Saturday, January 30, 2016

Chicken composter

Home Sweet Immobile Home
Years ago I built a chicken tractor, which at the time was the newest and coolest trend in homesteading.  What it was, in essence, was a moveable coop with no bottom: you pulled it around the yard and the chickens ate up all your bugs and aerated the lawn/garden and made life awesome by pooping on everything.  Except that the "tractor" (an enclosed house attached to an 8'x8' yard) was too heavy to move through tall grass or wet soil, and eventually just became a base from which the chickens were freed to range every day*.  So it didn't really tractor all that much, nor did it really matter in the end. I finally burned the coop last year, 10 years after having moved the girls into a permanent home in my barn.

So I told you that story to tell you this one: I'm a little skeptical when it comes to miracle chicken strategies.  But I came across one of those ideas that makes so much sense that you suddenly wonder why you've been doing things the hard way for years. 

Case in point: every few months I clean out the above barn, put all the manure and straw on my compost pile, and place brand new straw on the now-clean dirt floor. Why? Because you have to clean the coop.  But what if you didn't? Well then all that crap would pile up and that would be a bad thing.  Or would it?

In the video I watched last night, an American doing time in some God-forsaken Central American country was explaining his yet-unnamed* system for creating lots of compost: instead of letting the chickens out to dig the pile, he simply brought the pile to them.  Instead of cleaning the coop, he added carbon and nitrogen to it every day, then only removed finished compost they created.

By adding leaves and grass clippings and food scraps to the coop every day, one will quickly build up a 2-foot-deep, 3-layer floor:

Layer 1: all the stuff you throw in.  The leaves still look like leaves and the pumpkins still look like pumpkins, and maybe the chickens eat it and maybe they don't.

Layer 2: the layer everyone loves.  This is half-rotted stuff that worms have come up from below to devour and that chickens dig into to get the worms. Chickens are tireless diggers, so all day long they are mixing layers one and two, getting protein from two, and leaving nitrogen on one. That nitrogen, mixed with the carbon you add***, is constantly creating the stuff that falls to...

Layer 3: awesome compost. Once the worms and chickens are done, the bottom layer is filled with compost ready for the garden.  All you have to do is get it out.

So in short: throw straw and leaves and grass clippings and kitchen waste in the coop every day, and you can remove lots of finished compost in no time.

It actually makes a lot of sense to me: I'm perfectly happy when the hens attack the compost pile: their digging over an afternoon can save me an afternoon of pitchforking. Plus the pile will be enclosed in the barn and therefore easier to keep moist.  It ought to create an excellent environment for composting.

Questions, though:

1. Is it safe? The idea of chickens stomping around on 2' of their own crap is disconcerting. OTOH, the fact that it's composting could make it less an issue than my current bi-monthly cleaning.

2. Is it worth the work?  Giving the chickens a nice combination of carbon and greens might work year-round in Costa Rica.  But I'm a little short of green material in Kansas in February.  But the hens will create a lot of nitrogen - so the question is how much carbon I need to supply and at what intervals. I have lots of that in winter.

3. How to harvest? It's nice to talk about nice, pure layers, but how does one remove the bottom layer while leaving the top intact?  For the present I've left the center of the coop as a walkway rather than a floor, since the center would quickly become compacted anyway. From there I should be able to dig into any area to remove compost.

But anyway, I spent today barrowing a rather sizable pile of debris INTO the coop in hopes that the hens will quickly convert it into compost.  There will be few worms at first, given the ground temp.  But if the pile starts of cook on its own, I may be pleasantly surprised.

On the other hand, if it kills all my hens because it's a horrible environment, well, that will be a lesson learned as well.

* True story about how stupid chickens truly are.  The 'tractor' had been sitting in one place in the yard for about 10 days, with the chickens going out and in at their leisure, except at night when they were locked up.  On day 11 I moved it about 30' away because I wanted them closer to the garden.  After dark on night 11 I went out to check on them. Every single one of them was sitting on the ground in the yard where the coop had been. Though the coop was in plain sight 10 yards away, not one of them managed to go into it.
** As Walter Chang famously said, "You'll be sorry if you don't give it a name."
*** In my case, maybe lots of shredded paper

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

How many angels can dance on the head of an astrophysicist?

A dozen sounds about right:
KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) -- Clusters of stars on the fringes of our Milky Way galaxy may be home to intelligent life. That's that word from an astrophysicist who's new to probing extraterrestrial territory...
DiStefano said the approximately 150 globular clusters in our galaxy are old and stable, a plus for any civilization. In addition, so many stars are clumped together it would be easy to hop from one planet to another, keeping an advanced society going.
Whether she's an astrophysicist or not, I'm pretty sure there's no actual science occurring here.  We do not, in fact, know if there's other life in the universe*. So we really have nothing to base any actual scientific calculations on.  I'll admit, that "old and stable" globular clusters might be a plus. It sounds logical, even reasonable. But how much of a plus? 10%?  How much of a plus is meaningful to our unmeasured civilizations? Only 7.5% plus or minus the inverse of the stability? Or does it require 15% minus the age of the youngest in degrees kelvin?  Without measuring any actual civilizations, we can have exactly zero idea. All we can gain is a vague sense of reasonableness about something we know nothing about.**

Where many stars are clumped together, I'll confess that it might be easy to hop from one planet to another, assuming there were any planets or anyone to do any hopping, neither of which we know.  Or it might be very hard - plenty of people are sure we haven't even hopped to our moon, and we are the most advanced people we ever heard of.  But how close is close enough and how easy is easy enough? Again, we have no idea, because we have absolutely nothing real to base our calculations on. Everything must be filled in with guesses, not measurements.

Now sure, this is a just a press report of a speech that has "Study:" in the title - so there may or not be an actual study, and there might be some actual science that the reporter chopped because she couldn't hack the math. And who can argue against the assertion that "Star Clusters Might Host Intelligent Civilizations"?  They might. They might also host magic volcanoes that play Pinnacle and belch Justin Bieber blow-up dolls into deep space.

Somebody somewhere might have scienced. But in all likelihood, a young astrophysicist is making a name for herself by creating wish-filled fomulas*** for the sort of people who think Neil deGrasse Tyson is a pretty clever guy, or that lobster tastes better when paid for by the university.

Nice work if you can get it. But not really science, so much.

* Well, we crazy religious people know. By 'we' here I mean humans who are certain that all life in the Universe arises from non-life through natural, materialistic processes. 
** That used to be called 'natural philosophy' before lab coats were invented.
*** Even 'educated' guesses, if ultimately based on no data, are mere wishes.