Is My Compost Pile Going to Combust?

Our digital managing editor thought her manure pile was about to burst into flames. Find out why she needn’t worry.
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Michelle Anderson, The Horse digital managing editor
My manure compost pile got extremely hot, to the point that it was smoking and steaming. I broke the pile down with my tractor, and it looked like it had ash inside the pile. How likely is a compost pile to spontaneously combust? How do I ensure it’s not getting too hot?

That’s awesome! Hot and steaming compost means you are doing a good job managing it. Usually it’s steaming due to the difference between the ambient air temperature and the temperature of the pile.

Properly managed compost should have air and water to keep the beneficial microbes and fungi happily breaking things down. Turn it occasionally with a tractor to add air, or if you want an aerobic workout yourself, you can do this by hand. Occasionally hand-water the pile to keep it damp, and keep it covered—especially if you live in a rainy part of the world—to keep it from getting too wet and soggy.

Spontaneous combustion is unlikely with compost, especially with smaller piles such as those on small-acreage horse facilities, for several reasons. Firstly, spontaneous combustion occurs at much higher temperatures then what is typical for compost, like 180° F or higher. Compost should be at about 130° to 150° F; you want this temperature for at least three days to kill weed seeds, pathogenic diseases, and parasites. Measure your compost temperature with a simple garden thermometer purchased from a garden supply store. If you don’t have a thermometer, a simple way to test if it’s too hot is by placing a metal tamping rod into the center of the pile for several hours. Upon removing it, if the end is too hot to touch then you might be getting close to 180° F. Temps this high (and even higher) are not beneficial to the composting process, but still don’t necessarily mean it will spontaneously combust.

The second reason spontaneous combustion is unlikely in a backyard composting situation is that it usually requires very large piles, like the enormous ones some commercial composting facilities have. Your pile needs to be at least as big as a washing machine to begin to get hot and generate heat. For convenience sake you probably don’t want it larger than what you can manage with your tractor.

And third, spontaneous combustion usually occurs when a saturated pile dries out over a very long period.

The bottom line: Unless you have an enormous pile that was completely saturated and dried out over many long weeks, then began composting and reached internal temperatures of 180° or higher, I wouldn’t worry. Just be thrilled that you are creating a wonderful free soil supplement that will be beneficial to your pastures and gardens.

And by the way, what you saw in the center of the pile that looked like ash was most likely actinomycetes, a white bacteria that has a fungus-like look. It’s quite beneficial in the compost process and helps with odor control.

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Written by:

Alayne Blickle, a lifelong equestrian and ranch riding competitor, is the creator/director of Horses for Clean Water, an award-winning, internationally acclaimed environmental education program for horse owners. Well-known for her enthusiastic, down-to-earth approach, Blickle is an educator and photojournalist who has worked with horse and livestock owners since 1990 teaching manure composting, pasture management, mud and dust control, water conservation, chemical use reduction, firewise, and wildlife enhancement. She teaches and travels North America and writes for horse publications. Blickle and her husband raise and train their mustangs and quarter horses at their eco-sensitive guest ranch, Sweet Pepper Ranch, in sunny Nampa, Idaho.

One Response

  1. You mention that much depends on the size of the compost pile. Size is a relative term, an enormous pile to me may be small to others. I have three piles of wood chips/leaves, bark and other green material. They are about 4 ft high and 5 to 6 feet in a tee pee shape. I live in north Texas and lately it has rained a lot. The temperature ranges from the mid twenties to the mid seventies. There is steam coming from at least one of the piles each day. Should I be concerned? These piles were delivered this week and are freshly shredded trees and leaves cleaned out from under power lines.

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