Last year we fenced in our garden and built some raised beds. Our soil is very dense and contains a lot of clay. If I dig down just 12 inches, I hit solid clay. Past the solid clay is a mixture of sand, rocks and clay - I've dug down 4-5ft when installing a backyard pond so I've had a good look at the layers of earth under our feet. I decided to start composting so I could enrich and loosen our soil. After all, compost is a great source of nutrients and its texture is ideal for amending my soil for gardening purposes.
I decided I wanted compost tumblers, and that I was going to build some DIY ones from 55 gallon steel drums. The build was not overly difficult. I built a frame with timbers I already had on hand and I used a galvanized fence post I purchased as an axle to rotate the two tumblers on. A few hinges, barrel locks and some other odds and ends and I had my tumblers built.

Since building them, the first one I filled has produced lovely compost. The second one was filled later in the fall and winter prevented it from composting. I should be able to get some black gold out of it in about a month now that the weather is breaking. Overall, the tumblers work well, but their capacity is limited - I apparently have more to compost than I originally thought I would: grass clippings, weeds, garden cuttings, chicken and quail poop, kitchen scraps, paper products... the list goes on. In the fall, I found myself piling up leaves, stems, trimmings, grass clippings, cardboard, and other items in a heap next to the compost bins. So I decided to built a compost pile.
I built up a 3ft tall pile with leaves mostly and some other plant material at the back of our garden plot, and left it alone as winter set in. As spring began to set in a few weeks ago, I noticed that the pile was not doing much. It was missing some key ingredients. The answer for us was POOP. I have 7 chickens and a bunch of quail (40 at the moment, but looking to get up to at least 100 as we are about to start breeding and hatching more), and they make plenty of poop. Just about two weeks after adding poop to the pile a few times and mixing it in, I decided to turn the whole pile. The inside was steaming! I placed my hand close to the pile and found that it was quite warm. So I turned it by flipping the entire pile one pitchfork full at a time. It took just a few minutes. About a week later I went and turned the pile again, and found that it was still cooking and the center was full of matter that was clearly breaking down.
The compost pile was working well, so I decided to take it up a level. I decided to build a 3-bin compost setup. I had some lumber laying around from some projects and taking down our old chicken coop. Some screws and sawing... I had a 3-bin setup. The overall dimensions are roughly 10'x3'x3'. Two sections are 3' long and the last section is 4' long. I used some old landscape timbers as the posts in the corners of each bin and 1x8 boards (some cut thinner on the table saw to allow for aeration) for the sides. I moved the active compost pile into the middle bin so I could start building a new pile in the first bin. Eventually I'll shift the middle bin to the third bin when it's done and cooled. Then I'll move the contents of the first bin to the second and start filling the first one again. The cycle keeps on going, and hopefully I always have finished compost in the third bin for when I need it.

I been turning the compost with a pitchfork about once or twice a week. I have decided that the first pile is finished and I am letting it cure and hopefully dry a bit so I can sift it since there's a lot of sticks that are not broken down. Here is what the compost looks like now that it's done 'cooking'.

The second pile is going strong and cooking away. It steams quite a bit when I turn it. While the first pile was mostly broken leaves and garden waste with some kitchen scraps and chicken manure, the second pile contains a lot of wood shavings, chicken manure (cleaning out the coop) and grass clippings (first spring lawn cutting). I am fairly certain there's more nitrogen than necessary in the second pile. It gave off a fair amount of ammonia when turning it over the last two weeks. I only smelled it while turning the pile though, and otherwise it doesn't smell unpleasant at all. It actually smells earthy like a bag of store bought potting soil by the compost bins most of the time. Now that its been going strong for 2 weeks, the ammonia levels have dropped significantly by my sense of smell. It's much less pungent when I turn the pile now. Here is a picture of the second pile.

As you can see, there's plenty of identifiable grass clippings. the wood shavings are breaking down faster than I expected though. I suspect that the higher nitrogen level helped as well as the size of the shavings. The chickens broke the shavings down quite a bit from their scratch/foraging and dust bathing on the coop floor. the shavings started out as ~1" squares and many were about the size of pencil shavings when I cleaned the coop and added the shavings to the compost pile.

Now my worry is a lack of brown material for the newest pile we are building in the third bin. I've tossed about two grocery bags worth of kitchen scraps into the bin and mixed them into a bit of the active compost I stole form the second bin as well as some clean cardboard. Cardboard is not as ideal brown material because it can get matted and contains adhesives that are not likely to break down easily. I used pizza boxes just, assuming that they are food safe materials. I need to find a better source of brown material. Dried grass is an option, but that's not a likely option for me any time soon since we have such wet weather this spring.

After a few more days, I checked the compost piles again. There's not much change in the first pile. The second one though has began to cool significantly and all the green grass clippings having seemingly disappeared. The pile shrunk to about half its sized and was looking like compost already. I decided to combine the two piles into one. Since both of them shrunk significantly throughout the process of decomposition, I piled them into one bin. The combined pile did, however, fill the bin to the very top and I had top put boards across the front to hold all the compost in. I am sure there's still material breaking down - after all, there are sticks and small lumps of wood that will take a very long time to breakdown. I don't expect the pile to heat up much though since the two separate piles where cooled already. I anticipate the pile will cure over the next few weeks.

Over the next 2 weeks, I was proved wrong about the mega pile curing. It actually heated up again. I had to turn it 3 or 4 times in these 2 weeks. I did take out some though. A screened about 10 gallons worth of compost using a DIY 1/2" hardware cloth screen. At the end of this two week period I took some unscreened compost off the pile and used it mixed with our soil to hill up our row of potato plants.

Additionally, we have continued to add the the "new" section of the 3-bin system. It's mostly grass clippings from when our lawn was too tall again to mulch, kitchen scraps and some wood shavings from our brooder. The bin is about 1/3 full so far. Interestingly, it has not turned into a green soupy mess like so many sources say a compost pile made mostly of grass clippings would. It also has not matted like many other sources say it would. I keep the compost piles covered with some repurposed plastic sheets as I've mentioned before in this article. I believe that controlling the amount of water that gets onto the piles really adds in preventing soupy messes and matting. Additionally, I have turned the pile about twice a week. The grass clippings are all covered with white "stuff" - bacteria, fungi and mold - and is actually heating up nicely even though the bin is only 1/3 full. I've kept the pile built up against the back of the bin rather than spread out across the bottom. I firmly believe that this aids in keeping excess water out of the pile and insulated heat to facilitate the growth of thermophilic bacteria that breaks down the organic matter.