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Chickens help with composting

Bob Kell is the Main Street Project Farm and Training Director.

I recently read an article about a Vermont composting company that uses chickens to assist in working the compost pile. It seems very beneficial both to the chickens and to the composter. The article has gotten us thinking about how we might incorporate some of that process into our own free-range production system and do more with composting.

At present, what happens is that the manure generated by a flock of chickens is cleaned out of the coop at the end of the flock and piled up outside of the picture of chickenspaddocks in a curing area. The manure is not actively composted (as in turned frequently), but is kept until fall when it is offered to our vegetable growers who do a fall application on their fields. The Minnesota winter takes care of the rest. The fields in the spring benefit from free, rich nutrients that help the vegetables grow beautifully.

We have designed plans for a composting area, complete with covered stalls and aeration pipes and a small tractor to shift the piles from stall to stall every week or so. We know that the composted manure makes excellent fertilizer and is an essential part of the integrated system we propose. But as with any grand design with multiple pots on the stove, not all of them get stirred at the same time. We have yet to move that design forward.

But this article raises another point. Not all the composting has to be done in isolation of the chickens. And not all the compost has to come from them. Our current production coops are located in Northfield, MN. We rent space from a farm that is also the site of a CSA and a commercial vegetable operation. Two colleges with a very collaborative food service (Bon Appetit) have already supported us extensively as a primary client for the chickens we produce and a local food co-op (Just Foods) has also supported us with seed money for our Grow a Farmer Fund. The article raises the question of whether it may be possible to collect the left-over produce or food from these organizations and make further use of it. The chickens will eat what they can from it. They will help scratch it around and compost it. The compost can be provided back to the farms and vegetable operations as rich fertilizer. The producers in the program will have saved some money on feed and the vegetable producers will have found some great organic fertilizer. Seems like a win-win all around.

Looks like there is another pot on the stove. We’d better get stirring.