Short how-to article on feeding chickens with scraps

WInnie, Kanga, and Roo enjoying some new scraps, while Pooh explores the older pile that is already semi-composted.

I was a little disingenuous when I said that we were going to raise old-fashioned chickens because back in the day, I am not sure people intentionally used the compost pile approach.  It was more that chickens roamed around, fed themselves, and happened to find compost piles.   The compost and chicken system that Karl Hammer at Vermont Composting invented and that I have now implemented at a backyard scale is not historical; it’s a super-cool innovation.

In this new system of feeding chickens on kitchen scraps you put in way more scrap, leaf, and green material than the chicks can eat – 2 pounds per chicken per day (we use our own scraps as well as those from three neighbors).  This runs squarely counter to conventional wisdom, which admonishes to give the chickens only as many scraps as they can eat or the left-overs will turn into a slimy pest-attracting mess.  So what’s the deal?  Why don’t we get a big, slimy mess?

The secret is: what we’re doing is not just feeding chickens; we are creating a big compost pile.  Anyone who composts in their backyard knows that compost piles – without chickens – don’t smell or get slimy as long as they are turned and have a good ratio of greens to browns.  For starters then, let’s think of our project purely as making a compost pile.  We pile garden waste and food scraps on top, turn it every now and again, and when necessary, add some leaves or other carbonaceous materials – compost business as usual.   The chickens are just helping us.  They eat some of the scraps and what they eat comes out the other end as fantastic manure, plus they constantly aerate the pile with their scratching.   It’s a compost system deluxe.  Here is a good article on it.  Oh, and by the way, the chickens lay eggs too!

We throw all kinds of things on the pile that are not supposed to be fed to chickens according to the literature, including moldy food, citrus rinds, meat and onions.  The chickens are not dumb; they don’t eat the bad stuff, they focus on the plentitude of delicious treats.  The rest they leave to decompose in the compost pile. (However, when our cat killed a baby rabbit, I did bury the corpse deep in the pile, since I did not want the chickens to directly eat it, and preferred it to provide nourishment for pill bugs.  I don’t actually know what happened to the rabbit, I never found a trace of it ever again.  Was it decomposed in a week in the pile?  I don’t know.)

One piece of work I do engage in is to turn the compost piles.  Sean Dembrowsky from Edible Acres, whose terrific chicken series I watched on YouTube for hours, likes to roll his summer compost piles from where they start with fresh food scraps, to the almost finished compost.  I’ve adapted this into a three-pile system.   The first pile is where the fresh scraps go, the second is an intermediate pile, and the third is where the compost hangs out the longest.  Every week or whenever I feel like it, I will take the material from the intermediate pile and put it on the third, finishing pile, and then move the fresh scrap pile into the number two spot, leaving an empty area for the new scraps.  This exposes lots of worms and bugs for the chickens (they are all over it!), and designates one pile to be the one that I can remove for compost use in the garden.  I believe this system will change somewhat during the winter, when the piles will include a few cubic yards of leaves, but that remains to be explored.  Other folks just continually throw new material on the pile, and move the newer stuff aside to get the older, good garden stuff on the bottom on an as needed basis, so that works too.

There are so many worms and bugs in this turned-over compost that I wonder whether the chickens’ work is actually creating a better environment for growing lots of wriggly critters – a symbiotic relationship where the chickens provide worms a better place to thrive, and worms become chicken food.  That would be typical of Nature’s way of doing things: a positive feedback loop.  However, as I didn’t find any research on this, it will have to remain my personal little theory.

There, and that’s how you feed your chickens for free on compost!




Meet our raised-on-compost chickens!

In the last post, New Old-Fashioned Chicken Theory, I wrote about the idea of raising chickens without grains or other chicken feed from the store.  At the time, I felt excited to try the experiment, but also some trepidation about whether we might not end up leaving our new birds hungry and unhappy.   So we bought a bag of chicken pellets from the store, just in case, before we got started.

This is the result two months into experiment:  It totally works!  It’s amazing!  We will probably never buy chicken food again!

Shortly after the last post, we purchased four pullets (young female chickens). Our daughter Josephine created a multi-criteria spreadsheet for about 20 breeds of chickens (egg production, friendliness, noisiness, ability to forage, and so forth) which we used to identify desirable breeds and then we looked on Craigslist to find them.  First Mark and I got two Whiting True Greens from a lady in Sherborn who we named Winnie and Pooh.  It was so exciting sitting in the car back home with our two new girls in a box, reaching in and gently feeling their soft feathers!  Finally, chickens! after so many years of thinking about them!   A week later, encouraged by our success with WInnie and Pooh, Mark picked up two Australorps from Hadley who were named Kanga and Roo.

Winnie, Pooh, Kanga and Roo had all been conventionally raised on grains, and did not know how to forage; we had to train them, to encourage them to find their true inner chickeness and express it.    We made two large piles of old leaves in their run, and after the first couple of days of pellets in a bowl like they were used to, we started to strew a portion of their pellets on the leaves.   They were initially quite confused, it was intriguing to see how much they had lost their foraging nature.  Gradually we saw them exploring, with a timid little scratch to find an extra pellet, or a hesitant peck at a leaf.   Once they seemed comfortable, after just a few days more, we added some kitchen scraps, and started to reduce the pellets bit by bit.  By reducing the pellets, we were forcing them to forage around for other food.  Over the course of a few weeks, we weaned them off the pellets entirely.  Since then, they have lived on a diet of whatever comes out of people’s kitchens – vegetables, pasta, bread, beans, chicken bones (!), crushed eggshells, banana peels whatever.  If they don’t like it, for example because it’s moldy, they don’t eat it.  In addition, they get fresh green weeds, and a constant intake of small invertebrates that grow in the composting materials.

Under the current system, we provide the 6-8 pounds of kitchen scraps per day (1.5-2 lbs per chicken) as our research had told us was sufficient. On some days, it’s way more, but that’s OK because it adds to the compost pile.   We don’t produce that much ourselves, but I contacted three neighbors and asked if they would like to collect scraps for me to pick up once a week.  This has been wonderful, once a week, I have an opportunity to see my neighbors for a few minutes and catch up on the news. I provide them with a clean 5-gallon bucket, and walk home with their filled bucket for our ladies.  Often, I will top the scraps off with some leaves of comfrey or jewelweed or some other fresh green, which they love.  On the occasional day, when we have done a lot of weeding, I will just bring them a big pile of fresh greens and leave the kitchen scraps to collect for the next day.   If the pile starts to get smelly, I toss half a pail-full of the aged horse manure wood chips that we have outside their run.  I am sure we could also use leaves or wood chips, just as long as it’s some carbonaceous organic (and free!) material.   If the chickens have eroded their pile with scratching, I’ll take a pitchfork and put things back up.

Another terrific side benefit of their constant foraging is that the girls clean up their own poops.  We have a deep litter of leaves and pine needles under their roost.  In the morning there will be a little line of fresh white poop where they slept, but by afternoon, it has been thoroughly incorporated.

Are the girls healthy?  Well, first, they have grown into very sizeable girls, and, more importantly, since a few weeks they have been giving us three pretty eggs every day (Roo is not laying yet), which suggests that they are definitely getting enough to eat.

Now that we have been doing this for two months, it seems bizarre that we would ever feed chickens store-bought grains, just as it initially felt a little scary to wean them off it.   The compost system is easy, cheap, healthy, and fun!  No more store-bought chicken feed ever!

New old-fashioned chicken theory

Featured photo credit: Photo from

Permaculture and regenerative agriculture are full of innovators and experimenters, and some of them have found ways to do things – to do with raising food – that are vastly more efficient in their use of human resources, waste reduction, and building up nature than mainstream practices.  I mean, not marginal improvements on our current ways of doing things, but paradigm shifting revolutions.

Take chickens.

Back in the day, farmers and poor people used to keep chickens around the house, letting them eat scraps from the kitchen or scratch around on the manure pile.   The biggest care was to get them inside a coop at night (Here a Chick).  They absolutely did not buy food for them.   Today it’s the opposite.  If you’re trying to get your game on for a home-flock of chickens (like me), you’ll go to some workshops, read some books or websites.  Everywhere, the basic assumption is that you will buy feed for your chickens.  You will buy grains and scratch for them plus minerals and maybe you might give them some nice greens from the garden or scraps from the kitchen as treats.   Industrial as well as local farm-raised chickens are similarly fed grains and the high cost of feeding chickens is one reason it is so difficult to make money on them.

Chickens eating grain – photo from internet.

Some math: A laying, fed chicken eats 1/4 lb of grain per day so you need about 100 lbs of feed per year.  For the home-flock, a 50 lb bag of basic layer feed costs about $15 at Tractor Supply, or, about $30 per chicken per year.   Figure a chicken lays about 200 eggs per year, that computes to about $2 feeding costs per dozen eggs – about the cost of conventional eggs do in the supermarket.  But what if you’re trying to stay away from chemically farmed grains? Now you’re looking at $140 for your 100 lbs of organic feed per chicken.  Unless your organically-fed chickens produce more than 200 eggs per year (which they don’t), you’re going to pay more than $8 per dozen for your home-flock eggs!  Blimey!

There is a different way.

A few years ago, Mark and I visited Karl Hammer at the Vermont Composting Company   If you can’t visit, here’s a fun, short video.   Karl says the only reason we got into this crazy chicken-feeding regimen is because machine-farming made grains so darn cheap.  Back in the day when we harvested our grain by hand with a scythe, we did not feed it to chickens.  So here’s what Karl and his team do.  Local restaurants tip 1100 tons of food waste at VCC, where it gets mixed with barn manure, wood shaving waste and leaves into giant piles.  A flock of 600-1400 chickens works all day on the piles feeding themselves and turning the waste into superior chicken compost that Karl sells to local farmers.  As it happens, the United States produces enough food waste to feed all of our chickens in this way!  Imagine — so many problems solved!

In 2017, Black Dirt Farm researched the finances of Karl’s system with a USDA grant.  Their study included two flocks of 50 chickens, one conventionally grain-fed, the other using the composting system.  The results are an eye-opener to say the least. Between the tipping fees from restaurants to take care of the food waste, selling eggs, and selling the compost, the 50 compost chickens were earned the farm $10,000 in 6 months, compared to the 50 grain chickens losing the farm $1,600!   People, why do it any other way?!

But, who will heed my preaching the “new old-fashioned chicken theory” gospel from my armchair?  We need to try it out ourselves!

I did some math based on VCC and some other research (Edible Acres, James McSweeny) to scale the compost system down to a home-flock of 6 chickens and here’s what I came up with:

  • Kitchen scraps: 2 lbs per chicken per day   For a flock of 6 chickens, that is 12 lbs per day, which fills approximately half of a 5-gallon bucket.  That is about as much as 5 households produce, meaning I need to find 4 neighbors who will let me pick up their kitchen scraps.
  • Carbon materials: 110 leaf bags per year.  That’s about as many leaves as 5 households in the suburbs produce. Easy to pick up in a couple of weeks in the fall just on our block.  I would also throw in one truckload of horse manure bedding for the manure and the wood shavings.

The scraps and carbon need to go in big piles for the chickens to rummage around in, and that stay warm during the winter.  A person may need to keep piling as the chickens will flatten things out, and needs to make sure there is enough carbon to keep the scraps+chicken poop from getting smelly.  Plus water.  Will this work?  I don’t know, but I am super excited to try this out, and we’re building a big chicken hoop-house to get started!


Screw it!

Hey, anyone wanting to read up on another fun and funny (crazy?) back to the land project, check out this blog on the post-undergrad summer-in-a-tent written by Charlotte, our oldest daughter!

Post-Grad Tent-sion

IMG_8456 Squaring a floor joist.

Well here we are.

What started as an odd tongue in cheek idea about a month or two ago has materialized into a full blown platform on some friends land, around $500 spent (and many more saved, we hope), and two impassioned (or crazy) post-grads embarking on the next phase of our life.

Some questions in our minds as we approached the end of undergrad:

Where to live?

How to spend the summer?

How to save money?

After being in this academic race (yes that happens too in very alternative liberal arts colleges) how could we find some clarity? How could we become grounded again?

Robin was having trouble finding  place with his friend, Saul, and Charlotte really just did not want to pay the $600 rent for her (lovely but janky) college apartment room.

Neither of us are huge Thoreau fans or aficionados but…

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A lot can happen in between seasons

The last time I wrote in this blog, it was September 2018; today, it is the end of May, 2019.  At that time, we were looking back at the wonderful season of putting together our Bigfoot Food Forest  – cutting trees and branches; laying out the paths; taking the Applied Permaculture course with David Homa; working with Ruby, Dana, John, and Mik; putting in polycultures; bringing water to the back of the garden; building the sheds …

It was exhilarating, but you know what: in all honesty, then the first frosts hit, I was really glad that the quiet season of Winter, when nothing grows above ground, had arrived.  I photographed frost-bitten leaves and mind-wrote a blog post about the inward turning of Winter, which brings the farmer and gardener precious time for rest and for other interests (mind-writing is when you put all the words down in your head but they don’t get on paper or in the computer).  I was planning some some winter painting jobs inside the house.


The Grim Reaper visited and I moved up a generation.  My mom passed away on December 16 – just like that – and I spent a lot of time in the Netherlands with family.  She left an enormous hole, and into that hole we all sped to be closer together and in a desire to fill it.  She departed as she wanted to, in the middle of life, without illness or pain or even knowing; it was just a bit sudden for the rest of us.  Her spirit roams with us all.  I miss you every day, mom!  Wish you were here!

Mark and I became landowners.  Having done such a bang-up job building a food forest on 1/3 acre, I felt confident to take on 36.  Mark did recently point out that our new farm is 100x bigger than our yard here, hm….. The land is near Greenfield and Mark’s mom and John.  Hooray! We will now have a Bigfoot lab site in Needham, and the Bigfoot food forest farm in Montague.  My mom would have loved it and I hope it’s possible to read blogs in the Hereafter.

CERES Community Environmental Park in Melbourne – 30 years of community permaculture!

I retired from one career and started a new one.  After 25 years as an economic demographer and consultant on global education issues, I completed my last gig in Australia in February.  It was a great time, plus, I was able to visit some 30-year old permaculture sites, as the Australians started long before we did in the US.   Part of the career-switch is working as workshop coordinator for the Boston Food Forest Coalition.  In February, we started the PDC teacher training seminar, and the Applied Permaculture Series, inspired by David’s in Maine.  We also did a mini-workshop on chickens – aha, more on chickens later!


Our two daughters graduated from college.  Having taken quite different paths, each fitting to the wonderful unfolding adults they are, Charlotte and Josephine both walked the stage on the same weekend (but different days, phew!).   Mark and I were exhilarated and proud parents, and oma was riding on my shoulders (much simpler to join as a wee spirit than to fly over in an airplane).  We wish both young women godspeed and the best of luck in their next adventures!   Check out Charlotte’s blog postgradtentsion and Josephine’s circus instagram account.

As I said, a lot can happen in between seasons.




A grand seasonal overview

It is September 23 and the entire Summer has passed.  It was busy, fun, and there was no time for writing blog posts.   Some recapitulations of what happened will follow.  Here, for now is a photo review of the food forest as seen from the third floor window from February through September…Continue reading “A grand seasonal overview”