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Chickens on compost

 
pollinator
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I'm trying the "feed your chickens on nothing but compost" idea, and I have a question about the age of chicken for whom this is appropriate. I currently have only mature hens on compost. They seem happy, and we're still getting a few eggs after a few days of nothing but compost. But I'm wondering if it would work with young chickens? Would developing juvenile chickens obtain enough nutrition from only compost? Or is this asking for stunted chickens?

Anyone else trying to raise chickens on just compost?

Here's where I got the idea: http://geofflawton.com/videos/chicken-tractor-steroids/
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I think that 'chick starter' supplement is still a good idea for the young ones.
It is best to give them every advantage while they are honing their scavenger skills.

To help train day-olds, the day after you get them, start putting some chunks of sod into their brood pen. This will get them used to pecking around - especially if they find some bugs, worms and seeds in the process. Teaches them to hunt for their food. By the time they outgrow the brooder pen, they should be pretty self sufficient.

 
Tyler Ludens
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I'm not using any commercial prepared feeds with the current chickens. The babies I've been feeding mixed bird seed and garden soil with bugs and worms, and various greens. I haven't used chick starter in years.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Yesterday we got 6 eggs from these 8 hens. Let's see if we can keep up this good production on just compost.

Today I helped them out by fluffing the heap with a fork a little bit, and found an ant nest in there. Mmmm spicy chicken food!
chickencompost2.jpg
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Tyler Ludens
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Here are chicks from three hatchings, learning together how to be good foragers and/or compost eaters. Every day they get a few buckets of garden soil with bugs, and handfuls of greens. They're also getting some mixed bird seed.

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Tyler Ludens
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Moved the hens to the other side of the coop with a fresh compost heap, and moved the 5 largest chicks (Buff Orpingtons) to the side with the old compost. I fluffed up the compost for them and there are plenty of worms in there. I gave them some seeds but they didn't seem very interested in them, they prefer hunting for bugs and sprouts.



compostyoungandold.jpg
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Tyler Ludens
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The main drawback that I'm seeing so far is that the compost heaps tend to get trampled down in spots and compacted with heavy rain, and the chickens, especially the chicks, need help digging into it, so I've been fluffing up the heaps a couple times a day with a fork. It's amazing how many worms are under the mature heap in the young chicken side of the run.

I think ideally the material would have fluffier components such as small branches. These heaps are built mostly of weeds, leaves, and grass, so they want to get compacted and slimey.

This system would work better in a larger yard where multiple heaps could be built, or a moving system like the one in the video above.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Egg production has fallen way off with the hens on the new compost heap. It seems only the mature heap contains sufficient bugs. I'll see how things go in the next couple of days, but I may need to supplement with some seeds.

 
John Polk
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I may need to supplement with some seeds.


You'll get more bang for your buck if you sprout the seeds first.
A teaspoon of seeds isn't very filling, but the sprouts from it is a meal.
I know people who do this, especially in winter, to keep the hens in greens.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Thanks for that tip, John!
 
Tyler Ludens
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The age of the compost heap definitely makes a difference. The mature heap in the chick side is so full of sprouts and worms the chicks can't eat them all, but the fresh heap in the hen side is not providing enough nutrition to produce eggs. So I'm feeding some sunflower seeds.
 
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Thanks for the inspiration. I am adapting a large children's playhouse into a deluxe chicken coop. I like to be able to walk into the coop. I'll send before and after photos. In the meantime, here is one of the peacocks.

Best,

Paul
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I've got chickens and ducks on 3 paddocks of riparian area, not quite compost, but mostly leaves. Egg production drops off when supplemental food isnt offered. And since its a slope, rain has a big impact after they have fluffed up the leaves. From 5 layers i get 5 eggs a day if they get some supplemental, 2 eggs a day without.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Now that my Black Soldier Fly bin is producing larvae, I'm supplementing with them instead of seeds.

 
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Our chickens are fussy things, and they don't particularly like worms and bugs. I've seen them throw them to the side when they've found them, and then leave them alone! Traitors!
They much prefer grains. I would add some shell grit and grain mix, to stop them from eating their own eggs, particularly if egg production has dropped off, and see if that helps encourage them to lay on compost feed.
 
Tyler Ludens
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If you raise up your chicks on bugs, they will want to eat bugs! I give the chicks a bucket of dirt/compost with bugs as soon as they're up and looking for food. They prefer bugs and fresh greens to grain any day. They go absolutely insane over Black Soldier Fly larvae.



 
Tyler Ludens
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So I'm going to consider this experiment finished. I think the Chickens on Compost concept has merit, but my system is not yet robust enough to provide sufficient compost ingredients for more than about 3 chickens. Because so many of my chickens are growing youngsters, I don't want to risk stunting or even killing them by insisting they survive on depleted compost heaps. So I will be going back to the usual feed of oats and sunflower seeds plus garden scraps. The 4 Orpingtons who survived the snake attack are now in a paddock shift setup, but they will also be getting regular seeds.

I think a very robust permaculture system could provide all the feed for chickens using a combination of paddock shift compost heaps, BSF larvae, and homegrown seeds, but mine is a long way from that point. I think it would be interesting to see just how many chickens could be raised in this way. I think enough hens to provide a small household with daily eggs would be a modest goal. Raising enough chickens this way to have market eggs or meat birds would require a very robust system.
 
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Tyler Ludens wrote:If you raise up your chicks on bugs, they will want to eat bugs! I give the chicks a bucket of dirt/compost with bugs as soon as they're up and looking for food. They prefer bugs and fresh greens to grain any day. They go absolutely insane over Black Soldier Fly larvae.



Same with meal worms. It's hilarious to give a meal worm to a week old chick and watch it running around like it's crazy and peeping it's little head off while trying to protect the worm from all the other chicks. I wish there was a way to easily produce enough meal worms to offset feed costs, but it isn't really possible with any amount of chickens.
 
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Hi Tyler,

Great experiment and commentary. I'm going to be trying something similar. What were the piles composed of, by and large?
 
Tyler Ludens
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The piles were mostly weeds with some wood chips and leaves. I might have added some sheep manure but I doubt it, as I expected the chickens to add plenty of manure. The piles heated up quickly and rotted down very fast.

 
Gilbert Fritz
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So a plus for breaking down compost fast, but a minus as far as feeding chickens. What was the ratio of cubic volume of starting material to number of chickens? Could you hazard a guess at the ideal ratio for this to work? Did you add extra water to the piles?
 
Tyler Ludens
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I had far too many chickens per compost heap. I can't hazard a guess as to quantities - if you want to run a similar experiment, err far on the side of a lot of heaps, as in this example: http://geofflawton.com/videos/grow-chickens-without-buying-grain-feeding-compost/

I never watered the heaps, but we've been getting regular rain this Spring. Right now everything is too soggy, and the small chickens have trouble digging into the compost.

 
Gilbert Fritz
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How old was the "old" heap?

This is all very interesting to me, I want to eat wood chips (indirectly!)
 
Tyler Ludens
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A week or two, maybe? Old enough to have heated up and for worms and little critters to inhabit. I think you could tell if the time was right by digging it and seeing worms and bugs. If there aren't worms and bugs, odds are there isn't enough nutrition for the chickens, in my opinion, unless you're adding a lot of material with high nutrition such as squash, weeds and grass with seeds, that sort of thing.
 
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Tyler Ludens wrote:So I'm going to consider this experiment finished. I think the Chickens on Compost concept has merit, but my system is not yet robust enough to provide sufficient compost ingredients for more than about 3 chickens. Because so many of my chickens are growing youngsters, I don't want to risk stunting or even killing them by insisting they survive on depleted compost heaps. So I will be going back to the usual feed of oats and sunflower seeds plus garden scraps. The 4 Orpingtons who survived the snake attack are now in a paddock shift setup, but they will also be getting regular seeds.

I think a very robust permaculture system could provide all the feed for chickens using a combination of paddock shift compost heaps, BSF larvae, and homegrown seeds, but mine is a long way from that point. I think it would be interesting to see just how many chickens could be raised in this way. I think enough hens to provide a small household with daily eggs would be a modest goal. Raising enough chickens this way to have market eggs or meat birds would require a very robust system.




Like someone else said if you sprout your seeds you will get a lot more feed value out of them.
I really do appreciate this topic. Thank you for your good reporting.
 
Todd Parr
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I've been thinking of making a kind of box inside my chicken run, say a foot wide and eight feet or so long maybe 8"-12" deep, and putting compost a few inches deep and planting my excess seeds in it. Then I could cover the box with chicken wire and the chickens could eat the plants as they grow up thru the wire. Like Tyler, I don't generate enough compost to feed my 30+ chickens and I'm trying to cut the feed bill, at least during the summer months.
 
Alan Bowen
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Todd Parr wrote:I've been thinking of making a kind of box inside my chicken run, say a foot wide and eight feet or so long maybe 8"-12" deep, and putting compost a few inches deep and planting my excess seeds in it. Then I could cover the box with chicken wire and the chickens could eat the plants as they grow up thru the wire. Like Tyler, I don't generate enough compost to feed my 30+ chickens and I'm trying to cut the feed bill, at least during the summer months.



I have seen a video someone did about a rack of trays where they had a tray of sprouted seeds every day to give to their chickens. For 30 chickens you would need three or even four of those racks full of trays but to me it really looks to be a good way to feed the chickens. I will scout around and see if I can find it again.
 
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Alan Bowen wrote:

Todd Parr wrote:I've been thinking of making a kind of box inside my chicken run, say a foot wide and eight feet or so long maybe 8"-12" deep, and putting compost a few inches deep and planting my excess seeds in it. Then I could cover the box with chicken wire and the chickens could eat the plants as they grow up thru the wire. Like Tyler, I don't generate enough compost to feed my 30+ chickens and I'm trying to cut the feed bill, at least during the summer months.



I have seen a video someone did about a rack of trays where they had a tray of sprouted seeds every day to give to their chickens. For 30 chickens you would need three or even four of those racks full of trays but to me it really looks to be a good way to feed the chickens. I will scout around and see if I can find it again.



Thanks, I appreciate that.
 
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The one I was thinking about will be hard to find because it was on someone's own page.
I did just find this one though.
YouTube


The one I was thinking about used stainless steel trays about two inches tall and her rack held eight trays.
I am pretty sure she was using wheat.
This guy uses stuff we all can find.
 
Tyler Ludens
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I want to reiterate that I think chickens on compost is a good system for laying hens, but NOT a good system for immature birds.  You can tell if the laying hens aren't getting enough nutrition because they will stop laying. It is more difficult to see if the young chickens aren't getting enough nutrition - they will stop growing but by then it is too late, they may be permanently stunted.  All my young chickens are stunted, some dramatically so, because of insufficient nutrition at a critical time in their development.  Even though I went back to feeding them seeds, and supplementing with BSF larvae and scraps, it couldn't make up for the period of low nutrition.  I have a little rooster crowing who is about half the size his father was.  

I think it's possible to feed chickens on a 100% homegrown diet, but one has to be very careful about matching the number of chickens to the amount of feed one can produce.  
 
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Tyler Ludens wrote:It is more difficult to see if the young chickens aren't getting enough nutrition - they will stop growing but by then it is too late, they may be permanently stunted.  All my young chickens are stunted, some dramatically so, because of insufficient nutrition at a critical time in their development.  Even though I went back to feeding them seeds, and supplementing with BSF larvae and scraps, it couldn't make up for the period of low nutrition.  I have a little rooster crowing who is about half the size his father was.  


That's interesting - I wonder if it's breed dependent?  Or if the little lad will catch up over time?  

I tried to raise a few cornish cross on basically a starvation diet to try to slow their growth down enough so that they wouldn't keel over when they got too heavy for their legs.  I thought it had worked as they grew very slowly, for cornish.  But even so, by a year of age they'd all grown to full size and piled on crazy amounts of weight and eventually we lost them all anyway, though not before getting a handful of eggs out of the hen to hatch.  They were crossed with a Light Sussex and didn't have the same problems.
 
Tyler Ludens
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It might be breed-dependent.  These are mixed breed "mutts" with mostly Cochin Bantam genetics, so they had the potential for smallness built in.  Cornish Cross are bred to do nothing much but grow, so it seems as if they would be better at it even if deprived.
 
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for hens that are aggressive foragers, composting under them is amazing. We give them a minimum of 70cm of compost and have a capacity to hold 1m40cm high of compost directly under the chickens. This is real time composing and everything gets thrown in. Check it out here:  
 
Tyler Ludens
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Great video!  That's a nice chicken house.

 
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Tyler Ludens wrote: But I'm wondering if it would work with young chickens?  Would developing juvenile chickens obtain enough nutrition from



I would like to share some of my experiences with young chickens here. Not exactly on compost, but I started giving them grubs from mature compost since day 2. They are 10 day old now. So this is still early to say but I have some interesting findings and in short, the chickens are doing good.

My neighbor started hatching a dozen eggs for me on Memorial weekend. So I have 21 days to plan ahead. I started a compost with raising BSFL for chicken feed later in mind. I used leaves, grass clipping and food scraps to do hot composting in 18 days. I covered it with a tarp to keep critters out and no chicken scrap, raw meat or manure were used.

When it started to cool off, I added water to pounds of old dough balls to make a slurry and poured on the top. By the way, I get access to food scraps from pizzeria, so yeasty dough balls are readily for me. For 51g serving size, it contains 26g of carb and 5g of protein, plus vitamin
D, some salt, yeast and potassium. So it is nutritious and gets a balanced C/N ratio. I mixed it in water so that 1)to  increase surface area 2) critters like feral cats or possums won't eat it. I uncover the pile and let flies lay eggs on it. Since BSF needs a higher temperature, at this time of the year, they are way outnumbered by regular house flies. In a couple days, the larvae started to appear and they were mostly house fly larvae.

On June 16th, my chicken had hatched and ready for pickup. Somehow I lost 4 so I am raising 8 total.  I started offer them maggots with little bit of compost since 17th. At first I had to turn the compost with a stick for the chicks. They loved the maggots!  They kind of alternating between maggots and starter feed. I also tossed in n some greens and flowers but they were not interested. On 4th day, they already learnt to kick and scratch the compost for bugs! Occasionally, they would come across bigger bsfl, the chick got it went nuts! It would make a distinct rapid sound while running around frantically, as if saying "oh, I gotta eat it before other take it away!" It had to peck the bug several time to position it down the beak because it was too big.

I kept feeding them this way for a week, it was hard to estimate the ratio of feed to larvae, but important thing the chicken were growing healthily. I weigh them to get a better idea. So here are the numbers.

I didn't weigh the newly hatched chicken but here was a good guess: I weighted 2 dozen eggs from the same people hatching chicken, 70% of egg weight would be chick weight, which was
1490/12×70%=43g

Pretty close to what I read: 45g for newly hatched chick

At 7 day old on June 23rd, 8 chicks weighted 69g to 96g, average was 81g. The heaviest one being a naked neck chicken, which I had 2 and the other 6 of unknown varieties.

So the chicken almost doubled in weigh in a week, almost comparable to a 2-week old chicken. From literature, 2 week old chicken weighs 73 to 96 g, 4 week old weighs 163 to 186g .

Btw, the bsfl were replacing fly maggots in the compost about this time.

The chickens were advanced in behavior development, they started pecking on greens I offered. I found out they prefer mustard flowers at this stage. They could jump out of the 6 in deep tote so I rehomed them in a bigger 13 inch deep one. At 10 day old (i.e. today) I saw one jumping on the edge of the new tote. They were also doing sunbathing and sand bathing like foraging chicken would do.

I will weigh them again at 2w time point. So this experiment and observation is ongoing and I am pretty optimistic about having healthy chicken in the end.

Thanks for reading.
 
May Lotito
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Sorry, I made a mistake. New born chicken weight should be 1490/24×0.7 =43g. I was in a hurry (kid feeling uncomfortable) and missed a few points too. Still I am not suggesting others to feed young chicks compost unless you keep a close eye on the compost, the grubs and the chicken.

I am doing some reading and haven't built a coop yet. Gotta hurry up to keep up with their rapid growth.
 
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