Hot Composting Chicken Manure

This winter while the snow was 2 feet deep and the green garden was only a dream that would come eventually, I read about hot composting chicken manure.  While I’ve always composted our chicken manure, which turns into garden gold and keeps our plants super healthy, never had I used it in the same year.

Chicken manure can be extremely “hot” or nitrogen rich and, if used too soon, can burn tender leaves and even more established plants.  To protect my garden plants, I’ve always waited a full year for the manure to “mature”.  This spring, based on my research, I thought I might try a new technique to speed up the process and see what happened.

To begin with, my coop is layered all winter long with pine wood shavings.  I try to keep the bedding fluffy and never really let the manure matte into a pile, but rather continuously add more bedding.  This encourages scratching which helps reduce any matting and also allows me to occasionally go out, when temperatures are above freezing, and clean off the horizontal surfaces and nesting boxes without doing a deep clean in the middle of winter.  Instead I schedule a major clean out twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall.  Continually adding bedding also warms up the coop just a tiny bit as the decomposing of the bedding continues all winter long.

I learned that hot composting requires a 30:1 ratio of shavings to manure, i.e. carbon to nitrogen.  This is, it turns out, also a healthy ratio for the hens, as breathing in the toxic ammonia from their waste is not good for them.  If the ratio is off,  the compost pile (or the coop) begins to smell of ammonia/urea.  Adding more bedding is nearly always the answer.

Once the coop was cleared of all of the winter manure and bedding, I created a compost pile 4 feet by 4 feet with wooden pallets that I just tied together.  Hot composting requires that the pile be big enough to build up heat in the center.  Each day the pile needs to be turned and then covered with a tarp to keep the nutrients from leaching out due to any rain.  Conversely, if the pile should be moist, so in the beginning it may be necessary to add water.  By the 18th to 24th day of turning, the pile should be smelling like hummus.  Once earth worms appear, it is ready to go into the garden.  They are the indicator that the pile is now safe for plants.  If it was still too hot, the worms would not find the pile hospitable.


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Pallets assembled and ready for chicken inspection.
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In the beginning, the pile was all the way to the top of the pallets.
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The actual work of turning the pile is a real workout. No need to go to the gym for Rebecca (last year’s outfitting crew).
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Turning into pretty rich looking compost.
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The turned pile covered with a tarp for the rainy days.

Worms arrived!

Green Pea Risotto

Sometimes when I plant pea seeds in the garden, I can feel my impatience to see them sprout and feel there is a small child inside of me avidly watching the ground for the first sign of lime green to poke through deep brown.  That child is practically dancing around the pea bed, with barely contained restraint.  While outside, of course, I’m an adult and wait patiently for each new delight, savoring the waiting and the manifestation with my hands folded nicely in my lap.  NOT.


The peas have come really well under the cold frame where I can control the amount of water they receive and avoid both drying out from spring winds and rotting from spring rains.  I think I may have found my system!

This week’s column also has Snap Pea, Almond and Feta Salad; Lemony Peas, Pea Shoots and Tomatoes; Pea Shoots with Red Peppers and Red Onion.


Green Pea Risotto
1 1/2 cups fresh peas
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup diced onions, about 1 onion
1/2 teaspoon salt
several grinds of fresh white pepper
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup white wine
3 cups chicken broth
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

In a medium sauce pan, bring the chicken broth to a boil.  Meanwhile add the half the peas to a blender.  When the broth is hot, add gradually to the peas in amounts just enough to achieve a smooth paste or a little looser.  Reserve the remaining broth in the pan off the heat.  Puree the peas until they are very smooth.

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat.  Add the onions and salt and sauté until the onions are translucent, about 10 minutes.  If the onions begin to brown, reduce heat.  When the onions are done add the rice and stir with a wooden spoon for one minute.  Add the white wine and stir.  Bring the wine to a simmer stirring occasionally.  When the liquid has mostly evaporated, which you can tell by sight of course, but you can also hear it as the rice begins to get a little noisier and crackle just a little, add 1 cup of the chicken broth and stir.  Continue to add the stock, one cup at a time, until it is all incorporated, stirring frequently and listening for changes in the sounds of the rice.  When the rice is almost done and needs maybe only a minute or two more, add the pea purée, the rest of the fresh peas and the white pepper.  The rice is done when the liquid is completely incorporated but everything is still creamy and the grains are just the tiniest bit al dente in the center.  Add the Parmesan cheese, stir and serve immediately.

Serves 4-6

Tickled Green

Baby Chicks Arrive

The chicks are here!  The chicks are here!

Buff Orpington chicks

They came by mail, packed in a box no bigger than a shoe box. Seven downy Buff Orpington female chicks are now safely ensconced in a lobster crate in our bathroom with the door firmly shut to keep out Charlie, the cat.  My initial plan, one that decidedly did NOT include having them spend any time in the house, was to sneak them under a broody hen in the middle of the night, removing the eggs she was nesting on and introducing the baby chicks. Anyone who has ever had cute, tiny baby chicks in their house who have then grown into unruly, ungainly, dust- and chicken-poop-flinging teenagers can feel my pain when I say I’m determined that the chicks will not be in the house for long.

Irresistible to pick up

The intsy flaw in this plan is that, for the first year ever, I don’t have a broody hen.  I can’t tell you if it’s the cooler weather or the lack of a rooster (Fluffy the rooster died this winter) but none of these hens are feeling the mama urge.

I put my problem out to Twitter and a few people suggested either fake eggs or ping pong balls as an encouragement, thinking that someone is bound to think they are hers.  Having one child who saves, hoards and parses her holiday candy, I had some pastel, plastic Easter eggs still in the house into which I added some flour for weight.  I then taped them shut and put them in a nest.  This is what they thought of that idea…

Kicked 'em right out!

However, Plan b is now in place.  I have a lobster crate, a heat light, chick starter and reams of newspaper.  They will be protected from the other hens in the coop by the lobster crate while they stay warm under the heat lamp.  Once they have feathers and are eating regular feed, I’ll turn them loose with the rest of the flock.

Brooding about my chicks

New Chickens Arrive!

Our retirement home for aging chickens is woefully short on the production of eggs right now.  One egg per day – total – just isn’t cutting it.   It could have something to do with how freaking cold it is here right now (Even my husband is wearing his fingerless mittens today.  In the house.)   … or that they are all molting.  How unfair is it of Mother Nature to cause her sweet hens to drop their feathers on some of the coldest days of the year?  The coop is well insulated now with a layer of feathers, but the hens are scraggly, cold and sorry looking.

The plan is to every year or other year add some yearlings to the brood so that the egg production stays level.  As hens age, they lay fewer and fewer eggs.  And while a true farmer would allocate them to the stew pot, I just can’t do it.

They were precious cargo in the back of our car.  Held with great care.  Me without my chicken bin lined with hay, but instead with three cooing girlies in the back of the car content to hold them on the way home.

Hoping, generous hens, for a few more than one a day

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Can You Compost A Whale?

A few days ago I noticed that Snowy, one of our Light Brahmas hens was acting off.  She was quiet, off to herself and hunkered down in a little dirt hole.  When we went to her, she seemed indifferent – unusual as she's one that doesn't like to be held or pet.  The broody hens act very similar on the nest – not even helping themselves to food or water when specifically offered and I couldn't tell if she was ill or just broody and decided to just keep an eye on her.

This morning when I went out with the girls to water and feed the hens, it was evident that Snowy had gone to the great, green, lawn-filled-with-worms in the sky.  She didn't seem to have any signs of distress so I don't know what happened.

We've never lost a hen to illness before and I had no idea what to do with her.  Just putting her in the trash bin seemed an ignoble end to a faithful and gentle provider of eggs for almost two years.  On the other hand, I'm not so impractical that I don't realize she is just a chicken.  What if she had a disease though?  Should I bury her?  What if another animal dug her up and transmitted the disease?

A call to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension helped and gave one surprisingly big answer.  First, animal mortality is apparently fairly common and unless you are seeing similar symptoms throughout the flock, one death is normal.  Okay.  How do I dispose of her?

"Compost.  Middle of a hot pile."
"Compost?  An animal?"
"I've composted everything from a rat to a 40 ton whale."
"Wait a minute.  A WHALE?  40 TONS?"
"Allrighty then."

Seems a few years ago a 40 TON whale washed up on the beach, already dead.  College of the Atlantic asked for the bones for a student project.  The rest, well, it got composted.  Carted away in big trash bins and taken to the local town dump where it was covered with saw dust and wood shaving.  Apparently, three weeks later, you couldn't tell anything had been buried.

Who knew?

I don't think I want to know how many trash bins it took to remove the entire whale!

© 2009 Anne Mahle