Part 2: Raising worms to feed your chickens
This is the second installment of my post on raising worms to feed your chickens! Part 1 can be viewed here.
When I build my beds, I start by laying in my bedding. Strips of newspaper, manure or peat moss makes very good bedding. Then I moisten the bedding and add red wigglers. To this I add food scraps then a layer of dried leaves. A piece of cardboard cut to fit loosely in the bin is placed on top to help keep the bed from drying out. Later when I add feed for the worms, I remove the cardboard, then pull back the leaves from the area I am putting the food then cover it back up with the leaves I had pulled back. As the leaves decompose and the worms eat them I add more.
While raising worms is fairly easy, a certain amount of management is necessary. Their basic needs are:
- Well-aerated bedding,
- Adequate food,
- Protection from extremes in temperature.
The optimum temperature for worm reproduction is slightly different than for maximum growth. Studies done in Nova Scotia by
the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada indicate that the optimum range for breeding is between 59º and 68º F. For maximum growth the temperature should be closer to about 77º F. I’ve never actually put a thermometer into my beds to check, but I plan to. Ideally you want both rapid growth and as high a rate of reproduction as possible. During the cooler months my worms slow down, eat less, grow slower and do not reproduce. As the weather warms I usually have an explosion of young worm hatchings.
Red Wigglers are one of the most cold-hardy of the composting worms. They have been known to survive near freezing temperatures for short periods of time. But your goal is not to have your worms just survive--you want them to thrive. In my experience, if the temperature of my bed drops to 40º F or lower the population diminishes considerably. I can only deduce that they are dying.
If you live where the winters are very cold you can bring them inside or into the garage. Putting four or five inches of dried leaves or straw over the top inside the bin will help to keep the temperature of the bin from freezing in winter and also help to keep it cool in the summer. You can also wrap your bin with insulation or the blankets used to insulate water heaters.
High temperatures seem to be harder for Red Wigglers to tolerate than colder temperatures. If the temperature of your bed goes above 85º F your worms will try to leave the area. If they cannot leave they will begin to die. At 90º and above they will rapidly die. You can do several things to help keep your worm bed from overheating. Keep your beds in a shaded area out of the direct sun. Don’t let them dry out. (Read more about moisture in the next section.) Make sure there is adequate air in the contents of your beds. Air and water help keep the beds cooler in hot weather. More on that below, too.
Worms breathe through their skin, and they cannot do so if their skin is not moist. You will need to be aware of how the
additions to your beds effect the moisture content. Dry leaves, straw, most manures and such material tend to dry it out, while most food scraps will raise the moisture content. When first setting up your beds, you should moisten the bedding to be certain it is not too dry for the worms. Make sure the drainage holes in your bins don’t get plugged, so your worms don't drown.
I test my bed for moisture content by squeezing a handful of the mixture. If it does not stick together it is too dry, if it drips moisture it is too wet. That will give you a range which will work. Through observation you will find a mixture which is best for the worms.
The worm bed must be adequately aerated. If there is not enough oxygen in the bed it can become anaerobic and deadly toxins can build up. This will kill your worms very quickly. I think this is the greatest threat to the health of your worm beds. Loosen them periodically to aerate them. I try to do this about once every couple weeks or so. I use a garden fork and push it into the mixture in different spots to loosen the mixture.
Composting with worms is a different process than composting in a conventional compost pile or bin. In a conventional compost heap, heat builds up to speed the composting process, kill unwanted pests and weed seeds. With worm composting, the worms do all the work, eating organic matter and producing compost.
Worms can eat as much as their own weight in a single day but I have found that they average about half that. They will eat more in warmer months and less in colder weather,
Don’t feed them:
- Citrus, dairy or animal products as they become rancid rather quickly.
- Anything that takes too long to decompose such as avocado peels and pits, corn cobs or egg shells.
- Onions because they get moldy quickly.
- Banana peel. Bananas are treated with an insecticide to kill a very nasty spider that can hitchhike on the bunches and that insecticide can’t be good for your little wigglies.
The above items can go into your conventional compost heap where the heat that is generated can break them down more quickly.
Do feed them:
- Fruits, except citrus
- Vegetables, worms especially prefer veggies that decompose quickly
- Coffee grounds and tea leaves
- Lawn clippings, be sure no chemicals have been added to the lawn
- Fallen leaves, use oak and any leaves with a high acid content sparingly
- Weeds from weeding your garden
- Wilted flowers
- Manure: rabbit, horse, cow, sheep. If you use chicken manure it should be composted first because the high nitrogen can harm the worms. Manure is especially good for building worm castings with a high nutrient content.
Worms feed on microbials that forms on decomposing vegetation and in so doing consume the vegetable matter. The waste is excreted as worm castings. So those fruits and vegetables that decompose quickly are most desirable.
As you add material to the bin, castings will tend to be toward the bottom and the newer material at the top. When the castings have built up to several inches and the worms have multiplied considerably it’s time to harvest worms and castings. The worms will have migrated toward the top leaving mostly castings near the bottom.
Stay tuned for part 3 in which I'll talk about harvesting methods and feeding them to your chickens.