In my last article I discussed the challenges of keeping ducks in backyard permaculture. There are two primary problems, at their worst in the coop itself; first is the soggy, mucky mess — from both wet poop and spillage from the waterer. The second problem is that ducks’ webbed feet pack the poop down, and they don’t ‘turn the compost’ of a deep litter system with their scratching like chickens do. In the end you get a layer of nasty poop built up on top of soggy bedding.
During my first few months of duck rearing, I despaired. It seemed that raising ducks on a large pond (an option I don’t have) might be the only natural, low-work, permaculture approach. I simply was not willing to clean my coop out once a week and do the work of composting myself. I began to wonder if ducks just weren’t right for me.
But then, my ducks ate their first slugs. The strange combination of repulsion and ecstasy I experienced watching them fight over our giant black slugs was motivating. I pulled myself up by the bootstraps. Permaculture is about creative interpretation! Using our human intellect to design solutions based on natural principles, rather than mechanically mirroring nature. Surely I could think my way out of this.
Managing the Bedding
I started with the second problem, the packing down of wet poop. Until then I had been keeping my two flocks separate, and every morning the ducks’ side of the coop was a mat of nastiness, which I had to break up and turn with a pitchfork. I realized I needed to harness my chickens and get them working! I started a simple daily routine of letting the ducks out into the yard, then sprinkling grain over the night’s bedding pack and letting the chickens in to scratch around. They went about their work joyously and within a few days the bedding was looking much better, without any help from my pitchfork.
With the turning of my in-coop compost taken care of, I moved on to the water issue. I assembled a simple nipple waterer — easy to make out of any old plastic container, once you order the nipples. They are used more often for chickens but ducks can use them as well, as long as they also have daily access to an open waterer deep enough to immerse their head into (to clean out their nostrils and eyes).
Unfortunately, my bedding was still too wet. This may not be a universal outcome — as I mentioned in the last article, we do live in a temperate rainforest. But the fact of the ducks’ wetter poop, combined with the… err… enthusiastic way that they drink (even from a nipple waterer) resulted in bedding much wetter than the chicken side of my coop.
Ducks don’t just drink water, they also bathe with it — they dip out a mouthful and throw it
over their backs, preening the water through their feathers, and meanwhile making a royal mess.
The Lightbulb Moment
It was at that point that I realized the solution inherent in my problem. I have been nearly obsessed with the concept of creating a worm farm in the bedding of my chicken coop for years, ever since I read that composting worms used to be called manure worms. How beautiful would it be to raise a feed source right in your coop, from the very waste of the animal that eats it!
One of the challenges I had imagined was the moisture content of the bedding. Worms need a very moist environment, preferably a bit wetter than the classic ‘wrung out sponge’ rule for regular compost. This seemed antithetical to keeping a healthy chicken coop. I would have to water my bedding! Outrageous! Nevertheless I had kept the idea alive in my mind, to trial someday.
Suddenly I realized its time had come.
I pulled back the top layer of bedding in my duck coop, and dug a shallow pit down into the half composted bedding underneath. Inside the hole I assembled a ‘worm bin’ just like you would do inside of a container — using shredded wet cardboard, coffee grounds and vegetable scraps. I added a bowl full of worms from my vermicompost bin, along with some of their bedding and castings. I covered this all up with a large sheet of cardboard to keep the chickens from digging too deep, then replaced the top layer of bedding.
I really had no idea how this would go. Harvey Ussery has written extensively about his system of raising worms on horse manure under the floor of his greenhouse, which he then feeds to his chickens. But, the only place I had ever read about raising worms in a chicken coop was an article here at Permaculture News (Worm Bin and Chicken Coop Compost Catch). Although the article is awesome and details the set-up very well, there was never an update on how it worked.
So, it was with some trepidation that, a couple of weeks later, I pulled everything back to check on the worms. They were doing fine! In fact, I am happy to report that this experiment has continued successfully all summer. After finding the worms in apparently good health, I added another ‘bin’ and then another a few weeks later, eventually taking up most of the 3 x 6 foot portion of my coop that sits directly on the ground. The worms have never taken off as exuberantly as they did in my vermicompost bin, which is a writhing mass of breeding worms. But the population is holding on, even as I learn my way through the fusion of these two systems.
Does this sound like just your sort of craziness? Join me in the pioneering adventure of worm farm poultry bedding, which I have dubbed ‘vermibedding.’
- If you haven’t already, start by keeping a standard vermicompost bin for a few months before you begin.
- Research worms thoroughly (see resources below), so you can better understand how to provide for their needs. I recommend focusing on “worm farming” rather than “worm composting.”
- Most importantly, your worms need a consistently moist but never soggy environment, and a moderate temperature range.
- This system can only work in genuine, pre-established ‘deep bedding,’ which is essentially an active (if slow) compost pile in your coop. Worms do not eat the poop itself (nor do they eat the veggie scraps in your bin) but rather the microorganisms involved in composting waste.
- Although you want the bedding to be composting actively, and a little warmth can be helpful, it must never be allowed to get hot or your worms might die.
- Make sure you are using deep, deep bedding. A thick pack of material allows a margin for error. If it gets too dry or hot in one area, the worms can move to another.
- Keep a well fed stock of worms in your standard vermicompost system while you are experimenting in the coop, just in case.
- Your vermibedding area will have a better chance of survival if it’s in contact with the ground. This will keep it moister, maintain a more even temperature range, and give the worms a back-up escape route in case of disaster. (Composting worms will generally not migrate out into the ground, because it is not a rich enough environment for their food needs, but can take shelter there temporarily.) However, siting your worm farm directly on the ground does remove the possibility of harvesting the worm ‘juice,’ a very valuable commodity… unless you plant some comfrey downhill of the coop!
Keep in mind that your worms can survive in a broader range of environments than they can proliferate in. Although I have managed to maintain the population in my coop’s bedding, so far I have not seen the kind of growth that would provide any significant contribution to my flock’s feed. From my research and napkin figuring, it could take quite some time to build that kind of density in such a relatively large area. My vermibed is nearly 18 square feet (about 2 square meters), whereas a typical vermicompost bin is only two or three square feet.
But beyond the time required to build a population, it’s going to depend on being able to provide optimum conditions for breeding. Not to mention the big question on everyone’s lips — will they survive the winter? Properly managed deep bedding produces some heat, and can theoretically be kept from freezing in all but the lowest temperatures, so I do have a little hope.
One last note on the “harvesting” of worms. I had worried that the chickens would dig down to the main worm area and decimate the population, but so far that hasn’t happened at all. The chickens really only scratch up the top few inches of bedding, and the worms tend to stay in the bottom few inches. This could change as the density increases, as worms will migrate away from overly populated areas. But in that case, it would be the perfect self-feeding system, right?
If you have experimented with worms in the bedding of your poultry coop, please leave a comment below!
- For an explanation of nipple waterers, check out Avian Aqua Miser.
- For basic information on starting and keeping a standard vermicompost bin, I recommend Red Worm Composting.
- Harvey Ussery offers the best information on raising worms to feed poultry that I have found. He describes his system on his website as well as in his book. He also has a great article about deep bedding.
- The classic text Friend Earthworm: Practical Application of a Lifetime Study of Habits of the Most Important Animal in the World by George Sheffield Oliver is available to read online at Journey to Forever’s fantastic farm library. It is a must read for aspiring vermiculturists, and he even talks specifically about raising worms for chicken feed.
- Organic Agriculture of Canada has shared their Vermiculture Farmer’s Manual free online. It references an experiment done in Nova Scotia raising worms on composted chicken manure (albeit in a separate space) to feed chickens.