13 November 2014

A compost heap in the run to delight my chickens

Chickens are absolutely a foraging species, and when they are heads are down, tails up, they are happy! In the wild they spend most of their time pecking and scratching as they forage. Today penned-up backyard chickens are exactly the same - even if the feeder's full, they want to forage. And forage they should.

Two or three weeks ago I finally got around to making mine their own compost heap in the chicken run. Hopefully one day it will start to compost properly and provide worms for my birds to find. However, from the first day of my making this heap, they've spent a lot of time in it.

Why they love their compost heap
- They eat some of the green stuff when it's fresh
- They like turning it over in the hope of finding something
- After the first night, any heap of vegetation has the effect of attracting tiny little creatures underneath it that the chickens love to gobble down. For this to happen, it's just a matter of creating a critical mass of vegetable matter.

What I put in it
It's mainly full of weeds. Ah, there are so many of them at this time of year. Leaves, weeds and whatever else you gather will work. I also throw unwanted leafy bits of vegetables in there - carrot, radish and parsnip tops, for example, and lettuce that has bolted.

I try not to add very long grass or vine-like stuff. If they swallow very long blades of grass it can block their digestive systems, and vines just make a tangled mess that it is hard for them to turn over. A gone-to-seed broccoli plant goes in there, but I pull it out a day or two later when all that's left is long, stiff stalks because they've eaten all the leaves.

What about rats?
We always leave out rat poison in tunnels, and our cat's a reasonable hunter, but I still worry about attracting rats. Therefore I'm not adding kitchen scraps (apart from things like lettuce) unless I know they'll be gobbled straight away.

Maintaining critical mass: it needs a border
As all chicken keepers know, piles/heaps don't last long under strong scratchy chicken feet - they get dispersed very fast! Therefore they need a border that the chickens can climb over, but that keeps the contents contained.

Half our heap is surrounded by fences, and the half they get in and out of has small tree stumps and old bricks as a border about 30 cm high. That way they can kick at the vegetation as much as they want and it still stays pile-shaped. The vegetation needs to be held in a heap in order for the insects to accumulate and nature to do its decomposition magic.

I can't see this needing much work over time, except:
- sometimes turning it over with a pitchfork or similar, so that the little creatures right underneath are exposed and to add air to the heap.
- if the contents start to spill over the border, I'll make it bigger. I could move the border out or build the border higher with something like rocks. (I probably won't build it higher or my sneakiest chicken would realise that it brings her closer to the top of the fence and she can jump over to eat our vegetables.)
- I might need to add straw or dead leaves as 'brown matter' if it gets a bit slimy and stinky.

Have you experimented with compost heaps in this way?

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