Maybe you are a compost geek. Maybe you totally adore balancing greens and browns and maybe the challenge of maintaining a 155 degree pile for days on end really hits your g-spot (g for “gardener,” naturally).
If that describes you, this post isn’t for you.
This post is for those of us who basically suck at making compost. This is for all the gardeners out there who feel like secret failures because “dark, crumbly and sweet smelling in three weeks” has never once manifested in their compost pile. This is for everyone who has paid $90 for one of those plastic composter bins and then come to loathe the thing and it’s puny, pathetic, back-breaking little shovel-out holes.
True confession time: my name is Erica and I am a crappy composter. My compost is exclusively cold. No weed seeds are ever killed. I never have the right mix of greens and browns. My compost doesn’t cook, it just rots. The whole compost pile thing has been a burden to me, a reminder of my many failures, for as long as I’ve been a gardener. Based on the number of “what am I doing wrong with my compost?!?!” questions people ask me (questions I am obviously supremely unqualified to answer), I suspect I’m not alone in this.
But none of that matters anymore because I have chickens.
My chickens are master composters. Seriously, if they could just find a way to drive to Master Composter Certification they could totally teach that class. (Except they’d eat all the red wiggler worms, but whatever.) Chickens are aerating, nitrogen-pooping, humus-creation machines. I have permanently off-loaded nearly all my composting duties to the hens, and I’m never going back.
This time last year I posited that the real bounty of the coop might be compost, not eggs.
Now, a year later, I’m sure of it.
Here’s how our composting system works in practical terms: we throw almost all our scrap food and leafy garden trimmings into the coop’s run. Citrus rinds and coffee grounds are the notable exceptions. The chickens run around like manic feathered dinosaurs, freaking out about spent brewers grains and frost-bitten chard and broccoli leaves and chickweed. They chomp down and turn all that food into high-nitrogen poop.
The poop mingles with the high carbon straw bedding with which we line the run, and the sand from the coop floor. The chickens dig and scratch and turn everything up and voila: nearly perfect compost.
Now, this doesn’t happen in 3 weeks. In fact, I only harvest the compost once or twice a year. I say “harvest the compost” because that sounds much more pleasant than “shovel chicken shit” and because it’s far more accurate.
People talk about the chore of cleaning the coop. I just do not have that chore. I do not scrape poop and I do not have a manure management issue. What I have is “Hey awesome! It’s time to amend my garden beds.”
In early spring, I add a nice layer of compost and some organic fertilizer to my garden beds to prepare them for spring planting. In late fall, I top dress beds to protect the soil from rain and compaction. In the past I’ve hauled in bags of compost to accomplish these tasks, or gotten a bulk delivery and wheelbarrowed loads of commercial compost from the driveway to the back yard.
Now, I just rake up the thick layer of compost that’s built up in the bottom of the coop and haul it in buckets the few feet to my garden beds. It’s shocking how much compost comes out of the coop – 2 ½ to 3 ½ cubic yards of nearly perfect compost every six months, for free.
Within a day or two of scraping the coop floor bare, I bring in another bale or two of fresh straw, cut the bailing line, and maybe kick the bale open for the hens. They take it from there, happily tossing their nice new bedding hither and yon all the run, and the process starts again. In six months, if I want it, another several cubic yards of compost will be mine for the harvesting.
Everything about composting has changed. The whole process has been re-framed into a system that requires less work and money and effort (and guilt!) from me. This is a far lower effort and far lower input way compost and it makes for a fairly tight loop. It works.
This is the direction I want to go with my garden in general: lower cost (in time, effort and money) in maintenance, more loops that feed themselves, more reward, less effort. The coop compost experiment has shown me that easier and better can go hand in hand.
If you suck at composting, just consider delegating the whole process. That’s my secret. It turns out you don’t have to be a good composter at all if you’re a decent chicken keeper.
Do your chickens do your composting for you, too?
P.S. Since I know not everyone can have chickens, the next best way to get more relaxed about any composting inferiority complex you might have (not that you do, just sayin’) is to read The Complete Compost Gardening Guide by Barbara Pleasant and Deborah L. Martin. I love the multitude of ways composting is covered in this book, it opened my eyes to the idea that there were a lot of techniques outside the bin I could experiment with.35
susan knilans says
My BEST critter compost set up was this: Two large wire rabbit pens were hung at chest-level in the back of my walk-in chicken “house” (A crappy homemade building about 4X8 with a dirt floor.) Egg boxes for the hens lined one side of the coop. Hay and straw were thrown in for the floor covering, and were added weekly, primarily at the BACK of the coop under the rabbit pens. Chickens turned and picked beneath the rabbit pens. I think they liked the poop. I also threw all my kitchen scraps to the back of the coop. So, between the rabbits pooping and peeing, the chickens turning and digging and pooping and pecking, I had dream-worthy compost at the back of that coop all the time. It was heaven…
My chickens compost in my tomato greenhouse every winter….and my tomatoes ROCK!!!! We have a moving hen house that we back into the greenhouse for the winter…..
Dave Prestage says
As a Master Gardener here in Central California, I’ve utilized my chickens to “close the loop” on composting for many years. I love my ladies! I teach the gardening class at a local middle school and have the kiddos come out to my place a couple of times a year to harvest the garden gold. They fork the compost in the run into my used feed bags (a wonderful way to recycle them!) and shovel the drier, more concentrated poop that is in the coop into the bags. In the coop itself, I don’t use straw, so it’s just a few shavings on the cement floor that have been kicked out of the nests and the poop underneath their roost. I take the bags to school and then the fun REALLY begins! All of the straw-based, table-scrapped mix goes into our beautiful raised beds and, with the dynamite that came out of the coop, we make what we call “Turkey Tea”! The poop and shavings are used to fill the kids’ mother’s used panty hose and then the tubes of “tea” are tied off and suspended in 55-gallon barrels of water to steep for a few days. Once the tea is ready (after agitating the panty hose every day for four or five days, it is ready for the garden. It is relatively diluted but is still a wonderful way to water our plants. It can be applied to foliage without fear of burning and the plants absolutely glow with health! The tea is, let’s say, a little bit odoriferous, but the kids are able man up and work with it just fine. Let’s face it – some smells in the garden are not entirely pleasant because nature isn’t always Pine Sol and oranges, but they are natural smells and the kids get to experience that aspect of it, too. When they are dipping their watering cans into the tea to fill them, I make them wear latex gloves because the smell can be difficult to wash away if they don’t, but they don’t mind wearing them at all. Once they have been steeped, the used “tea bags” can be emptied and spread in the garden as a killer side-dressing.
I had planned to build a compost bin. However just learned about the deep bedding method (yes, I have chickens … for a year so far.) I’m thinking maybe I should save my compost bin space for something else. Do you still use your compose bin? Thanks in advance!
I keep a 30 gal trash can compost bin for things I know the chickens won’t eat (onions, citrus) and paper products (napkins, tissues, etc.) and I also throw my lint from the dyer and vacuum cleaner in it. I throw some soil or used litter from the ducks or chickens in it every now and again to get it going a bit. Once it starts breaking down and you can’t see any paper products in it anymore, I dump it into the chicken compost area and let them pick through it to help break it down.
I’m just starting a coop. I’ve been told that putting a layer of diatomaceous earth with shavings was a good option as well. Similar results – no smell, bug control, mite control, nutrients in the earth if the chickens eat it. Must be “food grade” though… since they’ll be eating and scratching in it.
Great post!! Please clarify if you can, are you lining the entire ru. With hay and then using the whe run for compost or just a corner or section? I am looking into creating a compost for my chickens to work but thought I would have to do it way off to one side and fence it in so it stays together. If I understand your post you let them scatter it and take it up a coue times per year. That would work just fine with me if it is okay for the chickens.
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Yep, we do it that way. Throw it all in the chicken coop and let ’em go! Bonus? Compost makes heat for the hen house in the winter. No supplementary heat and full on laying all last winter (and it was a cold one here in Nova Scotia).
Now…we do have a pile were experimenting with doing some wild hand harvested rockweed on, but apparently it can be used for fodder too. Hmmm…off to the beach and into the chicken house!
James Bukowski says
My chickens do my composting as well. Its just not in there chicken coop. They might seem like they love to toss their bedding around, but 6 months worth of chicken poo in a chicken coop, can lead to really bad things with your flock. Parasites, bugs, and disease can fallow an unclean chicken coop. Leave the coop empty and just scoop the poo weekly, and toss it on your compost pile. You’ll have great compost and healthy chickens. After all would you want to sleep in 6 months of your own poo. Keep composting and keep going. Just a thought! Down with Monsanto!
Erica, I am totally sold on this! Are you still using play sand or have you switched to construction sand or other larger aggregate? Did you spread it about 1″ thick? Also, follow up on your new beautiful run: are they staying in? Thanks so much!
Sara B says
I have 6 chickens that free range during the day over our property. They also have an enclosed run outside the coop that leads to the free range yard. I live in north eastern WA and we get up to 3 feet of snow in the winter and some rain in the fall and spring. I am wondering if I could turn their entire run into a compost pile. My questions are: Would having only 6 chickens be enough for a run that is about 8 x 10 ft? Also, the run is currently not covered. Does it need to be covered to keep out the rain and snow for the compost to work properly? Since they are able to leave the run at any time to free range would the compost still get enough attention or do the chickens need to be closed into the run for certain times of the day?
If you pile up the compostable material in one corner, it will break down faster & attract more beneficial insects, which will in turn attract your chickens. They will definitely work it more if you keep them contained in the run all the time, but they will still work at it as you continually add materials, even if they’re free ranging during the day. I wouldn’t worry about covering the run.
Sara B says
My husband is concerned it will stink and/or attract rodents or other pests. What is all of your experience with these two concerns?
I haven’t had a problem with rodents b/c the chickens eat all my food waste (& the neighbors too!) except banana peels, onions, and citrus rinds. Those things break down really quickly b/c of the chicken poo. Flies have been an issue and if they seem to be getting bad, I just throw some leaves, straw, or old litter from the chicken/duck house on top (ie add brown material). Every once in a while, I’ll turn the area with a shovel, mainly to watch the chickens enjoy a bountiful snack of bugs and worms. Plus it encourages them to keep scratching. I live in town so can’t have a rooster. A rooster’s main job (beside making little chickens) is to protect the flock and provide food. When free-ranging, if a rooster finds something good to eat, he will call the hens over and start scratching up whatever it is for them to partake. I rooster’s claws are a lot bigger than a hens so they can dig deeper. Since I don’t have a rooster, I have to encourage the digging sometimes. Here’s a video from my blog that shows what I’m talking about. http://kinnells.blogspot.com/2014/03/composting-through-winter.html
I’m looking for Northwest Pacific chicken advice on the deep litter method. I live next to an ecovillage (community living) in Portland, OR which has a fairly large flock of chickens (not sure, more than 20, less than 100.) Currently the chooks are being kept on plain dirt, which looks horrible to me. When I told people there that I kept my chicken run (in Wisconsin) in a deep litter system using arborist’s wood chips, they said that they were told by local chicken experts that wood chips lead to a fungus that gives chickens respiratory problems. They don’t have a covered run.
So, anybody out there have enclosed chickens in Portland or a wetter place with deep litter in a non-covered run? Any issues with fungus? Anybody heard of this? Are there really molds or fungi that grow on mulch and make chickens sick?
ESTHER IENUSO says
Hi Love the post! I’m curious if everything goes for ducks as well?? We only have ducks so far and I’m not sure if I should take all the compost info about chickens and their manure and straw the same as ducks. Thanks!
I second the most recent comment/question about ducks being as effective in composting debris as chickens. Erica, now that you have your Anconas, are they proving to be excellent composters when given access to the same materials? From my limited personal experience, they can’t break down a big pile because they don’t scratch and fling stuff aside. They also seem to be unable to ingest all of the same kitchen scraps that chickens do, because they need smaller pieces for swallowing or thin pieces that they can shred or tear. For example, their attempts to eat a small apple were hilarious but a little sad. Chickens would have pecked the thing apart in seconds, the ducks could only “nom” on it until they decided it wasn’t happening. Any thoughts?
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Corrie DiStefano says
Yes! My chickens are my gardening helpers. They throw my compost piles all over the place. Then I pile them up again, they throw it all over, you get it. I love compost but refuse to get all anal about it. I mean, nature will get the job done, eventually, why do I have to work overly hard to make nature work faster? I enjoy other chores more than tending to the heat of my compost pile!
We do almost the same thing with our outside run (with a base layer and regular additions of fallen leaves and/or woodchips, sometimes a little straw). We love it for all the same reasons, and I sing its praises every chance I get. A long time ago, my father used to make hot compost on a larger scale in windrows and turn it with a front loader, but later on I didn’t have access to the machinery, and struggled for a while trying to make smaller amounts by hand–and rather poorly. Until, that is, I adopted the chicken approach. Now I always have compost when I need it, without the work–and actually, better compost, at that! Thanks for a publishing such a fun and informative post.
I am so excited to find your site. I just got chickens. We set up a small run and coop. I would like to try your advice on using the chickens to compost. My compost pile is gross and an eye sore…my partner hates it. Curious do you have a picture of your run? From your article I believe you use straw to line it? I wanted to see a picture to see if your run was covered or not. I live in northern Oregon so we get a lot of rain. I just want to make sure I do this correct so the run doesn’t turn into another eye soar. Straw, sand and poop from coop, kitchen scraps, chicken poop? Do you add extra straw between cleanings? Or do put straw in once and then clean in 6 month?
Thanks for your help
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What do you do when the straw gets soggy? Does it dry out eventually or does it even matter? We currently put straw (and no compost, but that will soon change), and that requires changing every week. I’m drowning in crappy straw.