A Worm Bin in your Chicken Coop

Here is a guide to create a WIN – WIN – WIN – WIN Situation

 

  1. You win because you are going to pay less for chicken food. (And believe me it is also good for your consciousness when you know that your food waste isn’t wasted any longer.)
  2. Your chickens win because they are getting chicken treats and pickled veg (fermented foods) that are high in protein, probiotics, minerals and don’t have to be ordered from amazon. (It is also an added stimulus to scratch in the box.)
  3. Your garden wins because you are treating it with a perfect amendment. (Works for house plants as well.)
  4. The environment wins because you are diverting organic waste from the landfills. (Where it really does not belong.)

Full disclosure: There are some affiliate links throughout this article – if you buy worms I get a wiggly commission. But we’d still recommend to buy worms locally. (I got mine from neighbors.)

The super short version of chickens & worm bins

 

Step 1:

Add a box in you chicken coop or run, fill it with carbon (woodchips, shredded paper, straw, dry leaves, or your amazon packages) and start to empty your kitchen scraps into the box.

Step 2:

Get yourself a bag of worms in the mail (or support your local worm lords on craigslist and Instagram) look for #vermicast #wormbin (For South Florida check @Wormyqueen) and release your new best pets into the box.

Step 3:

Since you are just starting out, make sure that there is a moist carbon layer of 6 inches or more, so that the worms have their space to wiggle away when your chickens come scratching.

That’s it.

Once your box is full you can sift out the finished vermicast from the bottom and restart the process.

It’s a self-replicating circle that you fuel with your food scraps. It gets managed by your chickens and is powered by the composting worms and your own ingenuity.

Call it “Vermicast” – Rhonda Sherman

There are many other names for Vermicast: Vermicompost, “Black Gold”, Worm compost and worm poop. In German there are also multiple terms that are being used for it. I put literal translations in brackets, just because I think it’s a fun fact.  “Wurm Erde” (Wormsoil) , Wurm Kompost (Wormcompost) or Wurmhumus. (Worm Humus).

I use the term “vermicast” because Rhonda Sherman, the leading US scientist researching composting worms at the University of North Carolina, suggests it actually THE scientifically correct term to identify what comes out of the rear end of the composting worms you added to the worm box.

My worm boxes are in the chicken run  

I open the worm bins in the morning and the first thing the chickens do is to hop up and check them out. I close them at night when I close the coop, so that the marauding neighborhood critters won’t raid the all-you-can-eat-buffet.

Why are worms much more than just “free chicken treats” ?

  • Because they upcycle your kitchen scraps into chicken treats & garden amendment.
  • A worm bin can reduce your organic waste stream almost entirely.
  • A worm bin is a habitat that transforms organic kitchen scraps into compost.
  • A worm bin is more than just a place for worms. There are TONS of organisms involved. Those bacteria, fungi and other micro organisms are making up the life in your soil and thus will benefit your plant when you apply the finished compost.

Chicken’s do not always eat worms.

Just like you don’t eat candy all the time either.

Chickens are selective eaters and prefer a broad diet. I have a feeling they like the worm cocoons even better than actual worms.

But chickens do not dig super deep either. My worm population has been thriving for years now with the chickens taking their share of both worms and cocoons.

And then there are all the other small organisms that become attracted to your worm bin. Some are so small that you might be wondering what the chicken is pecking for. Those are all added benefits for your chickens, in terms of extra nutritional value and scratching excitement.

What can I put into my worm box?

I go by: “If it was alive once it can be tossed in the wormbin.

There are lots of lists about what you can or cannot add to your compost.

“Compost do’s and don’ts.”

But from my observation most of those lists just make it more complicated for beginners to start their system.

Because it can be confusing. Can I put citrus fruit in the compost? Can I put avocados in?

Here is an example of what I don’t put in: You know how some tea bags use metal clips to close the bag and attach the string? That’s the part I break off and toss in the trash, but the tea bag of course goes into our bin.

The metal clip would obviously (is it?) not compost and the sharp ends are a health risk to the chickens. If swallowed they could pierce their esophagus or cause internal bleeding.

You hear from lot of sources that citrus fruit like lemon or orange peel can not be composted in a worm bin. I beg to differ because I have composted a lot of them.

That goes back to the fact that all fruits or vegetables are made up of organic matter. And all organic matter will compost under the correct circumstances.

The reason not to add a lot of citrus at once is the oil that is in their peels. That makes it harder to compost, but definitely not impossible.

If you keep chickens long enough, or other livestock, or actually just pay attention to your surroundings – chances are that you notice other critters living in your neighborhood.

Like racoons or opossums, mice and rats or other critters that are more adapted to your region. There comes a day that you will have to “deal with them”. I usually go by co-existing and value animal diversity. But lets just put it this way: you can compost dead animals in your worm bin.

How to Set Up Your Chicken Coop and Run With A Worm Bin

The art of balancing out your compost bin is easy with worms

If you know that worms breath by absorbing oxygen from moisture, that is layered on their skin, you would understand that a dry environment would suffocate them.

Ask yourself why do aquariums need an air pump?

Stagnant water gets depleted of oxygen and that’s what we call an anaerobic environment.

So an environment without oxygen for a creature that needs it to breath?

You now understand that this will suffocate them.

Conclusion: Keep it moist, not too wet, don’t let it dry. They’ll be fine.

 

Think About The Features Of Your Worm Bin

If you keep the bin outside, make sure it is critter and rodent proof. My motto: If it can’t slip through the cracks – it doesn’t belong in there. If you have bears around, make it bear proof. (Hat up though for keeping chickens around bears, I bet you have something to teach me)

The worm bin should be somewhat breathable to allow for air / oxygen flow.

The larger the bin, the heavier it gets.

 A larger bin is usually a better bin. (More space to escape undesirable conditions, more insulation in winter)

But if you have to move the bin around, you have to plan accordingly.

Plain and simple: a wooden shipping crate with a simple lid, made of pallet boards.

Some worm farmers have a spigot on the bottom to collect “worm juice” but a couple drainage slits will do to. This way you avoid water build up on the bottom. My worm bins are (by chance) on the highest point of elevation on my property so I do not feel the need to collect the worm juice from all of those bins, it self-distributes down the garden beds.

Composting worms feed from the surface.

If you keep layering material into the bin the castings will end up on the bottom and the freshest material is always on top. Many wormbin designs use this behavior as a critical element of their design. Either by adding an opening on the bottom of the bin as a release for the castings. (Like the “Urban Worm Bag” or “The Hungry Bin”) Or by stacking trays that leave the finished castings on the bottom trays while the worms migrate upwards towards the continued feed input. (Like the “Worm Factory”)

Those two design elements are also meant to keep the worms inside your bin when you harvest your castings.

In general I can say that if you are patient enough, the worms can move all by themselves. Towards food and away from light.

 Up-cycle it: Check the “free” section of your local craigslist or the facebook marketplace or nextdoor to discover materials or containers that you can repurpose.

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Today’s worm bin

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The seasons: winterizing your worm bin

Just like I winterize my chicken coop with green house plastic I also take some precautions for my worm bins. The smaller boxes are stored inside the garage, the larger boxes stay outside. The only thing you have to consider is what we have just learned about worms and moisture. They need it to breath and if the moisture freezes, the worm freezes and dies.

That’s also why the large worm boxes can stay outdoors year round in our Ohio winter. As long as the center part of your bin (it should be relatively full before the winter starts) is not freezing, your worms will survive.

Keeping the worms in conjunction with your chickens also puts it into another context. You won’t let your chickens freeze. So there must be some sort of shelter that they can take and the worms can profit from this as well.

My 2 feet by 3 feet by 2 feet wooden box does not freeze all the way through.

There is about a 2-6 inch layer that freezes and this creates it’s own insulation.

 

Geek Mode: How different inputs influence the finished compost quality

Given different inputs and methods of processing, your finished vermicast can also be different in quality.

For example: Worms like to chew moist cardboard and it is a good bedding for them. Bedding with cardboard results in different vermicast than bedding with leaves or wood chips.  

I have been sifting vermicast with different mesh sizes and sifters to refine it. This is because my primary bedding medium is woodchips. Starting out with ½ inch hardware cloth screen sifters, then ¼ inch and finally a  “$9 metal paper basket” from the home depot. It has this mesh that’s approx.. 1/16 inch in diameter fitted with a bolt to be run on a power drill.

Let’s face it: if we are talking about worm POOP than obviously only particles of a certain sizer or smaller would fit through the intestines of a worm. Since I am not the scientist, I wasn’t able to measure the maximum width of a worm cloake, yet. But to call your product “100 vermicasting” or something like that I think it really needs to be sifted out pretty well. Otherwise I think the term “Vermicompost” is probably more accurate.

And that is a good differentiation from my perspective.

The vermicompost has qualities that all composts have, which is adding high quality organic matter to your garden that improves the fertility of your soil. It just means the process it was created by is worm-driven. 

If you compare this to a hot compost pile, that uses the thermophilic bacteria driven process, it is much easier for you and less work.

A hot compost pile needs to be turned for aeration and watered to maintain good moisture levels for at three weeks.

Don’t worry, the worms put your composting on autopilot.

If you are familiar with chicken math than buckle up. Worms breed and multiply even quicker and you can go from a thousand to ten thousand in under a year.

Once you have an established worm environment the population will balance itself out based on the space and amount of feed and bedding available. Since you have read until the end I will ask you to encourage other chicken keepers to add a worm bin to their chicken run. You’ll soon be able to share some of your own population with them.

Having a Worm Bin in Your Chicken Coop in a Nutshell

  • It reduces organic waste in landfills and thus reduces greenhouse emissions.
  • It creates a snack bar for your chickens
  • The result is an organic garden amendment

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I am not sending out a regular newsletter. So please don't expect content from me every week. But I am planning to release my book one day and might add more content to this blog. That's when I need to reach you. Thanks for signing in.

Tim Steckel

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