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.