Doing the Dirty Work of Better Farm

The author, cleaning out one of Better Farm's chicken coops. Photo/Lily Chiu
By Jackson Pittman
Here at Better Farm, we have a lot of things that stink. Stinky compost bins, the stinky dogs, and of course, stinky chickens. In fact, it's not that our chickens reek especially bad, its more that they leave a lot of droppings—and for a chicken, steering clear of its own excrement doesn't rate high on the priority list. Some of you may wonder why we have so many chickens when they produce so much more poop than eggs. Well, the answer is simple—and beautiful.
The chicken poop (as most gardeners would know) is excellent fertilizer! Once it is broken down, chicken manure has 4 times as much nitrogen, 11 times as much phosphorous, and 2.5 times as much potassium than horse manure (2.8 percent nitrogen,2.3 phosphorous, 1.7 potassium). While it's true that we don't want to put the dung directly onto the crops because the nitrogen and bacteria levels are so high it can damage or contaminate the vegetables we grow, we still have plenty of other things we can do with our vast amounts of chicken droppings (really... they poop a lot... it's 33 chickens).

At this time of year, when the garden isn't producing nearly as many vegetables as it does at its peak, there's plenty of open space that we're mulching with hay and cardboard (the cardboard is to keep weeds from popping up, and the hay is to get broken down by the snow and turn to fresh soil). Since we have our chickens pooping on hay, on top of cardboard, it's ridiculously easy to find a nice empty spot that could used some extra insulation and let the fertile chicken manure get broken down with the hay over the winter to make the soil all the richer. This is our current technique, but there are plenty of other uses for the chicken poop we have in such abundance. So this is the short list of chicken manure uses that I (as the farm intern) was surprised and interested by:

  •  Biogas!! Whaaat! It's crazy, right?... The same chicken poop that can easily gross out the inexperienced onlooker can be converted to natural fuel? This innovative process is done by mixing the droppings with a by-product of ethanol production to produce a powerful biogas, but the real magic of it is done simply by the bacteria living in the poop! It's just three simple steps... Stage one: One bacteria type reduces the manure to fatty acids. Stage two: Another bacteria type reduces the fatty acids to acetic acid. Stage three: The third bacteria type turns the acetic acid into bio-methane gas. Incredible, right? Bio-methane gas out of poop through the natural cycle of anaerobic bacteria... life is beautiful.
  • Bio-Oil?!? Let's leave this one to the expert's explanation: "First, the manure needs to be dried so it can be burned... That makes it possible to move to the next step: rapidly heating the mixture in a bubbling, fluidized bed reactor that has no oxygen. It's a process called fast pyrolysis. The process thermochemically breaks the molecular bonds in the mixture. It produces charcoal that can be used to enrich soil. And it produces vapors that are condensed to a thick, dark bio-oil." Wow... all that from chicken poop. I'm practically speechless. Although this process doesn't sound like something we're ready to do at Better Farmyet, it really changes the way you see the manure, and the way we treat dispose of our waste.
  • Chicken Manure TEA?!?!? Not the kind you can drink! During the growing season, the compost pile can get full pretty quickly and when there's tons of chicken poop it can be nice to find a more direct use for it without having to way for it to decompose. Now there are many ways to make fertilizer, but this one in particular is nice because it creates a liquid you can spray your crops with to give them nutrients! To make fertilizer tea, scoop the chicken manure into a burlap bag. Then, throw a rock into the bag to weigh it down and place the whole thing into a 35-gallon garbage can. Fill the garbage can with water and let it sit for about three weeks. Once the three weeks are over, you will have nutrient-rich chicken manure fertilizer tea as the water becomes infused with the nutrients from the chicken manure. You can use this fertilizer tea to water your plants to give them a vitamin boost. 
Well, that about wraps up our summary on the fun side of poop. I hope you guys enjoyed it as much as I enjoy it twice a week! Remember, all waste has a purpose! 

All photography by Lily Chiu

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.