Chickens have changed the way I think about gardening, and I’m not just talking about bull-rushing a garden bed to shoo the little cluckers out of my arugula. Again.
No, something is happening to the way I think about garden inputs and outputs, and it all hinges on chicken shit.
Before we got our hens I bought a lot of compost. I had resigned myself to the fact – never questioned the fact, actually – that to grow a garden of the size and quality I desired I would need to buy a couple hundred dollars of compost or other bulk organic inputs annually.
Perhaps that seems an unfathomable garden expense, but I have 17 4’x8′ raised beds. Top-dressing each bed once a year with two inches of finished compost requires 6 cubic feet per bed, or 102 cubic feet of compost. At $3 per cubic-foot bag we’re looking at $306 in annual compost costs. Delivered in bulk the stuff is less expensive, but not by that much when you only buy 3 or 4 cubic yards – those delivery fees’ll kill you.
The two to three bins a year of cold-finished compost I can make on site could supply about 40% of my raised bed top-dressing needs if I got aggressive about sifting and fining-out the chunky stuff. But even if I put in that amount of work, I’ve still got the three-tier perennial bed, the fruit trees, the herb bed, the cane fruit area, the ornamental areas – and all those spaces would like to get in on the compost action, too, thank you very much.
And, to be perfectly frank about it, the compost I make just isn’t that great for top dressing. I’m just too haphazard about how I make it, so it’s all very un-uniform and tends towards too wet. I know I should be adding more browns – but I’m just not that into compost tinkering. “Let it rot” is pretty much good enough for me.
But those chickens – they are feather-covered compost-making machines.
I tapped into the bounty of the coop last weekend and am finally realizing the full value of the hens. The top of the coop litter is kinda straw-ey, but scrape down and the deeper layers look like the stuff I pay $3 a cubic foot for: rich, brown, fluffy and mostly uniform. The straw is chopped into itty bitty pieces, just right for shielding soil from Pacific Northwest rains and preventing the dreaded crusting-over problem. The bottom most layers crawl with red worms lucky enough to avoid the beak of death.
And the quantity – there is so much of it! I hauled out wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow and only after raising three sweeping new beds a foot off the ground did I make a substantial dent in the compost. I really have no idea how the coop holds that much. Actually, I do: a foot- deep layer of composted chicken litter in our 8×12 coop is 96 cubic feet, or 3.5 cubic yards, of compost.
Ninety-six cubic feet is within a hairs-breath of how much compost I’d like to have on hand annually for all my raised beds, and has an input equivalency value of $288. And the chickens, with their unending pooping and straw-scratching aeration, are churning more out all the time.
I don’t have a fully formed conclusion or philosophy on this yet, but as I continue my education in Livestock 101: The Chicken, it’s becoming apparent to me that lower-input, sustainable and time-efficient agriculture, at even the pico-level of the home garden, requires the contributions of animals.
I’m not saying you need chickens or other animals to grow a good garden – I’ve grown great gardens without chickens – but in order to have a more internally-sustaining system (in an urban area I do not believe a completely self-sustaining system is truly possible), I think you just might need livestock.
Consider the math of the compost, which is a crude way to assign value, but it’s the best we have. We’ve spread three bales of straw into the chicken coop, with a total input cost of $30. Straw plus natural and free chicken (and worm, etc.) activity yields $288 worth of compost. Chickens earn us $258 in Negabucks.
Now consider the value of time. To take-home $258, the difference between the input cost and the output value from the coop litter, a person earning $20 an hour and paying an average tax rate of 10%,would have to work a little over 14 hours, or two days not counting Facebook time at the office.
Alternatively, that same person could pile up yard clippings, run all around their neighborhood looking for yard-waste containers to empty before the trash guy can, rake neighbor’s leaves and genrally abscond with any compostable possible in order to get enough bulk material to produce an equivalent quantity of compost on site without paying extra. I’m thinking that’s more than 14 hours worth of effort, and we haven’t even gotten to turning the compost or sifting it.
The chickens have nothing else to do but make eggs and compost. That’s literally what they live for. They scratch, they poop, they make little dust bath divots, they eat some worms. Result: eggs, poop, happy chickens. The gardener, however, has an unending list of things to do and squeezing 14 hours out of the year to generate compost inferior to that of a chicken just may not make sense.
I’m never breaking even on eggs, but I’m pretty sure these chickens are going to shit their way to garden profitability.1
I’m not sure you have to own the livestock, but I agree that you need the animal output. We have access to horse manure, cheap or even free for the effort of hauling it ourselves. We do have a pickup, though. Hauling manure in those amounts would be pretty tough with a small car.
Yup, love those chickens. We got more, so we could have more poop …and because they are so fun and goofy. Because ours are out running around all day, the coop doesn’t build up the compost as fast, but more of them helps.
This is actually the truth behind why I keep raising chickens. I don’t eat eggs. My kids eat eggs, and the husband does, but I hate eggs. However, I LOVE compost. I really, really do have an obsession with it. Our twice yearly cleaning of the coop yields us enough compost for the year. It’s so close to finished when it comes out of the coop, I’m tempted to take it to the garden, but I take it to the compost bin instead…. sort of harnessing the power of that super nitrogen rich crap to accelerate the other stuff in the bins (and, well, it’s too hot out of the coop anyway). For the compost alone, I keep the chickens. The eggs are just a bonus.
I love the concept. I’ve been fighting with my local bureaucrats to “allow” me to have chickens on my property for several years now. This is just one more round of ammunition I can use.
I had to chuckle over the description you made about gathering enough compostable materials from the neighborhood because that’s what I’ve had to do. I have some homebuilt compost tumblers and a big 4′ x4′ x8′ bin where I pile all the leaves, grass clippings and stuff I can get. I measure my output in barrels, and I can produce regularly two barrels every month. With 3 3’x 75′ beds and a 2′ x 75′ bed, plus a bunch of sub-irrigated containers, I go through the compost faster than I can make it. I did find a neighbor who has 7 horses who will load my truck with all the great manure I can haul (saves him from hauling it to the dump and paying their fees) and I’ve found a couple of landscapers who regularly drop off bags of grass clippings (saves them from illegally dumpster dumping) but that all adds up to a lot of work. I would rather hire the chickens.
Great blog entry. I look forward to reading yours nearly every day.
Karen Patrice says
Love this and so true! You must have a better resources buy compost, though because what I make (and I also mainly let it rot) is always better than what I have been able to buy. Of course, the stuff I have bought has not been that great.
I dont have chickens, my land is weird enough and on a hill that the only flat spaces, I have 14 raised beds put in so I could grow stuff. First yr was awful, second yr a bit better but a lot of work cuz the soil isnt as good as it looks. Ive made compost bin but like you I dont do much so theres always stuff in there. But I do have a chicken friend who recently gifted me a big bag of chicken poop. I was going to winter it over in the beds but havent been getting out there cuz of the rains. Im thinking I should just dump it in the compost bin and mix it up. Do you think if I did that it would be ready to use by spring planting? I know manure needs time so it doesnt burn the plants.
Rachel Hoff says
We used to have to bring in 6 truckloads of compost every year to amend our garden. Now with having goats, chickens and rabbits we don’t have to buy any amendments. Chicken and goat manure go onto the beds after harvest and rabbit manure goes on during the growing season because it doesn’t need to be composted first.
I keep forgetting about the compost savings. I guess I am too focused on the eggs and not the poop. If we didn’t have the poop to put into the compost then we would have to buy a lot of compost for the garden and to replace the soil that’s lost every growing season.
I like how you think. When life gives you Chicken shit, make compost!
lucky you to be able to keep chickens – definitely looking like a winning game to me.
Matt Smaus says
I love the math! It CAN offer an excellent return on your investment. Unfortunately, we didn’t get most of our run covered this year and the result is an anaerobic bog.
We also got 10 young hens off craigslist and 8 of them turned out to be roosters. What are the chances? 80% male? And the person didn’t even pawn them off on us on purpose! We slaughtered them and they’re in the freezer. $8/bird + 3 months feed(1/8) = less than what you pay for organic, free trade, certified humane, college educated birds at PCC? Probably not quite. But satisfying
I think you may be right: compost is the best way to rationalize keeping city chickens.
I love your thought processes girl!!!
“I’m never breaking even on eggs, but I’m pretty sure these chickens are going to shit their way to garden profitability” it never occured to me to do the math on the chooks- just numbers on a page to me- but your logic has just given me HUGE debating points with people who tell me why keep chooks if they cost so much to feed and eggs are so cheap at the supermarkert(as if taste and nutrition count for nothing)
April @ Angel's Homestead says
Dropping by from the UFHC to say hi and check out your February challenge. Love your way of talking about the treasure we call chicken poop.
This is killing me. I need some chicks, STAT!
I’ve thought long and hard about chickens but decided that I would go buy eggs from someone else’s chickens. It never once occurred to me that I would also get compost. Now I have to rethink all of it.
Catalina's Nana says
Loved reading this post! Here’s what my husband and I did. We fenced our 40’x30′ garden area to keep out the deer. After a while that size became too much for us along with the rest of the house and yard maintenance. So we decided to divide it in half by just adding adding some leftover fencing down the middle, and adding a second door so that we could access the second half from the first half. On the first half, we built our little 4’x8′ coop. We gardened during the summer on the second half. When we’d harvested everything we wanted at summer’s end, we opened that second gate so the chickens could access the leftover garden all fall and winter. They ate and scratched up all remaining vegetable garden scraps, added their poop, and scratched/tilled it all in for us. During the winter, we also added the straw and poop from the coop. In the Spring when the weeds started to pop us we let them do all the pre-planting weeding for us as well. When we were ready to plant, we closed the gate to the garden half so they no longer had access during the growing season. We had to just rake everything smooth and hoe out a few odd weeds. After planting, we laid down thick ‘leaves’ of more clean straw to smother any weed seeds exposed by the chickens scratching. In the summer we bagged out yard clippings and spread them out on the girls side. They loved the fresh greens. Come fall, we mowed over and bagged our leaves and that also went into the chicken yard. Our ultimate plan was to put wheels on the coop and alternate it between the two sides of the garden every couple years. Alas, we sold the house and never got to do that (tear). Yep, if you want GREAT compost ‘grow’ your own with livestock!
Heather T says
Loved this post! We have chickens for the first time (raised from chicks) and we are getting ready to put straw in their fenced in run to help cut down on the poop look – and we also have a very large garden on our acre of land, so to know just how awesome the straw/poop combo is for a garden makes me giddy. All the litter from when we were raising them is in our compost pile along with our grass clippings, food scraps, and eggshells so this is gonna be awesome come fall when we till it in.
Tony D says
You are my new favorite blogger! Down to earth, witty, charming, etc….Much of what you write about I have been teaching myself over the last several years & finding more joy in my life while doing it. Thanks for sharing yourself, experiences & candor with the world!
I’m very nostalgic about the days when I used to haul horse manure from stables and stole bagged up leaves from my neighbors on trash day. I also raked up leaves for the neighbors on either side whose enormous trees dumped their leaves on my front yard. I made leaf litter and awesome compost from it. Now I’m on a “real” farm with about three dozen chickens plus five goats, and I make awesome compost again with the help of the chickens. The land needs animals, just like the animals need the land. And we need both.
Love this blog!
Nicole Herrera says
It really catches my interest. I like the topic you had shared and it is really interesting. I like the topic that has been discussed here http://www.dirtexchange.net/.
I’d like to have animals of some kind, but between the city and DW, I don’t think it will happen…ever.