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Can anyone help with questions about pre-composting of humanure?

Greetings everyone, I'm new to the forum but not new to vermicomposting.

For several years I have been experimenting with vermicomposting human output (nice code words for poo)... and have been going direct by mixing in various levels with red wigglers. I understand now that there is a missing step - pre-composting the manure before introducing the excreta to the worms.

Can anyone give step-by-step instructions for how a family of lets say 4-5 people could do pre-composting of human manure at home before introducing it to the worms? Thank you!

- Randy

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I'm surprised no one has commented on this yet.
I'm curious about the process you have been doing for years? Is it a bin ( Rubbermaid tub) that is only human poo or other feed stock do you mix with bedding or dig a hole and cover?
There is a few papers written about this and if any pathogens that remain after composted by worms. I be leave this is one of the subjects scientists are studding with worms. Not just human but animal waste as well, cow, horse, pigs, and such would still benefit from pre composting because of seeds.
I know this doesn't answer your question but maybe someone else will join in

Hi Todd,

I utilize 5 gallon buckets that are secured for free from various establishments. 

Well-aged sawdust is used as a cover material, bio-filter, preventing flies and unpleasant aromas.

I have an outdoor humanure composting area designed to prevent flies, etc., and mix other feed stock such as food scraps in an attempt to maximize thermophilic, hot composting, processes. 

The sawdust is a high carbon ingredient, the food scraps, garden greens, etc., help bring the mixture into the desired 30:1 Carbon Nitrogen ratio range.
And, you are correct that there are more research reports and studies being done in the arena of vermistabilization as a way to further reduce pathogens, taking human waste from an EPA Biosolid class B category to a class A category.

Here is an US EPA Biosolid FAQ and a rather thick pdf US EPA biosolid management handbook that Randy may want to check out.

Here is a brief 1999 Biocycle article that provides an overview of some of the work in this arena, here is an excerpt:

"Consequently, it became incumbent upon government to explore alternative methods. The Orange County (Florida) Environmental Protection Division (OCEPD) undertook research for the potential use of earthworms as an alternative human-pathogen (pathogen) stabilization method for biosolids. Research revealed studies suggesting that vermicomposting may be effective in stabilizing pathogens. In some cases, precomposting of biosolids was done to eliminate pathogens. OCEPD staff felt, however, that the earthworms would eliminate pathogens during the vermicomposting process, making the precomposting step unnecessary. Thus the "non-thermal windrow vermicomposting" method was developed."

The article goes onto describe the study and the results.  There are also other very good studies available on the topic.

Oh, AFAIK this guy is the authority on it.  In the past I saw he had a free version of his book online; dunno if that's still available.  Or, if that doesn't work for you, the short answer is you need what is called a "composting toilet".  They exist, but I don't know any more about it than that, so you'd have to take up the search from there unless someone else has more to say.

Kathy Jacobson of the Ohio Vermiculture Network has been doing for years.  A very good resource.  Also the Humanure Handbook looks good ...but I haven't read it.

I have no experience with humanure. But I might have some ideas. There is a book call The Humanure Handbook, by Joseph Jenkins. Check the index this might help you. I get a magazine BioCycle. This magazine is about commercial composting. You might find some articles what the pros do with biosolids or humanure.  Another member on this site, vermicompost with humanure as a town project. Her name is Claire Furlong.

Another method, you might can use is the Black Soldier Fly Larvae. I am start to learn about these mega eaters. These might work on a small scale.

Hey There Randy!

I'm the gal John Craig mentioned in a previous comment. 

I've been an avid composter (compost kathy) for 40 years, a vermicomposter for 33 years and a humanure thermophilic composter for 13 years and an outdoor vermicomposter in Ohio, including humanure vermistabilization for the past 4 years. I'm also an RN social change advocate who is hyper-attentive to infection control practices and best management practices toward public/environmental health and preparedness.

I may be able to provide some helpful insights/practices but it would be good to know more about your current practices and to be on the same page to some degree. 

Are you familiar with the following information?

"The Humanure Handbook" by Joe Jenkins is indeed an excellent resource.

The Worms Operating to Reduce Municipal Sludge website has a good list of reference material links about vermistabilization, including the 2001 Florida research study titled "The Effectiveness of Vermiculture in Human Pathogen Reduction for ...


Hi Kathy, awesome response.

The logic behind my actions is to help create a profitable path to help farmers switch from fossil-fuel farming to organic. The problem is farmers can't get certified organic for three years once they decide to make the switch, so how can farmers still make money on the land for three years while converting? I am applying vermicomposting humanure as a water saving / nutrient maximization method to achieve this.

I have a small fleet of converted portable restrooms that have built in urine separation, and am looking for the most efficient pre-composting method before vermicomposting the humanure and applying it to soils. No food will be grown for three years, rather sugar crops like sorghum that can be sold as alcohol fuel feedstock and make the farmer money (Here is my TED Talk about it). After three years, the farmers can grow whatever organics they want, the soil with will pathogen free and up to high organic standards for yields. 

Step 1) We collect nutrients (poo) from users at events (concerts, outdoor festivals)  

Step 2) Pre-compost the humanure

Step 3) Vermicompost the humanure

Step 4) Apply worm castings to soils

It's step 2 I am seeking to perfect - shortening the time from 1 year pre-composting in a covered bin with mesh vents, mixture is 1 part poo: 1 part wood shavings: 1 part grass/hay. 

Any tips are appreciated!

I don't know much about hot composting but what about a large compost tumbler

Good thinking Todd... the issue is keeping batches isolated in smaller units to avoid contamination of the entire lot in case of some kind of vector in any given batch. I should have mentioned that it needs to be in small, storage tote-sized increments.

Hi Randy!

Thanks for your reply and the positive feedback!

Nice TED Talk...I'll be sharing it.
Condolences on the loss of your friend; death by suicide is often very difficult for those who remain behind. Many people, including myself, acknowledge that waking up to the reality that we have to change our ways related to our addiction to fossil fuels and our dependence upon extremely unstable systems, like the economic system, can trigger grief reactions.
Unfortunately, most Americans have not been informed about the natural spiraling processes of grief and it appears that many people are choosing, consciously or subconsciously, denial and bargaining instead of learning new skills to facilitate seeing the situation with eyes wide open and taking positive, goal-oriented steps toward adaptation.
It appears we have more in common besides just humanure and earthworms!
I read the Portland Peak Oil Descent Report when it came out many years ago; I now see your name on it:-)  Thanks for your work on it and all of your efforts.

I have been involved in preparedness and processes of adaptation for over 30 years.  I also served as our local Public Health Preparedness Infrastructure coordinator between 2002-2004; with an all hazard, worst case scenario, silos to systems with a bottom-up/top-down approach to planning and project implementation; including a hyper-local neighborhood network.  I ran into the realities of an entrenched local club however and ended up blowing the whistle, getting out of the government system and pursuing continued implementation from the personal grassroots scale.  I am still very active in this arena and currently have a neighborhood proposal still out with the FEMA Resilience Challenge review folks along these lines.

So, I sense the potential for rich dialogue with you on a variety of topics but will stick to humanure, vermiculture today.

I still don't know the degree of knowledge that you possess regarding composting, humanure, vermistabilization so please excuse me if I address things in the following writing that you are already very familiar with on this topic.

I also didn't mean to write a book this morning but hey, you inspired the keyboard muse and catalyzed a roll.  I hope some of it may prove helpful and that it doesn't overwhelm you.

Are you familiar with what happened in Cuba during the Oil Embargo? The Power of Community video is a good one. The people of Cuba were well on their way to becoming dependent on fossil fuels from Russia for agricultural processes and everything else when the oil supply was abruptly cut off, putting their food security at risk. 

Fortunately there were people in the wings who had been working on sustainable agricultural processes and they stepped in to save the day; vermiculture played a big part in the transition. There are a lot of other resources on the web about the Cuban experience, as well as how vermiculture is playing a big role in other countries.  We're just a bit behind the curve in this country and like you said in your TedTalk, we the people are the ones who need to roll out Plan B.

Hence, my interests in developing a decentralized, scalable vermiculture network...neighborhood to neighborhood, region to region.

Here are a few things that come to mind:
Remember that farmers can grow crops and make money without being "certified organic".  There are some consumers who are well aware of the value of 'all natural'  and will pay a higher price for such produce without having it labeled as "certified organic".  
And, indeed, many farmers in my area, including myself, have no interest in jumping the bureaucratic hoops and paying the big bucks to become 'certified' even though we still adhere to the National Organic Program Standards.

I have posted some information about safe food practices on a discussion on the Ohio Vermiculture Network. 

Here is an excerpt:

"If the National Organic Board Rule is not followed and records not kept, then the “compost” is treated as raw manure regardless of its age and it needs to adhere to the federal and state manure application requirements.

  • Incorporate into the soil a minimum of 120 days prior to harvest when the edible portion of the crop has soil contact, i.e. vegetables, especially crops like leafy greens, potatoes, carrots, radishes and non-staked tomatoes.
  • Incorporate into the soil a minimum of 90 days prior to harvest of all other food crops.


So if records are not being kept with standardized methods, including testing, etc., it is to be treated as a raw manure with the 90/120 day application rule.  

In Ohio, vermicompost is classified as an unregulated manure and if the product is not being tested regularly it should also be considered a raw manure and applied per the 90/120 day rule.

We have farmers here who still apply the uncomposted humanure from their out houses onto their fields every year.  Our governmental systems apply a different set of rules to those within the Amish communities but have become more attentive due to the increasing occurrences of food borne illnesses.  They are eager for such farmers to learn about safe humanure composting and  vermiculture practices.

In addition to the agricultural component, humanure vermicomposting practices are important given the likelihood of increased weather events (with increased severity, frequency concurrancy), pandemic flu and peak oil considerations.  These worst case scenarios often include a shut-down of public waste management/sanitation systems.  In addition, if we experience a major economic collapse these systems will likely go down as well.

  Unfortunately, many of our public planners only include the sourcing of porta-potties in times of emergency sanitation needs and do not take it one step further to consider what is going to be done when there isn't transportation available to get such potties to any given location, or if there just aren't any more porta-potties available, or the means to empty them. 
FEMAs recommendations have not been up-dated since the plans were created during the cold war era when nuclear fall-out was a primary concern: evacuate one's bodily resources into a container lined with a plastic bag,  dump disinfectant on it and store the bags until you can safely go outside to bury them. Brilliantly gross.

Did you see the news about what was happening after Hurricane Sandy with folks caring human waste down flights of stairs to be piled up next to the waste bins on the street?  Disgusting.  If people weren't such fecophobes, as Joe calls us, we might actually be able to come up with a reasonable contingency preparedness keeping some 5 gal buckets around, some with sawdust, some empty, and teaching safe composting processes NOW.

Anyways, humanure vermicomposting has great value in terms of planning, preparedness and response, as well as increasing our adaptive processes to build greater resilience; including the economic viability of farmers with fossil free, petrochemical free methodology toward greater food security, soil and watershed health, water saving and effective nutrient cycling/maximization.  

Okay, I diverged but I am very passionate about these matters so please forgive me.

So, your goal is to develop a program whereby farmers can satisfy 'certified organic' program requirements and make money during the historical review process, 3-5 years; is that correct?

And, you want to utilize humanure composting and vermistablization to further reduce the potential pathogen load. Right?

BTW, folks who are thinking that the application of humanure to fields where food is being grown is gross and/or unsafe should realize that sewage sludge is routinely applied to agricultural fields. 

It should also be remembered that the soil needs to be replenished with compost, etc., on a regular basis.  It's not like we can just work on building the health of soil for a period of time, 3 yrs, and then stop feeding the organisms.  The application of manure, compost, humanure vermicompost, mulch, green manure, etc., is going to need to be a routine component of  operations.

So, if you want to satisfy "certified organic" requirements it is my understanding that the process is also going to have to include record keeping with standardized recipes and management practices, including  regular testing.

- Research the organic program requirements and recommendations to identify other possible components that may need to be included in the operation.

-Research the topic of pathogenic organisms and infectious disease practices.  For example, a Total Coliform test of water, soil, food is what is utilized as an indicator of risk related to pathogenic load. 

E. coli (Escherichia coli) is a major species in the fecal coliform group.
Coliforms, including E. coli, are always present in our natural soil and water ecosystems and not all of them cause disease in humans.  But, there are some strains  like 0157:H7 that can cause very serious illness and death in some people.

-Sending a compost sample to an agricultural lab for coliform testing costs about $30.00 and should be done on a regular basis with compost/humanure/vermicompost produced within a standardized process, with records, until the test comes back at least three times with results within the EPA Biohazard Class A range.  At least my failing memory says its 3 x then followed with annual testing but you'll want to double-check those specs.  (These protocols are also included within the Ohio state laws/EPA regs for composting facilities and probably apply in other states as well.)

3M produces e coli/coliform petri film count plates that may prove helpful for spot checks or folks like me who can't afford regular laboratory testing.  They sent me some samples that I am looking forward to trying but I'm waiting until I  figure out a way to  incubate the plates at a consistent 77 F for  up to 48 hrs. 

We, a group of collaborators, just hosted a permaculture soil fertility program which raised the funds to order a suitable soil foodweb microscope. My hope is that it will be able to provide an indication of the life in my soil, compost, humanure, vermicompost, water, etc. (I'm excited as it just arrived yesterday and I'm hoping to get it set up today!)

And, speaking of permaculture and the Soil Foodweb... it would be very helpful to include research in those arenas before pursuing such an agricultural endeavor.

I am aware that you may already be familiar with such things and/or have already included such research and planning in your program development but since you didn't include those steps in your outline, figured I had best touch on those components.

And, of course, that research also needs to include basic composting procedures and if you haven't read the Humanure Handbook yet I strongly encourage you to do so as it provides some very good information, charts, etc., about human pathogens.  Joe Jenkins is also very active in this arena, including humanure composting at festivals, etc. and is very accessible.  His humanure headquarters page also includes forums, etc., where people are discussing such matters.

I do not recall whether the Organic Program specifically includes humanure.  The pathogen reduction processes would be the same as raw manure, compost, etc., but it may make people very uncomfortable to know that an organic farmer was selling food produced via the applications of humanure.  Therefore, you are going to want to make sure you have all your T's crossed and i's dotted.  In addition, you should become familiar with your state law and EPA regulations. 

Some folks do such things under the radar but if you really want to take it public, with organic certification, etc., you will need to work with state regulators and possibly implement a social, political change process to change some laws and regulatory rules.

Anyways, let's say you're good to go...

Step 1) We collect nutrients (poo) from users at events (concerts, outdoor festivals)  

You're going to want to have written protocols in place for the collection of such materials; don't forget to emphasize good infection control practices, including proper handwashing.

The grass/hay that you plan to use may be sufficient but it appears the woodshavings may produce a very high carbon blend; you may want to consider the collection of food scraps and other organics at these events to include in your pre-composting processes. 

We need to keep those materials out of the landfill anyway to reduce greenhouse gases and such input will also help provide the nitrogen you will need to work with the carbon in the wood shavings.   I use hardwood sawdust here and it runs between 300-625 on the carbon:nitrogen ratio charts depending upon age and takes a lot of nitrogen to get to a 30:1 balance.

I can get pretty obsessive about C:N ratios and mixing but will refrain from going there right now.  There are some good resources on the web including this pdf file that contains instructions on how to calculate the C:N when blending materials. 
For a home scale composter it is sufficient to wing it, to approach composting as an art and science similar to may take some trial and error but eventually one will get the feel of what it takes to make the thermophilic bacteria happy enough to cook up some heat.

But for a public program geared toward organic certification, especially given the inclusion of humanure pre-composting, you may want to spend some time with the C:N materials and calculations to better help you develop your standardized recipes and record-keeping.

Step 2) Pre-compost the humanure

You are going to want to activate the thermophilic, heat producing bacteria.  Such a process involves shooting for a 30:1 C:N ratio and just the right amounts of water and oxygen.   Large scale composting facilitators use C:N calculators, forced air and fossil fueled loaders, etc. 

It is a bit of a challenge to reach 131F and hold it there for 3 days, with a repeat, on a small, fossil free basis which is why it is so good to  utilize the 'time' factor when working with humanure.
Tumblers can help on the home scale but reducing contact is a good idea when handling humanure so turning, etc., is not recommended.  It is also a good idea to have designated 'humanure only" equipment and tools, and  to sanitize them on a regular basis, especially between batches to avoid re-innoculation.

Speaking of aware that you will want to reduce the pathogen load every chance you can get so reduce the potential for vectors such as flies, etc.,  and be aware that non-potable water, from a pond, etc., can also innoculate your product with coliforms.

Step 3) Vermicompost the humanure

I raise Eisenia earthworms and have gradually scaled up to the point where I can inoculate my large outdoor bins with a high stocking rate, 2.5 lbs earthworms per square foot, (that's a lot of earthworms and even at bulk quantity pricing it equates to a lot of money if you don't want to take the time to grow your own population of earthworms.) 

I incorporate them in my humanure bin, kept far from my food scrap only vermicomposting bin to minimize vector transferal.  I also use old carpeting to line my food scrap only vermicomposting bins producing castings intended for sale.  It not only helps regulate temperatures, moisture and provide darkness ... it helps keep the vectors and predators out, moles, etc.

So, what I'm saying is that you could also inoculate your pre-composting bins with earthworms.  I know from experience that the Eisenias earthworms do fine in a hot pile; they  migrate between temperature zones in the thermophilic bin and occupy  the mesophilic curing bin at great numbers.  But, I did not go out and buy a bunch of earthworms for this purpose; I waited until I had sufficient numbers to pull from my breeding bins. 

 I also make it a priority to let all my compost cure sufficiently with time, especially the humanure but also the food scrap vermicompost. 

 I understand that it is the time factor that you are seeking to reduce. Is that correct?

But, remember nature and all of these things take time in my opinion.  A person could start building their earthworm population and their soil during the three year historical review period with untested compost, keeping in mind the food safe 90/120 rule to make sure they do not sell potentially contaminated product, and by the time they were ready to apply for organic certification they could have their farm vermicomposting operations standardized with a supply of cured humanure vermicompost ready to have tested by a laboratory.

But, that's just me. I always encourage a slow growth approach, including when I was working with farmers within an Amish Community near here.  Raising earthworms is considered a livestock operation in Ohio.  I wouldn't think someone would go out and buy a hundred head of cattle if they didn't know how to keep the animals alive.  In my opinion, folks should at least see if they can keep a pound of earthworms alive, and develop their protocols, before they invest huge amounts of money to purchase enough earthworms to stock a large vermicomposting/vermistabilization operation.

Anyways, if you pursue processes of thermophilic pre-composting of humanure ...the rule of thumb is 131 F for 3 days, turned and repeated, to reduce pathogenic organisms.  Many people think that their compost is getting hot enough just by feel but most of the time a compost thermometer will reveal that their compost is only about 115 F at that point.  Getting a few good compost thermometers should be on your list of needed least in my humble opinion.

I shoot for the over 130 F, under 150 F, but am satisfied if I can hold a temperature of 115 F for a period of days given my continuous rather than batch process; followed by a long phase of vermistabilization curing at this point.  However, I do hope to set up another vermicomposting bin  with high numbers of Eisenia to run the pre-composted humanure compost through the earthworms another time.

I plan to incorporate a continuous flow-through system stocked with 2.5 lbs of earthworms/sq ft and fed about a 1" layer of the precomposted humanure about 1x/week, utilizing potable water, in my passive solar earthworm barn, currently in the fantasy phase due to a lack of resources.  I just pulled up this video that shows the type of continuous flow-through that I've got in mind. The narrator doesn't talk about it but I know that there is a breaker bar running along the bottom of the bin to break loose the vermicompost that is falling through to the floor.  Some models also include another bar that pulls the vermicompost on the floor out to the end for collection.

However, in order for such a large operation to produce vermicompost at an affordable price it requires equipment like the tractor that was dispersing the pre-composted material on top of the flow through.  If I were to expand beyond my boutique, artisanal, hand-tended scale )due to a refusal to develop a system dependent on fossil fuel driven equipment) I would also need to have a source of biofuel or other energy input to automate the process.

Step 4) Apply worm castings to soils

Industry standard says that 1/8" screened vermicompost constitutes earthworm castings; unscreened or

< 1/8", should technically be called vermicompost according to things I've read in the arena of vermiculture. 

In terms of application, if you have untested vermicompost and lack good records...remember the 90/120 day rule recommended by the National Organic Council.  It is the time frame deemed adequate for the natural microbiology of the soil to out-compete any potential human pathogenic organisms.

That's it for now...


God help us if you do ever decide to write a novel.  I'll wait for the cliff notes.

hahaha...also found a few typos but am glad that whole essay didn't just go poof into the ethers. 

My comment about castings vs vermicompost should have been:  castings 1/8 screen; vermicompost >1/8" screened or unscreened.




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