On Hasen; A Compost Bunny

Our beloved compost bunny, Hasen,  passed this week.  He lived a rather  long, and I’d like to think rich, life for a bunny- making it over 7 years with us.  I’d like to take a moment to honor him, not only as he was a good little rabbit, but also as I feel that his story has merit in its own right.  

Hasen, and his sister Pfeffer, joined our family in the Spring of 2009 (08?) on a trip to the U.P. of Michigan to see the waterfalls and enjoy a general basking in the riotous  exuberance that is Spring in the Northwoods.   As usual, we were struck by the general poverty of the area- it is a hard climate if you are more than a few dozen miles from Lake Superior and no major cities for industry and the primary resources (logging and some mining) being over harvested a century ago.  But it isn’t an impoverished poverty in many cases- people Get By in the stubborn and inspiring way one often sees at the ragged edges of our modern society.   As we drove we saw a small ‘farmers’ market near one of the catchall / general stores that have sprung up in the Norhtwoods- the gas station / post office / grocery store / tackle / farm store /cafe and we pulled in as I was hoping to channel a bit of money into the local economy (bourgeois much?) and perhaps a pastry for some nibbles.  Plus I had spied some greenwood bent rocking chairs and hoped to bend the ear of the craftsman.  As I recall, we didn’t luck out on the pastries, but the wood worker was a character and worth the stop.  However, whilst I was talking shop with the woodsman, our daughter Ella, had spied two rabbit kits in a wire cage in the back of a rusty pickup next to some chickens and a duck or two with a prominent hand drawn sign reading somewhat ominously (for an almost 6 yr old budding PETA activist) PET / MEAT RABBIT: $5.  Thank the gods they had only 2 left.

As we packed them into our car (8 hours and at least one night of camping  from home, mind you) I grumbled about the foolishness of little girls and bestowed upon them their tongue-in-cheek names and worked to justify their ‘rescue’ (Ella was beside herself with squees) in my mind.  Because being a softie of a man just won’t do- bunnies need a purpose.  Aha!  Like many aspiring suburban homesteader, we have a manure problem.   

Suburban town councils seem fit to only allow predacious pets, but their manure is not ideal for vege gardens both as it stinks to all hell from their high protein intake and there is a greater risk of disease overlap with humans allegedly.  Chickens were outlawed as of then in our town (we – with much help from Ella’s empassioned and well researched speech to the council- got a Chicken ordinance passed in 2012 right before we moved) and bunnies seemed like a good way, along with my worm farms, to provide concentrated nitrogen and soil microbes for our crops while also turning a bit of our yard wastes (rabbits are fair browsers for shrub prunings and devour garden weeds-we’ve never really bought food for them).  So it was ok to get the bunnies– we needed their poo.  I can see the wry smile on my wife’s face now…   ‘Sure Rob, you got them for their poo…’

Hasen and Pfeffer lived in their hutch for several years (we thought they were both girls at the time, rabbits being somewhat difficult to sex to the noob) contributing their services of waste recycling and poo with occasional forays into the yard in a fenced play area with Ella and we expiremented with rabbit tractors in the gardens which worked quite well.     When the babies came we spread the wealth to friends and it is a very special joy to have litters in the house with young kids.  Many, many good lessons there.  Pfeffer died at about age three, but Hasen lived on to move to MN with us in 2013 and entered the next stage of his life with us.

In our new home we had decided to get chickens- our neighbors even had a rooster in their flock, and at the end of our block was a legacy farm (still in the township, but surrounded by actual town) that bred mules-we often were greeted by the loud braying of their Jack donkey.  So I ‘converted’ a 8×10 plastic shed that we had inherited with the house to a chicken coop (OK, I put straw in the bottom, nailed some large sticks together for a roost and made laying boxes out of 5 gallon buckets).   I didn’t really want to keep Hasen in the house- indoor, non-litter trained rabbits are rather, well, odiferous due to their urine and I didn’t really want to build a new outdoor hutch.  Necessity is the mother of invention -so is laziness, and now that I thought about it, I didn’t see much difference between the structure needs of chickens and the needs of bunnies.  So I threw Hasen in with the pullets and made sure to put fresh greens or alfalfa hay in daily just like with his hutch.  Hasen did well with the chickens, they harassed him a bit as he didn’t fair too well in the pecking order due to a decided lack of a beak, but every Spring he returned the harassment as he persistently tried to breed them all– which gave some different lessons to the kids.   Not gonna lie, I’m still a bit upset we never got any chocolate creme filled eggs out of the deal.  

In that first summer I added a Composting Chicken Run (post coming soon) to the coop- essentially a 10×12 roofed and screened area to expand the confined habitat for the chookens to 40 sq ft total per bird.   Hasen had full access to everywhere the ckickens went, and while he rapidly began to switch to a more normal cerpuscular / nocturnal activity cycle he would awaken rapidly to butt the chickens out of the way when the fresh greens were dropped in.   Some interesting synergies became apparent as I observed the hutch over time.  First of all- unlike chickens, as rabbits have a true urine, and a very nitrogen rich one at that, the bedding began to compost much faster than with just the 5 pullets in residence.  I had the lot on a 6″-12″  ‘Deep’ Litter method and the sections under Hasen’s toilet corners were super rich compost and as the coop had an impervious plastic barrier (floor) the bottom 2-3″ of the litter would stay moist enough to cool compost normally, and I even ended up incorporating worms and they thrived as they stayed in the low moist area and the chickens rarely scratched that deep through the dry top bedding.  

Another very interesting synergy became apparent.  Rabbits have two kinds of poop- the first is a pellet that is only half ‘done’- these are often dropped in dens for later consumption especially when the rabbit is eating high lignin forage and/or food is scarce.  Similar to a cow chewing its cud, this allows the bunny in question to extract far more nutrient than a simple ‘once through’ system.   It didn’t take long at all for the chickens to figure out that Hasen was basically a hopping treat dispenser- they absolutely adored the ‘first poops’ which opened up some interesting function stacking to me.  Essentially co-housing rabbits and chickens allowed me to feed chickens brush, albeit indirectly, as Hasen would devour the dogwood, willow, maple trimmings, and the chickens would then eat the half digested pellets.  Didn’t see that one coming, but it really does work.

After a year or so into the co housing project, I can home late one evening to find Hasen out in the front lawn in the moonlight happily munching clover and dandelions.   He did his ‘happy bunny jump-turn-flip’ when I approached him, incorrectly thinking I need to catch him to keep him safe.  To my surprise he calmly hopped back to the coop in the side yard and into a hole behind it.  It seems that he had dug a hole under the foundation of the chicken coop from the run, and had begun going out on nightly adventures.  Here is where some of my risky contrariness reared its head.  I know damn well that living as close as we do to a river that is full of weasel, otter, raccoon, possum, fox, and the rest of the chicken / rabbit eating menagerie that I should plug that hole and keep them all safe.  But I didn’t.   Seeing Hasen that happy, and the thought of that little meat bunny sneaking out each night to romp in the suburbs under the moonlight brought just too much joy to me.  I talked it over with the kids and we all agreed that Hasen, who was 6 at the time, had lived a very long bunny life and that it was better to let him have his adventures, even knowing that the Great Horned Owls we hear weekly would likely get him in time.  

So we let him play and either through luck or pluck, no weasels followed him into the coop, nor did any owls turn him into baby food in the Spring.  Sure we were lucky, but it was also a calculated risk-and I am not one to live my life in fear preferring to live fully than live afraid and Hasen seemed to me, to share that sentiment.   The chickens, well putting them at risk was likely too far, but we have been fine.   It was not uncommon to see Sagely Old Hasen sitting and Just Be-ing at night or early morning.  In winter, it became apparent from the tracks that he had been making friends with local bunnies, though we haven’t seen any wild/domestic crosses yet.  That would’ve make me very happy indeed if we had had our own Watership Down.  

At the end of our second summer here, Hasen developed a lame hind leg.  I was not able to find a direct injury, but I suspect that he had had an adventure that was more exciting than typical causing some nerve damage, or perhaps he got arthritis.  Over time it crept to his other hind leg, though he retained use of that one to some degree until the end.   We expected last winter to be his last, but lame and all, he soldiered through the -30 nights in the coop and met his 8th spring this year.  He didn’t venture out as much at night, but would follow the chickens out into the lawn when we would let them range- either freely or into their fenced rotating ‘pastures’ once the gardens were up.  He was definitely moving slower, but his weight was good and he could scoot pretty well on his own- we’d find him just basking in the sun nearly covered in white Dutch clover, half asleep and seemingly quite content.   The chickens seemed to sense the change and almost never pestered him any more and they would share space at the greens pile daily or walk calmly around him in the ‘pasture’.  

This June, Hasen began to turn, his weight began to drop, and he stopped cleaning his hind feet which would get dirty from all the dragging, and over the past 2 weeks he would often be found with stems of greens wound around his legs.  We began cutting all greens we fed to the coop, but the end was near.  

Last night Hasen left us, but I learned a lot from that silly little meat rabbit and am better for having him; he was a good little composting bunny.   Seeing him, eyes half closed basking in clover and the late Spring sun never failed to remind me to Just BE.  

Thanks Hasen, may your moonlit adventures continue in the Valhalla of Bunnies.  


Hold The Ramparts

The passing of Gene Logsdon last month hit me hard.  It was so sudden, so out of the blue, that its impact was raw and hot especially as my wife and I were experiencing the pending loss of her mother to cancer at the same time.  Gene, to me like so many of us, was a proxy grandfather spinning yarns of past days chocked full of practical wisdom, mores, and humour.  I am working my way through my Gene Logsdon shelf of my library, and looking forward to filling in some holes there as well.   This morning I picked up The Contrary Farmer, and was instantly reminded of why I love Gene so much:

We are circumspect about our economic institutions.  We do not bank on paper money within marble walls, but invest in sun and soil and sweat and the tools that make sweat more productive.  

I think of us as the Rampart People.  In all ages, we have camped on the edges of the earth, the buffer between our more conventional and timid brethren and those nether regions where, as the medieval maps instructed, “there be dragons and wild beestes.”  It is our destiny to draw the dragon’s view while the mainstream culture hides behind its disintegrating deficit and ramen us for shattering its complacency.  So be it.

 Gene started his farm when he was 42- I think that it is not overly coincidental that I happen to be turning 42 next week, and  I find that inspiring- also challenging.  

It is easy to see Gene as a grandfather, but Gene is also the Ben Kenobi of Sustainable Agriculture and he will continue on more powerful than we can possibly imagine. I see his ghost smiling at me as I sharpen my restored hatchet, when I pause in my compost turning to watch a bluebird hunt the garden, or his giving me a hard time whenever I get a little too much hubris- which is often.  And now when I sit and look at my career path and then look longingly over the once fertile fields of Minnesota, I hear him too.

Run, Luke …run!

Man the ramparts, all.  We need them.


Be the Change

Backyard Chickens : Ramial Woodchip Composting

So in our new home (well, we’ve been here almost three years, but still) we are keeping 9 laying hens and, as usual, I am working to upgrade the soils to what I had in the old home where I could take a garden stake and drive it in almost 1′ by hand due to the stupid rich topsoil I had built up.    I like to keep a minimum 2000 or so sq ft of ground under cultivation between the annual vege gardens and the permaculture guilded trees.  And to build up that area I add 1-2″ of compost annually, plus mulches.  That means I need 6-12 cu. YARDS of compost a year.  That’s a bit silly, even for me, so I shoot for 5 yards a year and focus on the annual beds and any new guilds and just heavily mulch the rest.

But I also travel 25-50% of the time now, and unlike my old job I just get two days off (I don’t know how people do this!) vs. the 3.5 in my old gig.   To help me hit my soil building goals and still deal with the reality of my new work-life (im)balance I stack functions onto the chicken coop and have added two composting systems to the runs.   I’ll post about my simple ‘traditional’ composting run in a bit, but today I’d like to share my Ramial Woodchip Composting run since I spent the day playing in it.

Now in any good permaculture function stack it should be difficult to tell what is the true purpose of the system- and this run qualifies in spades.  Is it a ‘no’ work Chicken Feeder?  Is it a Worm Farm?  Is it a Composting System?  YES, yes it is.    In my previous gardens, I noticed that the very best soils were often found UNDER my wood chip paths– the bottom layer of the wood chips would seemingly melt away as the worms and fungus ate away at the chips, and the compost was of exceptional quality- super light and friable due to the high lignin content of the wood chips aiding the aggregatization of the carbon. I’d harvest my paths annually- laboriously sifting and forking away, but I’d always wanted to recreate it in a more purpose built system.  And now I had my chance.

The system is pretty simple- it’s just a modification/intensification of a wood chipped chicken run.  Every 1-2 months I get a trailer load of chips (1.5 cu. yards- any family sedan can tow that) that are very fresh and from a living tree (Ramial-you’ll know it because they will be hot composting almost instantly) and pile them ~1′ thick in a small fenced in area off the chicken coop.   Ramial chips (full of green leaves and smells like sap) are important as they breakdown faster and feed the worms almost immediately- dead and dry chips take a month or two for the fungi to break them down so the worms get interested.

Nothing fancy, I just string 25′ of 24″ garden fence up around the coop door and dump the chips in a wheel barrow load at a time- the chickens will spread them out. I let this sit for 3-7 days (or until I get around to it) so they hot compost briefly and the worms start to work up in them.

Then I start to let the chickens (we have 9 dual purpose chooks- they are layers only and pets that we’d never eat) in for a few hours to all day depending on weather and if I’m around.  The birds express their ‘chicken-ness’ by scratching and pooping, and the worms express their ‘worm-ness’ by breeding like crazy and eating/pooping their weight daily.  After a week or so I start forking the chips over now and then-just a few forks here and there as I pass by which helps the chickens get into the worms, and gets the top layer of chips rotated into the worm fest.  After 4-6 weeks the pile looks like the picture above– the large chips are still there, but the ‘fines’ and all the green shredded material is basically humus and worm poo now.   That’s pretty fast, aided by the stirring and shatting of the chookens, and the close ground contact maximising worm habitat over 200 sq ft.  At this point I do one of three things depending on my needs.  I either fork the mix onto my perennial guilds as is or if I want to seperate the fines and humus from the large material I sift it.

My sifter is designed to fit over 2 recycling bins that I got at a giveaway (dead useful things, those).  If I don’t really need compost NOW, then I throw 3-4 forkfuls into the sifter every time I walk past and the chicken happily jump in to scratch and eat out all the worms.  The fines fall through the screen (3/8″ hardware cloth) And I dump the large pieces back out or into a bucket to add to a fruit tree guild- takes 5 minutes 2x a day.  Or If I really need compost- I do it myself with a fork.  I can get 2-3 wheel barrow loads of sifted compost this way every 2 months.

Meanwhile, the chickens get 25-100% (depending on where in the chip cycle I am- the worms take time to breed up) their protein needs from the worms and macro soil fauna they get from scratching in the chips.  Plus I get tons of high carbon compost (10-15 7 cu ft barrow loads per year) and all the chip mulch I need.

This compost is quite heavy on the Carbon end- PERFECT mixed with forest soil for starting trees and as fall applications in the vege gardens, but it will starve annuals of nitrogen if added in in the Spring or Summer.  So in that time frame, I either stockpile it, or more typically use it as a Carbon layer in my hot composting for seedy greens that need to be nuked (vs just run through the main chicken composting run). Weeds tend to get away from me with my travel schedule so I always seem to need to do a ‘hospital compost pile’ in late June.

And it works perfect for that- above is a 1 cu yard pile of Canda Thistle (GODS do I hate them) shredded -yes that’s an obscene amount of thistle-and mixed .5″ of Ramial compost to 3-4″ layer of thistle shreddings.

I am quite fond of this set up as it spreads the work over time- Other than the day I load/unload the trailer, the system never takes more than ~10 minutes a day several days a week and provides the chickens with a great source of animal protein, and keeps them entertained.  Our egg production goes up a bit when we have them on this system and we seem to have even oranger yolks.  Plus we always have hundreds of easily found worms for fishing or to prime a sheet mulch.

Simple, multi function, and labor saving with mega outputs of fertility and food.

Be the Change.


Back on WordPress!

After far too long I’m going to fire up the old WordPress blog. A lot has changed – we’ve moved to the Minneapolis area for one- and my new job involves a good amount of travel so our yardening has changed as well. Much less total sq footage and less epic projects, but we’ve added edible landscaping and permaculture design to this property and also now have a backyard laying flock of 9 chickens which has been fabulous.  Super exciting- the ecology here is LOADS better than our old home. We see eagles daily, and have seen otter, beaver and foxes within a 3 min walk from our door as well as over 90 species of birds, every frog native to southern MN and 3 species of turtles as our new home abuts a 30 acre ‘city’ park which is bordered by a river and contains woods, meadow, and a 5 acre pond.

Currently there is a gap in posts from the time I was on the now defunct OnestrawRob site. At some point I’ll migrate them all over, but there is a lot of work to be done there.

In the mean time, I’ll try to use this space to update on my current projects and please feel free to connect on Instagram: onestraw

Missed you guys!


-Be the Change

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