Manure vs. compost — which is the better choice?   Here are a couple of clues:

  1. The best thing about raw manure or poultry litter? It’s free.
  2. The best thing about compost? It works.

Here’s why:

  • Organic material (OM) is added to soils through manure decomposition.  But the amount is about equal to the amount of organic matter lost through natural processes. That’s why you may see no rise in field OM even after years of manure applications.  Compost adds stable organic matter.
  • Compost is a concentrate.  The amount of compost required is much less than the amount of manure required.  This helps to cut total number of trips over the field.
  • Compost keeps water and fertilizers at the root zone, mitigating fertilizer leaching, erosion and topsoil loss.
  • The natural microbial activity of compost does lots of good things for soil which, in turn, does good things for plants. Researchers report improved nutrient uptake and resistance to pests and diseases.
  • Compost is best for pasture and hay fields where raw manure applications can reinfect livestock with internal parasites, bacteria and viruses. Compost may be more palatable to grazing horses than untreated manure.

In the compost vs. manure debate, compost is the clear winner.

Learn how quality compost is manufactured

Jared Burch, Burch Farms

Jared Burch, 4th generation farmer

Burch Farms in Sampson County has been using McGill AG compost for many years.  I met fourth-generation grower, Jared Burch, in one of their fields late last summer as he prepared to plow sweet potatoes.

A graduate of North Carolina State University, 25-year-old Jared farms about 6,000 acres with his father, uncles and cousins. He is well aware of the need to keep the soil enriched to produce crops and spoke of the importance of returning organic matter back into the sandy soil where they farm.

The Burch family incorporates about 15 cubic yards of compost per acre prior to planting. Burch Farms is known for their sweet potatoes, peppers, greens and other produce. Over the years, Ted Burch, Jared’s uncle, has seen money savings from purchasing less fertilizer and better moisture-holding capacity in irrigated fields during the hot summer months.

CONTRIBUTOR:  Ruth King, McGill-Delway compost sales

Headed for the Mid-Atlantic Nursery Trade Show (MANTS) this week?  Stop by Booth #1920 and say hello to McGill sales and marketing manager, Gary Gittere, and regional sales rep, Joe Belmonte.  While you’re there,  roll up your sleeves and dig your hands into a sample of our premium SoilBuilder compost.   The green industry tradeshow runs January 11-13 at the Baltimore Convention Center.

A:  No.  Our compost meets EPA Exceptional Quality standards for these types of products.

A:  Yes.  Our premium SoilBuilder compost is an excellent soil amendment for lawns and gardens and is very suitable for food crops.  Some of the largest commercial produce farms on the East Coast are using our products with excellent results.

Prior to planting, incorporate 2-3 inches of compost into the top 6-8 inches of soil.   Some gardeners will also periodically topdress with a sprinkle of compost throughout the growing season or use it as mulch.

At the end of the growing season, add a layer of compost on top of the dormant bed.  Soil critters will do the job of “tilling” the soil amendment in over the winter months, prepping the bed for spring activity.

Use compost to make your own potting and landscape mixes

SoilBuilder can also be used as an ingredient in potting mixes for container gardens and landscape mixes for raised beds. Just blend about 30 percent compost in with topsoil and other soil amendments or ingredients.  We use SoilBuilder in much the same way when we make McGill LandscapeMix and other blended soil amendment products.


A:  One of the most common questions asked of our compost products team is — “How much compost should I use?”

A good rule of thumb is no more than 30 percent in any mix or soil profile if using a compost product for the first time.

Volumes and types of specific feedstocks or ingredients used in the compost formulation will influence the quality and nutrient value of the resulting compost products. Therefore, there may be some variations in compost product quality, depending on the specific manufacturer.

McGill products, for example, are considered performance composts, because the feedstocks used in the blend are richer than those products made from yard waste only.

When using a McGill compost for the first time, ask to see an analysis and correlate the application rate to a recent soil sample and the requirements of the crop or turfgrass variety.  A knowledgeable compost sales representatives can help determine the right product and volume for your project.

Compost is not topsoil

Do not make the mistake of using compost as fill.  It is not topsoil.  However, you can make an enriched soil by mixing a native soils and compost.  How much compost?  Mix it 50/50.  Studies have shown blending compost with soil already on site can be more cost-effective than buying topsoil.

Use our compost calculator

Golf is the lifeblood of Innovative Turf Services (ITS), the Virginia-based turf and landscape distributor. Company owner Marc Petrus estimates 95 percent of his company’s clients are golf courses.

Helping clients like Jefferson Lakeside Country Club and Lake of the Woods Golf Course fix their troublesome brown spots remains one of ITS’ real challenges. Fortunately for all involved, McGill SoilBuilder has become a real part of the solution since ITS began using it three years ago. “We’re just seeing much darker, greener grass in areas where this material has been applied than in areas where previous material was used,” Petrus said.

Petrus appreciates that McGill SoilBuilder is finer than other composts, allowing for easier spreading. He also noted it contains less wood filler and more nutrients, helping make grass more drought-resistant. As a result, “the turf in those affected areas really comes back to life,” Petrus said.

And ITS-supplied golf courses are thrilled with the results.  “Everyone loves what they see,” Petrus said. “They’re growing grass on areas where they never could before, giving their clientele better playing conditions.”

“Excellent crop response,”  says Britt Riddle of Riddle Farms in St. Pauls, NC.  “The compost seems to last longer with less leaching than commercial-grade fertilizer.”

A conventional grower, Britt tested fertilizer and compost side-by-side on corn.   His May 2010 test plot pix (right) shows commercial fertilizer left of the ditch and McGillAG compost on the right.

Excellent crop response with reduced input

Britt’s “excellent crop response” is not restricted to corn.  Farmers growing everything from greens to melons have reported good results when using compost alone or in conjunction with reduced commercial fertilizers.  Other input, like pesticides and even irrigation, can be reduced, as well.

For more information about compost’s impact on crop performance, visit our compost sales website at

NOTE:  Some content has been updated since the original post.