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Eggs and the Hidden Farm

January 23, 2013

Eliot Coleman writes about finding your “hidden” farm by continuously cropping and keeping all your ground productive year round, by using methods like succession planting and season extension.  With that in mind, I wrote this earlier post mainly about dual purpose ideas for vegetables and how we utilize that concept in our garden planning.   This past weekend one of my tasks was to finish cleaning out the “chicken house” greenhouse in preparation for moving the hens in order to prepare for spring meat chickens.


As I was doing that I realized that the most overlooked hidden farm on many farmsteads is the ongoing fertility needs or lack any kind of permaculture stacking theories utilized in regards to a most precious resource – manure generated on-farm.

Hen pecked compost

Hen pecked compost

More precisely turning said manure into a product like this pictured above.  I can think of many organic gardeners and farmers that would dearly love to get their hands on this kind of brown gold.  But sadly, lots of chickens or livestock are left out in the cold, so to speak, with not much thought to how to gather the manure.  That idea stems from the simple facts that manure handling is a big job, and the other problem is the current trend to pasture everything.  All. The. Time. All. Year.   I have to agree handling manure is a chore.  I do it every single day.  I also agree there is some finessing involved.  Usually even on a farm with multiple holons, you don’t see a lot of attention paid to manure, you do need a plan for all of it.  Just having a multi-species farm doesn’t guarantee diversity or sustainability.  All the parts of the puzzle have to relate to each other in some way.

For the most part here, our cow manure from the beef cows is mostly for the pasture, during the grazing season the cows put it in place and during the winter we keep the cows on deep bedding and save as much manure and urine as we can.  The house cow manure is used for our gardens in winter sheet mulch fashion and when the gardens are covered the rest goes to the pasture either in a sheet mulch, or piled in our composting area.  The jewel of the manure composting “problem” here though is our little hidden farm, the farmstead laying flock.

As long time readers know I have sacrificed my pastured egg days for keeping my small flock in confinement.  The quality and volume of excellent compost I can generate with this triskaidekic flock far exceeds my needs for pastured eggs.  The work is still there, I’m not moving fence to take the chickens to vitamin rich forage,  I am moving greens and other foodstuffs along with small amounts of carbon bedding material to the chickens in a fixed location for my food garden compost program.  This puts my flock in the “tool” category.  The eggs are an added benefit.

For the most part as the laying season progresses, I add a small amount of bedding daily, sometimes straw and sometimes sawdust.  Since I have been preparing to move the flock to new quarters, I have slacked off on bringing in any new carbon, (besides veggies) and instead I have been turning and piling the current bedding on top of the night soiled areas where the chickens bed down.  My nose is my guide, there should only be a composty smell, never an ammonia-like smell or any kind of stench.  If I do smell anything, I either stir the bedding or add new.  In an effort to get this broken down more, I throw out a handful of whole grains to encourage more hen scratching.  It works pretty well as you can see from the finished compost photo, the hens do an admirable job and are happy to oblige me.

Brassica stems

Brassica stems

For the most part I had gleaned all the compost out of the greenhouse last fall, and had left the dregs and leftover vegetable stalks.  My first order of business was to pick up the woody stems and discard them so I could shovel the remaining compost into the wheelbarrow.


A flat shovel works well with this light and easy material.  The task is something akin to scraping rather than digging.


I scrape down to firm soil and form a pile.


In all, I collected four more wheelbarrow loads of fine compost which I promptly spread in weak areas in my large greenhouses.


Final tasks including hosing down the walls (greenhouse poly and scratching chickens are not a pretty mix), and hauling in about 8 wheelbarrow loads of horse manure/sawdust mix for a base to continue the compost building process anew.

One chicken house cleaned out and one to go.  New chicks will arrive in May and I like to have at least 30 days between the older flock and new babies.

Finding your hidden fertility farm may be as simple as keeping some of your animals under cover over winter and bedded with adequate bedding to keep the animals comfy and the nutrients tied down.

I live in a special management area with concerns towards downstream water quality, one side of our drainage goes to the Columbia River, and the other side to the Sandy River.  Needless to say we keep all our compost piles and animal congregating areas far away from any stream.  Point source pollution becomes a real factor once you start confining animals or manure piles near waterways.

While most of our bedding is inside during the rainy season, we do have outside windrows of stacked deep bedding that sits for a year.  We keep those covered to avoid loss of nutrients and non point source pollution.

Sometimes too it may be that you have too many animals or the wrong species for your land.  I know we can’t generate enough compost for our pastures and gardens.  I can’t imagine having enough to give away or sell.  As it is we can’t cover each field with compost every year, so we rotate the compost spreading much like we rotate the cows.

Be open-minded to ways to gather the manure your animals provide for you in the off-season, each species may require a different approach.  Keep it simple for the operator though or it may become too burdensome to handle.  Find your hidden farm!

35 Comments leave one →
  1. January 23, 2013 4:25 pm

    Absolutely brilliant and totally fascinating. I continue to learn so much from you and your blog – THANK YOU kindly for so generously sharing your knowledge and wisdom 🙂

  2. January 23, 2013 10:53 pm

    As usual I have some questions :). What do you do with your laying hens when they are not in the greenhouse? I see you have fencing all around the perimeter, is that electrified? Also do you clip the wings of your hens, since the fencing doesn’t look that high?

    • January 23, 2013 11:08 pm

      Joanna, they are always in the greenhouse, except when they are babies, I put them in just before laying commences. Not “green” at all, I know but keeps me in chickens (no predation), eggs, and compost. When we did have a large laying flock that was pastured with the electrified netting, we did not need to clip wings because we moved them every 3 days. Or did you mean the chicken wire in the greenhouse, if so, that is to keep predators from scratching through the poly so easily.

      • January 23, 2013 11:39 pm

        I wondered if the chickens attempted to fly out, I would have thought they would. So are you planning on a month of no eggs, if you are waiting thirty days before your new hens go in? We are planning on moving ours out of the greenhouse in April or May, depending on the temperatures as we would be worried about the heat in there and we still need our greenhouse for growing space.

        Our hens have done really well in the arks in the greenhouse and this is despite temperatures down to -13F. So thanks for the idea of putting them in there. We are looking at how we can give them more space next year though, and increase the area they can rummage around in. So it has been interesting to see what you do

        • January 24, 2013 6:25 am

          Joanna, we no months of no eggs. I raise a flock each year and stew or give away the older ones. We built these two small greenhouses specifically for brooding chicks when we were keeping a 800 hen flock and doing broilers and turkeys. Now that we aren’t doing that anymore we have these nice greenhouses that still work really well for chickens. This is the most economical way for me to have fresh eggs year round. Despite my seasonal rantings about milking, lactating and pregnancy are much different than ovulating. No one ever thinks of it that way. What is easier for women – ovulation/menstruation or pregnancy and lactation?

          So here is my schedule: new chicks in spring, they commence laying in late August and lay until the following August, at that time I find homes for them (usually friends take them) or I can make stew out of them. When the chicks are babies they are brooded with my meat chickens and then put out to pasture with them, before they start laying I bring them back in to the greenhouse. Since we built these for animals specifically they have doors and vents, much more ventilation than our larger greenhouse for plants.

  3. January 24, 2013 2:39 am

    Oh, how I wish for a greenhouse. We do a similar thing, in that the coop is deep bedded as is their permanent pen. But we clean it out in spring and let the pigs compost it before putting it on the fields. And we also can not generate enough for all our fields, so we rotate through them.

    And you have green grass now! We are currently experiencing daily wind chill of 0F and very frozen ground with snow in Western Mass.

    • January 24, 2013 6:27 am

      Pam, it’s been a pretty mild winter, not much snow, too much ice, but we haven’t been any colder than 20F. Pretty nice really.

  4. January 24, 2013 4:00 am

    Our main flock was scheduled to be in the new greenhouse this winter. They are not as there is no new greenhouse and the old greenhouse is too small for 130 birds. We selected breeds with close combs and they are wintering well on the tundra. The birds are clean and healthy and laying a tremendous number of eggs. Since the ground is frozen they are not wallowing in mud. There is no snow this winter either. Dry birds, sheltered from the wind are doing well outside. Their manure is on my alfalfa field and I move their shelters regularly to spread the manure load. We move fences on days when it thaws. What remains of the old flock overnight in a closed house with a solid floor and about a foot of bedding. I clean that out and add it to the garden every 6 months or so. It’s nice stuff but pretty hot.

    You only mention 8 wheelbarrow loads of horse manure. What do you do with it the other 362 day’s worth of horse manure (lol)? The horses and the wood stove are our primary sources of garden and hayfield fertility.

    • January 24, 2013 6:33 am

      HFS, you know how you how people talk about mud season starting after the spring thaw? Mud season here is from November to March, lots of rain and rarely frozen ground. So how does a nitrogen crop respond to more nitrogen? Is the phosphorus in the chickens manure the greater benefit for the alfalfa? Put me down for being jealous of the “my alfalfa field” statement 😉

      We only have one horse…and he’s a little QH so not too much poop! However the neighbors bring their horse manure over and we put that on the pasture, I get into that for the chickens, less hay seed, more sawdust, and works pretty good.

      I haven’t found this chicken bedding mix to be hot at all, maybe I’m using more carbon? Peppers and toms love it and set lots of fruit so it can’t be too much nitrogen…

      • January 24, 2013 9:45 am

        It’s just interesting how we adjust to differences in climate and resources. Also interesting how adaptable chickens (and pigs) are. There is a lot of room for doing what works wherever you are and, as you note in your response to A.A. below, a lot of room for dealing with predation.

        I’m always amazed that horse owners don’t account for manure when considering the value of their horse. Manure is often seen as a liability rather than an asset. I see HUGE piles around and signs up advertising free manure. Just amazing to me. Read Just Enough to see just how valuable manure is…from all sources.

        I thought my bell peppers weren’t going to do anything this year. They were all plant. When they got 5′ tall they finally flowered and we were suddenly swimming in peppers. I applied chicken manure at the wrong time.

        • January 24, 2013 1:38 pm

          I’m amazed a the expense these certain horse owners have went to just to haul the output of said horses away. I’m not complaining since I am the lucky recipient, but I would sure find a way to keep that at home or get rid of some hay burners. I would only give away or sell my livestock’s output once I had covered every bit of my pasture and made a nice little pile for my gardens.

          I use my chicken goodies at the time of planting and no side dressing later in the season. I wish I could get 5 foot tall peppers! Must be your nice warm nights – we would not see ripe peppers without some propping up 😦

  5. A.A. permalink
    January 24, 2013 5:34 am

    This winter the layer’s bedding has kept their room above freezing unlike last year, but I’m not sure exactly why. The key probably is that there was two feet of last year’s bedding to build on. It was somewhat packed peat, manure and straw that was not fully composted for being too dry. Last year, even though I put in what I thought was a reasonable layer of new material (two feet unpacked), the heat spiked quickly and then the bedding turned cold after a month or so. This year the spike from the new layer of straw, hay and manure wasn’t as pronounced as last year and the room still holds above freezing and I may manage all the way until spring. The insulation from the old bedding is probably important, and it may also have taken away some moisture from the new material. The concrete floor underneath is drained, so I watered the whole thing right after putting the new stuff in in October. It didn’t take the water in evenly. I also put one rabbit in with the chickens and he’s turned to digging around a lot in the last few weeks. Maybe that’s a sign I need to add a lot of new material on top because the bottom’s done.

    • January 24, 2013 6:38 am

      AA, interesting, you’re so much colder in your location than we are. I think what my chickens appreciate the most is being dry. I know it’s shameful I’m not letting them express their “chickeness” but we have too many bobcats expressing their bobcatness to deal with feeding the wildlife and keeping chickens.

      • A.A. permalink
        January 24, 2013 7:23 am

        My other flock, the bantams, are on the more spacious side with ten ewes and a ram and the baleage they waste for heat. That’s just too much moisture. I’m glad only one bird has had a cold so far, and I think she was weak to begin with. I’ve eliminated draughts as I can, which is quite well, but I still worry and try to keep enough peat down for the birds to bathe in. There’s plenty of bedding to absorb any urine etc, more than in the separate layer room, but the baleage produces a damp heat that’s hard to cap as the sheep do. For next year, I’ll separate a part of that big room for another layer setup like the one that works, and open the rest of the roof to keep the sheep in ambient temp. The moisture’s bad for them too.

        Funny how every fall I feel a bit sad about putting the birds in, especially for the lack of light, but come the dark days of winter, it feels so cozy inside and they seem happy when I visit them.

        A bit unrelated, it seems that a commercial wheat, barley, oat and soy based feed I’m giving to the layers in addition to oats and scraps and offal is making them push too many eggs for the time of year. Does that sound odd or possible to you? I’d like to see them rest and gather their strength around this time. Last fall when the grazing wasn’t good anymore, good feed like offal and maggots really saw the hens perk up and their combs turned brighter red and bigger. More eggs followed and I thought that was as it’s supposed to be. Now with the feed, the combs don’t turn as nice as they did on maggots and they may retain some of their paleness, but egg laying goes up if I give the feed freely. I’m thinking whatever they take up they push out as eggs, and that’s not what I’d like to see when they should be resting before spring arrives. Maybe there’s something in the feed? They don’t get more than six hours of lighbulb light a day, and not very bright at that either.

        • January 24, 2013 9:00 am

          AA, I think the benefits of the greenhouse setup I have is that it isn’t dark and it’s easy to ventilate, it also has a dirt floor so some of the moisture probably dissipates that way, although I think it actually allows moisture in compared to concrete. I don’t use lights but they do lay all winter. I do use free choice feed in addition to all the scraps (cheese, whey, eggshells, etc) they get from the house and garden. A hen will lay if she is in the right period for laying (depending on when she was hatched) and if all her energy needs are met. I guess you could feed them a less high octane feed and start again when they have access to the outside if you don’t want them laying in the winter. Or not.

        • January 25, 2013 2:52 am

          Basically, maggots are protein. The laying hens of today have much higher nutritional needs than they did in 1930’s. This is due to an intensive breeding program in the late 40’s early 50’s called the Chicken of Tomorrow. It affected, to a greater or lesser degree, most breeds of chickens. With sufficient nutrition, hens of today will continue to lay well. As you found, animal protein is key.

          Chickens do not make all the amino acids they need for feather and egg production. They need animal protein for some of these, as they aren’t available in plant protein.

          Comb and wattle color are indicators of egg organ health. If they are pale/shrunken/floppy, then the egg organs aren’t functioning well or are reaching the end of production.

          As long as there’s sufficient nutrition to provide warmth, and maintain good health of body and organs, laying is not taxing. It’s when these conditions aren’t met, that the hens fare poorly. It’s all about nutrition.

        • January 25, 2013 7:04 am

          Well said, Pam. Here is also a good article by Bob Plamondon about feeding chickens, with an ad for his reprint Feeding Chickens. Good article though, about not forcing chickens into malnutrition. Sadly too many people try that because of fear of available chicken feed. Mine are dining on chicken cheese these cold days along with their high protein ration, greens, and scratch.

  6. Nick permalink
    January 24, 2013 7:06 am

    I guess I’m not getting why you won’t pasture your chickens, it’s my understanding that eggs from hens outside are better for you. Wouldn’t they be more economical to keep if they foraged and ranged for their feed instead of you having to purchase food for them? Sorry for all my questions, all the time. We are moving to land someday and are researching as much as we can. Thanks.

    • January 24, 2013 7:24 am

      Nick, I’m not against pasturing chickens at all, it just doesn’t pencil out labor-wise for us with a small flock. When we sold eggs we did pasture from April though November and then moved the chickens in on deep bedding for the duration of winter. Yes, you can argue that a free-range chicken is more economical if it can forage for it’s feed, unfortunately there are big scary things that forage for chickens too and getting a LGD for a dozen eggs a day does not pencil out for us. Remember this is just a blog, one story, of one farm, and maybe a different way to look at things. We eat a lot more vegetables in a day than we do eggs, so to use the chickens for fertilizing the vegetable plots makes way more sense to us. It’s hardly sustainable to have free-range or pastured chickens and then buy in all your amendments for a vegetable operation, but that is what is accepted and what most vegetable farms or gardeners do.

      Good luck with your research, I’ve found if you ask a question you’re gonna get about 10 answers, it’s up to you to decide which to use and which to discard.

    • January 24, 2013 10:27 am

      If I may, eggs from healthy hens are better for you (I know that’s an incomplete comparison). Eggs from hens that get fresh greens are better for you. Eggs from hens that are allowed to be omnivores are better for you. Finally, living birds produce more eggs than bobcat food.

      We just returned from Florida where we bought pastured eggs that were pale, flavorless and, well, not better for you. I would like to have seen their birds. Compare my description to Matron’s egg picture above.

      Matron’s hens are healthy. No doubt. Her hens get fresh greens or hay chaff that falls from the cow feeder. There are, without a doubt, things living in the chicken bedding that the chickens love to eat. There was a study in Ohio in the ’40’s that showed chickens on deep bedding can derive a portion of their protein needs from the bedding itself. And, because her flock is so small she doesn’t have to import chicken feed by the ton…feed that has to be trucked in as corn doesn’t grow well at the Columbia River Gorge. All she has to do is provide fresh nest box material, sawdust, kitchen scraps plus a little feed, and a little horse manure (probably including bugs) while working in a dry, warm-ish environment out of the wind. Any concept of sustainability also has to calculate farmer comfort.

      Contrast that with the other option SHE could provide HER birds at HER location. The birds could be both wet (or muddy) and cold, tearing up the root systems of future pasture in a winter sacrifice area and lacking access to bugs. Each morning she could put on her rubber boots to head out and pick up birds that died of exposure or portions of birds that predators didn’t finish.

      As you prepare to take the leap, be ready to have your notions of the “ideal” chicken life challenged.

  7. January 24, 2013 8:50 am

    Great description and process. We have two hen houses (each holds about 25 laying hens) connected to yards, so they still have access outside every day, but in the winter they choose to spend more time in the hen houses. Partly the longer days encourage it. I deep bed, and then use the bedding in our fields–but I love your instructions for a more intentional soil fertility-building center! Nicely done.

  8. January 24, 2013 9:32 am

    Thanks MOH re the information on how you go about raising the chicks. We were thinking of putting some of the chickens out to pasture this year, but we wanted to make sure we kept some very safe from predation, so we were never out of eggs and meat. Your method may work well for us.

  9. January 24, 2013 4:40 pm

    Matron (or anyone!) – i only have 6 chickens and 3 are banties, they roost in their coop at night (of course) and that’s the only way I can catch their valuable droppings…the rest of it is dispersed throughout the day over their roughly 25′ x 25′ fenced-in pen, which after 5 years is bare dirt (albeit most likely quite fertile now!) I am wondering from your post if I should attempt to collect all the leaves my neighbors leave out for the trash pickup and try to cover their whole pen area with that and straw and whatever compost material I have available in an effort to deep compost…my tiny compost bin surely benefits from the chicken coop droppings yet once it decomposes, I get very little. There are only 2 of us here, we just don’t generate a great deal to go IN. Never enough in spring to cover all my veggies beds, every year I must buy compost….I feel I’m failing miserably at this sustainability venture 😦

    • January 24, 2013 5:20 pm

      Roz, a resounding yes! Gather any carbon you can find, even purchased straw (hopefully organic if you can find it), they will love digging through the goodies and you’ll get something for your troubles. Even a chicken that doesn’t lay eggs is valuable for their manure if you can get your hands on it (not literally, of course) possibly too a bit of straw under their roost to give you something more to put in your compost bins. It is surprising how it compresses once it starts breaking down 😦

  10. Trish permalink
    January 25, 2013 1:32 pm

    MOH, thanks for an excellent post. My first thought when I read about holons was house elves… because we are always wishing we had a few of them to help with all our labor! I’ve been thinking a lot about the deep bedding techniques that you advocate for your cows. I only have my one milk cow. I would like to do deep bedding but after considering the pros and cons, have decided that I can’t. First of all, it does come back to house elves. The way that my cow house is set up, it has to be cleaned by hand. And I realized that I absolutely have to clean it out every single day (actually, 3 times a day) because otherwise the mess gets to be too much work to keep up with. Plus, I like a clean cow. I really like the idea of deep bedding for warmth, but I just think that without a tractor (or space that a tractor fits in), what I would end up with would be a laborious nightmare. I also think part of my problem is that I’m bedding with hay, not straw ($4 per bale for rained on hay vs 9-$10 for straw). And hay just can’t absorb as much. But every day, I get a large sled load of poo/soiled bedding to drag over the snow, up the manure mountain, and deposit on top. I’m looking forward to its future uses in the garden.
    I do have a question about this pile- it smells. Even when its -40 and things should not smell at -40, it smells. I do use a lot of bedding hay. But I just think maybe I cannot use enough? My question is, what do you think about mixing lime into, or sprinkling lime on it? I don’t mind the smell so much but we want to be good neighbors. Plus I think my husband might secretly not like it.
    Our chickens live in a super insulated house with good bedding. In the spring we put them in our greenhouse, not so much for working the raised beds as for them being able to finally have a dust bath! They love it. But they would freeze to death if they were in a greenhouse in the winter. We always look forward to spring when we can carry them over the snow (they hate snow) and put them in the greenhouse!

    • January 25, 2013 2:02 pm

      Trish, I think you’re on the right track with your milk cow, I DO NOT deep bed my milk cow, and excuse the pun, I’m so anal retentive I go out for a pm bed check and pick her stall before I go to bed.

      As for the smell the carbon in hay is a lot lower than straw, so it’s probably just too much nitrogen to the carbon ratio. Lime would work ok but maybe if you have access to more carbon, wood chips perhaps, or leaves, that would be better for the overall health of whatever receives the finished product.

      Reading the weather reports from around the country makes me shiver! -40 is too cold for me 🙂

  11. January 25, 2013 5:10 pm

    MOH, I love your winter set up for your hens. I also want to try your chick/seedling set up. Multipurpose work areas are great and you have so many wonderful ideas. I have been searching for your posts on the chicks with seedlings set up but haven’t been able to find it. Could you give the link?

    • January 25, 2013 5:26 pm

      Erika, thanks! Try this post. At first I was able to start plants on top the brooder boxes, but soon the mice found out they could just go up there and eat seeds all night long. So now I hang some simple plywood shelves that fit my 10 x 20 flats and make a mini greenhouse over them with a heat mat underneath.

      • January 26, 2013 12:49 pm

        Thanks! How well does the mini greenhouse/heat mat set up work? Do you think it would keep seedlings happy if it was 25 degrees out at night? I would love to get the seed starting out of the house.

        • January 26, 2013 4:01 pm

          Erika, it works great, as long as the heat mat is working :p and if I make sure there are no air gaps between the plastic tent and the base of the flats. I keep a thermometer in there so I can make sure it is working. Peppers and toms which really like it hot, do great, It’s actually worse in the daytime, because the temps can get too high. Lesson learned 😦

  12. January 26, 2013 6:19 pm

    Thanks for the info. I have a small greenhouse, 2 heat mats and lots of extra plastic. I’ll have to give it a try. You have the best information on your blog!

  13. February 26, 2013 7:38 pm

    Hmmm. We deep-bed our dairy goats in the winter. They aren’t confined, but choose to spend of their time in a 12 by 16 foot barn. The barn also homes our flock of 12 or so chickens. Getting the bedding out of the barn and over to a compost pile in early spring is the hardest job on the farm… it is far too hard for me, and even for my husband, it is a three-day job. It compacts and rots. There is no smell as long as we keep adding bedding, but when we start to remove it, man, it makes your eyes water. After removal, it takes about six weeks on the open compost pile, with turning once a week, to turn into beautiful compost. By April (planting season) we have plenty of gorgeous compost. But it is NOT easy.


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