Brisbane Local Food

Growing local

I've mentioned before that my house is on a steep hill, and that I've terraced up part of the unused too-steep area as a food forest, which has been working very well.  All the trees I put in have established nicely, although it’s looking a bit bare again now that the pumpkin vines have died down and I’ve given the young trees another trim to promote branching. I’m planning to plant up some garlic on the hill in the spaces over the winter, and I know I should get on with that, but I’ve also noticed the soil’s sunk a decent amount so first I want to order a big load of compost and spread it out to give the shale slope another fertility boost. In the meantime, we had a smattering of raspberries, a couple of pumpkins, and we have two bunches of bananas coming on, passionfruit dropping out of the sky--not to mention the 50kg of mangoes on our well-established tree that we managed to beat the flying foxes to this year!

Speaking of compost, I’ve finally obtained permission from Hubby to get chickens (well, in fact, I gave up on obtaining permission and informed him it was bloody well happening). In my quest to maximise underused spaces, I've ended up quartering them on another under-utilised part of the same slope. When the trees are a bit more established, I might be able to let them out as a hit squad to collect any fallen fruit and leave a few fertility bombs behind or, depending on how things develop, simply free-range them over the area.  For the moment, the main aims for them are as pets for the kids, eggs obviously—but the tipping point for me was the idea that I could use them to process my compost a la EdibleAcres' chicken compost system. Turning compost isn’t my idea of fun, and taking advantage of a natural chicken behaviour that will enrich their environment and allow them to supplement their diet not only with greens but with bugs and grubs and all manner of compost biota without having to let them tear up my garden... it sounds like a match made in heaven to me.

Next to the food forest is a little back deck area that we’ve never really found a way to use.  It's very close to the house, but it’s kind of an out of the way dead end, it's not covered from the heat or the rain but doesn't get enough sun to really support plant life (apart from the baking middle part of summer days which would scorch anything that preferred a bit more shade), and we've never really found furniture that would fit there without compromising the legality of the pool fence, nor much reason to be out there at all given the lovely covered pergola right next to it. Also, the decking boards were put in upside-down so they collect water rather than shed it and are rotting away, particularly in spots I’ve tried to house potplants. We’ve talked about getting it fixed, but the question has always been: would anything we did to it make us use it more?

The other design requirement was the acknowledgement that I'm traditionally quite patchy in the attention I pay things, so I wanted to minimise the effort involved in ongoing tasks that could be an animal welfare risk—namely water and cleaning (they get pretty noisy if their food runs out, so I don’t have to worry too much about that one)—and allow us to take at least a ten-day holiday without needing upkeep. 

So, design spec out of the way: I searched and searched and found a prefab coop exactly the right size to fit along the side of the deck that serves as the pool fence, and called it a non-climbable structure.  But, being me, it wasn't exactly exactly what I wanted yet, so I raised it up on a 300mm skirt to hold in deep litter bedding, added a door to the section under the henhouse, added insulation to the sun-facing walls and roof, painted the lot to match, pitched the roof up over the henhouse to add more ventilation and added in a gutter to collect all the rainwater runoff in a small tank.  I put in automatic drinking cups with a gravity feed from the rainwater tank the roof empties into--which is also connected via a float valve to my watering system, so every few days it gets topped up to about a quarter full only if it needs it. The big feeder only needs topping up with commercial pellets every couple of weeks.

The plastic bin under the nesting boxes is meant to contain black soldier flies, which the idea is that I will update the ramp for them to harvest themselves straight into the chickens' waiting beaks rather than into the bottle--but my colony went bad in the heat of summer and I haven’t properly got it going again since. I’ll do a full clean out and start fresh again in the spring.  In the meantime, the soldier flies have seemed to be totally happy laying eggs and raising grubs directly in the coop compost heap where the chooks can occasionally discover an undisturbed treasure trove. 

The idea is that I can take out my scraps buckets and tip chicken friendly scraps into the chicken area and the rest into the soldier fly bin next to it, and it all ends up either directly or indirectly feeding the chickens.  I also chuck in all the garden waste into the bottom of the coop: weeds, prunings, leaves, excess azolla, etc, as well as sweeping the contents of the deep-litter henhouse floor out the door of the henhouse directly onto the floor of the coop every now and then.  I might eventually replace the prefab henhouse floor with wire so it drops straight through into the compost heap instead of waiting for me to move it, we'll have to see.  There's a rectangle of lino covering the deck underneath the coop to protect the deck a little--but as I said, it was rotting already, so I'm not too worried.

It's all enclosed like Fort Knox, but because I don't believe in underkill, I've also got an automatic door to lock the henhouse at night.  At the moment, the far end under the henhouse has a wire mesh down the middle to block it off as a hospital wing, as we had a sour crop issue with one of our hens a few weeks ago and while she seems back to 100%, I'm still keeping an eye on her in case of a recurrence--but once I remove the wire barrier again, they have the whole area at the bottom for me to pile up compost. The magic is in the hole in the deck in the floor of the coop--you can just see the black chicken coming up through from the top of the ladder in the photo.  The chickens scratch through the bedding looking for scraps or grubs or sprouted grains I chuck in when I feel like it, and eventually kick it down through the hole in the floor to...

The run!  I enclosed the under-deck area (about 4x3m--the coop is along the far left edge of the deck as you see from this photo, lined up with the run door) completely with wire, and put wire mesh on the ground up at the top of the slope too so they can't excavate the foundations of the house too much.  Just recently, I’ve added a garden edging retaining wall across the middle on a bit of an angle down, so that they'll continue to kick the scraps down and along to one side, and then back again until it gets to the door, rather than having them tumble straight down the hill.  I've got a board holding back the bounty of enriched compost that's just waiting to fall out at the bottom into my bucket.  It's a bit awkward to get down to the bottom door--and certainly awkward to get into the run itself--but fine for the occasional times when I want some compost or fix something, while the more frequently used dropping off of kitchen scraps at the coop at the top is no trouble at all.  It's lovely and cool and shady down in the run during summer, and the shape funnels a cooling breeze up to air-condition the coop itself, too--but the winter sun comes in underneath the deck to make it bright and warm, so it's comfortable all year round.  For most of the day there's at least some part of their area with some sun to enjoy, but it's very sheltered in general.

The chooks love both the upstairs and downstairs areas; they're always hard at work scratching and bug-hunting, and so very happy with it all. They’ll come upstairs at the promise of some scraps if we need to catch them for some reason or just because we want a cuddle.  We’ve moved the porch swing out there opposite the coop to be able to watch chicken tv, and it’s become a popular spot for taking a few moments out of the way of the chaos of the house to swing gently and watch chickens doing what they do. They probably spend most of their time under the deck but usually there’s a couple up top because they're popping up and down for a drink or a snack or just to check they’re not missing out on anything. We've got three grown-up hens plus one yet to start laying, and two eleven-week-old chicks still being furiously mothered by one of the hens who went broody.  We had the chicks in with the rest of the flock almost from the start with very few issues, and my sons have been ADORING the process of watching them grow.  At this point, I think they're both pullets--but one's a gold-laced Wyandotte, which are notoriously difficult to sex, so I'm still keeping my fingers crossed with her.  At the moment, we're getting two eggs a day because the broody's still busy with her teenage chicks, but in a few months when she and even the chicks start laying, we'll have eggs coming out our ears!

As for the compost… I’m very happy with the quality of the stuff I’m getting.  Maybe it (the chunky stuff you can see in the bucket especially) could get a bit more heat, or spend a bit more time, or get sifted to get the big bits out—we’ll have to see how my new wall to encourage it to take the longer path down rather than tumbling straight down the hill changes things—but the fact is, it’s moving through the system from top to bottom without any effort on my part, there’s absolutely no yuck or even visible chook poo on the compost by the time it reaches the bottom, and I’m getting decent amounts of great stuff to spread on my garden when I have never successfully composted before. I tend to cut sticks into 20cm batons when I drop them in, but leave pretty much everything else whole. If there’s a few mango seeds or sticks or whatever that haven’t broken down, then they’ll probably make better mulch than the fine stuff anyway.

It seems to work well with the natural rhythms of the garden, too. I’ll go into a clipping frenzy and the coop will be packed with scraps, making the compost heat up and come alive with bugs. But in a stretch of time where I’m not generating much in the way of clippings, the coop will end up near empty for a bit, but the chooks will keep working and processing that lot all the way down. I was worried that we’d end up with a layer of packed solid finished compost along the bottom of the path, with the new stuff getting kicked along on top all the way down—but the natural ebb and flow of inputs and the delight of the chickens when they find an undisturbed (read: full of grubs) pocket means that they dig down in the times when there's not something coming from the top so it doesn’t seem to be too much of a problem. The product smells clean and earthy and packed with nutrients and absolutely bursting with life.

We've had the coop for five months now, and while I've been tinkering with bits and pieces of how it all works for all that time to fine-tune the process, I'm overwhelmingly pleased with how discrete, how effective, and how completely without smell or flies or effort the entire affair is.  It basically consumes all my scraps and a bit of supplementary chicken food whenever I want to dump them in, and generates eggs and compost and chicken cuddles ready for collection whenever I want them.  Even the highly dubious Hubby is a convert!

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Comment by Andrew Cumberland on June 8, 2020 at 17:05

It all looks fantastic Lily!  Very impressive. 

Comment by Lily on June 5, 2020 at 21:53

Thanks guys!

Christa, we haven't had any trouble with rats as yet--we do have a couple of cats who patrol the area though. I've got a rat trap, though, from when we've had trouble in other areas, so I guess I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. And as far as I've seen the resident possum hasn't worked out a way in, either. And yes, I've stalked Dave Riley's vetiver expertise a bit on here! :) I've planted a bit of vetiver out along the slope, I'm looking forward to seeing some nice long roots helping with stability and getting the chance to multiply it out across the rest of the area. I only got progress with Hubby on the chicken front when I decided that I'm a modern woman and I never required his permission in the first place! XD

Dave, they do get free choice access to pellet chicken feed at all times--I don't let that hopper run out, because I'm not confident they'll get everything they need from the compost and also I don't want to commit myself to keeping a constant flow of scraps. Sometimes they get scraps every day, sometimes it'll be a few days or even a week before I have much to give them, and who knows maybe the compost will get in an unbalanced state and stop breeding bugs at any moment; I certainly don't want the responsibility of making sure it's constantly composting perfectly! I do, however, only have to refill the hopper every now and then because it holds one and a half to three weeks supply, depending on how much they're eating it. :) I drop in sprouted grains in most days, too, which they will eat in preference to most things (although when my attention wanders away, occasionally I won't for a few weeks). I prefer to sprout or at least soak the grain so I don't get viable weed seeds making it to the bottom of the system, and because I've read good things about what it does for digestibility.

I haven't seen them eating scraps in preference to food they need more, to be honest. I've weighed how much of the pellets disappear, and even when there's scraps abandoned on the ground, they seem to eat about half of their daily ration in pellets.  But a huge proportion of the nutrition they seem to get out of the system is the compost biota that's come along to munch on the scraps, not the scraps themselves. I was tentative with how much scraps I put in at first, worried about exactly what you mention, and I'd go out and poke at anything uneaten for a few days, watching it disappear into a surge of soldier fly larvae and other insect life which would then in turn disappear in very quick order when the chooks found them--they definitely prefer the high-protein insects and grubs over anything else! And as I understand it from my research into chicken nutrition, adult hens who are not receiving adequate food will go off the lay, and those of my ladies who don't have a good excuse seem very dedicated to producing one a day.  And they're sleek and shiny and active with bright red combs and well-formed stool, and otherwise seem healthy, so I'm happy with the balance for now.

I've been admiring and researching chicken compost systems for some time before taking the plunge, particularly the amazing operation run by EdibleAcres.

I'm curious how much your guy charges for feed.

Comment by Dave Riley on June 5, 2020 at 20:52

I'm not sure if it's a good idea to only  feed your chooks chicken feed now and then. They need the protein in the feed on a daily basis and one problem with scraps is that they'll fill their crops with that rather than the more nutritional seeds or pellets. You need the birds to eat around 16% protein per day.

Check at your local feed store.They know their stuff. Here there is a very active poultry club. Chooks will certainly gormandise scraps  very quickly, but what you throw out may not be all of what they need regardless of  whether they are free ranged or not. Fortunately chook feed is cheap enough.

I have chooks as do my two neighbours next door and our poultry is a major neighbourhood thing: laying/not laying and other chook stuff. Feed supply can be a headache sometimes  but my local guy (who does the Caboolture mkts) delivers for free.

I prefer mixed grains as they don't spoil when wet but I do need to add extra shell grit. I feed them grain in the morning and scraps afterwards -- only  in the late arvo.

Comment by Christa on June 5, 2020 at 20:46

Wow those chickens are lucky. A well thought out venture.  My worry would be rats, where there is chicken feed there is rats.  

Have you seen our vetiver BLF member Dave Riley. It might be an idea to plant a vetiver row on that slope to keep the soil there. If you plant slips about a fist apart you can end up with a vetiver row that will look good and benefit the soil binding etc.  It basically looks similar to lemon grass but with more benefits.

Wish my hubby would let me have a Chook TV at the back door. Keep up the great work and ideas coming.

Comment by Barbara Tealby on June 5, 2020 at 17:47

WOW!

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GrowVetiver

Vetiver grass helps to stabilise soil and protects it against erosion.  It can protect against pests and weeds. Vetiver is also used as animal feed. (Wiki.)

GrowVetiver is a plant nursery run by Dave & Keir Riley that harvests and grows Vetiver grass for local community applications and use. It is based in Beachmere, just north of Brisbane, Australia.


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