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A composting gardener’s best friend is … a chicken

Puppy dogs, move over.  In the garden, a human’s best friend is a bird.

It’s good to have a gardening friend, especially one who can help with the composting, and weeding, and bug patrol – and still have the energy to provide an egg for breakfast most mornings.  We’re talking, of course, about a feathered friend, the chicken.

While most folks’ only acquaintance with the bird stems from its exalted position on the dinner plate, the live fowl can provide many years of dedicated service in the garden with minimal time or dollar investment.

The chicken as composting assistant

Chickens love to dig and scratch in the dirt.  That’s where they forage for food.

So if you toss veggie scraps in their pen or turn them loose on your compost pile, you may never have to turn that pile again.

Of course, their efforts won’t be nearly as neat as your own.  But if a commercial composting operation can use chickens to turn, so can you.

Can’t stand a messy compost pile?  Simply reshape the mound or windrow when they’ve eaten their fill.

Alternatively, sheet compost in the garden by spreading vegetable scraps out on unplanted rows or beds.  Their scratching will quickly turn that garbage into black gold.

The same action will help  to spread and incorporate compost you buy, too.

Put chickens on bug and weed patrol

You don’t want chickens scratching around in newly seeded rows or recent transplants.  But you can use them as biological bug zappers when plants mature.

Let a couple of chickens loose among the established rows each evening about an hour before nightfall.  You’ll never see another hornworm on the tomatoes again.  In fact, a host of creepy crawlers will disappear.

If chickens patrol the garden on a regular basis, weeds won’t be as big of a problem, either.  All of that scratching clears out emerging grass and weeds.

The chickens will return to the roost on their own before dark.  It may be necessary, however, for you to watchdog your helpers while they feed.  Hawks and other marauders consider chickens to be a tasty treat.

Restricting their time in the garden to about an hour each day will also limit their destructive powers.

Cock-a-doodle-don’t

Chickens are social creatures, so you need to have at least two.   But avoid roosters unless you want to go into the poultry business or harvest lots of chickens for your own table.

Sans rooster, a hen will lay an unfertilized egg every day or so throughout their adult lives, living for 5-10 years on average, depending on breed and living conditions.

With only hens, you and your neighbors won’t have to tolerate any irritating crowing at odd hours, either.

Once you’ve had some time to evaluate the capabilities of two hens, then you can decide if you need to add more chickens to your composting and gardening power team.

Be aware, however, that hens take a little time off from their egg laying duties during the winter months unless you artificially create more favorable lighting conditions.

How to pick a chick 

First, research zoning regulations and/or HOA rules to make sure you are permitted to have chickens on your property.

Then, seek out a layer operation in the region and source your hens from there.  A small, organic farm could be ideal, since they are likely raising heritage breed chickens.

The eggs from heritage hens may look and taste much the same as those produced by their conventionally-grown sisters.  But the plumage of a Rhode Island Red, Dominicker, or other older breeds can be much more colorful than production hens and provide extra protection against airborne predators.

Other traits can make one breed preferable over another, too, depending on an owner’s objectives.

Commercial egg producers will cull layers (battery hens) when they reach 1-3 years of age because egg production slows over time.  That’s when/why a farmer might be willing to sell a few birds.

Considering there are about 325 million layers in the US, the loss of one egg per week per hen is a big deal for a commercial producer.  But these older ladies will do just fine for a backyard flock.

You can also find chickens for sale at country auctions and online.  There are backyard chicken groups on the popular social sites, too.

But a few words of caution:

Unless you plan to go into the chicken business, don’t be tempted to buy peeps.  Yes, they’re cute, little balls of fluff.  But if you don’t want roosters, know that even the specialists hired by professional poultry producers to help them distinguish the gender of hatchlings sometimes get it wrong.

Buying an adult bird eliminates the guesswork and prevents your yard from being overtaken by too many chickens.

Also know that even hens make noise.  They’re not nearly as irritating as roosters, but they’re not silent during the day as they go about their scratching and egg laying.

Fortunately, they are quiet at night unless something disturbs their slumber.

Managing your garden helpers

Too many chickens can destroy a yard or garden.  That’s why you’ll probably want to start with only two.  You can always add more later.

Build or buy a secure chicken house or coop.  You don’t want rats and mice getting in because snakes will follow the rodents.  Mice can squeeze through a ¼-inch gap, so build it tight.  

Don’t forget to cover all chicken runs with wire mesh or other protective cover to keep your helpers safe.

As for food, chickens are domestic creatures, not bred for living in the wild.  They will likely need supplemental feed even if they are allowed to forage all day, especially in the winter.

Treat them well, keep ’em fed and watered, and those hens will reward you with well-turned compost, a bugless garden, and free eggs for many years to come.

What can I compost?

Can I compost bread?  Can I compost corncobs?  Can I compost leather gloves?  In a perfect world and under ideal conditions, the answer to all of the above is yes.  Unfortunately, this world is far from perfect, so that yes can be followed by a long string of asterisks.

One of the most common questions asked by those new to composting is “what can I compost?”

In truth, anything derived from plant or animal matter will biodegrade … eventually.  But time, temperature, and a slew of other variables will impact the practicality of choosing composting as a recycling method for any given material.

Generally, the home composter will do just fine using a tight, easy-to-turn vessel that contains excess liquid and deters marauders.  

Any mesh, drainage holes, or air vents in the composting unit should be 1/4 inch or less if deterring mice and the snakes that follow them is a priority.

With this type of composter, almost any kind of food waste (except meats and dairy) can be used as a feedstock.  Tear or chop big/dense leftovers like chunks of bread and corncobs into smaller pieces to expose more surface area to feasting microbes.  This helps all of the food waste degrade at a similar rate.

As for those gloves, while leather is compostable, so many manufactured products these days are processed, treated, or coated with chemicals that the leather might not be compost-friendly for the home compost pile.

Unless the manufacturer says an item is compostable in a home system and proves it with certification from a legitimate third-party, don’t put it in your compost pile.

Read the certification information carefully.  A lot of so-called “compostables” available in the marketplace cannot be composted where processes are simply not sufficiently robust to break down the material – and that would include nearly all residential composting efforts, as well as some city-owned and commercial operations.

Only a few US facilities use designs and/or technologies that can handle the full range of urban organic wastes.  (McGill is one of them.)

Good prep = rapid biodegradation

Chopping and shredding is something every large composting facility does to create a uniform particle size prior to composting.

These plants also mix thoroughly, ensure adequate airflow throughout the composting mass, and make certain the blend is neither too wet nor too dry.  

They also screen the compost post-processing to break up clumps and sift out any bigger, partially composted materials.  These are re-blended and added to a new composting pile to complete their decomposition.

The closer the home compost-maker can come to emulating these management practices (which are all about process control), the faster the rate of decomposition and higher the rate of composting success … even when breaking down tough ingredients.

That’s why modern, high-rate composting operations can handle things like biodegradable plastics and petroleum hydrocarbons when the home compost pile struggles with corncobs.

Don’t try this at home

While most things can be successfully composted at home, meat and dairy, along with the cooking juices and fats-oils-grease (FOG) in which they were prepared, cannot.

These types of foods will harbor pathogens, and the typical home composting effort will not reach the kill point temperatures required to neutralize them.

Pet waste falls into the same category.

However, small amounts of plant-based oils – provided they were not used to cook meats or dairy – can be composted at home.

We are talking about the salad dressing swimming with the leftover lettuce at the bottom of the serving bowl or the spritz of olive oil coating those uneaten air-fried veggies – not the 3 gallons of waste oil from the turkey fryer.

Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do with banned FOG except pour it into a non-recyclable container and toss it into the trash.  It won’t compost in the anaerobic environment of a landfill, but it won’t clog your pipes, septic system, or sewer lines, either.

In other words, never ever pour fats, oils, or grease down the kitchen sink.  And – no – a hot water chaser will not make the gunk magically disappear from your piping system.

The good news is FOG will compost at a facility using a good, commercial process.

In fact, commercial kitchens routinely send grease trap waste to composting facilities.  If your community doesn’t have a composting operation that can handle this type of food waste, perhaps it’s time to give the folks at City Hall a nudge.  

READ MORE:

This post also includes information on reducing the amount of FOG going to the landfill or sewer system from your kitchen.

Can I sell my backyard compost?

From time to time, a backyard composting enthusiast poses the question: Can I sell my backyard compost?  Unfortunately, the answer is complicated.  Switching from the backyard to the commercial world is like shifting the preparation of a plate of spaghetti from a home kitchen to a 120-seat Italian restaurant – even if you only want to sell one or two plates.

Rising interest in food waste diversion causes entrepreneurial spirits to think about starting a composting facility.  That’s great news and deserves encouragement. There is plenty of room at the table for composting operations of every size, including the backyard variety. 

Some pulling up a chair will come with little to no experience running a business, composting at scale, or managing wastes of any description.  On one hand, that is a good thing for the composting industry as a whole.  Fresh ideas and a non-jaded outlook (mixed with a dollop of desperation, naïveté, and plain dumb luck) drive progress.

But the budding entrepreneur must accept the fact that when money changes hands, the small-scale/backyard composter crosses over into the commercial composting world, one that is tightly regulated.

Fortunately, many states have exemptions or lighter “regs” for low-volume projects.  But that’s not the same as no regulation.   To find out more about regulations in your state, here is a list, compiled by the U.S. Composting Council.

If you are thinking about a for-profit or non-profit composting-related business, or even a public project, taking the time to do a little research before the planning process begins is the smartest and most economical first step any new business endeavor can take.

Can I sell my backyard compost?

There are many factors to consider before answering that all-important question.  Some are related to rules and regulations.  Others have to do with running a business.

Knowing the answers to questions like these can make the difference between success or failure:

  • If considering a door-to-door food waste collection and composting service,  what are similar companies charging in cities like yours?  What is the average size of their customer base?  What percent of the households that meet the identified customer profile (age, income, etc.) use the service?  How does your community compare and will you have the possibility of gaining enough customers to make your business profitable?  How are they marketing the service to potential customers? Talk to the local recycling coordinator.  Is s/he aware of any similar companies operating or considering start-up in your locale?
  • If you plan to intake waste from other household or businesses, most privately-owned composting facilities rely on tipping fees to support compost production, not compost sales.  Do you know the average tipping fee in your region?  Who are your biggest competitors for composting feedstocks?  What other competing companies or technologies are thinking about moving into your market?  A chat with your city or county business development specialist could be insightful.
  • What are the high, low, and average wholesale and retail prices for a cubic yard of compost in your targeted service area?  What about bagged products?  Will customers expect auxiliary services like delivery or spreading?  
  • Have you read all of the regulations, zoning ordinances, and building codes that will impact your operation?  Check in with the local planning department and correlating state agencies to determine if there are any changes in the works.  
  • Do you know where the high growth areas are in your region?  There is nothing worse for a composter than to open a remote facility only to find the land around it being gobbled up by housing developments a few years later.
  • Your annual reports to the state, including names of customers and volumes processed, as well as copies of your permit and any related violations, will probably be made available to the general public online or on request.  As a result, potential anchor accounts — large corporations, municipalities and commercial entities — may wait a few years before doing business with you.  They want to know the way you operate, the dependability of your service, and your efforts to protect the environment and local community are above reproach and will not negatively damage their own reputations by association.  Obviously, this can have a major impact during the initial years of operation.
  • First-time business owners may underestimate expenses and overestimate revenues.  Talk to people who actually operate composting facilities before developing financial projections.  Look for tradeshows, conferences, and other networking opportunities that will allow you to meet and learn from folks who have spent time in the trenches.
  • If you do plan to open a facility of any significant size, there are only a handful of engineering firms and technology providers with extensive experience in designing successful composting facilities.  Choose a designer with a resume that includes multiple, long-term composting operations with no technology/design-related problems.  

As with any business start-up, be prepared for long days and short nights.  The owner of a successful composting operation must not only know how to make good compost, but also keep the books, hire and manage employees, promote the business, and keep customers, regulators, and neighbors happy.

Until the business grows to the point where it can support others in managerial positions, the full weight of those jobs is carried on the shoulders of the owner.

More time will be spent on matters unrelated to compost production than on making compost.  Knowing how to make good compost will not be enough.  Before taking the plunge, be sure you have the drive, stamina, and desire to devote such a large portion of your day to shepherding a new business.