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Worm farm science
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I never had any idea how much I would learn by being a worm farmer. Starting and running a small business with little money means that I have had to do most of the work myself. Although sometimes I do use part-time help, most of the work is done by myself. Often I find myself doing carpentry work to build worm beds. Other times I will be welding and bending pipe to make greenhouses. Currently I am working on the computer obviously, kind of basic, but two days ago I was working on a programing issue with the website. Eventually I gave up on that and hired a programmer, but I didn’t really want to. Many of my customers are gardeners so I try to keep up to date on the latest gardening buzz like the square foot gardening. Often I am running a skid steer loader, other times I am wiring lights or plumbing a sprinkler system.
Sometime though I do find myself actually feeding, harvesting, shipping worms. Actually this is a lot of my time of course. I am learning a lot about red wiggler worms. It’s been a real adventure figuring out the best things to feed them, how much water they need, and other things like how often to aerate the beds.
In order to be able to sell more worms I am constantly expanding the size of the worm farm.
Here you can see the worm beds that are in construction. The one on the left is finished and the one on the right is partially done. I stock them simply by adding the worm castings that come straight out of harvester. The worm castings that come out of the harvester will always have enough baby worms and eggs to repopulate the worm bed. It takes quite a while before the new beds have enough worms to be harvested though.
Compost is the process through which organic matter transforms from an unstable state to a stable state. To understand this, think about an apple that has fallen off of a tree and is left sitting on the ground undisturbed. The apple, although fresh and ready to eat when it falls from the tree, will not stay in this condition for long. Because the apple cannot stay in its present condition it is said to be in an unstable state. The apple has stored energy in the form of sugars, starches, and proteins. These chemical stores of energy came from the sun and were stored through the process of photosynthesis. The apple tree took CO2, water, oxygen, and converted these basic ingredients using sunlight through the process of photosynthesis into the sugars and starches that make up most of the apple. The apple will soon begin a natural and God created process of decomposition called composting. Organisms such as yeast, bacteria, and fungus will begin breakdown of the apple into a more stable form and eventually into a material called humus. Humus has many important functions that whole books could be written on, but for basics its important to know that humus holds nutrients for plant use and acts as a filter and helps prevent contamination of ground water from many chemicals (Miller 148).
It is quite fascinating to see how this natural process keeps everything in balance. If things did not rot (compost) eventually there would be huge piles of leaves in the forest, our uneaten apple cores would soon litter the planet, grass clippings would eventually take over your yard, so on and so forth, but more importantly the soil would soon run out of nutrients because they were not getting replenished. Composting is necessary for new things to come about. Composting is a natural process through which God has allowed for His creation to continually renew itself. Everything that was once living will eventually turn back into the soil. (Genesis 3:19) The complexity of natural cycles is amazing and so vast that scientist cannot completely understand the chemistry involved, yet at the same time somehow they are fascinatingly simple and complete systems.
A large portion of garbage created comes from organic and once living sources. All the food, paper, wood, cotton and much of the other resources we use come from the ground as grown products. These product all can be turned into compost when their usable life is over. Currently we throw much of these materials into landfill when they could be used to enrich our soils. The problems comes from the fact that the natural process of composting is to slow to efficiently handle the huge volumes of organic material currently produced. However through intentional composting and using special methods we can compost large amounts of garbage quickly, producing a valuable soil amendment in the process of reducing waste. This also prevents depletion and waste of agricultural capacity.
Many different compost methods have been devised by people over the years. Some compost methods are suitable for extremely large scale facilities composting hundreds of cubic yards a day and some methods have been developed that can allow for a completely automated compost bin to fit under your kitchen counter. One type of composting called thermophilic composting requires temperatures to climb to over 150 degrees F, compared to vermicomposting which takes place at room temperature. Vermicomposting is of course composting with the use of earthworms. Vermicomposting can also vary in scale from million dollar operations to 15 dollar plastic containers.
Red worms are well know for their ability to consume vast amounts of food in a short time and multiply like mad as well. Often time however our worms will fail to meet this potential due to not a failure on their part but due to a lack proper conditions for them to get worked up into this feeding frenzy. When things are just perfect though, you can literally see the food disappearing in a matter of hours. This will work best in well established worm beds that have plenty of worms in them. There should be at least 1 pound of worms per square foot for this to work right.
It takes a few days to get a properly maintained worm bed to this point of boiling over with worm activity. First thing is to have the bedding material loose so that the worms can freely move through the bedding. Second is that the moisture level needs to be right. To check the moisture level, grab a handful of the bedding substrate and give it a squeeze. If no water drops are produced then it is way to dry. On the other hand if more than 4-5 drops of water are squeezed out then it is way to wet. Ideally 2-3 drops of water should come out of the bedding for best composting speed.
Worms must have plenty of easily digestible food to eat in order to get worked up onto a composting frenzy. All your normal compostables will work, but in order to get thing really moving fast you can mash or chop them up into smaller sizes, but this is not necessary and the worms will work on them either way. The food needs to be near the top of the bed as that is where the worms prefer to feed. It is provably best to feed in strips rather that feed the whole top. That way if the feed starts to heat up the worms will have a place they can escape to.
Check the worms every couple of days. As long as they have food and the moisture level is right they should really start to work on the food. Feed them just beside of the previous feeding moving the strip of feed just a little each time. The worms will follow the food scraps. If they run out of food then they will disperse through the bedding and it will take a few days to get them started eating like crazy again. This is not necessarily a bad thing though and every once in a while the bedding should be allowed to go without food for a few days so that any missed food will get consumed. Follow this and you will have loads of worms casting and no food scraps to throw out!
Thanks for reading,
I always thought that red wigglers would drown if the substrate or bedding was really wet, but I have found that this is not necessarily the case. Although they certainly can drown in too much moisture the level of water which they can handle is very high. While checking on my beds I found a certain spot that the sprinklers were watering much more than the rest of the beds and when I checked to see if how the worms were in this spot they were just hundreds of them bunched up. They were also some of the largest worms I had seen. This spot was so wet that the substrate was almost like pudding or a very wet mud. The thing is that they don’t lay may eggs when it is this wet and that it is impossible to harvest them from such wet bedding.
The thing here I guess is to know that if you want some really big wigglers for fishing, don’t be afraid to wet them down. Just be sure that you have good drainage, because the standing water can cause problems.
One of the major reasons I got into worm farming is my passion for farming and in particular my love for gardening. For many years now I have kept a garden and enjoy gardening very much. I will admit to my slackness in removing weeds in the past, but fortunately I have learned techniques that prevent weeds from even growing in the first place. I never imagined that I would be able to sell enough worms to make a living and started the worm farm thinking that composting would be my number one profit maker. However because of increased environmental awareness, composting worm sales are really strong. I guess that it would be possible to only sell worms and be quite successful. However that is not my end aim and my passion for growing plants dictates that I develop a line of products that will help everyone grow the best plants possible at their own homes.
As posted on the website I am building a large greenhouse like shelter that will be used to grow worms in, but I am going to set aside a fair sized portion of the building for research into growing plants, fruits, and vegetables. The end aim of this research will be to produce the best line of potting soils and soil amendments available anywhere. These products will all use worm castings and revolve around worm castings’ ability to bolster plant growth and health.
While we already sell castings online and some potting soil, I am really excited about selling on a large scale. Its a great product and our continuous research is sure to make it better.
After trying a lot of different housing options for the worms, I decided that the best option in my case is to use hoop style greenhouse buildings. Hoop houses, as they are often called, are semi-circular buildings made from curved semi-circle rafters and are usually covered by clear poly-ethylene film. Not only are these buildings strong, but they are also inexpensive compared to other structures; furthermore, the hoop house can be covered in poly during the winter and then covered with shade cloth for summer use.
The main structural components of the building are the rafters, also called hoops. These can be made of wood, steel, or even pvc pipe. I recommend the use of steel pipe covered in a rust proof coating. EMT conduit is widely available and relatively inexpensive. It is used to route electrical wires in buildings and can be purchased at electrical supply houses and at many well known home improvement stores. The other main structural components are the purlins. Purlins run the length of the hoop house and tie the rafters together. They are commonly between 1 and 5 purlins in a hoop house, but I would recommend at least 3. Purlins not only add extra rigidity to the building, but can be used as anchors for lights, fans, sprinklers, or hanging plants and other items on. The size and spacing of the purlins and rafters is going to depend largely upon the size of the building and the expected snow load. Also if you do intend to hang plants or other items off of the purlins to make sure they are plenty strong for that as well.
An average rafter spacing for commercially available hoop greenhouse is about 6′. I personally believe this to be to far apart and like to space the rafters no further than 4′ apart. Although this may add a little cost to the building, but I can sleep sound at night during heavy snow and freezing rain knowing that my greenhouse is plenty strong.
The hoop house is anchored to the ground using ground post. The ground post are simply pipes that are driven into the ground that the rafters will attach to. EMT conduit may be used for these as well. In my location the pipes were driven about 3′ deep, but the required depth will depend upon your soil.
This covers the basics of hoop houses, but soon I will be posting the details of an actual hoop house construction that is sure to keep some wiggler worms happy. Also I am looking forward to having a place to grow plants in the winter and having a good building for researching potting soils made with worm castings.
Thanks for reading,
Shipping live worms is tricky business, especially when the temperatures are extreme, but with lots of experimentation, we have got it down to a science. Composting worms are hardy creatures and can take the rigors of harvesting and shipping well, but it is still important to keep them as stress free as possible. It is in many ways miraculous that this is possible at all. Over 1000 living worms in a box only 7x7x6 shipped across the country and arrive at your door in 2-3 days. Its amazingly convenient and the worms don’t seem to mind.
The shipping process begins several days before the actual shipping day. The first step is to remove the worms from the large beds that they were grown in through a process we call harvesting. The harvesting takes place a couple days before shipping, because we like to let the worms rest awhile after harvesting and before shipping. Harvesting begins using pitchforks and good old fashion muscle to deliver them into the harvester. The harvester turns and is covered in screen which lets the majority of the bedding fall through but not the worms. The worms are collected at the end of the harvester in a tray, roughly ten pounds of worms per tray. After all the worms that we estimate will be needed for shipping are harvested they are carried into the shipping room and allowed to rest. There is a fair amount of bedding left on the worms that the harvester does not remove, but this is not a problem and the extra bedding will be removed on shipping day. A couple days later the worms are placed under bright lights early in the morning and allowed to go to the bottom of the harvesting tray. The bedding and remaining castings are cleaned off the top of the worms until they are “Clean as spaghetti.” They are now moved to the bagging table where they are weighed, mixed with clean soilless bedding and then bagged into a breathable cloth bag. The bag is then ready to be boxed and shipped.
A packing fill, specifically suited to the temperature, is added to the box and then the bag of worms is added on top. Then the invoice, and an information sheet are added, the box is taped and the shipping label attached. The words, “Live Worms” and optionally either, “Keep Cool” or “Protect from Freezing” may be written on the box. Due to regulations shipping worms to Hawaii is illegal, but we have shipped both european and red wiggler worms to Alaska and Puerto Rico without problems.
Fedex and UPS both allow the shipping of live worms by certified shippers only. I did go through the certification process and Worms Etc is certified by both carriers to ship live worms, but I have found that Priority Mail and Express Mail via the United States Postal Service to be the best and most reliable options. The reason I think the USPS has better luck shipping the live worms is the fact that USPS has post offices within every city in the country, whereas UPS and FedEx both have less warehouses and shipping hubs. This means that when shipping through USPS the worms spend less time in a carrier car which tend to be cold in the winter and hot in the summer.
It is extremely rare to have worms die in shipping, but in the rare case when it does happen we reship the worms. I have kept a log of every time a shipping problem arises and have each time changed something to lessen the chance of it happening again. This is why I think that I vary often get comments from my customers that my worms are far better than any others that they have ever ordered. Once I received a box of worms that where returned to me because of a bad address in California. Seems that they tried to deliver them several times before sending them back to me in South Carolina. It had been over 3 weeks since I mailed them. I opened the box and cut open the bag and dumped them into a container. They were all alive, not even one worm was dead. The peat moss that they were shipped in had partly been turned into castings, showing that the worms were even eating during shipping. Clearly shipping is not a problem for worms.
Eisenia fetida commonly called the red wiggler worm versus Eisenia hortensis which is know as the european red worm or the night crawler. Both worms can be used as a composting worm but what are the differences and which one will work the best in a given scenario.
Ok, so the title of this post could use to be a little shorter, but the topic here is to discuss the two different worms and compare them to each other. The Eisenia fetida is the scientific name for the most common composting worm that is known best as the red wiggler worm. Often times it is called by other names such as; composting worm, red worm, manure worm, tiger worm, trout worm and they are other names as well. The second most common worm is Eisenia hortensis. It goes by a number of names as well and is even more confusing because of the fact that it is often called a nightcrawler when in fact it is not. It is a composting worm and does not live in the dirt as a nightcrawler would. With out going on a tangent here, it is important to note that composting worms do not live in dirt, they live in organic material. Here is a post on the living substrates of worms. E hortensis is commonly called European red worm, european nightcrawler, dutch worm, super worm, and confusingly enough it is commonly sold as a red wiggler. The problem with people selling E hortensis as red wigglers is, when someone buys the real red wiggler expecting to get what they had been sold as such but was actually E hortensis, they see the worms and they are much smaller then what they were used to.
Eisenia fetida makes an excellent composting worm for many reasons. It is a fast multiplier and can lay an egg capsule every week under good conditions. Each egg capsule can contain up to 5-6 worms but 3 or so is common. It takes about 90-120 days for the young worms to reach maturity after hatching. Hatching can take anywhere from 21 days to never. The eggs can go into a hibernation state and wait on proper conditions before hatching. This is very helpful to the worm farmer. If something should happen to a worm bin and a farmer was to loose many or all of his worms, it would only be a matter of time until the beds would be repopulated with more red worms. Not only is the red wiggler a fast multiplier but it also can tolerate a wide variety of conditions. This is important because some times worms bins can get very hot and then nearly freeze at other times. Also this worm can tolerate a wide pH. The pH in a worm bin can change a lot as organic matter decomposes. Further more they can tolerate a different moisture levels. I have seen E fetida in bins that were soaking wet and I have seen them in nearly dry bins. They seem to be fine in either although they do best in when the moisture levels are somewhere in the middle.
Eisenia fetida worms feed on the top of the bin and move up through the food. This helps make feeding the worms easy and allows for easy separation of worms and the castings. This can create problems though if feed gets mixed into the bedding the red wiggler will not eat it and the food may sour. Souring food in the worm bedding can lead to problems. This is why I always emphasis not mixing feed into the bedding. It is ok to bury food a couple inches deep under the bedding, just don’t mix or stir bedding if there is food in it.
Eisenia fetida likes to stay put and not to run out of the beds. Many other species of worms will leave your nice prepared and safe home that is well fed just to spite you. It is true that under some conditions even this mild mannered worm will crawl away, but usually there is something wrong which is causing this.
It is easy to see why the common red wiggler is so widely used and has become the number one composting worm. This in itself is an advantage for this worm, as much has been written about it and information is easy to find. However the european nightcrawler has some merit as a composting worm as well. In the next post I will describe the good and bad of Eisenia hortensis.
Ok so how do you use the pH and crushed limestone anyhow?
It is best to try to keep the pH around 6.5-7 in the worm bin. They are several different ways to test, but a good one is to add a few pinches of worm bedding to a few tablespoons of distilled water. Then you simply dip the test strip into the water and note the color change to the litmus paper. The paper will only stay the proper color for a short time, so note it quickly. Compare the color to the chart to determine the pH. The exact number is not extremely important so don’t be to concerned about getting precisely right. You just want to know if it is real acidic. If this is the case then time to start adjusting it with some crushed limestone. Acidic is any number below 6. Application of the limestone will raise the pH. This will not be an instant change and will take a number of applications over a few weeks to change.
The limestone is used by sprinkling a small amount (dusting) over the surface every other day or so. I like to do this just after watering. Once the pH is mostly balanced you can keep it in check by adding some limestone to the feed source before adding.
Keeping the pH in check helps to keep mites and a whole host of other problems in line. It is not so important I think if you have mild and cooler weather, but if it is real hot any added stress from pH seems to make the red wiggler worms suspect to other problems.