The Chicken “Run” on Steroids!

the-run

A tractor trailer dropped off a pallet of organic feed onto my tiny dock. This cost me $800 and would only last 3 months. I had organized a feed co-op to save a $2 a Bag. That brought my 50 pound bag of organic feed to $34. That was the fall of 2013 and it ended up being the last time I ever bought commercial feed for my flock.

I’ll Show You How It’s Done.

I’ll show you how I weaned myself off of commercial chicken feed and replaced it with free compost and kitchen scraps.

Commercial Chicken Feed is Not Sustainable.

$34 for a bag of feed is not sustainable. My chickens need about 1/3 pound of feed a day. That’s a cost of 23 cents per chicken. On commercial feed, my Black Australorps, at best, were producing an egg every other day. That means I was paying $5.52 a dozen, just on feed! If you added in my cost of equipment, housing, watering systems and labor I was better off buying my eggs, even at premium free range organic prices, at the farmers market.

I knew commercial feed wasn’t going to work, so I tried completely free ranging (no fences) and had great success accept for all the chicken poop me and my family kept stepping in. On top of that, they were scratching up the yard and my mulched areas. It seemed like their resource were mis-directed.

Soon after my commercial feed purchase, my mind was officially blown away by Geoff Lawton’s Chicken Tractor on Steroids:

Essentially, Geoff developed a mobile chicken operation in which the chickens are fed solely on kitchen scraps and compost!

This was all well and good, but at the time I didn’t need a mobile system. My chickens were confined to a traditional run with deep mulch. I began to brainstorm and developed what I call, the “Compost Corner on Steroids”. Here’s how it’s done.

Introducing The Compost Corner on Steroids

Chickens-on-bin

Compost

You’ll need plenty of material for making compost on site. I highly suggest gathering all of your needed material before assembling. Pile it just outside your fence or at the entrance so you can easily access it. In order to generate enough heat for your pile, you’ll need at least 1 cubic yard of material.

Browns-and-Greens

You will need both carbon “brown” and nitrogen “green” materials.

Most of your material should be carbon. Imagine enough material to fill a bin of pallets as you build your stash.

Kitchen Scraps

If your not already, start a “chicken bucket” in your house and throw ALL your food scraps in this as feed. Since your composting, you can include “organic”, non edible material like flowers, cardboard, paper etc… If the chickens don’t eat it, your compost will!

food-scraps

For a larger source of scraps, check out your local health food stores and ask a produce manager if you can have their “throw away” fruits and veggies. Most co-op’s and health food stores are probably already saving this stuff for folks to pick up. They save money on dumpster costs and keep this useable “trash” out of the landfill. One of our health food stores always has at least 3 – 10 trash buckets full of food scraps outback for a local composter. The managers allow anyone to collect it as long as they clean up after themselves.

Standard size heat treated pallets

These can be had for free with almost any business that receives shipments on pallets. I source mine from a local manufacturer. They constantly have discarded pallets out front, free for the taking. You can try pet stores, small engine repair shops, hardware stores, motorcycle shops, furniture stores and lawn and garden shops. Think small operations and and always ask permission. If your too shy, search Craigslist for free pallets. I just did a quick search and found 4 free sources of pallets in my area.

Pallets-in-Craigslist

Make sure you get heat treated (HT) pallets, not pressure treated. Each pallet should be labeled. If it’s not labeled, just adopt the policy of “when in doubt, throw it out”. You don’t want those chemicals in the foundation of your food supply.

tools-for-compost

Tools:

Pitch Fork – for pitching the compost.

Wheel barrow – for bringing in compost material and hauling off the finished goods.

4, small ropes, bungies or some other kind of strap.

Continual Flow of Compost in Just 5 Weeks!

Week #1

tying-the-bin

Have your compost material assembled near the entrance of your run so it’s easily accessible. Better yet, put it just outside the fence just where your pile will be if you can throw it over.

If your using a temporary electric net for your fencing you can bring in the corner where you’ll be working to keep the chickens out of your way (see pictures below). You can check the temperature of the pile throughout the week with a compost thermometer. Your ideal heat is between 130-160 fahrenheit. If it’s not getting hot enough within 24 hours it’s probably not wet enough and/or you have too much carbon brown material and need to mix in some more green material when you turn the pile next week.

fence-before

fence-after

Fill the bin with your compost material being sure to mix and water along the way. This week, as you feed your chickens your food scraps, just ad it to the top of the pile. They’ll add their manure and eat all the edibles on top. Be sure to provide a ladder or ramp to help the birds get up and down safely.

filled-bin

Week #2

removing-the-bin

Remove your pallets from your week #1 pile and assemble them in your next corner. You can rotate clockwise or counterclockwise, just go the same way each time. Now fill the bin with new compost material and flip your week #1 compost. If done right your birds will be extremely interested in the biota. Now, flip your week #1 pile.

Chickens-on-scraps

Week #3

Remove your pallets from week #2 pile and assemble them in your next corner and fill. Now, turn your 1st and 2nd piles. You’ll start to notice the progression of your piles. The chickens will eventually start showing less and less interest in the older less active piles. The pile temperatures will start to drop. However, your piles shouldn’t shrink too much, nor should they smell bad. If this is happening, your loosing nitrogen to the atmosphere as you don’t have enough carbon to capture it properly. If that’s your case, ad more carbonatious brown material next week when you turn your pile.

turning

Week #4

Remove your pallets from week #3 pile and assemble them in your 4th and final corner.

Fill the bin and turn your 1st, 2nd and 3rd week piles.

Week #5

Harvest your finished compost from your first week and apply where needed! Start over by removing your pallets from corner #4 and assemble them in your 1st corner. Flip the 3 remaining piles.

Now, you’ll on a four week cycle.

More than just Free chicken Feed

The compost attracts countless biota, which is a live protein source for your birds. Between the biota and your kitchen scraps I’ll venture to guess this has got to be a higher quality feed than stale commercial grain.

compost-biota

Not only do you get free, higher quality feed, you’ll get a cubic yard of compost each week. Just the compost harvest from 1 week is enough to cover a garden bed 1” that’s 15’X20’! That’s ample enough patch to keep a family of four in vegetables all summer long!

From spending $267 a month to Profiting $80 on FREE food.

I did notice that my production rates became less inconsistent, probably because of my inconsistencies in my learning curve. However, I still sufficient amount of eggs and meat from my flock of 30 for our family of 6. What’s changed is my stress level during the fall or winter when they’re production slows. If they slow down, I’m not out any money, but I’m still getting a cubic yard of compost every week. A quick search online showed a cubic yard of compost selling from $20-$75. So if you didn’t need all that compost you could sell it.

Let’s ad up the total value here. I went from paying $267 a month in feed to getting at least $80 in compost and FREE eggs. I’ll gladly do that deal all day long.

Ready to get started?

Making Compost and the 5 week Chicken Run on Steroids “to do” list.

4 Things You’ll Need to Make Compost:

Carbon (Brown Material)

Nitrogen (Green Material)

Oxygen

Water

1st – Gather your Carbon and Nitrogen Material. Generally, you’ll need more carbon material (abbreviated to “C”, and also called Brown Material) than Nitrogen material (Abbreviated to “N”, and also called Green material). Each possible ingredient has a C:N ratio. Brown materials like wood chips, leaves, straw are higher in C:N ratio’s (in other words they are much higher in carbon than nitrogen than green materials.

For example. I have an abundance of leaves (brown material with a C:N ratio of 60:1. I also have cow manure (green material) with a C:N ratio of 15:1. Your ideal compost ratio is 30:1 pound for pound. To bring my leaves ratio down and my manure ratio up, I realize I’m going to have to have more leaves, pound for pound, than manure. I guess about 2 pounds leaves to 1 pound of manure.

There’s an amazing online calculator in which you can put in your available ingredients and get your ratio’s. I used it to check my notion for my leaves/manure mix and found out I was right. I’ll need 2 pounds leaves for 1 pound manure to get a perfect 30:1 ratio.

Here’s the tool:

http://www.organicsciencesllc.com/composting.htm

If you’re throwing in all kinds of things, you could use this general formula:

2 parts Brown Material + 2 parts Green Material + 1 part manure = 30:1 ratio

2nd – Assemble your pile making sure you mix your materials. Ad water as you go if you can.

3rd – Finish watering. Ad water until it comes out through the bottom. Another way of testing to see if you’ve added enough is by squeezing the material. You want it to drip a little if you squeeze it. If you get nothing from the squeeze it’s too dry. If you over wet it, time will dry it out.

4th – Cover the pile to maintain your moisture level. You’ll guard off rain and prevent the pile from evaporation too fast and you’ll provide some barrier to keep the heat in.

5th – You’ll infuse the pile with oxygen when you turn it every week. What I mean by turn it, is to it pitch into a new pile right next to the old one.This will oxygenate your pile and get your outside material on the inside where most of the composting is going to happen.

Notes for Success

To test your mix and progress, you can test it’s moisture level and/or take it’s temperature. Your pile should heat up between 130-160 Ferenheit. If it doesn’t get hot enough it won’t break down quick enough and it won’t kill the seeds that make it to the pile. You either need more water or more green material or both. You can mix in more green material the next time you turn the pile.

You can do the squeeze test to check your moisture levels. If it needs water, you can ad it immediately. If you get hotter than 160 you can actually kill the healthy biota in the pile and even cause a fire. In this case you likely have too much green material and will need to balance it out with more brown material the next time you turn it.

5 Week Action Plan to Continual Compost

Week #1

Step #1 – Get your compost material (green and brown) material assembled in separate piles.

Step #2 – Fill the bin with your compost material being sure to mix and water along the way.

Step #3 – This week, as you feed your chickens your food scraps, just ad it to the top of the pile

Week #2

Step #1 – Remove your pallets from your week #1 pile and assemble them in your next corner

Step #2 – Fill the bin with new compost material

Step #3 – Turn your week #1 compost

Week #3

Step #1 – Remove your pallets from week #2 pile and assemble them in your next corner

Step #2 – Fill the bin with new compost material

Step #3 – Turn your week #1 and week #2 piles

Week #4

Step #1 – Remove your pallets from week #3 pile and assemble them in your 4th and final corner.

Step #2 – Fill the bin with new compost material

Step #3 – Turn your 1st, 2nd and 3rd piles.

Week #5

Step #1 – Remove your finished compost from your first week and apply where needed.

Step #2 – Start over by removing your pallets from corner #4 and assemble them in your 1st corner.

Step #3 – Flip the 3 remaining piles

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44 thoughts on “The Chicken “Run” on Steroids!

  1. Thanks for the write up Justin.
    I have begun working towards this type of system and I will use a few tips from this article to further refine my setup. Great info here!

  2. Hi Justin,
    Inspiring article so thank you. What would you say the minimum size of the run could be and the minimum number of birds for those with space limitations?

  3. Minimum run for the cubic yard compost piles… Let’s see, you need space for the 4 piles and room enough to turn those piles…. and the chickens really can spread them out. My run was probably 25 feet by 25 feet. But it could have been smaller. Maybe 20′ X 20′. I’m just estimating base on my experience. I have plenty of room, so I didn’t have to worry about it. You could get creative I’m sure with a smaller space, I’m sure. Glad you enjoyed the article!

  4. I am currently feeding my hens non-organic “Lay 18,” which means it’s 18% protein, at $US 17. I also feed them all the kitchen scraps we generate, except those they will not eat such as citrus rinds. I have a compost pile for shredded paper, trimmed and pulled weeds. prunings, human urine–anything nontoxic that will rot. I also have a bin of red wiggler worms that eat cardboard. The 25 hens have the run a well-fenced, acre-size orchard during the day. I am currently covering it with poultry netting because hawks have killed some hens recently. I sell my eggs for $3/dozen. I would like to move more toward your system Justin. You look young and vigorous and have an assistant in training I see. Good work! I am 78. Farm keeps me going.

    1. Your system sounds amazing! Where are you? Do you have pictures? If so, send them to [email protected]. I actually have chronic Lyme disease and have cut back my physical work load considerably. I’m fortunate to have a guy who comes out for a few hours once a weeks (volunteer). That’s when we do the more physical stuff like turn those piles. He and I chat too much and get it done in about an hour and a half. He’s a youth minister, so sometimes he brings a teen or two! Kids these days get a kick out of some manual labor every once in a while.

    1. Good question. At one point I was dumping the scraps in the afternoon and evening, and I started to notice rats! I switched to feeding the craps in the morning and the chickens pretty much have it all gone by evening. Since then, I haven’t noticed any more rats.

        1. Hi Les, it depends on the size of the mice and rats. I haven’t seen them with rats, but mice, the chickens have no issue at all.

          1. Check out this BBC documentary about chickens. They’ve got a shot of a chicken eating a mouse around the 1:50 mark! -ADMIN EDIT please consider if this is appropriate viewing for you or those around you, prior to viewing. ADMIN EDIT- http://youtu.be/1c06xOF4uQ8

          2. In my experience rats are a big deal with chickens. Besides eating their food, the disturbance they create at night stresses the chickens enough to adversely affect laying. Now that rats are totally excluded from my system, the chooks are much more consistent and productive.

  5. Great adaptation of a great idea. Thanks for sharing. How many birds do you feed with this cubic meter of compost?

  6. I wonder if quality of the feed might actually depend on the mineral composition of the biota and the compost, in the same way that the quality of food depends on the mineral density of the food, which, in turn depends on the mineral balance of the soil, especially in relation to, but not confined to, micronutrients.

  7. Such a well written and informative article with visuals to help us to really get interested in going further in our efforts and not get discouraged. Thanks so much and prayers for you too :) Shalom, Michele

  8. Hi Justin,
    Thanks for sharing! I’m in the far northern hemisphere planning for spring and wanted to use the chicken tractor on steroids idea this year but don’t need the ‘tractor’ part, so this is perfect. Just a question: in the compost to do list section you talk about putting a tarp over the compost pile to regulate moisture: doesn’t that make it impossible for the chickens to get at it? Thanks!

    1. That’s a great point. Sorry for the misunderstanding. What I meant to suggest there was using the tarp in the evening while the chickens are up. Then remove the tarp in the morning. It’s not 24/7 coverage, but may help in some situations.

  9. thanks for documenting this! Do you think there is an optimal ratio of number of birds to size of bin. Or number of birds to how often you start a new bin? Did you choose a week because it’s a handy timeframe, or because that’s how long it took for the birds to go off the piled compost?

    In your photos you look like you are using lots of pre-broken down brown material, is that right?

    1. There’s certainly going to be an optimal number, although I’m not 100% sure what that is (yet). It just so happened that Geoff had about 30 birds, and I had about 30 birds. A good minimal for a compost pile is 3 cubic yards or meters. That size has provided enough compost biota feeds for his operation and mine. It would certainly feed less chickens and perhaps a dozen more. However, I can’t be sure about that until I’ve done some more experimentation.

      Doing this once a week is timely, plus it give the new pile in the bin plenty of time to get hot. Giving the chickens one week to turn the other piles is also helpful. My chickens probably turn the piles too much in a weeks time, so ideally I might do a 5 day rotation. It’s something you can test and play around with for sure. Sometimes it’s just handy to do the compost turning job on a set day of the week.

      1. I’m thinking about a system with considerably less chooks, and how much work is involved (vs paying for feed). A m3 bin is the minimum, would there be any issues on that being turned less often? It just makes the compost slower, right? Or does the foodscrap/insect to chook ratio decline too? I’m not expecting a definitive answer, just thinking it through, thanks :-)

        1. Turning it less would just slow it down. From my experience the chickens show great interest in the turned piles at first, then that interest slowly fades. I’m thinking it’s because they’ve picked it clean. You, however have less birds, so it will take them longer. I think it’s worth a try. One stout person could turn all the piles in less than 2 hours. It’s a great workout!

  10. we are starting composting, chickens, and reclaiming land formerly used for dumping old cars so are thankful for all your knowledge. We still have a lot of cleaning up to do so anything we can do to get started on a budget is very helpful.

  11. This is awesome, as is Jeff Lawtons system. I have got a pretty good system too, one which combines annual and perennial food plants within the cage itself, and integrates the whole system with a vege garden. I believe it is more of a self contained, self regulating designed ecosystem. Youtube: Kuranda Permaculture Cage System:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OlDtOmVf5gI

      1. Thanks Justin. I was inspired by the illustration in the designers manual, (page 25) and apart from this, I have yet to see anything that resembles it, where food for the chickens is grown in amongst them and they live in a diverse, plant rich environment, requiring little management or input of extra food. Sorry, but I don’t have any pics which cover anything not apparent in the video, but am happy to elaborate or take some if there is anything anybody is specifically interested in.

  12. Where are your food scraps coming from?
    Should you concerned about biocide residues on the food that comes through conventional grocery stores?
    Thanks!

    1. That is a concern of mine, so I source the food scraps from the local health food store where 90% of their produce is organic.

  13. Compost looks good, but chickens on steroids, crikey!
    I first read the steroids reference by Geoff Lawton, who had reinvented what he’d seen where I work at Vermont Compost Company; we feed chickens on cow manure and food scraps.
    We talked about the steroids thing at work a bit, and can we invent a better term?
    Maybe, Happy chickens on people’s food? or Chickens expressing their chickenhood on perfectly formed and formulated piles of organic matter?
    I’m sure people can do better than me with the wording.
    Have at it!
    John.

  14. Can this be done as a 1 time thing on a smaller scale? I realize that you need the cubic meter of compost for the biology to work but I’ve only got 3 chickens, does it make sense to even try this? Additionally, won’t the chickens turn/scrach the pile out as time goes on?

  15. 16 mature ladies (layers) at present with 25 Jersey Giants, mostly fryers due next week. 15-ish yards of leaves stockpiled. used modified version of this last year, worked great. You can never have too much compost, free feed is a plus.

  16. I find a good way to encourage restaurants to give you the leftovers is to offer eggs in return when collecting. Sharing is more productive than any system.

  17. This is actually a time-honored method. My grandparents had a huge compost / manure pile in the middle of their farm yard, and the chickens (and turkeys and geese) had the run of that yard, and sometimes the adjoining fruit orchard as well. (The vegetable garden was walled off precisely to avoid scratching where it wasn’t wanted.) I don’t think the poultry was ever fed anything in addition to what they could forage other than a bit of grain. It wasn’t egg production meant for sale, but it was plenty for the family.
    And then there’s the old “farmer’s rule”: “Wenn der Hahn kräht auf them Mist, ändert sich’s Wetter oder es bleibt wie es ist.” (If the rooster crows standing on the midden, the weather will change or stay as it is.)
    Come to think of it, I have such a picture of this scene in my head, I must have seen roosters on farm middens in children’s book illustrations more than once as a child.

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