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Looking for input regarding composting chicken litter

Discussion in 'Gardening' started by Gaya, Dec 27, 2015.

  1. Gaya

    Gaya Out Of The Brooder

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    While my hens are scratching the soil, I am scratching my head about how to make a more integrated system in my backyard that yields compost. I had been buying fabulous compost from our local dump, but they had to shut down their operations due to some permitting issues. I knew it was cheating with all that shipping of materials from here to there, but it was so well-priced and so high quality that I was going with the flow. Seems universe is calling for a course correction, thus my head scratching.

    I have a big magnolia tree in my yard and she is generous with her leaves, so I am thinking that is my carbon. I was shipping these leaves to the dump weekly and thinking myself foolish for exporting so much of the bio mass that my soil was busy producing. So a few months ago I bought an electric mulcher (wanted a hand-cranked one, looked around on the internet and in local hardware stores, they don't seem to make them). It's noisy and dusty, but after collecting the fallen leaves for about 3 weeks, I get the monster out and make two beautiful 5 gallon buckets of leaf mulch (leaves are ground down about to about 1/4" square).

    I use the mulch in my two laying boxes, instead of store-bought straw. No complaints from my girls, I have 4 lovely layers, about laying on the new substrate. So now, how do I most effectively turn this into a hot compost? It's a mixture of urine, poop and magnolia leaves. I am thinking that the chicky waste is mostly nitrogen, yes? I know I can get my hands on unlimited quantities of coffee grounds if that would be helplful. I have about 1-2 gallons of kitchen scraps per week-not sure if they should go to start a worm compost box or to the leaf-poop pile. I also generate a 1 gallon of shredded paper every one or two months. To get the temperature up, I am guessing I need to make stack about 4 feet high and that I should build a re-purposed structure to loosely contain that pile. I guess I have time and human labor (I love to work in the garden and don't mind heavy lifting) and I am trying to reduce the stuff I send away as garbage as much as possible. Thanks for the advice above about when to add carbon and when to add nitrogen!

    Given my resources, can you off any input on how best to use the leaf-pee-poop resource on the way to making fabulous compost? Also I about 20 miles from the ocean, so have a moderate level of dampness and mild winters. I am hopping to get started now at the end of December. Is that crazy? the leaves keep falling and the chickens keep pumping out their stuff!
     
  2. lazy gardener

    lazy gardener Chicken Obsessed

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    There is no wrong time to start a compost pile. IF you are in a colder climate, I'd try to put it in a place that gets some sun to help pump heat into the pile. Also, you don't want to put it where tree roots will grow UP into the pile and rob it of all of those wonderful nutrients, not to mention how those roots will infiltrate your pile and make it impossible to work with. As far as deciding how much of what to put into it, IMO, there's no magic formula. Leaves are power houses of mineral content, and high carbon (supposedly if they're dry. If still green, they would be more high in nitrogen, theoretically). Chicken poop, high nitrogen. Same with grass clippings. Leaves + grass clippings and chicken poop = wonderful start! If I were you, I'd designate a spot, make a containment system (if that's your style) and just start layering the stuff on. Aim for a pile that is at least 3' x 3' x 3'. More is better. Try to keep it as damp as a wrung out sponge. If it starts to smell like a sewer, it's either too wet or too high in nitrogen. If it doesn't generate any heat, it needs more nitrogen. Plenty of options to correct either issue. Keep a bale of hay or straw, a bag of leaves, shredded newspaper handy to add carbon. Keep some poop, high nitrogen fertilizer, or even toss on some diluted ammonia water to add more N. If your yard lay out provides some privacy, urine will make it cook very nicely. Of course there are ways to add that without upsetting the neighbors!

    While we're talking about compost, this is a good place and time to ask you how you're managing your coop and run. What are you using for litter in the coop. Does your run have a nice crop of greens growing in it, or is it the typical bare ground moonscape that most runs tend to turn into? You might want to look into deep litter management in the coop. Explore the options of using leaves for bedding instead of the traditional wood shavings. When you do clean out the coop, if the run is bare soil, you can toss the litter straight from coop into the run. Your chickens will build a compost pile right there in the run for you if you give them the materials to work with. That will provide the best of all worlds by giving them a compost pile to work on, and it will attract lots of beneficial insects into that soil (more feed for the chooks) as well as a healthy abundance of bacteria and other micro life to give them a healthy gut. Personally, I'd save those coffee grounds for the compost pile (outside of the chicken run) or use them to mulch directly in the garden/flower beds. I just have a personal bias against putting them in the run!
     
  3. Gaya

    Gaya Out Of The Brooder

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    Mar 19, 2015
    Hi and thanks so much for writing back! I gathered frontyard maple leaves for a deep litter and piled it in today. I am excited to see how that works. My set up is a "moat" (I like to call it that, but more accurately it's a system of chicken tunnels) around the perimeter of the backyard so the girls can do some distance running while still not having total access to the yard. This also lets them find sun and shade in different seasons. I tried simply having them loose, but I run a yoga studio from my garage and so there was just too much muck to deal with with people coming over. Off of the moat, I set up roving chicken pastures (using a portable hinged puppy pen), that way I can let the girls have at green areas as I manage my garden beds through the year. It's amazing how fast they find the new opening each time I move the pasture. They always have something green to eat. But, the moat area is mostly that moonscape you describe: trees, gladiolas and blackberries grow there, but not much else. The tunnels are made of garden wire, so stuffing the whole leaves in there today was kind of time consuming. BTW, they were kind of skeptical of the new deep leaf litter so I threw some scratch in and that got them in there to rearrange the furniture.

    So I seem now to be using two great resources in my yard. 1/The backyard magnolia tree is yielding mulch that I am using for the laying boxes. I seem to have just enough for that on a monthly basis. I am thinking the used laying box mulch will go into the compost. The great thing about this resource is I get magnolia leaves year round. 2/Then I am collecting front yard maple leaves, (the tree is my neighbors, but I get a good quantity in my driveway as they fall) which I can use as deep litter in the main chicken enclosure. The girls will stir these around and eventually grind them down a little and soil them and I will harvest them and dump them, at their new smaller size, in the moat. BTW, my hen house is up on stilts in the main enclosure with a screened-in floor. I cut the mesh of the floor strategically so the poop falls through (mostly) on its own, so I have a big pile of manure building up that I can harvest for the compost. I am finding that that is where the biggest accumulation of manure is. I guess they let go at night.

    Regarding the compost, I don't have any grass (I ripped it all out two years ago to plant vegetables). So I think I am going to try leaves and manure and see what I get. Since I do have food scraps, I may chop them small and throw them in there too. Now I have a symptomology (I think I just wanted to use that word, not many opps for that) for too much Nitrogen or too much Carbon. That will help. If it seems like I really need grass, I will see if I can get it from a neighbor during lawn-mowing season. I am not entirely sure if my mulched leaves are going to be carbon or nitrogen heavy as I gather them as they fall (half green) and then hold them for a few weeks, mulch them, and then they will sit and wait to be loaded into to the laying box and then out again....having written that out, I am seeing they will be pretty dry by the time they go to compost and so I guess more carbony.

    Thanks again for your insights.
     
  4. Ridgerunner

    Ridgerunner Chicken Obsessed Premium Member

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    Some people do better with a visual. My local Master Gardeners put this together to help explain the process.



    You can make the process as complicated or as simple as you wish. It can be as simple as making a pile and just leaving it there. Eventually it will break down (provided you are not in a desert where it dries out and petrifies) even if you do nothing. You can work really hard to get just the right mix of greens (nitrogen) and browns (carbon), layer it just so, keep it at the right moisture level, and turn regularly to really speed up the process. You can do a lot of things in between. You can toss that stuff in the run and let the chickens do all the work. You can do a lot of things in between.

    The basic process is that the bugs eat the carbon, using the nitrogen for fuel. You want the pile to stay damp so the bugs can live and multiply and breathe oxygen. But you do not want it to be wet. That means the process will go anaerobic, the bugs are the type that don’t need oxygen. It will still rot (compost) but it will be slimy, stinky, and not as high quality. You don’t want that.

    It’s extremely difficult to know the percentages of nitrogen and carbon in the stuff that you are using. Green grass clippings are considered nitrogen, brown dried out grass clippings are considered carbon, but they are not pure. They are mostly nitrogen or mostly carbon depending on how green or brown they are. Chicken poop is considered nitrogen but it has some carbon in it. It doesn’t matter. You don’t have to be precise. If you use two parts of mostly carbon with one part of mostly nitrogen you are close enough. As LG said, adjust, be flexible. A forest floor with a foot of leaves spread over hundreds of acres is a giant compost pile. Nobody is adding significant nitrogen to those mostly carbon dead leaves or regularly turning them yet they eventually rot.

    Proper composting will kill seeds by the heat, but you only heat the middle of the pile. After a bit it cools down. Seeds on the outside don’t get cooked and the outside stuff does not rot. If you turn it to get the outside stuff in the middle it will heat back up and you greatly speed up the process.

    What I suggest, if you go with bins, is to build at least two bins, maybe three depending on how fast you accumulate stuff. Use one as a working pile. Layer browns and greens and let it work. Turn it as you will. After a while, you’ll have compost. In that second bin, start collecting you garden wastes, chicken poop, kitchen wastes, whatever. You don’t need to turn it, just throw it in there. This is your collecting pile.

    When the working pile is compost, I sift mine through a frame and screen I made with ½” hardware cloth into a wheelbarrow. Anything that goes through is considered compost and goes in a plastic chicken feed bag. If you use a paper chicken feed bag it will continue composting and rot the paper bag. Anything that does not go through the ½” hardware cloth sieve goes into the new batch.

    When you have all the compost bagged, lay down a layer of browns, top with a layer of greens, then another layer of browns, then layer with the stuff in your collecting bin. A lot of that will already be almost compost. Then do another layer of browns and greens until you fill it up. After a week or two it will shrink dramatically. I put another layer of browns and greens on to fill it back up. After a short while, it will shrink again. I top it off again. Then I let it work, turning it occasionally, until it becomes compost and I start again.

    What should not go in the compost? As always you get different opinions. Since not all seeds get cooked, do not put noxious weeds in there. Why take the chance of spreading noxious weeds? Do not put any infected or infested plants in there. I’m mainly talking about garden wastes. Some diseases or harmful insects will live in the compost pile so why re-infect or re-infest your garden.

    Many people say to not put meat products, oil or grease, or dairy products in the compost. These tend to draw vermin, especially mice and rats but also possums and raccoons. What gardener wants to feed and attract raccoons? Not this one. They also tend to draw flies. When I’ve started a new compost pile I have been known to put a dead chicken (or scraps left after butchering) or a dead rabbit at the very bottom, well buried so nothing can smell it and dig it up, like a fox, coyote, or dog. They will decompose but you will be left with a lot of bones.

    Something else that will draw flies is if you let the chicken poop get too thick. That happens to me occasionally. I clean off my droppings board and put pure chicken poop on top of the compost pile. When it gets thick enough to draw flies I cover it with grass trimmings so the flies can’t find it. If the chickens can get to it, they’d just eat the maggots. Either way, problem solved.

    That’s basically how I do it. There are plenty of other ways. Just choose a way and try it. As you know compost is black gold to a gardener.

    I just read your last post so some of this won’t apply directly to you but maybe you can get some ideas out of it. I don’t know if your neighbors put out bags of grass trimmings to go to the landfill. If you harvest those you reduce the stuff going in the landfill.
     
  5. Gaya

    Gaya Out Of The Brooder

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    ahhhh, that was really cute, thank you so much! I hadn't given much thought to the critters my compost might attract and I did have a showdown with a possum (had to scoop him out of the hen house one day with the non-business-end of a shovel, after the catapult, he scampered, then played dead, I left him in peace and when I came back he was gone) and I have been having rats in my garage this winter (after seeing them in the fall picking up the leftovers where I give the girl the chicken scratch). Now I am thinking maybe I should try to make this compost container kind of impenetrable to vermin. Could use a finer mess garden wire maybe. Also your description of the microbes eating the carbon and using the nitrogen for fuel is intriguing, but I don't completely understand your meaning. They eat both, but the Ni is a better fuel source? Maybe you can clarify this?

    I had been, in a very small way composting kitchen scraps, and I was getting maggots which I have been feeding to the girls. When they get a few compost grubs, they will talk about it for days, no kidding. So I would like to produce maggots where they can directly get to them. Are they coming from the meat scraps? I like the idea of maybe turning the compost right into the chicken enclosure once its cooked a bit. Once I figure out how I am going to build my bins, I will build at least two. I like your idea of having a scrap pile in one and a working pile in the other. As far as grass, we have green bins, which are harder to raid and will usually have mixed contents, so I think asking a neighbor to throw it in a bucket for me will be a better way to go. Would be a good trade for some eggs!

    Thanks for your input!
     
  6. attimus

    attimus Chillin' With My Peeps

    Great responses and very thorough. I just have a series pits and endless supply of restrauant refuse to add to it. I keep pineshavings in my coops and runs that are added to it several times a year. I stop adding to the main pile after the first hard rain(i do still add ash and old bedding if the coop absolutely needs to be cleaned)and let mother nature do its magic turning occasionally. The second pile is then started through the fall and winter and sits just below the first. When spring comes I run the main pile through a screen on a frame over a 3rd pit to separate anything that hasn't broken down enough. I then take that dirt and add it to my current boxes. And usually by that time it really is just dirt. The 2nd pile gets moved to the 1st and the process starts all over again. Total length of the pits is roughly 30' and about 5' wide. This provides enough fresh dirt to add to 16 established boxes every year.
    No science no math, just earth doing what it does.
    Attimus
     
  7. Ridgerunner

    Ridgerunner Chicken Obsessed Premium Member

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    To oversimplify, think of it like our body and what we eat. We use proteins as building blocks to grow or repair our body. We use fats or carbohydrates to provide calories or energy. Of course protein has calories also but I’m simplifying. Think of the carbons as the protein and the nitrogen as carbs or fat. The product they are building is soil. The carbons are the basic building blocks. Interestingly the nitrogen isn’t really all consumed, it’s more borrowed then returned to the soil in a form the plans can use.

    The maggots I was talking about come from the poop getting too thick and then wet. It attracts flies that lay their eggs in it. Decaying meat will attract flies to lay their eggs but it also attract vermin.

    You might want to do some research on black soldier fly maggots. I haven’t done it but some people put meat up fairly high with a mesh under it. The flies find it and lay the eggs, and the maggots fall through the screen where the chickens can get them.
     
  8. Gaya

    Gaya Out Of The Brooder

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    thanks, got it on the building blocks. Like the soldier fly idea too, I think the girls would be in heaven if they could just look up and a maggot would drop into their mouth! Thanks again!
     
  9. Gaya

    Gaya Out Of The Brooder

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    thanks and loved the photos! how much space do you have. the pits sound like they might require too much room for my situation. I like the idea of a micro farm. I have 4 chickens and lots of veggies, a few fruit trees and vines. probably not yet a micro farm.
     
  10. attimus

    attimus Chillin' With My Peeps

    2 1/2 acres total with a third or so developed. The pits can be sized to fit your needs or you can construct frames to house your waste. The options are a plenty.
    My focus is more on the rotation and duration of time. The 3 pits gives me that.
    I can post several different constructions if you needed more ideas(a few pages from a storey county wisdom bulletin) great info there.
    There are many more efficient ways than mine but the setup fits the needs. It's all about what you want and how much you want to put into it, literally and figuratively :)
    My microfarm is still a work in progress. 2 steps forward 3 steps sideways kind of thing. Sounds like we have most of the same stuff, except I've got a few more birds :)
    Have a good new years and hope your composting goes well.
    Attimus
     

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