Published Jul 31, 2015

Making Compost and Contract Goat-Grazing are Harder than You Think

By Tamsyn Jones

As Iowa summers go, Saturday, July 18 was a hot one: high humidity, and heat indices over 100 degrees at the peak. But this didn’t stop more than 40 people — including some who traveled from as far as West Branch, Woodward and Toledo, Iowa — from coming to learn about making quality compost and contract goat-grazing from Chad Steenhoek and Aaron Steele.

Their field day, “Goats and Compost Partner for Soil Health,” was a two-part event that started at Steenhoek Environmental — located on the Chad and Wendy Steenhoek property in northwest Ames, where the Steenhoeks run their compost business — and ended south of Ogden at the farm of Raymond Hansen.

Raymond currently has a SARE grant to study the efficacy of using goats to help renovate a section of (steep-sided) woodland on his farm, and has contracted with Chad and Aaron through their joint business, Goats on the Go. These two enterprises — goats and compost — may seem unrelated at first glance, but Chad explained that the two are quite complementary: Manure from the goats he and Aaron raise for their contract grazing business is a perfect fit to incorporate into the compost he sells through his Happy Roots Compost business.

“Testing shows that the goat manure has just the right amount of carbon and nitrogen that you want for compost,” Chad said, explaining that the ideal ratio for compost is 30:1 carbon-to-nitrogen.

Part 1: Compost Production

I have to admit, as I listened to Chad discuss some of the details of the compost production process, I felt a little out of my element (the fact that my 6-month-old baby was attending his first-ever field day, with his dad, and needed my attention from time to time, also distracted from full concentration on some of the technical aspects).

I did, however, pick up some key take-aways about producing compost — and what makes Chad’s approach different:

1). Not all compost is created equal: There’s a big difference between high-quality compost and your average compost pile. Many people strive to reduce their household waste by building their own compost piles in the backyard. Municipalities and businesses also compost debris, leaves, old food and other materials. But Chad explained that producing really good-quality compost takes work — and testing, to ensure the nutrient composition is neither too “hot” (an imbalance that would lead to the death of important microbes), or nutrient-deficient.

“I came to compost because of the problems with waste — but I get to choose what goes in my compost,” Chad said. “Many places use whatever carbon-based material they can get. I want to put in only good-quality ingredients: manure, yard waste and old hay.”

2). Chad tests his compost throughout the process. Besides using better-quality inputs from the start, Chad tests the composition of his compost several times during the production process. He uses a screen on the woodchips he gets to make sure they’re the right size (pieces that are too big would take longer to decay, and thus impede the process), and also checks to see if it has the right moisture content (50-55 percent; Chad commented: “If you squeeze it and it feels really wet, but doesn’t drip, then it’s the right moisture level). The woodchips serve as a bulking agent in the finished compost.

He sends the manure he gets — the ISU Beef Nutrition Farm and ISU Veterinary School are routine sources (and are generally good-quality, he says) — to a lab in Omaha before incorporating it. Then, he tests the compost daily throughout the curing process to ensure that carbon and nitrogen remain in balance. On Day 2 of the production process, Chad also checks the carbon-dioxide levels.

“Microbes produce CO2 as a byproduct,” he said. This causes the compost pile to heat up — similar to how CO2 contributes to the “greenhouse effect” in the atmosphere. “The microbes that produce CO2 then die, and the anaerobic microbes that thrive on CO2 take over.”

3). Convincing people of point #1 is difficult: As a complete novice in the ways of compost, I demur that I was among those who didn’t realize just how variable compost quality can be. Having a compost pile at home is becoming more commonplace — so much so, that it’s made to seem pretty easy to do. But it takes a lot more craft, precision and science to make compost worthy of selling for profit. Chad explained that when he first started making compost on a commercial scale, in 2007, he tried to sell it bulk.

“But selling bulk compost in Iowa is difficult, because you have to convince people they need it,” he said. “They think they already have ‘black soil,’ and I’m just trying to sell them more black stuff.'”

Another problem? The cost of delivering bulk compost widely. From a business standpoint, Chad would have had to charge a much higher price to cover both his compost production and delivery costs, especially if the buyers weren’t located close to his business.

4). Good compost promotes good microbial activity: In response to those challenges, Chad decided to focus on selling healthy microbial communities — via his compost products, such as a compost starter, compost teas and others. These products all start with the bulk compost that he produces in long rows on his farm.

5). Making quality compost takes work: If testing the compost rows daily — in addition to the other screening and lab analyses — weren’t work enough, Chad explained that for the first week after starting a new batch of compost (each batch takes about 10 weeks from start to finish), he has turn turn the compost rows daily (and then put a row cover back on). This is to ensure there’s enough CO2 for the anaerobic microbes that will soon take over to feed on.

“If there’s not enough CO2, you don’t have enough nitrogen,” Chad explained.

Around week 8 — two weeks before the compost is finished — the pile needs to start drying out. While this means that Chad leaves off the row cover, “you have to increase the turning of the row,” he said. Because of the scale at which Chad is producing compost, he has invested in a row-turner. While even the tortoise in the classic fable “The Tortoise and the Hare” could have outrun this machine several times over, it does help save some time.

When he’s ready to start selling the compost to customers, he sends it through a mesh screen a final time, to make sure any big chunks remaining are sieved out. The result of all that work? Crumbly, dark, almost edible-looking compost that has a pleasant, earthy smell. See for yourselves:

Part II. Contract Grazing with Goats

After getting to tour the field and view the compost rows, guests enjoyed a nice lunch in the Steenhoeks’ big machine shed (which also had a small air-conditioned storage closet — perfect for cooling off and feeding my little guy!), we hopped in our vehicles and commenced a car convoy about 15 miles west to the Hansen farm, located on the south side of U.S. 30 just south of Ogden, where Aaron took the helm to explain about the work Goats on the Go is doing.

Ray works at Iowa State University in the Value-Added Agriculture program. He explained that he’d been working on his timber stand renovation for a few years. At first he tried without goats. He started by trying clean up the crowded understory of fallen woody debris. “We took out 600 cord of firewood on Saturday mornings,” Ray said. “This was just dropped stuff — not even fallen trees.”

As the understory began to open up, Ray thought he was making some progress. That is, until the extra light hitting the forest floor allowed more weeds and invasive species to gain a foothold and, ultimately, flourish. He first attempted to combat these new problem plants himself by spraying them with herbicides — arduous work along his steep hillsides that are near the Des Moines River Valley. “I have a backpack sprayer, but don’t relish hiking up and down those steep ravines.” It was also risky, as he grows raspberries and other sensitive crops. It was then he realized that he was “losing the battle against invasive species,” and reached out to Goats on the Go.

He decided to try goats on a small scale, and got the SARE grant to compare how employing goats to browse and eat the invasive plants works relative to two other treatments: burning in the fall, and a combination of burning + browsing.

Currently, Ray is testing the goats on a small 6-acre scale. If they work — and a quick glimpse at the land the goats are on compared to goat-free areas suggests they are working very well — he might use them on an additional 30 acres.

The Goat Setup

Currently, Goats on the Go has sent 40 goats to tackle Ray’s invasive species problem. They are set up in two test paddocks, both of which are 2 acres each.

“It’s most efficient to have smaller paddocks,” Aaron explained. “Then we can use smaller energizers on the fence.”

He added that smaller paddocks also encourage the goats to feed on the full range of problem plants, rather than cherry-picking only their favorite varieties before being moved elsewhere.

Challenge #1: Trusting the Goats

“The goats definitely have preferences,” Aaron said. “The first day, they’ll get the easy leaves off of the multiflora rose, the ones that aren’t hard to reach. On day two, they have to work for some of the harder-to-reach leaves. Then the flowers off of that particular weed.”

One of the undeniable benefits of a contract grazing or browsing service like Goats on the Go is that, well, the goats do most of the hard work. But some field day attendees wondered if Aaron and Chad ever had to do site preparation to cull out plants that might be harmful to goats, like white snakeweed or yew.

Aaron explained that you have to learn to trust the goats, and their inherent knowledge of foods that are harmful to them. “We’ve learned to trust the goats to eat what they should, and avoid what they shouldn’t.” (Some goats, however, have eaten white snakeweed of their own volition, Aaron said, with no ill effect at all).

“Yew is one that’s very bad, though,” he added. “Cherry leaves that are damaged or wilted could be harmful — but leaves fresh off the tree are okay. You have to trust the goats. So far, we haven’t had any problems.”

As to what goats really like? Besides multiflora rose, if your property is overrun by thistles, you’ll probably become a goat’s best friend.

Challenge #2: What’s Your Breed — and Your Worth?

Besides learning to trust the goats’ innate knowledge, Aaron explained that other challenges in setting up a contract grazing service include deciding on the right goat breed, and figuring out how to price your services.

Goats on the Go uses primarily Kiko goats, or a Kiko-Boer cross. Aaron explained that he and Chad like the maternal instincts of the Kiko, and its hardiness. “Because they developed as feral goats in New Zealand, they have good hardiness and parasite resistance. They also eat higher up on plants, rather than lower down where parasites might be.”

But he said different goat breeds might work better in a different environment — or climate.

Another major challenge of starting a contract grazing business is figuring out how to price — and then pitch — your services. “People think goats should be cheap,” Aaron said. “But they’re comparing you to [the cost of] doing nothing for another year. They’re not considering the cost of the brush cutter, the goat care, the risk of having those goats somewhere else besides under your immediate control, insurance, travel, etc.”

Because Goats on the Go is relatively new — 2013 was its first year in business — and it took Aaron and Chad some work to figure out the value of their service, Aaron didn’t want to divulge the specifics of their pricing structure.

He did provide a list of considerations would-be contract graziers might want to consider, namely: Who is your intended customer? How far do you want to travel? Do you plan to do site preparation, or not?

“This service definitely has value, though,” Aaron said. “We just need to do a lot more education of people about that value.”