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


  1. I'll be pleased for any updates you happen to manage. I have neighbors who are trying to walk me into what I've been going on about for years... egg chickens, at least to start. I'm terrified, don't want to kill the durned things. Water, food, cleaning... all that jazz. This could, possibly, simplify on aspect. If it works. I don't garden, but I am trying to improve the soil in my planting area, and letting another use it. I am sure they wouldn't mind plowing that in spring and fall... probably.

    Good luck.

    1. The ladies have gone berserk digging and scratching, so I suspect I'll have an update before too long.

  2. I always wonder what the attraction of composting is. Looks like a lot of work. Yes, nicely composted stuff is very good for the garden, but so is just layering it all on the garden surface and letting nature take its course. It all gets mixed in the next time you work up the ground anyway.
    Chicken poop is way too high N to put directly on most plants, but mixed with leaves/straw etc should be fine.
    I do compost the leaves, just because they are so thick in the fall that they blow away before the break down, but even for the leaves and paper, it all just goes into a big hole somewhere in the garden. When the hole is full, it gets capped with dirt and planted over. Seriously, I think you can make gardening way more difficult that it really is!

    1. Q: I always wonder what the attraction of composting is
      A: nicely composted stuff is very good for the garden

      Obviously, composting can be a lot of work, but I try to make it no work at all.

      For my operation, I need tons of the stuff, every year. I don't till, and I have, at last count, 22 beds in operation. And this year I need more than 100 cubic feet of fill for new beds. I can buy potting soil/mix at WalMart or I can compost.

      I'm trying to get to the point where a haphazard tossing of stuff* on top of a garden pile works for me. But I am not there yet.

      * I just planted 10 comfrey plants, which are perfect for ripping off and tossing on the beds. Maybe I'll do a post on them soon.

  3. I bet it works. I built a wire enclosure in the corner of my old granary. Most of the time in the summer I open the door. They go in and out at their leisure and I don't have problems with predators. Predators hesitate to go in the building for the most part. However the wire on top is sunken in from some heavy critters up on top. Anyway, I haven't cleaned the manure our of there since I built it. The chickens don't complain. And when they die, it is usually because a hawk kills them out in the yard or the rooster spurs them bad enough to tear them open. They don't die from wading in chicken crap or any of my other failures to make their life a life of luxury. Since the enclosure is wire, it gets enough air flow to mostly dry stuff out, so they aren't literally wading. They just walk in it. And they do love to dig. So everything gets mixed.

    I didn't put straw in there. The chicken sages on backyard chickens say that just makes it hard to clean out. I used wood shavings. But I hardly ever put those in there.

    The worst part is when they spend most of their time in their, there is enough fresh poop it sticks to their feet and gets on the eggs. When they roam, the eggs are cleaner.

    I've been hearing the hype about hugelculture. My adaptation may just be to bury some firewood in the garden. I really should do some raised beds but I'm short on stuff to make them out of.

    I do love the idea of this, but I'd like to have a dedicated chicken/rabbit coop if it is going to be the garbage pit also.

    I also have one of those nest boxes just like in the picture.

    1. So far they seem content to dig around the edges of the barn - not mixing, really: just uncovering all the places that potential predators could enter.

      Chickens. SMH.

    2. well, if a chicken can dig an opening, a predator won't have too hard a time.