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Raised beds with chickens--some advice please?

 
Posts: 19
Location: Oshkosh WI
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Hello Folks,
About 4 months ago, I finally "pulled the trigger" on about 7 acres I have had my eye on.  Unfortunately, this pandemic is delaying the final paper work, but I still was able to head out there today and check things out. drainage seems pretty good. It's hilly.  Where I live in WI, it's sort of where the last glaciers from the Wisconsin Ice Age stopped--it's a mix of glacial rubble (gravel, sand, etc) when you dig down, but covered in some nice dark soil.  Rotted forest products mostly.    While it's perhaps not "ideal" land for an agricultural project, I find it perfect for mine.  It's about 1/2 mile down a dead end road. So the road gets plowed, but thier is little traffic. It's in the country, but just a few miles from the local farm store. Nice little 5000 person town...

Liking it so far.

My question is, to get the quickest jump on gardening, I was going to go with raised beds. I intend to prepare a larger, in ground garden(s) in the future, but for the fastest bang for the buck, I was going to build raised beds.

My question is this--I'm already late--I was hoping to build them right after the snow melted, fill them, and plant first thing.  now with this delay, it isn't going to happen.  No idea how this pandemic will delay things.

I do have a small flock of chickens, and was thinking to integrate the two--can I run this idea by you guys?  

The beds I was thinking would be 24" tall.  A friend of mine with a sawmill cut some long planks of black locust--very rot resistant stuff. VERY hard--like oak.  I was going to build them, probably 4x8, or 4x?   The plan was to box them in with chicken wire, and then put my semi-portable chicken coop on the end, releasing the birds on to the bed.    In order to fill the beds, I have access to as many wood chips as I could possibly use.  The city has a mountain of them that are from the parks department, and chopped x-mas trees, wind damage, etc.  It looks clean, a nice mix of hard and soft wood of a lot of species.

I was thinking, I could build the bed, lay down a couple layers of cardboard to choke out weeds. Then put in like 8" of wood chips and other high-carbon stuff (corn cobs, sunflower stalks, etc).  I would run the chickens on it--letting them relentlessly scratch and peck away, poop all over it....   After it got a bit nasty, I would move them to the other bed.... repeat.    I could use the off periods to add other organics--cow manure, horse bedding, straw.  Maybe a bit of clay and sand (to replicate real soil)...

That should work, don't you think?  Just sort of sheet composting high-carbon stuff mixed in with chicken manure?  It's not really a hugle-bed, but similar in idea. All the bark, wood products, etc....   I realize it wouldn't be much good the first year--not much would grow in wood chips other than mushrooms, but by next year I should be talking pretty good soil?

I thought if I could build 2' of organic material mixed with chicken poop, by next year it would probably reduce at least by half.  It should be fairly good--mixing in all the stuff I would normally compost (egg shells, coffee grounds, kitchen waste, manure...). Hopefully the worms would come in. Adding some sharp sand, probably some rock dust, and just a tiny bit of clay (for cation exchange)....  Also, leaf mold (again from the city's parks department--the leaves they vacuum up in the fall).

I was actually thinking a similar strategy for the in ground beds.  Joel Salatain commented that soil grows UPWARDS.  no sense in trying to mix the material down, into the soil.  Rather, add it on top, at a rate faster than you are removing it.  And give it some time.  Let mother nature take care of it.

Any thoughts on using chickens to prepare new beds?    I did some deep litter composting, and with the wood shavings dry, it really takes a very long time to break down.  I'm guessing out, exposed to the elements and in contact with the ground it would go much faster.  

I have 12 hens, and they can really tear up the ground!  I could throw some scratch out to encourage them to dig around.   Seems like it should be a viable strategy.
 
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I find 4x8 to be the largest size that is still relatively easy to work with. I would not go with the chicken plan myself. The issue is hot manure.  I am sure there may be a way to cool it down, but I h!ve never done it.
 
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If you're not intending to plant much this year that might work fine, though the chickens will kick out A LOT of stuff, so you'll be cleaning up all around your beds.  Things like tomatoes and zucchinis will love fresh manure.  A lot of other plants might not appreciate that.  But again, if you're not planting ASAP, then it might do fine.  The only thing that stands out to me is that wood kind of sucks nitrogen from the soil until it's thoroughly decomposed into humus.  You might do better to work on a "wood rotting heap" somewhere nearby and amend your beds with rotten wood as it becomes available in future years.

We find that taking all of our soiled bedding from all the critters and composting it makes gorgeous, rich soils.  It's just sloppy hay with poop and urine in the mix.  Keep it wet and heap it up to stew.  Bust into the bottom a year later and it's the most beautiful stuff!  We have lots of redworms helping too.

If you want to actually plant this year, maybe bite the bullet and find a source for good compost and top soil for this year's planting, and focus on starting a composting system for your wood chips and chicken waste!
 
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I find my girls make good compost.
I agree that beds might be too hot at first,  but it hard to beat their ability to shred organic matter.

I have seen reports of corn planted directly in fresh manure doing quite well,  so I would build the beds,  let the hens do their thing,  and then plant something greedy like corn or squash as a cheap experiment .
Maybe even add carbon on top of the bed and grow potatoes.

I like "high" beds,  bed 2 feet or higher seems great.
Here is photo of my girls on their favorite compost pile:
IMG_20200417_153207.jpg
I add dry leaves and they do the rest.
I add dry leaves and they do the rest.
 
John Kestell
Posts: 19
Location: Oshkosh WI
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Jen Fan wrote:If you're not intending to plant much this year that might work fine, though the chickens will kick out A LOT of stuff, so you'll be cleaning up all around your beds.  Things like tomatoes and zucchinis will love fresh manure.  A lot of other plants might not appreciate that.  But again, if you're not planting ASAP, then it might do fine.  The only thing that stands out to me is that wood kind of sucks nitrogen from the soil until it's thoroughly decomposed into humus.  You might do better to work on a "wood rotting heap" somewhere nearby and amend your beds with rotten wood as it becomes available in future years.

We find that taking all of our soiled bedding from all the critters and composting it makes gorgeous, rich soils.  It's just sloppy hay with poop and urine in the mix.  Keep it wet and heap it up to stew.  Bust into the bottom a year later and it's the most beautiful stuff!  We have lots of redworms helping too.

If you want to actually plant this year, maybe bite the bullet and find a source for good compost and top soil for this year's plYanting, and focus on starting a composting system for your wood chips and chicken waste!



yes, I had hoped to nail this down late last summer.  With several warm months, wintering, and everything, it would have been great this year....    I normally do exactly that--take the chicken bedding (mostly straw), layer it up with whatever I get from the kitchen, free grounds from the coffee shop, egg shells, and a lot of leaves and small twigs, and just let it go.  Turn it every few weeks and let the chickens go nuts on the worms and bugs, then cover it back up (loosely).

This isn't ideal--I actually have no idea when I can seal the deal here.  But I'm going to be a few months (min) past my original date.  I'm hoping by next season (2021) I should have something good.  That would give most of it a good 9-10 months or so to cook and break down.  Just add, add, add poop, carbon based stuff, egg shell, and rock dust....  Add a lot of leaves, minerals...

Really, that would just be accelerating how mother nature does it in the woods I think.  The chickens eat a healthy diet, and I provide them with a lot of greens and sprouts.  I can splurge and add other things--blood meal. Trying to locate a source of fresh water aquatic weeds....   I really believe in micro-nutes.

I've never tried it, but I suspect mixing a lot of woody material with manure and other nitrogen would really help it break down.  I use a lot of wood chips as mulch--on top of the soil it shouldn't drain the soil of nitrogen too much.  But mixed in, it could take a while.  But from the piles I saw at the Parks Dept, some of it is already fairly broken down.  They heap it up normally wet--when you dig in there in the summer, steam pumps out. It's exposed, getting hammered by the weather. So it's not exactly fresh or pristene material to begin with.

I'll give it a shot.  The sooner you start, the sooner you succeed!  You can't really overdose on organic materials. It's really just a matter of time scale.  Is it ready in days? Or months?

Maybe that would be a plan--let the chickens work over the sheet compost, then use some kind of cover crop--maybe a deep rooted rye or something, to really dig into the sub soil.  Mow it down in the fall, and plant in spring?   My SO will be at the rental so I still have a fairly good bed for veggies this year. It's not a critical or time sensitive thing.  I'm just wondering if it would work or not.


What do you think of the idea of adding thin layers of clay and sand to the organics?  It should provide a nice mix of particles.  some denisty, some cation exchange.  Maybe build a quick and dirty bio-char reactor and throw that in there too?     I guess my idea here is to (year one) swamp the system with a monster amount of organics. Then, in following years, apply maintanance doses of compost, mulch, and top dressings.    Gently turn the bed in the fall, apply a layer of manure, and winter it over....    Once the worms come in, etc, let them do the heavy lifting.

The soil seems pretty good, actually. It doesn't appear that it was ever abused from agriculture.  With the glacial materials, I'm thinking it might be a good idea to find a way to screen some of the native soil. Remove the rocks and gravel, and add the sand and really fine dust.  

once the chickens are moved on to the property, and proper composting is set up, it would all be easier. I guess what I'm asking about is "jump starting" a bed.  I can sometimes find coarse vermiculite at work.  I'm a chemist--they pack flammable and dangerous chemicals in verm because it's so inert.  I have a few drums of that I could contribute to the mix too.  maybe splurge on a bit of perlite.  Just reallyl mix it up with as much good organic and inorganic stuff as I can get my hands on.  

I'm trying to find ways to turn waste streams into gold.  those paper bags of yard waste?  Yeah--that's how I turned my current garden from hard clay mixed with junk (literally--I found a broken junk of toilet bowl ceramic, rusted water pipe.... whatever "backfill" the builder could find) into good soil.  Just keep heaping it on. Let the bugs, worms, and fungi take care of it!!
 
John Kestell
Posts: 19
Location: Oshkosh WI
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I agree--the chickens really KICK.  I thought maybe lining the bottom part with some corrugated metal or something to catch most of it and drop it back into the bed. Or, as you say, rake it up periodically and shovel it back in.  I think it would be a good way to skip the middle man, and put the manure directly in to the soil.  Give it a while to work and cook, and then plant.  Maybe in the spring, turn it under to a depth of a foot or so with a spade to really get it mixed up and aerated...
 
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