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Compost Tea

Dr. Elaine R. Ingham

Quality is everything
Biology defines quality
What is compost tea all about?
• NOT a magical elixir;
• There is a solid, scientific reason that tea “works”
• Add organisms that are needed
• How do you know what is needed? TEST
• How do you know these organisms are in the
compost, from which you will extract the
organisms? TEST
• Is it better to apply compost? Or extract? Or tea?
• What is the purpose of application?
Aerated Compost Tea
Conditions are controlled, oxygen is adequate
Water quality critical: pH, salts, temperature
Energy to extract organisms
Compost quality is critical: NOT SMELLY
• Compost Extract – no brewing time, all the
organisms possible

• Compost Leachate – no brewing, few organisms

removed, basically enzymes, soluble nutrients
• Plant tea – compost not involved
• Manure tea – compost not involved
– Anaerobic, pathogens present
• Put-to-sleep teas – loss of 50% of species
Compost Tea contains:
• From Compost
– Bacteria (A+T) - Fungi (A+T)
– Protozoa - Nematodes (B, F, P)
– Soluble Nutrients
• From Additives
– BENEFICAL bacterial and fungal foods
– Foliar feeds for plants
• AIR, not too much, not too little
What Kind of Tea to Make?


• Tea Fixes FOLIAR PROBLEMS but the soil may

need additional management
What Kind of Tea to Make?

Most foliar disease, insect pests and fertility

problems are messages trying to tell you that
something is really, really wrong with the soil.

Tea helps deal with the symptoms of soil problems.

But you need to fix the soil. Tea can help fix soil,
but extract or compost might work faster
A Healthy Food Web Will:
• Suppress Disease (competition, inhibition,
consumption; no more pesticides!)
• Retain Nutrients (stop run-off, leaching)
• Nutrients Available at rates plants require
(eliminate fertilizer) leading to flavor and
nutrition for animals and humans
• Decompose Toxins
• Build Soil Structure –(reduce water use,
increase water holding capacity, increase
rooting depth)
Things to think about:
• The compost: TEST IT!!!!!!!
• Water: Chlorine? Smell? Containers?
• Brewer: Compost bag? Pump? Aeration?
Ease of cleaning? Ease of transferring?
• Foods? When added?
• Organism additions?
• Spray tank: Ease of cleaning? Nozzle size?
Pump? Tubing? Previous use?
What do you test to tell if tea worked?
• ORGANISMS in soil, on leaf surfaces
• Soil compaction
• Weeds
• Foliar disease / pests
• Root disease / pests
• Water Use
• Soil “fluff”
• Flavor; nutritional quality of plant material
• Yield
• Net profit
The process of making and using tea

1. Compost – does it have the organisms?

2. Water – chlorine, chloramine, quality
3. Additional foods and / or organisms
4. Brewer - temperature, pump, cleaning
5. Application method – Watering can,
Sprayer, Irrigation
6. Monitoring
Thermal compost – Jolly Farmer,
New Brunswick, CANADA
How We Make Liquid Compost Extract
Jolly Farmer, Canada
@greater GeoT Brew
Tea machines in
Mallanganee, NSW
Testing tea makers
at the SFI Mexico
South Africa
Fruit Growers,
Ceres, South Africa
Sunbow Farm, Philomath, OR
What is needed in tea
Active organisms attach to leaf surfaces, grow
and protect plant surfaces
Total bacteria, fungi to assure coverage, to
compete with diseases
Maximum Diversity so growth continues
through whole season
Protozoa, nematodes consume diseases, cycle
Soluble nutrients to feed organisms, foliage
Factors involved in making GOOD CT
• Compost (Inoculum, Nutrients)
• Aeration, Extraction (Machine)
• Temperature
• Foods
• Water
• Timing
• Sprayer
• Application factors (Soil, Foliar)
The Process
Select compost
Maximum diversity of ALL beneficial foodweb organisms:
bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes

Maximize kinds of foods to feed desired organisms,

Proper chemistry needed, EC acceptable, no heavy metals,

No pathogens (heat or passage through worm)

No loss of N, P, S, no low pH organic acids, no stink

Ask to see DATA on what is present

Beneficial Fungi
Thick strands, not fuzzy
Color can be variable – pink, orange, brown, tan, white
Thick fungal strands are desired
Regulations deal with human pathogens
• Check the COMPOST for pathogens.
• Check the extract / tea for pathogens
• E. coli standards vary state-to-state
– Generally require less than 800 CFU E. coli per gram
– Post-production contamination not recognized,
mythology of “re-growth” in finished piles
• If you SELL compost, extract or tea, then testing
will probably be required
• USDA 90 / 180 day rule on potentially contaminated
Compost Standards
• Measured in fresh compost, expressed per gram dry compost
• 15 to 30 or more µg active bacteria /g dry weight compost
• 150 µg (fungal compost) to 300 or more µg (bacterial compost) total
bacteria /g dry weight compost

• 2 to 10 µg or more active fungi /g dry weight compost

• 150 (bacterial compost) to 500 or more (fungal compost) µg total
fungal biomass/g dry weight compost
• Hyphal diameters on average 2.5 micrometers or greater

• 50,000 or more protozoa per gram dry weight compost

25,000 or more flagellates
25,000 or more amoebae
50 - 100 ciliates. Higher numbers indicate anaerobic conditions
resulting from compaction, water-logging, discontinuities in soil
• 20 to 100 BENEFICIAL nematodes per gram dry weight of compost
Organisms that can be added to
compost or tea
- Beauvaria,
- Trichoderma, Gliocladium,
- Mycorrhizal fungi
– Pseudomonads
– Bacillus
– Azotobacter, Rhizobium
Nematodes: Steinernema, Heterorhabditis
The Process
Aerobic brewing process

Maximum amount of foods to feed desired organisms

without driving brew anaerobic

Balance between aeration and feeding

Ask to see DATA on recipe to use

Growing the Organisms – Aerobically!


Activity (ug/ml)
Oxygen (ppm)


2 Activity
Aeration ended
0 3 7 11 15 19 23 27 31 35 39 43 47

The Process
Temperature (water or air)
Q10 effects – slower growth when colder (longer
lag period), faster growth when warmer
Use foods faster when temperature is higher, use
foods less rapidly when cooler
Use up oxygen faster when higher temperature,
no problem using up oxygen when cool
Growing the Organisms – Lower temperature


Activity (ug/ml)
Oxygen (ppm)


2 Activity

0 3 7 11 15 19 23 27 31 35 39 43 47

68 F instead of 72 F; fewer foods Hours

The Process
Balance foods and growth rates of organisms
Fungal foods – humic acids, complex proteins,
oatmeal, bran, fish hydrolysate, wide C:N ratio foods
Bacterial foods – molasses, sugars, simple amino
acids, simple proteins, simple carbohydrates
Dilute the tea if you add too much food
The Process
Temperature – not too cold, not too hot

Lots of oxygen

Chlorine, sulfur gas – aeration to de-gas

Chloramine, salts – add humic acid to complex

Add aerated water if oxygen is getting limited

The Process
Select a good machine

Can machine keep brew aerobic?

Water movement through compost which will rip organisms
from surfaces into the water

Ask to see DATA on organisms the machine can extract and

Extraction Possible?
Desired Ranges
Active Total Bacteria Active Total Fungi
10-150 150 - 300 2 – 10 5 - 20
Compost Tea (using manufacturer’s directions)
ETB 35 6,700 23 30.1
KIS 53 4,050 11 23.5
AG 12 1,445 3.4 11.9
EW 435 15,096 4.7 14.3
JS 46 266 2.6 17.7
Bacterial tea
SS 2 1,500 0.00 0.00
GSI 16 4,300 0.5 1.79
The Process
Cleaning the Machine

Hidden surfaces are bad news

LOOK inside the machine before you buy it!

How easy is it to clean the machine?


PVC tubing was not originally on this machine; 90 turns are big
Earth Tea Brewer from EPM
The Process
Need to cover surfaces with bacteria and fungi so
diseases cannot get to foliage, or roots

How often, how much food to feed organisms once


Ask to see DATA on sprayer and coverage ability

Application Methods
Sprayers, pivots, drip, helicopter, planes

Nozzle sizes – match compost bag mesh with nozzle opening

Time of day - Not important as long as water-drop size is

greater than 1 mm. Evidence? Pivots

Water source – same considerations as for the brewer

Pressure – not pressure, exactly but impact on surface

With Compost Without
Tea Compost Tea
100% of grape leaf covered by compost tea
70% covered by Botrytis cinerea
100% of grape leaf
covered by compost tea
70% covered by Botrytis
70% compost tea
70% Botrytis cinerea
50% of grape leaf covered by
compost tea
50% of grape leaf covered by compost tea
70% covered by Botrytis cinerea
10% of grape leaf covered by compost tea
70% covered by Botrytis cinerea
The Process
Assessing Whether Compost Tea Works

What is the effect on plants?

Disease-suppression or not?
What method to assess?
What method to predict?

Ask to see DATA from field trials

Tea lacking Tea Capable
Suppressiveness of Suppressing Disease
Plate Methods (MPN or CFU) mean, (standard deviation)
TSA 1.6 (0.5) X 108 1.6 (0.7) X 108
King’s B 5.0 (1.4) X 103 1.2 (0.2) X 103
Cellulose 35 (12) 210 (43)
Spore-formers 7.9 (0.4) X 102 0.3 (0.1) X 102
Direct Microscopy (ug per ml)
Active Bacteria 8.0 (2.6) 12.7 (5.0)
Total Bacteria 25.1 (1.0) 245 (34)
Active Fungi 0.00 3.76 (1.00)
Total Fungi 0.35 (0.12) 11.1 (2.33)
Leaf Coverage (%)
Bacterial 27 (4.7) 86.9 (9.7)
Fungal 0 5.1 (0.6)
Disease All died None died
(5 plants) of blight
The Process
When to apply
Soil Drench (20 gal/ac) spring and harvest OR 0.5 to 1
ton compost/ac
On seed
Crops – 1st true leaf, pre-, post-blossom
Perennials – Bud swell, monthly until no disease
danger, weekly if disease pressure high

Control – treatment DATA good idea in first year

Treatment schedule and coverage
Date Treatment Coverage of foliage by B and F
Before After
June 25 1st tea B 47 F 1 B 68 F 3
June 30 2nd tea B 21 F 0 B 93 F 1
July 4 3rd tea
July 9 4th tea B 80 F 6 B 92 F 7
July 18 5th tea
Lots of rain – fields wet
July 30 Foods B 76 F 1 B 97 F 4
Aug 7 6th tea B 60 F 1 B 89 F 4
Lots of rain – fields wet
Aug 13 Foods B 65 F 1 B 90 F 6
Aug 19 7th tea B 90 F 4 B 96 F 8
Aug 27 Foods B 85 F 3 B 89 F 7
Sept 3 8th tea B 63 F 3 B 88 F 7
Sept 10 Foods B F B 91 F 7
Sept 24 Foods B 60 F 6 B F
Measures of Success in the Real World

• Document that the organisms were in the tea

– Qualitative test, Quantitative test
• Measure root depth this year, and then end of season
next year
• Measure soil compaction with penetrometer, clod
hardness, aggregates presence, visible pores
• Visible fungal strands, microarthropods
• Water drop test
• Speed of plant residue disappearance
Compost Tea Application
Sept 7, 2003
Compost Tea Application
Sept 7, 2003
Grass Seed, Willamette Valley, 2003
The Compost Tea

2000 L Tea Maker

The Important Points about Making Tea
• Can the machine keep the whole tank aerobic?
• How much food, at what temperature, will result in
too rapid organisms growth, and anaerobic
• CLEANING – easy?
• Tea can only do the benefits we’ve talked about
• Add organisms into the environment
– Diversity - Biomass
• Do the organisms survive? Did they grow?