Part 3: Raising worms
This is the third installment of my blog about raising worms as feed for your chickens. Part one can be viewed here and part two here. In this installment I'll address harvesting the worms and feeding them to your chickens.
Harvesting worms and castings
There are several ways to harvest your worms. The method you use is dependent mostly upon how large your beds are. If you have a relatively small colony, separating them by hand will work quite well. If you have a large colony, there are mechanical ways to do the job which can cut down significantly on the amount of time spent on the process.
Separating by hand
Worms shy away from light. You can use this to your advantage when it comes time to separate them from the castings. Place a table or piece of plywood either in the sun if it is not too hot, or inside with a light suspended above it. Any large surface will work, but I like separate mine in the black plastic tubs used for mixing cement, found at any building supply store. They are relatively inexpensive and work quite well. The shape keeps anyone from squirming out! I like to position this at waist height so as not to put a strain on my back.
Dump a manageable amount of worms and castings onto the end of your surface or bin farthest away from you. Let it set for a few minutes and the worms will move away from the light, going deeper into the mound of castings. Begin by removing any large unprocessed pieces, and then gently pull the castings toward you leaving the worms where they are. (The larger unprocessed material can be returned to the worm beds when finished.) As you uncover the worms they will move down away from the light. Continue in this manner until you have a pile of castings near you and a pile of worms at the other end. You will need to stop from time to time to allow the worms to move away from the light and dig into the mound.
There are several mechanical harvester designs, some commercially produced and others homemade.
I made my own. I used three 20” bicycle rims with the tires removed, 1/8” hardware cloth for the first section and 1/4” hardware cloth for the second section. The exact dimensions are not critical and can be whatever works for you. A small motor spins the screen barrels at a slow speed. You feed the worms/castings into the first section and as the barrel turns, the finest castings drop into a bin. The rest of the castings, along with the worms, continue to the second section where larger granules fall into another bin. The worms and any unprocessed material continue on and drop out the end of the barrel. Many harvesters will have only one screened section, and these work as well. The difference is that you just get one size of granules. The reason I like to separate the finer castings is that I sell them to local nurseries and use the castings from the second bin, the larger granules, on my plants.
Pros and cons of each method
Separating by hand
- No wasted castings
- Less harmful to worms and worm egg casings
- Won’t lose many of the very small worms
- Slow and laborious
- Hard to separate the castings from larger pieces of unprocessed material
Separating with mechanical separator
- Much faster
- Easily separates castings from unprocessed material
- Must allow it to dry a bit before putting through the machine
- Small, newly hatched worms may be lost
- Egg casings may end up in the compost rather than returned to the beds.
Feeding worms to your chickens
I feed worms to my chickens almost any time I am around the beds. Whenever I add produce to the bins the chickens come running over to get a treat. I’m careful not to feed them too many and not have enough left to maintain the beds. When it comes time to separate the worms from the castings you will probably have a very large amount of worms, too many to feed them all to your chickens at one time. There are a couple of ways to deal with this. You can put them in containers along with a small amount of bedding and store them in the refrigerator. Then you can give them to the chickens a little at a time.
I sometimes dry the worms when I have a very large amount and feed them to my chickens during the winter months. I have heard of people freezing them as well but I haven’t tried that myself. My chickens prefer them live but will readily eat the dried ones.
I've had a few people caution me about feeding worms to chickens saying that they can carry parasites that can be a hazard to chickens. This is true of worms in the "wild". Wild birds can carry parasites. Worms (also snails and slugs as well) eat the bird droppings then pass the parasites on to your chickens. When raising your own worms, they are not consuming bird droppings therefore the likelihood of them passing any parasites to your chickens is very slim. If your chickens free range it is most likely they will get worms of one type or another. A good worming program should be followed any time you free range your chickens (and you might try our organic, all-natural wormer!)
If you have any questions or comments, please post! I'd be glad to help anyone out there considering vermicomposting.