You Compost Alpaca Manure? (or Llama poo – its related cousin)?
The answer is yes. All animal poo (including dog and cat poo) can be composted. Clare has been successfully composting alpaca poo for 6 months in a HOTBIN compost bin. She reports just how easy it is: “The alpaca manure is largely free from any bedding additives, save for a bit of hay. I find that alpaca poo composts in no time at all, in fact many people say they use it neat, shall we say, as alpacas are ruminant animals and therefore poo is almost compost as it comes. However, I still prefer to compost it for a short while at least.”
Can I Compost Chicken Poo With My Food Waste?
Yes, chicken poo makes great compost fast. However the addition of bedding from chicken coops/houses can slow the composting process down so you may need to watch the amount of wood shavings added.
Different bedding materials compost at different rates: paper is the fastest followed by straw, sawdust and wood shavings. If you are using ‘pellet bedding’ – this can be either paper pulp or sawdust based. If you want to know more about the science of how lignin and surface area affect the speed of composing visit our woody material post.
Chicken poo is so fast to compost it acts as a compost accelerator and is more cost effective than commercial accelerators.
Can I Compost Cat Poo?
Yes, although many compost websites categorically say no to cat poo composting. There are however some health and safety issues to consider, but in our opinion with a correctly operating HOT home composting bin the risks are small. We do however broadly agree that adding cat poo to a cold compost heap should be avoided.
Should I Use Separate Compost Bins for Each Type of Waste?
We see no reason to separate the different wastes into different compost bins however the options below will give you some advice to make you own decision:
For a smallholder such as Clare we have two options to consider:
1) Separate the wastes into different HOTBIN’s, one each for food waste, alpaca manure, chicken poo and finally cat poo. This is essentially what Clare does now.
2) Mix all wastes together and fill the bins in rotation (e.g. bin 1-day 1; bin 2-day 3; bin 3-day 5; bin 4-day 7; bin 1-day 9 and so on).
We favour option 2 because it is easier to keep the temperature high (60C) with a mixture of wastes (soft, hard, green brown, etc). The easy to digest waste (e.g. alpaca manure and chicken poo) will help the harder waste (shavings and pellets) to rot down. There will also be less wood in one bin so it’s more likely each bin will compost at the same rate. You could set up a ‘square’ of four bins and ‘fill by rotation’, which would keep all the composting in one place and help reduce the heat loss as there will be less wall area exposed to wind chill cooling.
Method 1 would be better if you wanted separate compost, for example just “alpaca compost”. This option also suits separate locations – e.g. (for Clare) a bin by the cattery, chicken pen, alpaca field, and one near the kitchen door.
Whichever method is chosen keep an eye on the temperature and if they are not getting to 60C regularly then adjust the mix.
10 Interesting ALPACA FACTS
- The alpaca is a ruminant with three stomachs; it converts grass and hay to energy very efficiently, eating far less (as a percentage of its body weight) than other farm animals.
- Alpacas do not eat their afterbirths. Clare added 3 into the compost bin and they sent the temp dial spinning! No need to be squeamish about these things, it is what nature is giving us – thanks mother nature!
- Alpaca poo benefits from the addition of a bulking agent to improve its porosity. It is too heavy and dense to allow air to flow evenly through the mix.
- Raw (non composted) Alpaca manure is lower in organic matter (most of the plant cellulose id digested) than the manure from most other farmyard livestock (cows, horses, goats and sheep). Alpaca manure can generally be spread directly onto plants without burning them. Like all manure it is best to hot compost it as this reduces faecal pathogens and converts the organic matter to humic substances.
- The nitrogen and potassium content of alpaca dung is comparatively high, an indication of good fertilizer value. Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are the major plant nutrients. (They are the familiar N-P-K on fertilizer bags.
- South American Indians use the alpaca waste for fuel and local farmers apply alpaca’s droppings as a fertilizer when growing fruits and vegetables.
- A herd of alpacas consolidates its waste in one or two spots in the pasture, thereby controlling the spread of parasites, this also makes them popular pets and easy (ish) to housetrain (allegedly!).
- Alpacas originate from South America and have a life expectancy of around 20 years.
- Alpaca fibre lacks the roughness of some other types of wool, so is a popular material for making jumpers, socks, gloves and many other forms of clothing.
- The Alpaca is classified in the same animal group as Camelids, with Camels and Llamas as close family relatives.
Can I Compost…?
Got a question on what you can and can’t HOT compost? The HOTBIN composting team get all sorts of questions on what can be composted and how best to go about it – View our What Can I Compost Lists.
Is your HOTBIN compost good, bad or fabulous?
It could be any of these!
Even if your compost looks brown, at one extreme compost can be harmful to plants, at the other, it is nature’s best growing medium. Not all ‘compost’ is the same and you need to know what you have before spreading it on your garden. It is hard for a home composter to do detailed testing.
We have outlined some simple guides that should help you ensure your compost is good. We have also given you a summary of answers we might get from a range of experts.
What is bad compost? Compost that contains toxic or potential toxic elements (chemicals) – it would be rare for domestic (home) compost to be polluted and there are no home tests you can do. The best option is to ensure no waste laden with toxic chemicals are added. This is often why wood containing preservatives or coloured pigments (inks) are not added – but use of toxic chemicals like arsenic, chromium and lead have been banned for many years, so the advice can get out dated. Industrial compost should be made and tested to the PAS 100 standard (a BSI pre-standard) and this includes testing for toxic items.
Anything else? You do not want your compost to ‘rob’ nitrogen from the soil. Immature compost can do this. You want to avoid compost that is phytotoxic (ie dangerous to plants). Various organic acids created during both aerobic and anaerobic composting can be phytotoxic – ensure your compost is mature. You can do a Solvita C/N test at home. You can also smell the compost – an earthy musty smell is good. Do not spread if you have a fruity or putrid like smell – leave it to breathe/aerate and compost longer.
What is good compost? There is general gardening and academic agreement that adding organic matter (compost) to soil is beneficial. The HOTBIN team has spent considerable time ‘digging’ into the subject of soil fertility. The science indicates that whet really matters is not the total soil organic matter (SOM) but rather the amount of humeric substances (a special group of compounds remaining at the end of composting). These compounds add the really powerful benefits to soil: water retention, nutrient hold and release, soil aggregation and tilth.
Do soils vary in the amount of humeric substances they contain? Absolutely yes, from 0-8%. Many soil fertility issues are directly traced to lower or a decline in humeric content.
Do composts vary in the amount of humeric substances they contain? We have some personnel evidence this might be so. We have found academic papers that evidence humeric content can vary in compost from 2% to 50% of the dry weight. Most soil scientists will state that quantity of humerics in soil is determined by the soil environmental conditions.
Can we determine what sort of compost we have? Not easily. Here is what the experts would say:
Ask a gardening expert to describe good compost and you may well get a list like this:
- It smells earthy (not putrid, acrid or drain like?)
- It is fine particles with no sign of original waste or big bits
- It is a dark brown material
Some might add a footnote that peat is not compost, farm manure is not compost and that the term ‘humus’ is better reserved to describe ‘very well matured compost’.
Ask a worm composter (vermicomposter) what good compost is and they will probably say:
- Worm cast / vermicompost is the best compost
- It smells earthy
- It is always fine particles with no sign of original waste or big bits
- It is dark brown
- It is ‘extra good’ as the worms leave a sticky mucus (from digestion tract) in the compost that promotes mycorrhizal root zone activity
Ask an industrial compost maker and you should get the following:
- It meets the PAS 100 standard
- The C / N ratio has been tested and is within spec for “stable and mature” compost
- It all passes through a given mesh sieve (ie below 8mm particles)
- All potentially toxic elements (e.g. mercury, heavy metals) are below the guideline levels
- NKP will be present, but compost is a soil amendment not an NKP fertiliser, so we only measure them in some compost formulations.
Ask a soil scientist to describe compost and they will struggle!
It has no scientific definition – they will refer to “Soil Organic Matter” (SOM). This is the total sum of all dead plant and animal matter in the soil – it excludes roots, living plants, living worms and bugs). They measure the labile part (compostable to you and me) fraction and the non-labile fraction (the bit that resists further decay and is known as the humeric substances fraction. They will then offer you +10 soil types, each with a different ratio of sand, clay and SOM.
The ‘fertile soils’ (what gardeners want) typically will have:
- SOM of 2-10% (UK norm 2-4%)
- Within this, humeric substance content of 1-5% (i.e. 50% total SOM)
- A fertile soil is a balanced mix of SOM, sand (silica) and clays
What if you Googled ‘best compost‘, or ‘the world’s best compost‘?
- There are claims and methods that profess to offer “colloidal compost”.
- There are methods such as Luebke, CMS, biodynamic and QR that all purport to make fabulous compost
And what if we ask the HOTBIN expert (Tony Callaghan, head of R&D at HOTBIN) to describe good HOTBIN compost!
- It smells earthy (not putrid or drain like)
- It is fine particles with no sign of original waste or big bits
- It is a dark brown material
- It is very wet and sticky – so much so it appears ‘large and lumpy’ – but looks can be deceptive – for more information see the FAQ on sieving compost.
- When dried, about 80% will pass through an 8mm sieve, 5% will be oversize (too large) and 15% will be 0.5-1cm pieces of wood chip (bulking agent) coated in humus.
- It will be pliable i.e. show signs of high levels of colloidal humeric substances
- The C/N ratio will be in the “stable and mature” zone (when tested using the Solvita compost test kit)
We have found no definition or standard that can be laboratory tested for a good, bad or fabulous compost. Only tests for ”stable and mature compost’. There is no system that routinely tracks ’cause and effect’ for any difference in compost quality directly back to a composting method.
The question remains: can one compost method deliver better compost than another?
There is ample scientific evidence that nature’s composting (i.e. on/in the soils) does produce different levels of residual humeric substances – varying from 0 and 3% depending on a range of conditions (soil structure, temp, water, oxygen).
The HOTBIN is composting outside the soil environment. The HOTBIN (subject to correct operating practice) offers a degree of control and conditions not often encountered in most soils or even most compost bins!
Does the HOTBIN deliver a better, richer compost than any other compost bin?
We do not know the answer – only detailed testing will tell us. We do know the HOTBIN offers a degree of control over the composting conditions. We have evidence that some batches appear to be high in humeric content (based on simple tests). We will not be able to substantiate this until numerous samples have been analysed under laboratory conditions and a theory has been produced and peer reviewed for why. Is it due to temperature (unlikely), quantity of aeration (possibly), the mixture of wastes (possibly).
For now we know this – HOTBIN compost often appears much wetter and more colloidal than other composts.
Why not join the debate and help us sort this out – you never know, one day we might see an annual award for the best compost and best composting method!
HOTBIN composting on an allotment
The HOTBIN was developed to compost all food, garden and grass in the home and garden.
We want to know how it works on an allotment; so this week we’ve enlisted the help of Gil and Steve at their Jesmond West Allotment, and Karin at the Morpeth East Green Allotment to help us test the HotBin.
HOTBIN composting on an allotment
Tony went out to set them up with the volunteers this week. Before we started we checked the temperatures of the heaps around the allotments. They were ‘cold’ (very), with ambient (5C) in two, and 8C in centre of a big full 1m3 heap. There were plenty of compostable materials around in existing dalex/plastic cones and wooden bins on the allotments so both HotBins were filled to the three-quarter level. Some of the materials added were mushy wet fruit and vegetables (bits were anaerobic smelly), lots of stalks (cabbage/broccoli) and stems from raspberries etc. Also some shredded paper (Karin) and cardboard (Gil).
We basically just ‘hoofed it all in’, and in this instance, we did not cut or chop things up – we wanted to compare current composting taking typically 12-34 months with the same waste in a HOTBIN. We used the ‘winter heater’ in one HOTBIN and not in the other. We’ll report back on temperatures each week or so.
What are the allotment users composting objectives and requirements
- Compost – humus for helping soil fertility, reducing fertiliser, increasing water holding
- Clear up waste – very few allotments get a ‘waste collection’ so there is a need to reduce and remove plant waste
What’s different in an allotment over the house/garden?
- Volume of waste – allotments tend to produce a lot, and on a highly seasonal basis – ie spring & autumn clear ups.
- Additions to the heap tend to be ‘once a while’
- Not necessarily the time (or inclination) to chop or shred waste, on the whole just want to dump it on the heap.
- There is either a lot of turning (active) or none at all (digging out after 12 months and restarting new heaps after scrapping out).
- More weeds such a couch grass and dandelion
- Some (but not all) will take caddies of vegetable peelings etc down depending on the location etc
Possible HOTBIN advantages / disadvantages?
Space – One observation is that each plot (approx 250m2) has between 2 and 4 heaps taking an area of 2m2 per plot. On a site of 50 plots, that’s 150 compost bins, and a whole plot used for composting. If we can arrange a ‘communal system’ and keep all HotBins composting at 60C, then this could reduce to 8 HotBins.
Economics – Many allotment owners enjoy growing their own food, but we can’t avoid that it is also a ‘low cost’ activity with average rents being £50/year. Costs including compost bins need to be kept under control. There could be a communal saving – 150 standard bin @ £20 each= £3K v 8 x Hotbins @ £138 each = £1K.
Ease of use – Allotment owners are used to hard work, but our gut feeling is they would rather be growing and using compost than turning heaps.
It looks like the Hot will be put through its paces on the allotments and it will interesting to hear back how the HotBin and the users get along!