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Need some expert advice from experienced breeders

Posted by CHFIII 8a (My Page) on
Sun, Jul 6, 14 at 14:06

Hi All,

LONG post. Looking for advice from folks who have lots of experience with medium scale worm breeding and casting production and I put in too much detail probably so that if I have an obviously bad assumption you can spot it and correct me. Input appreciated.
I'm a longtime composter but just starting out with vermicomposting so i am reading everything I can find and trying to sift out the good info from the "rule of thumb" newbie advice designed to make startup 'idiot proof'. Much like hot composting, I can already tell that much of the advice out there is like the advice on regular composting - easiest case advice that has been reprinted enough times that certain things become 'consensus' thus must be true. (argh!).

So I am looking for input from those who have been raising worms for a long time, hopefully in large quantities.

First objective: Lots of worms. I never do things small scale, either I don't bother or I go straight to doing it all out. Starter cultures have a cost obviously and the advice out there that says a worm population will double in 90 days is silly - under ideal conditions they could increase 100 fold in that time period. Right now I just have one bin that I am using to get a feel for it, ie getting temp and water and food levels right to avoid anaerobic conditions or a fungus gnat hotel. I've raised whiteworms and grindal worms as a fish breeder in the past which are much harder to manage since their environments are tiny. My assumption is that the fastest way to get a large population going is to master the right conditions and then to have very low density. IE, a pound of worms in one bin is not going to yield the same population in three months as will the same pound of worms spread across 2,4, or 8 bins. Is there a minimum number you experienced breeders have found to be the minimum effective dose to ensure worms are finding one another and doing the horizontal worm mambo or have these suckers been around a few million years because if there are two they will track one another down and ensure the survival of the species?

Next - ideal environment: Most of what I have read is for establishing the system and beginning a composting process. The worms eat the composted stuff more than the stuff itself and feed off microbes if I understand correctly. For Bins, I am building continuous flow through bins using plastic garbage pails since they are cheap and large. Making the bottom grate by running plastic coated wire laced through drilled holes. Thought about putting in a rig to handcrank a bar to spin around for harvesting but figure it would be easy enough to use a hand garden tool - claw thingy - to loosen up the castings and make them drop when the time comes. I figured the cranked spinning bar would likely just dig a groove above the grate and require some hand loosening anyway and worm poop doesn't give me the willies. I figure these large bins have lots of advantages - airflow and volume primarily since if I get too much food in there and start a hotspot cooking there is room for the majority of the worms to migrate to a more suitable zone and I will only wind up cooking some slow learners and cocoons.

Bedding: Here's a biggy... I can see the wisdom of using a lot of shredded cardboard to minimal food in a little starter bin, hard to screw up too bad and get a massive heat bloom or anaerobic stink box that way but is that truly ideal for the worms? I was thinking I'd use 'unfinished' hot compost. By unfinished, I mean it has been turned a couple times and there are still identifiable chunks like leaves that are blackened but largely whole. When my hot bin has been turned a couple times without adding more greens (grass clippings usually or liquid gold when dried out or both) and no longer gets hot I figure the risk of a major heat bloom is pretty low. I'd like to use that compost with big chunks sifted out - worms and time will reduce leaves but not sticks I assume and it would drastically reduce the amount of back breaking bin turning I have to do if I could let worms do the finishing for me rather than turning twice per week for a month or two. My assumption is that using this unfinished compost that has already 'burned off' most of the heat would be perfect for worms and my interest in procuring and shredding 100 pounds of cardboard is pretty low! Am I right that unfinished compost, so long as it doesn't heat up is more or less perfect and would spur breeding since it would represent a mountain of perfect food source and stay pretty constant in terms of temp and moisture level with minimal effort?

Food: I will quickly have more worms than I will have foodscraps suitable for feeding them, One of my favorite composting ingredients is to get coffee grounds in mass quantity from the coffee shops - rich in nutrients, pre-moistened and pre ground... and people throw it away??? I have read that too many coffee grounds are bad for worms due to acidity. That sound more like assaninity since grounds are pretty close to neutral once they've been used - 6.8 or so. Is there another reason they would be bad? I know they would spike a heat bloom if fresh but want thoughts from someone who has used them - use fresh to give worms more protein or compost them for a bit to deplete the nitrogen and heat potential??? Seems like an ideal food source fresh and pre-composting would just reduce their nutrition profile. I don't want to make feeding the worms a full time job so if I get sufficient numbers I know a nursery that will sell a truckload of horse stall compost cheap. It's a tad warm usually but I'm thinking that spreading an inch on top of the bins and lightly watering it would prevent heating and I've read that there is no better food for feeding compost worms and getting them to breed/mature quickly?

Types: So my 'practice' bin has 150 adult ENC's in it simply because that was easy to get packaged as bait worms, I'm thinking I will try Wigglers, ENC and ANC, The ANC's sound ideal to me since they breed faster and eat more and sound as thought they produce the most castings per pound of worms. I'm in North Texas and plan to put maybe 6 bins in the garage. The garage gets hot in the summer but those three should be OK since the large volume and evaporation should moderate temperature. In the winter, we get cold and the garage is going to be way below ideal temps during cold snaps but again, with a large volume bin that is easier to mitigate and in a pinch I could always mix in some coffee grounds or something to generate a little heat and keep at least the top zone nice and warm and I will put a VERY simple enclosure around them: 2x4 frame, plywood sides, tarp I can roll down over the top/front when I know the garage is going to be insanely hot or cold for an extended period so that I can put a small heater or a fan blowing over a bucket of ice in there as s short-term solution to bad temperatures. All that being said, I will try all three in at least one bin each and one bin will probably get a mix of all three. Might try 'alabama jumpers' too. I don't care about one species invading another bin right now but I anticipate that I might later if I have enough worms to share or sell so I will make it a point to make sure each bin has it's own 'tools' and cocoons and babies are not getting spread around. The African Nightcrawler sounds like the best worm for me - I want to produce maximum castings and what i have read says they are the best for that purpose but are less popular than the red fetida (wiggler) because they are not as forgiving. I'd rather worry about getting the ideal conditions figured out and use the ideal worm for my purposes than getting the most 'goof proof' worm. Any experienced folks out there have a recommendation? How about sources of worms? I'm in North Texas (DFW area) and I know there are some good breeders around but they seem to specialize in offering red wigglers.

Random Notions, input appreciated:
I would use a LOT of castings if I had them and probably give away the rest but like the compost I produce, I've never produced 'too much' yet so it is hard to say. Since I am not worried about cost of goods as much as I would be if I were planning to make a buck off of this, I'm interested in producing the 'best' castings. I've thought about sprinkling azomite or other rock powders into the mix to make the most fertile castings possible. Any thoughts? I will use them tilled into beds, sprinkled on top of the ground and for making aerated teas. Any thoughts on how to make the best fertilizer castings possible appreciated. My hot compost usually picks up a gallon of molasses and 20 gallons of ' liquid gold' when I turn it for a couple months to get a fast finish and the compost I generate is pretty amazing as a result (or in spite of?) that. I'm going the vermicompost route because I figure it is much more efficient to let them finish compost and much less taxing on that implant they put in to fix my bad lumbar region... I can't turn a 100 gallon hot bin like I used to and I'm thinking with the worms I can just keep generating 'half done' compost in the top 2/3 of the bin, feed it to the worms and save the back breaking hassle of digging to the bottom of the bin for now and then instead of every time. Let the worms turn and finish :-)

Local worms: I know that there are plenty of compost type worms in my gardens and they 'sound' like Alabama Jumpers. Anyone know what they probably are in North Texas? If I move some mulch/compost they are there at the soil/mulch line and if uncovered they 'jump' and dance like crazy before settling down and diving again. I was thinking that once Fall get here I might collect as many as I can one day and start a bin of them - figure if I do a bin of them starting in mid-October and they 5 months of ideal feeding and breeding conditions then come spring planting time I will just break down that bin and distribute the worms all over at the same time I am putting down compost, mulch and organic fertlizers to get a faster start on the spring growing season. SOMEONE has tried this I am sure????

How about excess red wigglers, ENC's and ANC's once temperatures are suitable? I know they will migrate and many/most would die off either in the heat of August or the cold of the following winter but presumably I could worm-bomb the property pretty well in April with a lot of compost and mulch and get the benefits of a ridiculously high worm population for one year to really condition the soil and ideally eliminate the need for fertilizer other than more mulch and compost once they deplete it? In my old yard I remember seeing hundreds of piles of castings when the grass was scalped and you could see them. Not there yet on new property but figure a one year 'worm bloom' would remediate the soil and then the worms will find a balance and settle into more typical levels over time?


Follow-Up Postings:

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RE: Need some expert advice from experienced breeders

"says a worm population will double in 90 days is silly - under ideal conditions they could increase 100 fold in that time period." [Terminology is important when discussing technical matters. Doubling a number is not increasing 100-fold. Doubling is increasing by 100 PERCENT. 100-fold means increasing by 100 TIMES. For example: If you start with 100 worms and you increase their numbers by 100 PERCENT, you get 200 worms. If you increase their numbers by 100-fold, you get TEN THOUSAND worms.]

"My assumption is that the fastest way to get a large population going is to master the right conditions and then to have very low density. IE, a pound of worms in one bin is not going to yield the same population in three months as will the same pound of worms spread across 2,4, or 8 bins." [With that statement, you make the assumption that reproduction is density dependent. That MAY be correct, but it is in the opposite direction you assume. TO A POINT, the denser the population, the greater the reproduction. The reason being that the density needs to be sufficient for 1) worms to "find" each other, and 2) there are many that believe that "low" densities inhibit reproduction. No one has posted research directed SPECIFICALLY at the density-dependent nature of Eisenia fetida reproduciton.]

"Am I right that unfinished compost, so long as it doesn't heat up is more or less perfect and would spur breeding since it would represent a mountain of perfect food source and stay pretty constant in terms of temp and moisture level with minimal effort?" [If you find some actual research that has been performed to address this question specifically, I, and MANY others would LOVE to see it. What you WILL find is LOTS of anecdotal comments - including in "scientific" publications - about "this or that" with respect to effect on reproduction, but NOTHING that addresses the point directly as the focus of the research.]

"I don't want to make feeding the worms a full time job" [sounds to me like that is exactly what you are describing] so if I get sufficient numbers I know a nursery that will sell a truckload of horse stall compost cheap. [I think you will find that many, probably most, long-time wormers would recommend that source of worm food.]

"I'm thinking I will try Wigglers, ENC and ANC," [Culturing each of those species requires significantly different techniques. All will EXIST under one culture regime, but will only thrive - what you are clearly after - when cultured appropriately for the particular species.]

[I'll leave others to comment on your remaining paragraphs.

Best of luck with your ambitious adventure!

Another poster of "long" posts,
Paul]


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RE: Need some expert advice from experienced breeders

"So I am looking for input from those who have been raising worms for a long time, hopefully in large quantities." That request may cut out some of your best replies. In fact they may be the bulk of the replies. I think many of those people must post on some other board somewhere else. Don't know where.

"I never do things small scale, either I don't bother or I go straight to doing it all out." Glad to hear that despite that you are starting with a smaller set up to get the hang of it. Many of us can report that we lost our first worms. That was probably how we learned the most and the most quickly how to worm via how not to worm. Digging through the bin told us exactly what we had done wrong.

"amount of back breaking bin turning I have to do if I could let worms do the finishing for me rather than turning twice per week for a month or two." I almost wonder if we are not worm growers but wee beastie growers and the worms are just there to package up the stuff into calcium coated pellets. Time should be doing the work not us.

"I am building continuous flow through bins using plastic garbage pails since they are cheap and large. Making the bottom grate by running plastic coated wire laced through drilled holes. Thought about putting in a rig to handcrank a bar to spin around for harvesting but figure it would be easy enough to use a hand garden tool - claw thingy - to loosen up the castings and make them drop when the time comes. I figured the cranked spinning bar would likely just dig a groove above the grate and require some hand loosening anyway and worm poop doesn't give me the willies." Plastic garbage pails are specifically engineered to hold garbage. Garbage has air spaces and is not all heavy. Vermicompost has few air spaces and weights about the same as water. Cutting into the structural integrity of the bin will weaken it even more. Commercial operations have temperature controlled buildings, ground up feed stock of specific composition and moisture and a person dedicated to the operation as a job. Lacking that the vermicompost has a tendency to defy gravity. All the flying monkeys in the world can not get that stuff to fall like we all know it should. Then when it does fall it does so all at once leaving a hole all the way to the top of the bin and the sides still stuck. Mechanical harvesting methods are great... on paper... until the vermicompost insists on staying 1/2 inch above their various rotating apparatus.

"I've thought about sprinkling azomite or other rock powders into the mix to make the most fertile castings possible. Any thoughts?" I would want those incorporated into the castings thus rather than mix in later I would put them right in with the food. Biochar too.

"I was thinking that once Fall get here I might collect as many as I can one day and start a bin of them" Free is good.

"I'm in North Texas and plan to put maybe 6 bins in the garage. The garage gets hot in the summer" I sense some issues here.

Next poster it is your turn.


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RE: Need some expert advice from experienced breeders

“LONG post. Looking for advice from folks who have lots of experience with medium scale worm breeding and casting production”

Most of us here do smaller scale.

“I can already tell that much of the advice out there is like the advice on regular composting - easiest case advice that has been reprinted enough times that certain things become 'consensus' thus must be true.”

The same thing happens here. Since you are asking questions about things we may not have experience with, expect more of that kind of advice.

“the advice out there that says a worm population will double in 90 days is silly - under ideal conditions they could increase 100 fold in that time period.”

The WEIGHT of the worm population can double every 90 days. The numbers will more than double, but many of the new worms will be babies.

“My assumption is that the fastest way to get a large population going is to master the right conditions and then to have very low density. IE, a pound of worms in one bin is not going to yield the same population in three months as will the same pound of worms spread across 2,4, or 8 bins.”

I have no idea how you come to that conclusion. Worms only breed so fast. Separating them from potential partners does not speed up the process. You want to avoid overcrowding the worms, but one pound in the kind of bin you describe is far from overcrowding.

“Is there a minimum number you experienced breeders have found to be the minimum effective dose to ensure worms are finding one another and doing the horizontal worm mambo”

Two.

“or have these suckers been around a few million years because if there are two they will track one another down and ensure the survival of the species?”

I don’t know if anyone here has really researched that, but conventional wisdom says that if your population is not dense enough, you will have less breeding.

“For Bins, I am building continuous flow through bins using plastic garbage pails since they are cheap and large.”

But are not strong enough to hold the weight of the VC, especially if you have cut a hole in the bottom large enough to facilitate harvesting. Bins made the way you describe tend to collapse under the weight of the VC

“I figured the cranked spinning bar would likely just dig a groove above the grate and require some hand loosening anyway”

That has been my experience.

“I was thinking I'd use 'unfinished' hot compost. By unfinished, I mean it has been turned a couple times and there are still identifiable chunks like leaves that are blackened but largely whole.”

This would make great bedding. If your hot compost has a balance of C to N, it would also be great food, and would require no additional food.

“Am I right that unfinished compost, so long as it doesn't heat up is more or less perfect and would spur breeding since it would represent a mountain of perfect food source and stay pretty constant in terms of temp and moisture level with minimal effort?”

Probably.

“Food: I will quickly have more worms than I will have food scraps suitable for feeding them,”

You are being optimistic. You may be right, but there can be a lot of surprises when you are raising live animals.

“One of my favorite composting ingredients is to get coffee grounds in mass quantity from the coffee shops”

This is not ideal worm food. Perhaps you would do better to put it in your hot bins and precompost it.

“I have read that too many coffee grounds are bad for worms due to acidity.”

A lot of people say that. I don’t buy it.

“Is there another reason they would be bad?”

Besides that worms don’t like to eat them until they have decomposed a bit?

“I don't want to make feeding the worms a full time job so if I get sufficient numbers I know a nursery that will sell a truckload of horse stall compost cheap.”

That may be the answer to getting them to breed faster as well.

“It's a tad warm usually but I'm thinking that spreading an inch on top of the bins and lightly watering it would prevent heating and I've read that there is no better food for feeding compost worms and getting them to breed/mature quickly?”

Correct, and correct.


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RE: Need some expert advice from experienced breeders

I started hot-composting and vermicomposting about the same time, 2008. I built several hot piles with generous amounts of horse manure, straw and UCG. After a few turnings the piles started to cool and became well populated with native red wigglers. After a year or so I quit turning piles and let the worms do the work. I also had lumbar surgery last year. Does this ring a cord?
I am certainly no expert, but have cultured an army of worms in about 250 sq.' of worm beds. These composters handle the daily offerings of our horse. All my worm-systems are open-bottom and outdoors in a cool costal climate. You may be interested in reading a thread I started "worm cage success".

Random thoughts:
I agree with the advice/thoughts of Paul and EQ2.
With regards to using a variety of worms, you may want to just keep it simple and start with red wigglers (EF). They are said to be the easiest and most tolerant composting worm. I have no experience with the other varieties, but as Paul said, each will have their own requirements. Others who have mixed breeds into their systems have ended up wit one dominant species, and the other species declined/ disappeared.
There are different strategies and techniques regarding worm population growth vrs. casting production. Denser worm populations and flow-thru bins are for casting production. You should read a recent post by barbararose titled "please help with math". She references an excellent manual worth reading.
While it is common to have a worm population double every few months, it is possible to achieve much better growth rates with a well managed bin. But to expect 100 fold increase in a few month is not realistic. 1lb of worms becoming 100lbs in 3 months is not possible IMO. 1lb of "bedrun" worms, which contain adults, juveniles, newborns, bedding and cocoons, will get you off to a much faster start.
Using your compost as a feedstock is a good idea. Starting out with unstable compost as bedding could cause problems.
UCG is a good feedstock. It takes awhile for the worms to come into it, especially in large quantities. It can cause the bin to heat up. I would suggest not mixing into your beds, but top-feeding it.
Horse manure is great... It is 95% of my feedstock. Get it good and wet, let it cool, and use it as bedding/food. Worms love it and reproduce quickly.

It is best to start small with one species, as you are doing now, and grow your own herd. You can learn and experiment with your specific feedstocks, environment, bins and species. Much of what works for me will probably not work for you.

Good luck and happy wormin'

Pete


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RE: Need some expert advice from experienced breeders

My worms breed heavier when I give them protein, like worm food, chicken mash and guinea pig mega. Worms love grains like oatmeal. Their favorite fruit seems to be melons, especially watermelon. I mix 50:50 oatmeal and chicken mash with a melon. They race for it when I use watermelon. I started out with 1 bin last year and now I have 5 HUGE bins. Using protein supplements also make for fatter worms. If I don't give them any chick mash for awhile they lose weight. Ideal conditions for breeding are to have the bottom of the bin moister than the top. When it is a little drier at the top it is easier for the worms to pass the eggs. Just don't give protein and grain every day or you will wind up with a bin full of Potworms (those little white thready worms). They can increase in numbers to the point where they will be robbing YOUR worms of food.


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RE: Need some expert advice from experienced breeders

My area is much further south and hotter than yours, but a friend, and member of this group....chuckiebtoo.... also lives in North(east) Texas and he has posted before that worms will not survive the summers there in garages or similarly climate-abused situations. Or...if they do, they'll not thrive.

If the worm environs approach 100 degrees f, you and the worms have a problem. I think he has a small climate-controlled garden shed that is kept at about 80 f year-round.

CarlosDanger


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