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.


Fungus Farming

Last weekend I went to a mycoremediation workshop in Madison and learned a ton about inoculating mulches with mushroom spawn, and was even able to score three bags of Oyster Mushroom spawn for my own projects.  Here is a photo journey through my first project.  Site selection was a bit tricky – I would prefer to have a shaded moist spot, but as we are still less than 5 years in this home and all our trees are under 15′, we have no shade to speak of other than the north side of our home – and that space is taken with my “recycling center” of compost bins and vermiculture area.  Instead I chose a spot on the east end of my large rain garden which is situated on the west end of my home.  It will be shaded until about 11am and then become shaded again at about 4.   That is likely too much sun, but I get volunteer mushrooms in similar sites in the gardens, so I am willing to give it a try.  More importantly – with its proximity to the rain garden it will be moist more often than not.  I am even hoping that the mycelium will creep into the rain garden’s mulch and help filter that water as well.

First off you will need some Mushroom Spawn:


.5 gallons of Oyster Mushroom spawn in a sawdust medium - the white is mycelium.

.5 gallons of Oyster Mushroom spawn in a sawdust medium - the white is mycelium.

Once that is in hand, you will need something to grow it in:


3/4 yard of wood chip mulch from our municipal yard

3/4 yard of wood chip mulch from our municipal yard

Yep – I tow with a VW Golf.  With the TDI engine’s torque and an upgraded Bilstein/H&R suspension it can handle over 1500#’s.  Now that I have the growing medium and the spawn for innoculating, it was time to prep the ground.  In this case I scraped the area down to the top soil to remove any Quack rhizomes:


The bed is about 15' long and 1-3' wide.

The bed is about 15' long and 1-3' wide.

Scraping it wasn’t really necessary, but I wanted a clean start.  Next up I laid down a mat of clean straw.  The thought here is that straw is easily digested by the fungus, and the long pieces act like a highway for the mycelium and help it to spread very quickly:


Wheat and Oat straw...16 bales free!  Thank you Craigslist!

Wheat and Oat straw...16 bales free! Thank you Craigslist!

If you hadn’t noticed, I chose the morning after a rain for this project – the straw and mulch were already fairly damp and I soaked each layer well before moving on. Once the straw was laid out about 1/2-1″ thick, I threw down a layer of municipal wood chips about 2-3″ thick and crumpled about 30% of the spawn into this:


Mixed wood chips - pine and hardwood plus some green leaves and twigs

Mixed wood chips - pine and hardwood plus some green leaves and twigs

The mulch is not ideal for mushroom growing – it had lain on the municipal pile for over a week and likely other fungus had begun to colonize it.  Also, it was composting on site, and the cooler sections were a bit moldy.  All of these would typically be a no-no for starting a fungus bed (clean, fresh chips free of mold are best), but Oyster Mushrooms are allegedly hyper aggressive and typically out compete most everything so I worked with what I had.  I repeated the steps 3 more times: Straw, water, Mulch+inoculant, water and then finally capped the now 1′ tall mound with a thick layer of straw to act as a mulch to keep the inner chips moist and shaded:


Viola!  Total time including running for chips was under 1 hour.

Viola! Total time including running for chips was under 1 hour.

It is possible that I will see mushrooms this fall as Oysters typically fruit in the Autumn, but more likely it will be 2010.  I have also used another packet under one of my Peach Tree guilds.  There I am less concerned about  eating the mushrooms, rather I would like to have them colonize the mulch and I will let them drop spores to hopefully naturalize to some degree to improve the soil fertility in that bed.

This was an uber simple project – total time was under an hour.  If you would like to start a bed of your own, I highly recommend Fungi Perfecti as a source of spawn and information.  Very helpful folks!  Fungus Farming is a great method to function stack in odd places in your yard – producing mineral rich food while drastically increasing the soil’s diversity and fertility with little effort.  What’s not to like?

Be the Change!


Willow Coppice Math Fun

We are actively looking in to designing a Community Supported Energy system here in JEfferson County Wisconsin based on a wood chip gasifier powering a small co-gen unit providing roughly 30,000 kWh of electricity and enough BTU’s to heat 10,000 gallons of water for tilapia aquaponics similar to what Growing Power of Milwaukee is doing.  To that end I spend alot of my free time researching the myriad aspects of that system.  Of  late I am focusing on a working the fuel source into the site plan, my thoughts are beginning to coalesce around using willows on a Short Rotation Coppice plan – the willows would then be chipped or pelletized for use in the gasifier.

I found a short Power Point from the Baltic university that has some great shots of willows being grown for coppice.  VERY industrial, but how cool is it to see perennial carbon crops being harvested by combine rather than GMO corn?  


I loved the shot of the willows towering over the people in the shot … after only 5 months!  Wow these buggers grow fast!

Now for the Math Fun:

A hectare is just shy of 2.5 acres, so translated to Ameri-speak that is roughly 60,000#’s per hectare on a three year rotation – 10 tons/acre/year.  1-2 acres so planted would likely run one of our gasifiers for 2000 hours (50 weeks @ 40 hours/wk using 10#’s/hr), but I would rather see it in a mixed planting as windbreaks around CSA food gardens in an integrated Energy/Food farm.   Using a 10′ wide windbreak dividing the gardens into .5 acre plots one could sustainably grow 15 tons of biomass annually on the windbreaks of 4-5 acres of cropland.  For ease of reference 7 acres could produce about 100,000#’s of potatoes equating to roughly 43 million calories at the yields I achieved this past year.  Of course I would never plant that much of one crop!  

The point is to show the possibilities of using about 3-7 acres of land when combining food and energy systems into a permaculture plan specifically designed to produce significant surpluses for the community.  The equipment to make the pellets for the gasifier could also be used to convert virtually any carbon source into pellets using a hammermill to break it up into little bits first.  If you make ethanol on site with the waste heat from the gasifier using various sugary cover crops in your rotations, some of the dried distillers grains not used for the Tilapia can act as the binding agents for the pellets.  

7 acres producing 5 tons of Tilapia, huge amounts of vegetables, ethanol, electricity, and wood pellets while employing several people in full time wages in a system that can be scaled up/down as needed?  This is the rural community planning I want to see as we transition to a brighter, more localized, future!

Be The Change

Camping, Golf’s, Appleseeds, & Terra Preta

The past two weeks have been insane.  First we ran out to SW MN to nab our newest vehicle and less than a week later I delivered my beloved Honda Insight to its new owner (not so bad as he is the farmer that loans me all the land for my projects).  Then Labor Day weekend we took a whirlwind trip back to SW MN to visit my in-laws and take the first camping trip with our little’uns at Blue Mounds State Park.  The State Park was much cooler than I expected.  The “mound” is a large bluff with exposed Quartzite and houses the only public Bison herd in MN -though they are fenced in which was a buzzkill.  It was great to make smores with the kids and begin teaching my kids how to tend fires.  So many cool things-a pair of Katydids took up residence under our rainfly and serenaded us each night; the kids were able to watch bats on the hunt, and I was able to hike 5 contiguous miles through restored prairie in full late summer bloom. The Golf TDI got 52 mpg on the way out and 51 on the way back with the cruise at 70 mph.  Nice. 

Market Garden

With stress levels high from overextending all year, we have put all fall market garden plans on hold.  As crops come down we are putting them in covercrop, and taking time off until I plant the hoop house to spinach and mache in 3 weeks.  I am trying a annual only cover crop on one plot to see how it preforms.  Thrown in are Wasaba Oats, Japanese Buckwheat, Oilseed Radish, and Yellow Field Peas.  The oats are for straw biomass, the buckwheat is for quick cover, the radish is pure experiment as I have never grown it and want to see it in action -hope is for decent below ground biomass, and the peas are for nitrogen.  All will kill at zero degrees to leave a nice mat of mulch for the spring crops.


This is where my heart and mind are at right now.  Tons of time online researching this and a couple of books from Chelsea Green on the way as well.  After looking into most of the “turn key” systems out there -most of which run over $3000, I have decided on a processor that is based on the Appleseed Biodiesel Processor. The Appleseed is essentially an open source project of backyard handy men/women working together to find a workable and safe solution.  The design they have come up with is uber simple and can be made out of reused junk if need be (sounds like our gasifier!), but even sourcing everything new will cost under $5-700 for system that can easily do 2000+ gallons of biodiesel a year.    As my goal is to have one up and running by Halloween/Samhain, expect alot more posts on this in the coming months as my focus switches off of farming for the season.

Terra Preta

A year or so ago I was introduced to terra preta and it blew my mind.  As I got more interested in our gasifier project we realized we would have a ready source of biochar and could actually start to make terra preta nuevo here in Wisconsin.  When my brain is melted from reading about and designing biodiesel processors I am pouring over Cornell research papers on this subject. Again, look for more in depth posts on this.  Adding DEEP fertility while sequestering carbon from a system that can heat and power a building -count me in!

The End Goal is to build an “Energy Shed” that will house a gasifier whose waste heat and electricity are powering bio-diesel and ethanol processors, and the waste products from these operations will the heat and power a multi use greenhouse growing greens and veggies and housing tanks of Tilapia for protein that will be fed off the mash from the ethanol still.  Waste from the fish will then be turned back into the fields as fertilizer to complete the cycle.  Permaculture in action!  

This one may take years, but to quote Ghostbusters: “We have the tools… we have the talent”

Be the Change!


Chicken/Rabbit Tractors: Sub Acre Ranching

One of the most perplexing challenges of my Sub Acre Agriculture project will be to consistently and sustainably increase fertility in the soils to optimize yields over time. While this can be done exclusively through green manure cover crops, it is more efficient to combine a planned cover crop rotation with livestock manures. Andy Lee states in his book Chicken Tractor, that while he was at Intervale Center in Vermont he saw yields increase in one year with manure to the levels it took 4-5 years with (very) heavy compost applications. As this system is designed to be used in small landholdings, specifically medium to large Suburban yards, traditional livestock such as goats, horses, and cattle are not really an option. That leaves smaller critters -specifically poultry and rabbits.

Rabbits are a great option if you want to eat them for meat: they breed like, er, rabbits, they have manageable feed needs, and their manure is “cold” which makes for great vermi-compost and can even be directly applied to your beds (though wait before applying raw manure to any food crops!).  If, like us, you are not into eating your livestock you may go the route that Patti, the Garden Girl has chosen and raise Angora’s for fiber while still getting all the fertility benefits of the manure. She keeps them in rabbit “tractors”, portable pens that are sized to fit in her small raised beds so they apply their manure directly onto her gardens. Slick! Plus they are dang cute and very gentle around little ‘uns.  Think of them as a functional petting zoo!

We will be using chickens as I want to leverage several very useful attributes of being a chicken: scratching for food, pooping, laying eggs, and eating bugs. When confined to a small space, chickens will scratch to bare soil in their search for seeds and critters, all the while manuring as they go. In a traditional chicken pen this leads to hardpan and toxic levels of nitrates which can kill the soil. The trick is to let the chickens stay put long enough to prep the ground without damaging it-in other words you need to move the birds. Enter the Chicken Tractor. Much like Patti’s rabbit tractors, chicken tractors are moveable pens that house, feed/water, and protect the chickens while confining them to a specific area. In our case the beds are planned to be 3×40’. So our “tractors” will be 3.5′ x 12′-ish with roughly 10′ exposed to the ground allowing the birds to be moved down the beds eating, scratching, laying, de-pesting, and manuring as they go. The tractor will be mounted on 2×4 skids, perhaps with wheels on one end if it gets too heavy -I want it to be one person portable, and will be wrapped in poultry wire with a hutch for laying on one end.

Initially the Sub Acre Market Garden was designed to include the chickens within the rotation-moved as needed to strip off a crop and prep the ground for the next. This was proving to be very complicated: Where would the chickens go from late June to August when the majority of the beds were in crop? Would the chickens be able to scratch down the perennial covers like red clover? How in the heck would I maneuver the tractor into the middle of a diversified bed? Lots of problems. Thinking within this rotational framework was proving fruitless, and was sapping critical time and energy, so I broke down the rotation and rethought it from scratch. The solution I came up with was permitted by the fact that I have virtually unlimited space at the farm (20 acre farm, .1 acre garden). I now plan on laying out 2 gardens that mirror each other. The first will be tilled this spring with the 48″ tiller on the owners Kubota -this should be the only time that tines hit soil in this project. The beds will then be planted on a modified rotation, basically removing the perennial covers (Red Clover/Alfalfa) that were intended to add fertility-replacing them with the missing legumes like dry and snap beans. Covers will still be used, but they will be annuals like buckwheat and oats to keep the soil covered in between plantings in the Spring/Fall beds. Come fall the beds will be sowed with a rye/vetch or other winter hardy mix.

Meanwhile in the “mirror bed” will be the more locus for actually building fertility.  Cover crops, unless left in for more than a year, typically only maintain fertility when used in a vegetable rotation.  Taking the “mirror” bed out of production will allow it to be under cover for a full year, building critical root systems, while also adding fertility and building soil ecology through active additions of animal manures.  Goal is to add at least .25% organic matter each rotation.  Not only will this boost yields, it will also sequester roughly 2.5 tons of CO2 per acre!

To get things going, I will do a rough sheet mulch to remove the pasture grasses, and that will then be planted with a PVO mix (Peas, Vetch, Oats) on parts and Sudangrass on others to build fertility and smother any remaining plants. Planting both (and any others that you can recommend) I will be able to experiment with a variety of crops for ease of incorporation and their ability to sync with this system. Into this I will use a system of mowing (hopefully with my new scythe!) then chicken tractoring to harvest the lush growth and manure the beds all year. The chickens will be moved frequently enough to not kill the mixes until late in the season. Seeing as both the PVO mix and the Sudan Grass are capable of putting on 4 tons of biomass per acre I should have plenty of extra growth for supplemental on site composting to provide compost for our Eco Victory Garden projects. In 2009 these beds will be prepped for the veggie gardens that will rotate over. Beds that will hold early spring crops will be fall planted with a crop that winter kills like Oats. The mirror beds may also be used to grow winter fodder for the chickens by letting some oats go to seed. Making the paradigm shift to the Mirror Beds has completely freed my thinking to move onto other, more practical matters like Chicken Breeds, veggie cultivars, pen design, and problem solving how the heck I plan to grow 1000 transplants without a greenhouse! Expect a flurry of posts on these topics in the coming weeks before I start being forced to spend less time posting and more time doing.

I have already begun meeting with my restaurant clients to get their inputs and commitments. 2008 is shaping up to be a great year! To say that I am stoked for Spring is a huge understatement!

-A very excited Rob

Be the change!!

Permaculture Concepts Video


So anyone reading this blog has probably figured out that I feel that in many ways overt and subtle, Conventional Agriculture as sold by Monsanto and ConAgra is destroying the very fabric of society on top of our ability to feed ourselves. When you look at the physical and social damage done in the Tropics of the Third and Fourth Worlds it is downright criminal. The only reason Industrial Ag and the Green Revolution worked here was that the Midwest had 12% organic matter in the soil that was many feet deep. With a resource reserve that deep you can ignore losing 5 tons of topsoil annually as long as yields are increasing -or so the propaganda goes. In the tropics, as well as most non savanna lands, the nutrients are stored in the in the plants themselves with the topsoil not very thick at all. Conventional farmers look at a Rain Forest and drool at the fertility they believe to be in the soil, but completely miss the boat. Permaculture is one of many answers for the productivity needed to feed our growing population in the 21st Century while restoring the lost fertility of our soils, be they in a Suburb of Milwaukee or South Africa. </rant>

Even I get tired of reading at times, and videos help me explain Permaculture to my kids -at least during the winter when it is a little esoteric to point to a 24″ twig and call it a Paw-Paw tree. Here is a great video found on Google videos that is a fab 1 hour primer on Permaculture Concepts. Grab some popcorn and a local (home?) brew and prepare to be inspired!

I am also in the works of compiling a playlist of the best permaculture videos on You Tube. I find it reprehensible that many of these amazing videos have views in the low hundreds while Import Drift Racing videos get 1,000,000…

Sustainability needs a better marketing department.


Big Ticket Conundrum

Looking forward into 2008 at some of the Big Ticket items I would like to purchase, and frankly I am struggling.   One item would significantly decrease our personal footprint, and increase the joy I have in our home, the other would potentially make me a greater asset to helping our community become more sustainable, and would complete a goal I have had for several years.  I fully realize how blessed we are to be in the position to even have this discussion.

We bought our home 3 years ago out of depseration-the farmette we had money down on failed its home inspection and the owners were being jerks about the needed repairs so we backed out.  But our then current home was sold and we had no interest in living in a temporary apartment with 2 children under 3.  So after a month of feverish viewings of every home remotely in our range on more than an acre of land, we admitted defeat with less than 3 weeks until close and began to look in town.  Our current Spec Home (on virgin farm land) is the result.  The guilt inherent in that choice was a huge driver in my Getting Real about sustainability.  One thing that has always bugged me about the home is the natural gas fireplace.


It looks fine, and the stone is actually a decent heat sink for the south facing windows on the opposite wall, but the fireplace is worse than useless: it is so ineffecient it costs $1.25/hr to run and barely heats the room.  My dream would be a Tulikvi stove with bakeoven, but I don’t have $15k laying around right now. 


My parents have this stove from Hearthstone which is also shrouded in soapstone.  The stone helps to mitigate the heat, taking much longer to heat up, and holding the heat for hours after the fire is out.  At their home one full load of wood (4 sticks) will heat for 10-12 hours, and the stove is rated to about 60,000 btu’s so it is no slouch. It wouldn’t heat my entire home on the coldest nights, but it would take 75% of the load off our NG furnace. My cousins run a small saw mill north of us and could keep us in slab wood forever, and my father also has 20 acres of woodland we could esily sustainably harvest a cord a year from .  Installed with sweat equity it would be about $3k and take a huge bite out of our annual carbon emissions while helping to insulate our family from rising energy costs.
The second item is actually a two part workshop that would allow me to become certified as a Permaculture Designer with Midwest Permaculture.  They have a Design Course this May, but are also offering a new Advanced Course in late summer that would offer the attendees the chance to actually design the site plan for the MREA grounds.  Completing one or both would allow me to offer Permaculture Design services through our business, and being on the books as a designer for MREA would be a great resume builder.  Given that the workshops are over a week long, they do not come cheap: $1200 each.   The learnings from one or both of the courses would be legion, and assuming I could market the design services the ROI would be better than the Stove.
Like I said, I am torn and also slightly embarrassed by the wealth that allows me to even be considering these items.  But the side business selling rain barrels and ecological landscaping services is allowing us some wiggle room in our finances that I would like to see spent on things that will prepare us for the future, whether it is knowledge or the ability to heat our home without being so dependent on the grid.
Thoughts and advice are very welcome!
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