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How to Grow Chickens Without Buying Grain – by Only Feeding Them Compost

Whilst on a tour of the US, Permaculture teacher Geoff Lawton was giving a talk at Montpelier, Vermont, when a young man suggested we film his boss, compost maestro Karl Hammer and his amazing system of feeding compost to his flock of 100-plus chickens, and without feeding them any grain. Chickens live off the compost eating worms and biota and help in the composting process. Nobody thought it was possible, until now. An amazing story.

See which chickens you should buy and what Geoff Lawton is planning to do with his own flock of birds. Watch a series of inspiring videos about how to live an abundant life. It’s all free. Read all the positive endorsements too. People love watching videos that inspire people to action.

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24 thoughts on “How to Grow Chickens Without Buying Grain – by Only Feeding Them Compost

  1. I’m so glad you guys filmed this project – it’s one of my favorite “waste to yield” projects in the US. And thanks to Karl for explaining how the chickens survive winter. When I’ve pointed people to Karl’s site in the past, I always get the question – “they’re in VT, what do they do in winter?” I’ve always assumed the heat from the windrows was hot enough to keep heavy snows off and chickens at a comfortable temp. Happy to hear this is the case!

    Karl – your project is fantastic. Hoping I can set something similar up in an urban setting by encouraging folks to take waste from local restaurants and tree trimmers and create compost. We are already in the early stages of this.

    A yield is waiting for us – we just have to go out and cycle it through our systems!

      1. I am very new to chickens but I would love to implement this with my flock & I have no lack of organic matter from bovine, equine & other sources on our ranch. I do wonder how you keep predators at bay? Coyotes, hawks, raccoons and the like are a big issue where we live in Alberta, Canada. Any ideas on how I could incorporate this system while still using a chicken run for protection?

        1. We use geese for flock security. We have kept at least one Toulouse with our free range laying flock for over a year and a half and have not lost any to predators.

  2. Our 6 chickens love our compost. When we had to keep them in the run for a week, we took partially decomposed compost and dumped it in the run to keep them busy. At the end of the week it was all bug free and chopped up.

    1. i can only speak for myself, but i haven’t noticed an increase in spam since signing up for the videos. i do get geoff lawton emails, but i like those.

  3. Just wondering if a smaller scale domestic version for residential areas or community gardens could be developed. I realise it is smaller in volume and slower to process than industrial scale versions but I don’t see it being much more than a chicken powered domestic compost bin. The difference would be that the compost bin would have to have a vertical post up the middle with spiral roost perches that would gradually be buried as the compost accumulated. The actual chook house could be lifted off the post and moved to another bin post while the compost pile matured when full. When “cooked” then the outside plastic bin would be lifted off and the compost shovelled out from between perches. The main advantage to this set up would be that it could be insect and rodent proof – essential in a built up residential area. Insects would still proliferate in there on the food scraps and get in there via the garden wastes and up through the ground.

    The idea of a chicken highrise platescraper skyscraper would probably fit into built up areas more easily and be less prone to animal attack. multistorey laying boxes, night roosts and access to outer conventional ground runs sometimes would also be encouraged.

    I would be interesting to hear how many chooks might be needed to process a certain amount of food scraps. Do chooks have a limited eating capacity or a limited turning capacity that might need to be taken into consideration to prevent things going rotten. Could be some interesting research to conduct perhaps inside some conventional chicken runs to start with!

    1. I like the idea of a small diameter compost pile. My understanding is that the compost pile needs to be large enough that the inner portions generate enough heat to compensate for the lack of insulation. You could use some kind of insulation to surround the pile. An air intake would be needed at the bottom (pallet maybe) and a small vent pipe out the cover. You would have experiment with throttling the vent to keep compost temperature where the composting critters like it.

  4. Hey Geoff, I know you’re probably busy with the PDC course going on now. ( which my husband has been enjoying, and I have to) we started our first batch of chicks ( Buff Orpingtons) and I was wondering if there is a limit to certain food scraps and things in our yard that the chickens cannot eat. Our chicks are about 1 1/2 weeks old and we have them eating a non medicated chick start, and we pick dandelions from our yard and give those to them. Do we need a separate compost bin for certain things, or just feed them whatever? I looked at some chicken sites, however I trust you and your wealth of knowledge. :)
    Hope to get a response, but I will understand if you are not able to.
    Thanks! -Tiauna in Utah, USA

    1. The chicks will mainly need fine seeds and breads scraps etc. The thing with these systems is that the compost is very good for the young chicks after it has gone past the cage and been turn over twice as it is fine by then and the chickens totally dismantle it, we then reassemble it again.

  5. It is my understanding that the heat in a compost pile was need to kill off seeds in the pile. When using chickens in this way to turn piles and eat seeds, does going through the chickens system eliminate the problems with seeds?

      1. Brilliant project. My chooks already eat their way through my compost but I have Two questions: 1 at what stage do I move the compost on from the chooks and 2. why does the thorough rooting of the chooks and eating of the useful insects not inhibit the useful function of these insects?

    1. Paula – My name is Eyal. We’re starting a social project in a Boarding school in Central Israel with this system, and would love to get in contact with you, share knowledge and cooperate. Please contact
      Eyal

  6. We sell composting worms. I would love to do this but I am concerned that the chickens will eat all our worms. I want to keep about 15 chickens. The bulk of our compost comes from 20 cows, though we do bring home food waste as well. Do you think 15 chickens would make an significant impact on our worm populations?

  7. Question — can properly handled humanure be mixed with the other manures for the compost? By properly handled, I mean humanure that has been allowed to heat and percolate for at least a year?

  8. Hi Geoff, thank you so much for this inspiring clip. Since viewing it i’ve been wanting to get our chicks off grain. question: My chickens seem really hungry since weaning them off imported lay feed. I’ve got 6 5 month old hens, a few just started laying. We get 1 30 gallon trash bin from two local restaurants per week with food scraps and give them that in our compost heap. It may be too acidic, we’re working on more of a mulch source to bring the carbon up (it’s been grass clips, but they’re still pretty green). They don’t seem very interested in eating from the heap, and rush towards us looking for food when we come out. They get about 4 hours per day free ranging on a double city lot, but otherwise are in the run. Is there something we’re doing wrong or a way they might be more interested in the heap? They don’t really scratch in it much, sometimes sleep on it, but are definitely not eating deeply from it. Does this take more time? Should we supplement the heap with anything else? Is it the acidity? I’ve just recently been putting some lay feed on top of the heap to steer them that way, but would appreciate any ideas you have. Thank you so much for your work, Geoff, and all my other permaculture family out there!

  9. what if you rotate chickens with rabbits on a compost run? The chickens scratch and add to it and the rabbits turn it and add to it as well… Thus no need for turning it.

  10. Brilliant project. My chooks already eat their way through my compost. Two questions 1 at what stage do I move the compost on from the chooks 2 why does the thorough rooting of the chooks and eating of the useful insects not inhibit the useful function of these insects?

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