September 5, 2014

Composting With Chickens

Once upon a time I used to try to keep the chickens out of the compost. Not that I minded them finding bugs and things to eat in it, but they tend to scratch it down and spread it out, which means quite a bit of work to keep it piled properly. Then, thanks to a suggestion by rabidlittlehippy, I signed up at Australian permaculturist Geoff Lawton's website and found a video, Feed Chickens Without Grain (you may have to sign up to view the video).

The video was an interview with someone who feeds his chickens entirely from huge compost piles made from barn cleanings and restaurant scraps. The result was prolific eggs and superb compost. Geoff did a follow-up video to show his adaptation of the system to a farm garden (Chicken Tractor on Steroids). I knew I couldn't do it exactly the same way, but I really liked the idea of recruiting the chickens to help. I decided to experiment.

I started by making a long pile in the chicken yard after cleaning out one of the goat stalls. I mixed it up with some kitchen scraps.

1st Tuesday - straw & manure pile assembled from goat barn cleaning

The chickens liked the idea immediately, although I knew I would have to rake the pile back together again every evening. For an experiment, I was willing.

2nd Tuesday - after a week of nightly raking the pile back together

One week later I decided to make some changes. Raking was a bit of a bother because the pile was underneath a cedar tree, the branches of which kept bumping me in the head. Also the pile couldn't generate and retain heat for the decomposition process if it's all spread out. Plus it was drying out too much. It can't decompose without moisture either. I scrounged around for materials and came up with a compost bin of sorts.

3rd Tuesday. The old pile was mixed with another batch of manure & straw.

The goat shed/old chicken coop became the back wall, cinder blocks became the sides, and one of the boards from our coal barn demolition makes a removable front. I transferred the original pile to it and mucked out the other goat stall and added that. The bin arrangement keeps the pile from being scratched out all over the chicken yard and saves work on my end. It still requires some turning and additional water. I just dump in water from the buckets when changing them. I add kitchen and garden scraps as I have them.

By the 4th Tuesday of my experiment, I decided to tweak a little more.

4th Tuesday, I now have a working pile & an add-to pile

Dan bought me more cinder blocks and two sheets of cement board. I was able to make two piles - a working pile and an add-to pile. The cement board is to protect the wood siding on the building from the moisture.

3 week old compost on the left, new on the right. 

In just three weeks the working pile looks pretty good, don't you think? It would probably be further along if I was consistent with turning and watering, but for a work-smarter-not-harder system, this is great. The chickens scratch around in both piles, but according to the video, they will eventually lose interest in the oldest pile.

The videos emphasize grainless, as in the chickens eat entirely from the piles with no additional chicken feed. The key seems to be lots and lots of garden and kitchen scraps, including from local restaurants. That won't work for me, so my chickens still have their feed and scratch. My garden, kitchen, and canning scraps are pretty slim since there are just the two of us. Plus they are shared with the goats and pigs. While I could likely get restaurant scraps, the additional chore of driving and fetching them would add to my work load rather than make it easier. As with all good ideas, the benefit must be evaluated in light of everything that needs to be done on the homestead. Work in all areas must balance. The result may not be a series of perfect solutions, but rather, a synergy of good, work-together solutions.

I would eventually like to expand on this idea. Eventually the old shed will come down (assuming we ever get the new goat barn built), but the location for the piles is still a good one. I'd like to add a few more bins as well. I'm very happy that this experiment is a success.

UPDATE: Composting with chickens has been a great success. I'm amazed at how quickly our compost is ready and how happy and healthy our chickens are. You can get all the details in How To Compost with Chickens. Click here for more information.


Anonymous said...

How awesome are those videos! So many great ideas and inspiration, for large scale and small. :) I've been playing with the chooks doing much of my composting too.Work smarter not harder all the way! :D

Kev Alviti said...

John Seymour describes something simlar in his book and he calls it the balfour system where the chicken pen is on top of the compost pile. It seems a good way of getting the compost turned and turning scraps into eggs! Always good to experiment with new methods.

Leigh said...

rabidlittlehippy, it's sort of a "now why didn't I think of that" thing. :)

Kev, thank you for mentioning that! I immediately had to go grab my copy of The Concise Guide to Self-Sufficiency to look for that. My edition doens't link it to composting but that's exactly what it is. Now I want to re-read it. I'd forgotten all the good ideas there.

Bill said...

I love how you did this. I've seen Harvey Ussery speak a couple of times on how to transition to keeping chickens without buying chickenfeed (as he points out, our grandmothers did!) and he showed pictures of the place you mention, which is in Vermont if I recall correctly. I start a new compost pile every year in late September. My plan this year is to have the pile directly across from the chicken coop so they can easily access it. Like you I will continue to feed them for now, but I'm hoping to transition to a system that requires less (and eventually no) purchased feed.

Quinn said...

Great job fine-tuning your system! I try to have at least one muck pile (usually more of a row than a pie to begin with) in a place where I want a garden bed the following year. The hens do a great job reducing the pile to a level layer of enrichment. Like you folks, I don't generate a lot of scraps, but the hens get all the organic ones. I wish I could stop buying organic layer pellets - they are SO expensive! But mixing my own organic feed would not be any more cost-effective, so the pellets seem a better bet. Sticks in my craw (appropriately!) that I haven't been able to figure out a better solution to this one.
I wish there was an organic restaurant within 30 miles of my place, and not just for the hens! I'd like a treat once in a while without driving an hour each way for it ;)

Leigh said...

Bill, thanks. I think we all figure out pretty quickly that there are no one-size-fits-all ways of doing things. You're correct about the location of the place mentioned, it is in Vermont, the Vermont Composting Company, I believe. Eventually I hope to raise enough of our own grain for chicken feed. Now I need to to look up Harvey Ussery and chickens!

Quinn, thanks! (Ditto on the organic restaurant!) Organic feed may be expensive, but if you have a local source, that's something! I'd have to mail order which would make cost out of the question. I'd be happy just to mix my own non-GMO feed, even if it wasn't organic. My sticking point is finding a protein source such as a small legume. I can't find anything for less than a dollar something per pound.

Harry Flashman said...

That looks like a lot of work!

I thought I had it bad just unloading the feed sacks out of my truck and carrying them to the barn!

Renee Nefe said...

As I was reading this I wondered where one would get organic restaurant scraps. Near me that would be impossible. But I think you giving the chickens another job is a great idea. ;)
Your birds all look so happy and healthy, so you must be feeding them well. And your egg meals looked very yummy. I had to make myself an omelette yesterday. Which means I need to go over and get some more eggs.
A friend shared a link "50 things you should make yourself and not buy". I make or don't use quite a few of the ideas, but it will be fun trying out some more. My hair dresser is after me about my shampoo. ;)

Meredith said...

I love this idea of getting your chickens to help with the composting! Your adaptation of the original idea sure seems to work well.

Doug Pitcher said...

We've flirted with the idea of trying to cut grain from our chickens diet but haven't been able to do it yet. During the summer the chickens free range around but we still give around a 10 lb can worth of whole wheat to about 25 chickens in the morning and table scraps at night. I'd love to cut grain entirely from their diet but haven't gotten there yet.

Perry - StoneHillRidge said...

Great information. I raise rabbits as well as chickens. Some of the cages are over the chicken run which allows the girls to work through the piles directly. For the other cages, once a month I move the excess hay and rabbit pellets into the run for the chickens to work through. I turn it once every week and a half or so. After a month, I move the remains to the compost pile to finish and start over. Chickens are happy, rabbits are happy and my garden loves the compost.

Simply Handmade Farmhouse said...

This is how I am wanting to do my composting once we get chickens. I saw this idea on The West Ladies you tube videos..or their web site Homestead Blessings. Thanks for this post.

Sandy Livesay said...


You have your work cut out for you but it sure is well worth it.

Leigh said...

Harry, having to turn entire piles by hand every several days is work! The chickens do a lot of that for me now, so it's easier. :)

Renee, no organic restaurant around here either. That 50 things list sounds like a good one!

Meredith, so far so good. Since this system simply uses their natural behavior and likings, it's great!

Doug, that's a lot of grain. I'm hoping to grow more grains specifically for our chickens. So far we've provided some home grown, but never all, yet.

Perry, that sounds like a really good system. Easier than with my goats because it sounds like you don't have to do much hauling of straw and manure!

Teresa, I need to go check out that web site plus their video. Thanks for mentioning it!

Sandy, I agree!

Renee Nefe said...

Leigh said...

Renee, thanks!

Anonymous said...

What a great idea Leigh! Thanks for sharing all the info on this, will definitely be looking to put this into practice next year for myself.

Matt said...

You know, that is a great idea! I think I am going to have to add that to my coop plan that I am forming. You never cease to amaze me with your insights and finds. I will definitely look into his informational videos.

Chris said...

It might look like a lot of work, but its actually saving you work. And once you have a system that is proven to do the job, you'll get even more efficient at it.

If anything, you may have to eventually cover the finished heap. As I found they were a great magnet for insects (Slaters especially) and the chickens would scratch out all the compost to get to the bottom, where they all lived.

I'm planning to adapt something similar, but I actually have to change my chicken coop to allow a wheelbarrow inside. I want the bedding of the chicken coop to be one enormous compost heap.

Everything will go in there and eventually it will become a haven for crawly critters the chickens can eat. I'm actually slack with our compost, it spends a lot of time not doing anything, so at least putting it in with the chickens, it gets to be part of something more dynamic.

Look forward to hear how your systems develops further. :)

Leigh said...

Stephanie, anything to lighten the work load!

Matt, thanks! I wish I could take credit for it, instead I'm just happy to share it and share how we're trying to apply it to our homestead. The internet is so great for ideas and resources.

Chris, it's definitely better than my old method which, like yours, did a whole lot of just sitting there. I'm very interested in your idea about composting inside your chicken coop. I do find that with the deep litter method, the litter decomposes down to dirt, and with very little moisture. Rather amazing, actually.

Unknown said...

No chooks but hello anyway.

Leigh said...

Lynda, so good to hear from you! You must be in the thick of spring planning and planting.

Helsyd said...

just finished reading this post which I thought was a very clever way to have chickens fertilize garden beds

Leigh said...

Helsyd, hello and welcome! I tried to return the blog visit but your blogger profile is set to private. I've seen that idea used by a few others and agree it is very clever. Makes me wish there was a way to herd my chickens closer to the garden. Thank you for the link! Looks like a very interesting blog.

Paul Bonneau said...

I met a guy who had a small farm covered with compost piles. A horse died. He dragged the carcase to where the chickens were and covered it with compost. The chickens scratched and ate the maggots. That's all he told me; I have no idea if there were other things about it that didn't work out so well.

Leigh said...

Paul, I think I'd pass on that one. It would have to be an awfully humongous mound of compost or else I'd think the chickens would scratch down and uncover it. Yuck! Makes more sense to let it compost in the ground! Thanks for the interesting comment. :)