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.


Compost Bin of Dreams

Living in a new HOA has some up sides -like my basement didn’t leak a drop in the 15″ of rain Wisconsin got in the past 2 weeks. But the same reason my basement is bone dry, also means growing things here is a labor of love. See our home was backfilled with a 4-8′ layer of clay and rock. The only topsoil on site is the 3″ vaneer I trucked in to cover our half acre. So I spend alot of energy trying to literally build soils on site for my little Garden of Eatin. Year 1 had us going form over function as I struggled to plant an entire half acre by hand, including a lawn and 2000 sq ft of perennial beds, and 1000 sq ft of prairie. But the next year I went up to a nice cedar two bin system that was intended to be a display model for our side business. That bin is/was gorgeous, but even with 2.5 cu yards of capacity, we still outgrew it in the winter when nothing was breaking down. We make about 5 yards annually, so I had Bigger Plans. Imagine that… So I sold the 2 bin system to the daycare that lives in our Church during the week, and Got Busy.

When we built our Earth Victory Gardens, we discovered a source for 3x12x16′ reclaimed fir boards. A company had salvaged them from a warehouse that was being torn down. And they were selling them for $20. Sure they’re full of nails, but that is an INSANE amount of lumber. The day after I visited the salvage yard the idea for this bin was born. It was to be 4 bins wide, and made almost entirely of these Titan Sized boards. It was to be a bin that just may become an heirloom in our family for generations. I bought 6 3×12’s for $120, and purchased another $100 in cedar and got to work this past Saturday. The pile of lumber at left weighs over 600 pounds and I had to borrow a circular saw that takes a 8.5″ blade to cut them. From Great Beginnings come Great Things! I will spare you the play by play -the design is amazingly simple and should be apparent from the pics. So here it is:

Each “Stall” is 36″ deep by 39″ tall for no other reason than that is the max I could eck out of a 16′ board with little to no waste. The cedar slats in the front are made from decking so they are 5/4″ thick and pretty dang stout. Here is another shot from the side to show the interior:

You can see the 3×12’s are spaced about 1.5″ to allow in some air, and the stall sides are assembled with 2×2 cedar to set the spacing, and the back 3×12’s, which are 153 inches long, are screwed into the stall sides using 5″ long lags. Once they were drawn tight this thing is Rock Solid. In fact it didn’t even tweak out of square when I levered it into place with a 6′ pry bar! The doors to the stalls are just decking run in slats formed by a 2×2 and a piece of decking screwed into the front edge of the stall divider. Spacing for the front slats? A galvanized roofing nail:

This set up will be able to hold 3 separate 1 cu yard piles in various stages of decomposition with an empty bin to allow me to turn the piles into to… which should be just right. I am VERY pleased with the results of a weekend’s labor -as Mia said, its a nice mix between Farm practicality and HOA looks. And it is so tough not even I should be able to break it! Why do I need so much compost space if I don’t have any trees?

The buckets are 3 weeks worth of “gorp” that the local Coffee Shop saves for me -to the tune of about 25 gallons weekly. The barrow load is weeds from half of one of my large perennial beds. True its been a while since I weeded, but that is a 10 cu ft wheel barrow… We are essentially a “pioneer” ecosystem that I have yet to fill all the niches in, and Nature is filling them for me with thistle, quack grass, and bladder campanula.

But that still begs the question of WHY I go through all this. The answer couldn’t be simpler:

The Smooth Penstemon is in bloom in the prairie…

Be the Change.


Why We Mulch

With the coming of winter and the dying back of the perennials we chose to capitalize on the relative openness of our beds and re-mulch them. Last month I had stopped and talked to a father/son tree trimming service (AJ’s Tree Trimming) that was cleaning the neighborhood up after a wind storm and in addition the load of chips on their truck, he gave me his card and the promise of ‘a load of chips’ whenever I wanted them for $25. This seemed like a sweet deal so I called them up last week.

The chips were set to be delivered on Tuesday. But Tuesday came and went with no chips. So did Wed. And Thursday. I had given up, but then on Friday I came home to a pile of chips 3′ deep and larger than the Forester. Not bad for $25! So we spread them on the front beds. Then the side beds. Then all the trees along the ‘back 40’, under all the raspberries, and the grape trellis. And we still had 1/2 the pile to go.

So today I looked at our wood chip paths, which were getting a little threadbare and weedy after 2 years, and decided to spruce them up a little. My thought was to pull up the weeds, spread new chips, and dig down the paths in the places where they had grown higher than the beds. I ended up scraping the paths clean of old mulch and reaping an unforeseen harvest in the process. You read about the benefits of mulch in virtually all gardening books-less weeds, and more constant soil temperature and moisture levels. Typically somewhere in there the author will mention that natural mulches also help build the soil, but it is typically an after thought. I can see why-the other benefits are more readily at hand. After you mulch there is obviously an immediate reduction in new weeds, and the plants take much longer to wilt. How often do we go into an established bed and tear down thru the mulch to see what’s going on? I never have. So that is why today’s little path maintenance project was so illuminating. In 18 months, 5″ of mulch turns into 2″ of compost with a thin 1/2″ veneer of chips on top! The picture at right is one load of ‘path’-it is now about 75% finish compost, and if not for all the quack grass rhizomes it would be ready for the winter garden-instead I split my compost bin and mixed it in to cook the weeds. Now here is the irony. While I have been working primarily on the front perennial beds, and the edible garden beds in back, I have still given the rear flower beds some attention-green manures lat winter, and compost this spring. But check out the quality of the soil in the beds (brown/gray on right) vs the path cleanings-rich black earth in picture on the left.

The paths actually have better soil than the ‘prepared’ beds!

2 Paths diverged….

This is after 2 yrs of work!

So in addition to granting me pleasant, mud free access to my beds for virtually free, my wood chip paths will also now generate about a third of my yearly compost. Without turning, running to get coffee grounds every week, or feeding the worm bin every other day. This is a good gig!

So when you are looking at mulching your beds and are debating going from 3″ up to 4-6″, think of this: I was getting 1 cu ft of compost for every 4 sq ft of mulched path. That is allot of compost for very little work! Thinking of the mulch bill? Remember my friend AJ. Chances are
there is an AJ in your neighborhood too-check your yellow pages for small mom and pop sounding tree trimming services. A few calls will find you one that doesn’t want their chips and would be happy to dump them on your driveway for the price of the trip. I got 5 cu yards of chips for $25.

Plus, these chips are uber cool. Why? No corporate fingerprints! All chips are sourced within 25 miles of my house, have no dyes added, no plastic bag waste, and I get to support a local small business. Big Fan! AJ’s chips are fresh, meaning the pile is full of leaves and some of the smaller branches aren’t chipped. For mulching the beds the fresh organic matter is a bonus and I don’t mind pulling out some branches for $5/yrd. The green leaves are composted down within days and the larger chips shine thru soon after so aesthetics aren’t hampered much. Next year I will just keep piling new chips on top in another layer of 3-4″ to replace the 3″ layer that is now humus. Thusly I keep a constant 6″ layer on top to prevent weeds and keep in moisture, and generate virtually all the fertilizer the beds need-all thru locally sourced mulch. Stick your hand down into the leaf litter on a healthy forest floor and you will have a good idea of the soil under a continuously deep mulched organic garden-rich deep loam teeming with life. Organic gardeners don’t grow plants, we grow dirt. And the easiest way to do that? Mulch!

I love mulch!!

PS A special thanks to Ol’ Red, my stalwart wheel barrow, featured prominently in these photos. I’d be lost without him!

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