Tuesday, 19 February 2013
Carbonaceous Composting in the Chicken Coop
Living in a Northern climate, our chickens are kept indoors over the coldest months of winter. Cleaning out the coop used to be a very difficult thing to do during winter, as we had to wait for a break in the weather so the chickens could safely be outside without suffering from frostbite while we shovelled out the coop (which was a nasty, smelly job that nobody looked forward to).
In the past, we used wheat straw as bedding in the coop and we simply layered fresh straw on top of soiled straw when things got "nasty" in there. Over time, those layers of straw got matted together from the chickens walking on it and of course the weight of the droppings. That method created a thick, matted (smelly) anaerobic mess which was HARD to clean out. There had to be a better way!
In my study of permaculture, I've been intrigued by the concept of grouping functions and elements together that can mutually benefit one another. By creating a needs/yields analysis, we see that (among many other things):
Chickens NEED heat and clean bedding (carbon) in winter but GIVE nitrogen.
Compost NEEDS nitrogen and lots of carbon also, but GIVES off heat.
Looking at that, we see that both elements can logically reside together in a mutually beneficial (symbiotic) relationship providing that I can manage the carbon component more effectively. I'm happy to say that this plan is working rather well and I've not had to plug in the chicken coop heat lamp ONCE all winter, saving electric energy use.
I learned a lot about composting in the Organic Master Gardener course that I recently completed and one of the most helpful bits of information was that I was not using NEARLY enough carbon to compost correctly. The ratio of carbon:nitrogen needs to be between 30:1 & 40:1. I was clearly falling WAY short of that ratio for my carbon component. I also needed to find a better carbon source if I was going to be composting in my coop, as the straw was prone to compaction.
Enter: Wood shavings/chips!
I LOVE using pine wood chips, because they smell SO fresh. I actually LOOK FORWARD to adding more carbon to the coop as they're lightweight and easy to spread but best of all, the chickens do a FINE job of stirring them up for me saving me MORE work and time (which is another form of energy savings). Simply by sprinkling some grain onto a fresh layer of chips, I can motivate and instruct my hens to scratch and peck to their heart's content as every chicken loves to do. Within a day, the hens have fully aerated and stirred my "compost", all the while having a grand time with their "housekeeping" duties. The hens stay clean, the coop smells great, the chickens get exercise, activity and stimulation, and I have reduced my workload by eliminating a few hours of smelly, sweaty work simply by arranging the correct elements elegantly together.
Come Spring, when the hens are largely out of doors, we'll remove the "nearly finished" compost and let it sit and mature for a few months. I'm not dreading that job because the wood chips have created a light, fluffy textured compost that is very easy to pick up with a snow shovel. With hot manure in the mix though, I know that it will need to mellow before any garden application ~ by Fall it should be ready for use.
I want to bring up the topic of biological diversity.... In order to enhance the microbial diversity in my compost (and therefore improve the quality of my finished compost), it is important to vary the carbon feedstock. While pine wood chips are the spine of my chicken coop compost feeding regime, I am careful to add other sources of organic carbon to round out the diversity. I've added shredded paper (no glossy prints), shredded plain cardboard, a small amount of straw, brown leaves and anything else I can get my hands on. The smaller the pieces, the faster they decompose (which is why you see a few larger pieces of paper in the above picture). I'm always on the hunt for different sources of carbon but I want to mention that we will all will have different choices available to us depending on where we live, the natural vegetation around us and the industry near us. I can source pine wood chips reasonably cheaply very close to my home, but we hope to create some of our own this year. Also, because we add other nitrogen sources to the coop compost in the form of kitchen scraps, we are also increasing biodiversity in that way as well. The hens do eat most of what we bring in, but whatever they choose to leave, gets composted along with everything else.
I am in no way an expert and I humbly defer to those who have gone before me in this learning process, but I'm hoping that someone might be encouraged by this post, to give this method of composting a try.
Let me know how you make out if you try it!