KOOKOOLAN FARMS
15713 Highway 47, Yamhill, Oregon 97148 ... email kookoolan@gmail.com ... phone Farmer Chrissie at (503) 730-7535
organic farming practices ... pasture-raised poultry, meats, and eggs ... cheesemaking classes and supplies ... mead and kombucha

Worms and Vermiculture/SARE Grant

KOOKOOLAN FARMS - 15713 HWY 47 - YAMHILL, OR  97148 - (503)730.7535 - kookoolan@gmail.com

We are a small, diversified family farm located in the Carlton-Yamhill American Winegrowing Region in the foothills of the Oregon Coast Range.  Our maritime climate provides mild temperatures summer and winter, and plentiful rainfall for our mixed-grass pastures.  We maintain an integrated diversity of livestock:  Jersey cows, chickens for both meat and eggs, composting red worms.  We also have a thriving vegetable CSA.  Sorry, we do not sell compost nor worms.



In 2006 we were awarded a grant from the Western Region SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) fund for investigating whether pastured broiler chicken production could be boosted by integrating vermiculture (worm composting) into a diverse farm operation.  These experiments were less successful than we had thought, but we continue to experiment with ways to encourage our indigenous earthworm population through organic and biodynamic cultivation methods, and we continue to experiment with ways to increase the biodiversity of our compost "mountains".


Compost worms, also known as Red Wrigglers, also known as Eisenia Foetida

For other small poultry producers interested in combining redworm composting with their poultry operation, we offer our original grant proposal and our final report for your perusal.

We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Western Region SARE in supporting these experiments.

 

GENERAL INFORMATION

 

Final Report

 

Project Number FW06-032

 

Subcontract Number/Purchasing Agreement Number:  NA

 

Project Title:  Proposal for a Project to Determine Whether Small Farm Poultry Production can be Boosted when Combined with Red Worm (Eisenia Foetida) Vermiculture

 

Location of Project:  Yamhill, Oregon

 

Funding Period:  From March 2006 to February 2009

 

Total Grant Award (dollars):  USD$10,000

 

Project Coordinator:

Chrissie Manion Zaerpoor

Kookoolan Farms

15713 Highway 47

Yamhill, OR  97148

Telephone (503) 730-7535

(no fax)

Email kookoolan@gmail.com

 

Technical Advisor:

Mike Gamroth,

Professor, Animal Sciences Dept

Oregon State University

128 Withycombe Hall

Corvallis, OR 97331-6702

Telephone: (541) 737-3316

Fax: (541) 737-4174

Email:  mike.gamroth@oregonstate.edu

 

Cooperators:

Yelm Worm Farm

14741 Lawrence Lake Rd. SE

Yelm, WA  98597

360-894-0707

mail@yelmworms.com


SUMMARY (ABSRACT)

 

In summary, it is our belief that worms are excellent “workers” on a small farm, and at something like $18 a pound in market value, they are a high-value commodity.  However, working with redworms did not increase our poultry productivity.  It took time and space away from our main enterprise, and mostly we felt like we were bringing in an expensive input rather than harvesting anything of additional value.  We were unable to invent a method for more efficient loading of chickens-per-acre on pasture or faster rotation of chickens.  The worms had no impact on hygiene or odor when combined in time with chickens.  The chickens ate the worms, the worms could not keep up with the volume of fresh manure, and as fresh manure began to compost, the composting manure quickly increased in temperature and the high heat killed the worms.  When populations of worms and chickens are raised in the same place at the same time, the chickens eat the worms and the worm population does not increase; if anything, it decreases due to predation by the chickens.  Addition of red worms had no effect on parasite or coccidiosis control.  On the suggestion of our technical advisor, we did additional experiments to determine whether we could develop a viable living co-product such as living vermicompost.  However, our most space- and labor- and cost-efficient method of disposing of chicken manure and chicken bedding turned out to be simply an old-fashioned traditional outdoor compost pile.

 

On our very small acreage we do not have sufficient space or equipment to take on another major enterprise of vermiculture at this time.  For farms that have an unused barn, a dump truck for collecting and hauling manure, and a large tractor, vermiculture may be an ideal additional enterprise for getting more value out of these unused resources.

 

 

OBJECTIVES

 

The objectives of this research were to characterize an efficient vermiculture method to more quickly dispose of chicken manure.  (1) The primary motivation for the work is improved economics of loading chickens-per-acre and faster rotation of chickens on pasture.  (2) The secondary motivation is hygiene and cleanliness of the chickens’ living quarters and reduction in odor.  (3) The third motivation is to increase the population of worms for the possible dual purposes of feeding the chickens and of having surplus worms and worm castings as an additional saleable agricultural product.  (4) The fourth motivation is looking at the effect of the worms on parasite control (such as coccidiosis).

 

Figure 1.  Redworms in their shipped matrix of worm castings (purchased from Yelm Worm Farm in Yelm, Washington), freshly applied to a mixture of straw, pine shavings, and chicken manure at Kookoolan Farms.

 

RESULTS

 

1.  We were unable to invent a method for more efficient loading of chickens-per-acre on pasture or faster rotation of chickens.  Red worms are compost worms which prefer to live just below the surface of compost, feeding mostly on decomposing inputs such as kitchen scraps, windfall fruits and vegetables, small amounts of fresh manure.  They did not thrive in the full sun conditions of a grass pasture, the environment of heavy soils and living grass rather than compost, or an exclusive diet of fresh chicken manure and dropped chicken feed.  Following habitation of an area by the chickens, we were not able to find any red worms in that area.  For intensive rotational grazing where a “crust” of manure and dropped grain were left on top of the grass and soil, the worms were not able to penetrate the crust.  In the warm, dry conditions of Oregon summers, the worms did not have adequate moisture.  The highly acidic environment of the manure did not support the worms.  And although we did not recognize it this early in our experiments, the ammonia present in this environment also did not support the worms.  Furthermore, in our operation, we have about 500 truly free-ranged laying hens.  Once we added the redworms to the pasture, it only took these hens about 15 seconds to come to the group realization that dinner was served!

 


Figure 2.  Cornish Cross broiler chickens on pasture.  It is our opinion that it is not possible to keep redworms alive in a pasture environment.

 

 


Figure 3.  This pair of photos show the same area of the pasture in July 2008 (left) and February 2009 (right), illustrating the “crust” of chicken manure on the pasture due to intensive rotational grazing of Cornish Cross broiler chickens, and the difficulty in recovery experienced by the pasture.  This pasture was tilled and replanted in September 2008.

 

 

We also tried earthworms as being more adapted to soil habitat.  Although they did thrive deeper in the soil, their presence had no measureable impact on the recovery time of the grazed pasture following the presence of chickens on the pasture because they did not come up to the surface to process the manure “crust.” 

 

We have a further hypothesis that organic and biodynamic methods for increasing the earthworm populations more generally in a large area such as a pasture would probably contribute to healthier pastures, more biological diversity in the pasture, and more rapid recovery from grazing by chickens (or for that matter, by any other livestock), but this speculation seems trivially obvious and also difficult to test.

 

Another possible future experiment would be to first work on increasing the population of the worms, and then till the manure crust into the topsoil to break up the crust and to mix the manure and dropped grains with the soil, presumably making these nutrients more accessible to the worms.  This would also likely require re-seeding the pasture, which may or may not contribute to the goal of shorter rotation times before returning the next batch of chickens to that area of the pasture.

 

In summary, all redworms introduced to the pasture died, whether they had been introduced before, during, or after habitation by chickens.

 

 

Figure 4.  Farmer Koorosh Zaerpoor adds redworms to a mix of straw, wood shavings, and chicken manure on the concrete floor of our poultry barn.  Two pounds of redworms, the contents of the ziplock bag in this photo, is worth about $50.

 

 

2.  The worms had no impact on hygiene or odor when combined in time with chickens.  The chickens ate the worms, the worms could not keep up with the volume of fresh manure, and as fresh manure began to compost, the composting manure quickly increased in temperature and the high heat killed the worms. 

Figure 5.  This photo illustrates the high temperatures that occur in composting chicken manure.

 

We got the same result (i.e.:  no live worms) whether the chickens were raised outdoors on grass, indoors on straw, or indoors on wood shavings.  However, when either the straw or woodshaving beddings were composted in traditional compost piles with the chicken manure, we had good breakdown of the components, complete odor elimination, and healthy living compost.  This result however was independent of whether red worms had been introduced to the compost pile. 

 

 

Figure 6.  Farm worker Fermin Lemus (left) and farmer Koorosh Zaerpoor (right) inspect and discuss the redworm windrows.  Note the high-temperature steaming pile in the foreground.

 

Chicken manure composting happens at high temperature due to the high nitrogen content, and the temperature of the pile is hot enough that worms are killed on the interior of the pile.  As a result, redworms tend to live just below the surface of the compost pile.  On our small farm we have 500 completely free-ranged laying hens who spend a good deal of their day scratching in the compost piles, and they proved to be very efficient at hunting redworms.  Our compost piles had roughly equal populations of redworms whether redworms had been introduced to the pile or not.

 

In summary, redworms introduced to areas populated with live chickens died.  Redworms introduced to actively compasting manure died.  Redworms introduced to outdoor compost piles did not change the redworm population of the compost pile.  Redworms had no effect on the health of chickens when introduced to an area populated by chickens. 

 

 

Figure 7.  Our 1500-square-foot vegetable bed with a fresh eight-inch layer of composted chicken and cow manure; the compost was produced by traditional compost pile methods rather than by vermicomposting.

 

 

Figure 8.  It’s impossible to keep free-ranged laying hens out of the compost pile, especially if it’s teeming with introduced redworms.

 

Figure 9.  Worms in composting chicken manure and wood shavings

 

3.  When populations of worms and chickens are raised in the same place at the same time, the chickens eat the worms and the worm population does not increase; if anything, it decreases due to predation by the chickens.  With considerable additional infrastructure and labor, it is possible to shovel manure into a compost pile protected from chickens, allow the manure to compost for several months to a couple of years so that the temperature has cooled and decomposition has stopped, and then introduce worms to the compost.  In this environment the worms will thrive and increase in number; however, there is little economic benefit because the composting action has already processed the manure into a usable mature state, and in a healthy farm the compost is already biodynamically active and diverse.  When the compost is used in the garden, the compost worms disappear because again, it turns out they cannot thrive in a soil environment, and the free-range hens are fiercely efficient predators of the worms.  We did this experiment of a protected compost pile and worm population on a small scale in our concrete-floored barn, taking one of eight bays for compost production.  Unfortunately this experiment actually decreased our poultry production by 37.5% because we were not able to raise chicks in the three-eighths of the barn that were being used by the worms.  By contrast, our previous method was simply to use the tractor to remove the manure and bedding to an outside traditional compost pile, keeping the barn stalls open for chick raising. 

 

 

 

Figure 10.  This photo shows three-eighths of our poultry barn converted for worm production.  Unfortunately, this meant reduced capacity for raising chickens, and all the worms died.

 

A variation on this experiment was to lay out a long, narrow strip of chicken manure and bedding, approximately 12 inches wide, 12 inches tall, and fifteen feet long.  We introduced worms directly and observed them to writhe violently in distress due to ammonia and acidic pH.  When we added lime to neutralize the acid, the worms continued to writhe violently in distress.  When we added “Stall-Dry” brand odor neutralizer, which is mostly comprised of diatomaceous earth that “locks up” the ammonia, the worms continued to writhe violently.  All the worms in these experiments either relocated themselves to an adjacent patch of finished, cool compast, or else they died in place.

 

Figure 11. Farmer Koorosh Zaerpoor inspects the redworm hedgerow in our poultry barn

 

 

Figure 12.  Here we’ve applied lime to lower the pH of the highly acidic chicken manure.

 

A further difficulty was moisture and temperature.  In the Willamette Valley of Oregon, it is usual for us to have 40 consecutive days of no rain during the summer.  These hot dry days of summer dried out our compost “windrows” and the compost required daily manual watering to keep the worms from drying out.  In the winter, we typically have 40 or more consecutive days of rain, and uniformly cold temperatures, which forced the worms into dormancy and inactivity whether they were located in an outdoor compost pile or indoors in our unheated barn.

 

 

Figure 13.  Here we try covering the windrow of compost with fresh hay in an effort to conserve moisture in the pile and to provide some green vegetable matter as food for the worms.

 

At this point, we began to consider the current “best practice” of vermiculture, using multi-tiered worm bins.  It has been documented that it is possible to feed small amounts of chicken manure to red worms as part of an overall diet, but this was already known.  (The reference I found on the web was on a backyard scale, it which the author had constructed a standard multi-tier vermicomposting box, and the author kept a few hens in a stationery hen house.  Once a month or so, the author used a shovel to pull one shovelful of manure out from under the henhouse, and added this to the worms’ usual diet of kitchen scraps, garden thinnings, and windfall fruits – not at all comparable to farm-scale production of chicken manure!)  This was very labor intensive, decreased the amount of grass clipping, windfall fruits, kitchen scraps and etc that were already being used to supplement the diet of our laying flock, and did not produce a large volume of worm castings. 

 

In summary, none of these efforts succeeded in a thriving population of redworms.

 

Figure 14.  Five-tiered worm bin, available commercially from WormsWrangler.com for $77.95.

 

4.  Addition of red worms had no effect on parasite or coccidiosis control.  Again, when the worms were combined in space and time with the chickens, the worms died due to predation and ammonia and so could have no effect on parasites for the chickens; when the worms were introduced to composting manure during the active cycle of the compost process, the worms die due to high temperature and ammonia; and when worms were introduced to the compost after the composting process was complete, their presence was redundant in terms of parasite control, i.e., the composting had already killed the parasites so no additional benefit was seen.  Furthermore, for the only leg of the experiment with worms still alive, the chickens in the experiment had already been harvested and obviously there can be no retroactive benefit to the chickens’ health.  From what we have read in the literature, there is good reason to think that if we truly had a problem with large-scale coccidiosis or any other parasite, composting that manure with redworms by any of the methods described in this report would have eliminated the parasite from the resulting compost.  But since that compost is not used as bedding for future batches of broiler chickens, there is little to no impact on chicken health.

 

5.  On the suggestion of our technical advisor, we did additional experiments to determine whether we could develop a viable living co-product such as living vermicompost.  In these experiments we actually combined chicken manure from our broiler operation along with cow manure from our raw dairy.  However, the straw bedding for the cows, combined with their manure, was already composting nicely in a traditional compost pile, and this experiment only added work without really creating a new product.  Because so much of our operation is truly free-ranged, this experiment required a lot of hand labor to shovel controlled amounts of chicken manure into a population of worms which also had to be fed other foods, and this turned out to be really just a redundant product identical to what we had bought from Yelm Worm Farm in the first place:  live worms introduced to finished compost.  The result would be a highly perishable product that must be kept cool and moist from the time of its production and packaging to the time of its sale, and is more useful as a compost pile starter or addition rather than a garden addition.  A better garden soil amendment is the worm castings; ideally the live worms are “screened” out of the worm castings and then re-used for propagation of the worms and further production of worm castings.

 

In summary, this effort did result in worm castings, but at such expense and effort as to be economically unviable for our small operation.

 

 

Figure 15.  Compost is an excellent soil amendment, here our compost “mountain” is shown adjacent to new bareroot fruit trees just planted with compost in our orchard.

 

 


BENEFITS OR IMPACTS ON AGRICULTURE

 

For our farm, which is run only by husband, wife, and one worker, the additional work required for the additional enterprise of vermiculture was not practical.  Traditional composting proved to be far less labor intensive and provided the expected result of composted chicken manure and elimination of odor and disease.

 

We believe that our experiments will prevent other farmers from repeating our mistakes.  We believe vermiculture is a viable business, as proved by Yelm Worm Farm, but that worm farming should be viewed realistically as a full-time enterprise requiring the care and feeding of an additional species of livestock, and not as an easy adjunct to existing farm enterprises.

 

 

PRODUCER ADOPTION

 

Kookoolan Farms has discontinued efforts to cultivate red composting worms.  Our current vermiculture efforts are more broadly aimed at organic and biodynamic methods for increasing our soil population of native earthworms.  We are not aware of any other producers combining vermiculture and poultry production in a manner similar to the original intention of this grant proposal.

 

 

REACTIONS FROM PRODUCERS

 

1.  From Kelly Ann of Southern Oregon:

 

Hey, Chrissie --

I forwarded your newsletter to friends of mine, wanting to share it and the photos. I pointed them to your vermiculture situation -- they have some experience in this area. They said I could share their thoughts with you about it, in case it's helpful. Also, here's their email address, in case you want to run anything by them, they are happy to help. gwriters@frontiernet.net  Robert and Marianne

This is in vermiculture-ese, I think -- hopefully it'll make sense to you:

"Interesting newsletter...I'm a little surprised they get away without giving the cows any browse, though.  If she adds the chicken manure to the cow manure it might work for the worms, and she could save on the oats.  The cows won't graze the "rich" spots of grass the chicken-scratching produces anyway.  She needs to collect the cow manure to buff out the chicken...add some urine-soaked bedding from the cowbarn...then you're talking vermicompost."

Good luck pursuing your Vermi-cultural-Arts!

I'm still planning to come up Tuesday for my 21 frozen chickens. Good luck with your slaughter!

regards,

kelly ann

 

2.  From Julia Cronin of Ledyard, Connecticut:

Hi Chrissie,

Thanks so much for your prompt response to my inquiry.  I have read over your proposal and it is very interesting.  There are a couple of factors that I was hoping you might be able to explain to me.  First of all, how do you keep the chickens from eating the worms?  I couldn't really tell from the proposal, I would have to guess that you wouldn't stock the worms until after the birds have moved off each section of pasture.  Secondly, how will you maintain the worm population once it has digested all of the chicken waste.  They do not thrive in normal soil - would you be raking them up and moving them onto the next area?  Also, what is the advantage of using sawdust when the birds are on pasture.  by adding the sawdust, wouldn't you be killing the grass that was there?

I know with our birds, you can see the exact path the chicken house has taken for about 2 weeks (and I move it daily - only 30 birds in each 8 x 8 house.)  Though I know they are providing excellent fertilizer, I find it frustrating that it takes so long for the grass to come back. 

Your proposal sounds like it would be an amazing proposition for a situation where the birds are kept in one place for an extended period.  We were considering building vermicomposting pits underneath our permanent chicken houses.  The droppings fall through wire mesh on the bottom and we typically rake out under the house every month or so.

We've just entered into the rabbit arena and everything I have read has made great correlations between rabbit droppings and vermiculture.  What we would like to do is build vermiculture pits under the rabbit hutches and raise these worms as an additive to the chickens diet.  There is very little out there about the nutritional value of worm supplements for chickens.  Though you raise a very good point with regards to the cost of the worms, I guess we had approached it with the idea that we would sell whatever worms we could, but the majority of them would go to the chickens.  Somehow, I just can't envision being overwhelmed with worm orders!  What would be especially interesting is to find out if there is a specific time in the broiler lifecycle where worms would be most beneficial.  Giving them bolus feedings of worms at specified intervals would make this a bit more realistic in terms of being a food source for the chickens.

Sorry I have pelted you with so many questions.  You just have raised such a great research topic, I would love to learn as much as I can!

Regards,

Julia Cronin

Cedar Meadow Farm

Ledyard, CT

www.cedarmeadowfarm.net

860.608.7442

 

 

 


RECOMMENDATIONS OR NEW HYPOTHESES

 

In summary, it is our belief that worms are excellent “workers” on a small farm, and at something like $18 a pound in market value, they are a high-value commodity.  However, working with redworms did not increase our poultry productivity.  It took time and space away from our main enterprise, and mostly we felt like we were bringing in an expensive input rather than harvesting anything.  On our very small acreage we do not have sufficient space or equipment to take on another major enterprise of vermiculture at this time.  For farms that have an unused barn, a dump truck for collecting and hauling manure, and a large tractor, vermiculture may be an ideal additional enterprise for getting more value out of these unused resources.

 

Yelm Worm Farm produces worm castings and live worms as their primary product.  Their food source for the worms is a large nearby dairy, from which they pick up cow manure in their large trucks.  They have a very large covered barn with a concrete floor exclusively dedicated to vermiculture.  They use large equipment to move the manure around.  By contrast, the only farm equipment we own is a 48-inch-wide, 29 horsepower Kubota tractor, and we do not own a dump truck or other large truck. 

 

It’s also likely that for an operation raising poultry in confinement so that the birds cannot predate upon the worms so readily, combining vermiculture with poultry could take what is currently a waste product and perhaps a source of odor and disease (the manure) and convert it into an additional revenue source.

 

Further, we think it’s likely that other species of worms such as native earthworms, which live in the pasture soil, can be “encouraged” through organic and biodynamic farming methods to increase their population and vigor, and that tilling top-crust manures into the soil would make those manures available to the worms.  It may further be possible that “cow pies,” which tend to attract fly eggs, might be tilled under at just the right moment in the flies’ life cycles to disrupt fly populations.

 

 

OUTREACH

 

Our public website, www.kookoolanfarms.com, has a page on worms and vermiculture which includes our grant proposal and this final report, and can be accessed by anyone doing a Google search on worms, SARE grants, and vermiculture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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