Decompose and Recompose

Those of us seeking to reduce waste and close the nutrient loop have a lot to learn from the original decomposers (or as I like to call them, “recomposers”): Fungi. While the study of the fungal queendom is relatively new and underdeveloped in western science, innovators have been exploring how we can employ the diverse powers of fungi and mycelium, beyond cultivating them for the mushrooms they produce. There are so many ways we can integrate mycelium into our growing operations, whether in a garden plot or on the farm, and we’re going to explore one of those in this blog: using fungi to compost and clean chicken manure! 

If you’ve ever been inside of a chicken coop, you are likely familiar with the biting stench of chicken manure. The smell is caused by the nitrogen in their manure volatilizing into the gas ammonia, which is considered both an air and water pollutant. The environmental impacts of larger scale chicken farming on air quality and local waterways may not be as relevant for small operations, but ammonia build up in the coop can have negative impacts on the animals health once it hits a concentration of 10 ppm. If the stink is bad enough, it can also cause strife with neighbors.

Magical Manure

As many of us know, chicken manure can provide an exceptional source of nutrients for plants in the garden. For small-scale gardeners and farmers in particular, it’s important to note that the more nitrogen is allowed to degrade and release ammonia, the less nitrogen and nutritive power [manure fertilization strength] remains for use in the soil. Immediately capturing and beginning to compost chicken droppings can do more than reduce smell and potential downstream pollution, it can also ensure that you are capturing all of the nutritive potential of this free resource for your growing operation. 

Important side note: Chicken manure must be fully composted in order to be safe to use on your garden beds. Like with other forms of manure, the composting process helps get rid of the potential pathogens from the birds systems and eliminates unpleasant odors. The longer the manure sits in the chicken coop, the more likely it is to get wet, which causes the release of ammonia. Luckily, innovator and Spring Conference Speaker, Tradd Cotter has proposed a method for starting the composting process immediately, allowing you to capture all of its nutrients and protect your olfactory senses…

This method, described in his incredible book Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation, is essentially to build a living mycofilter beneath and around your chicken coop that begins binding chicken poop upon dropping. The mycofilter will begin the process of digesting the chicken litter and can be removed at the end of a year to finish the composting process outside of the coop. 

DIY Fungi Filter

Like with any fungal project, you will need access to substrate (the base food that feeds the mycelium of the fungus) and spawn of your species of choice. Tradd suggests using King Stropharia or Wine Cap spawn (Stropharia Rugosoannulata) for its sweet smell and its garden-friendliness. Wine Caps love hardwood chips as their substrate, but make sure they are quite fresh before you use them! You will want to calculate the volume to cover the entire bed of your chicken coop plus an extra food on each side for buffer, at a depth of 8 inches all around. Tradd suggests one 5 pound bag of spawn for every cubic yard of woodchips. The other key piece of equipment will be some kind of poultry or chicken wire, that will be installed about two inches deep into the inoculated woodchip floor of the coop. This will keep the bottom six inches of growing mycelium safe, while the chickens can still scratch at the top two inches. 

When installing the filter, make sure you move your birds out of the coop so you have room to work and they don’t get too startled. It’s easiest to build more of a raised bed. In order to do so, layer in one inch of wood chips, then sprinkle in broken up spawn, one after the other until you have reached 6 inches of depth. Then, install the chicken wire, and repeat the layering for another two inches of depth above the chicken wire. You may also want to repeat this process for a one foot wide buffer around the coop to capture any runoff, though this could be done as a log bed or with woodchips. If the coop is enclosed, it’s a good idea to gently water the bed every few days to keep the new mycelium moist and wash any droppings down to a lower layer. 

After about a year, or once you start to notice that most of the woodchips have decomposed, it’s time to remove the fungal filter. The remains can be raked into a pile and taken to a place where it can finish remediating over the winter or for a few months, depending on when you started. The compost should be ready to use in your garden by spring! 

This is just one of the myriad ways we can partner with and learn from fungi in our growing spaces to close nutrient loops, cultivate abundance, and regenerate our soils. If you’re inspired to learn more about cultivating your own spawn, identifying mushrooms, or extracting beneficial compounds from fungi, you can still purchase access to our Spring Conference Mushrooms track workshops and panel!

Author: Avi

Avi is the Program Coordinator at OGS. She earned a Bachelor’s of Arts and Science in Sustainability from McGill University, and has been exploring the overlapping worlds of activism, justice, and resilience since then. They spent the past two and a half years working at the Environmental Law Institute in DC conducting research on issues ranging from conflict sensitivity in environmental programming to incentivizing nature-based disaster mitigation, and serving in a coordination and facilitation for various educational programs. Outside of work, she has pursued local climate, racial and economic justice organizing and activism, and seeks to understand how farming and home growing can be employed as wedges in those struggles. Avi is enamored with fungi and enchanted by their powers to heal our bodies, our communities, and the land and water on which we depend.