Chickens & Composting
Much like peas and carrots, chickens and gardens belong together (though maybe not occupying the same space). Chickens want to work. They want to dig and search and scratch. Why not put natural behavior to work for you?
B.C. (before chickens) I had a decent compost pile hidden out of sight behind the shed. I added to it when I remembered to, but I rarely remembered to turn it. Did it work? Yes, but was it great? Not so much. It hardly had food scrap content and it never had coffee grounds. The compost pile was slow to break down and the quality wasn’t as high as it could be. Then came the chickens…
Using the Chickens for Composting
I love seeing my girls run for treats at the end of the day. When they were new and exciting, I was practically ripping half-finished apples from my family members so I could go out and throw it to the birds. Now I’ve settled on once or twice a day. The only problem with my new situation was that the compost still wasn’t getting any food scrap materials and darn my girls are picky. One would think out of eighteen birds, someone would eat it, but that isn’t always the case. As a result, I had nasty, slimy food bits in the run. That means flies.
Meanwhile, I had started to add piles of dry leaves in the run. I was hoping the birds would shred them up so I could use them as top mulch in my perennial beds. Boy do those chickens do quick work of shredded leaves! A 3′ high pile in the morning is 6″ of shredded mulch by lockup time in the evening. It got me thinking… What couldn’t you put the compost in the run and let them tear it up like they do the dry leaves?
So I grabbed two pallets from my friendly neighborhood hardware store (it’s good to know people) and I rigged up a 4′ x 4′ bin using my fence as the back wall. I put the compost that had been sitting behind the shed for over a year into the new bin. When it went in, there were obvious layers and it wasn’t broken down much. At the end of the week, the chickens had mixed it and broken it down to beautiful compost. I was sold that this is the way to be doing things.
More Reasons to Compost In Your Chicken Run
- Manure is added right to the pile. No more trekking across the yard.
- Food scraps and weeds can be thrown in the pile, so whatever the birds don’t eat becomes compost material.*
- The chickens are entertained all day long. This keeps bad behaviors at bay.
- In the winter, the pile creates enough heat to stay thawed, so birds have a warm place to hang out and you can compost year-round.
- The composting action seems to keep the flies at bay.
What can you compost when you compost with chickens?
- Weeds From Your Garden
I collect all my weeds in a 5 gallon bucket and dump it as it fills.
- “Spent” Plants
I compost the deadheads from my flowers as well as most of my annual flowers at the end of the season. My flower beds are 70% self-seeding annuals so the mother plant dies every year. When the plant is nice and dry, I chop it at soil height and walk around shaking it for any seeds that might still be present, then into the compost it goes.
- Food Scraps
Any food that is safe to compost can go in, with a few exceptions.* If I am giving my hens a treat that isn’t compost-safe (such as a meat or dairy product), I give it to them in a separate area.
Chicken & Compost Safety
There is a very lengthy list of foods and plants that are not safe for chickens. It’s almost horrifying. I make this next statement safely cloaked in my legal “at your risk” stuff… Don’t worry too much! I have two rhododendrons growing along the fence. No one has every bothered with them. I have acorns galore on my property. No deaths yet.
Some of it is certainly the circumstances. If you’re birds are not eating enough and they are confined in a small space, yes, they’ll eat whatever they can get. My birds have a well-rounded diet and range over 1/8th of an acre (sometimes more, since the fence is merely a suggestion). Most of the time the bird knows what to consume and what not to. In the case of the rhododendrons, there were a few nibbles the first day and nothing since. It either didn’t sit well or it tasted gross.
* Some foods I won’t compost because the risk is too high:
Foxglove, hollyhocks, avocado and apple seeds.
For an extensive list of plants and foods that are toxic to chickens,here is a very in-depth list.