We harvest our crops and pull our weeds. Most of these we put into the livestock pen. The rabbits and chickens make short work of much of that, although some of the bigger stalks and slimier food may still remain. Their manure gets added into the nitrogen-rich food and weed wastes. We add carbon sources like straw, sawdust, and dead leaves, which minimizes the unpleasant smell often associated with livestock. Soon all that’s left is a thin pile of mostly black soil.
We cart this over with straw from other parts of the run that are impregnated with chicken and rabbit droppings and urine. This gets mixed in with kitchen and garden scraps that don’t go into the livestock pen, like coffee grounds, egg shells, and plants from the nightshade family. All is mixed into a wire mesh-enclosed area 4 foot by 4 foot by 4 foot.
Within days the pile has lowered by a foot or more. If we dig down several inches the pile is hot to the touch. A soil thermometer says we’re at 140 degrees. Perfect! Millions of micro- and macro-organisms per gram are rapidly breaking down the scraps. First the macro-organisms — worms, spiders, beetles, millipedes, springtails, ants, slugs, flies, and more — chew through the bigger pieces and create food through droppings or their own bodies for the second-level consumers. The second-level consumers continue the breakdown and provide food for the third-level consumers. When all is said and done, the pile is a rich soil, ready to add a wealth of humus and nutrients back to the garden.
The finished pile of compost — now dark, brown, and crumbly — gets carted over to the garden and added in as rich mulch, conditioning the soil. The improved soil structure created through the addition of the composted materials allows the soil to better retain nutrients, water, and air. The health of the soil improves the health of the plant, improving the plants ability to fight off various fungal and insect attacks. The richer soil grows more food, which in turn produces more of a harvest for us and livestock, which in turn produces more wastes, which produces more compost.
Ultimately, we produce less waste that leaves our yard and goes into a landfill. And we bring less materials like fertilizers and mulches onto our yard.
We’ve been composting for years. Before we had our rabbits and chickens, we put most of the garden and food scraps directly into the compost bin. The weeds we took over our local landscape recycling center. The compost bin didn’t heat up very much, so it took months to produce usable compost. To meet garden demand, we’d pick up compost made at landscape recycling back to our yard. This was a great way to get started and I would highly recommend everyone take this first step into building a healthier local ecosystem. If you’re interested in getting started, there are many great resources, including one from the University of Illinois Extension.
But for those considering backyard chickens and rabbits, know that beyond eggs and meat, you will be adding a whole new level of reducing, reusing, and recycling!