Closing the Loop in Little Things

At Warwick Regenerative Design, I always seek to “close the loop” to the greatest extent possible, making the most efficient use of resources and energy flows.  This isn’t always about the big things such as broadacre landscapes and house designs, though.  In order to show how seriously I take this approach, sometimes it helps to focus on the smaller aspects of our own homestead operations.

As I’ve written before, one of the key contributors to my homestead is my flock of laying hens, who not only supply our household with some of the most amazing eggs you can imagine, but also help to make compost for our gardens that is better than anything you can find commercially available.  One of the ways I’ve found to keep my chickens healthy while cutting costs at the same time is feeding them sprouted sunflower seeds.  Basically, I get large bags of black oil sunflower seed that is sold as bird food from my local home center (around $15 for a 40 lb bag), and then sprout the seeds by soaking them for 3 days.  After the seeds start to sprout they are fed to the chickens — at which point they are easier on the birds’ digestive systems AND more nutritious.

The setup for this is quite simple.  I have 4 soaking trays with small diameter holes drilled in the bottom to drain out, which are then placed into 4 solid trays to hold the water as it seeps out.  Here’s a tray ready to go to the chickens the following morning.

photo 1
A Tray of Sunflower Sprouts — A Chicken Delicacy

Every night, I have to take about 10 minutes to empty out the bottom trays and spray clean water onto the seeds again.  And while the water may be clean when it goes into the seeds, it isn’t after it’s picked up a fair amount of bacteria and detritus off the seeds before sitting in the bottom tray for 24 hours.  Here’s what it looks like after I’ve dumped out all the bottom trays into a bucket.

photo 2
Nasty Water Collected from Sprouting Trays

One of the options for this is to treat it as a pure waste product and just toss it into the yard.  And, sometimes, that’s what I do.  It doesn’t hurt anything, and if you keep it in the house it starts to stink to high heaven.  But like most things, I try to look for a way to use this nutrient-rich by-product as a resource for something else.  And I certainly found it in my compost tea production.

I have taken to keeping a bucket of aerobic compost tea on hand during the growing season because it’s an incredibly beneficial product, and since I have lots of compost on hand it’s quite simple and easy to make.  I just take a 5-gallon bucket, put in a couple pounds of cured compost, add a dollop of livestock molasses, and fill it up with water.  I then take two aeration stones and put them all the way in the bottom of the bucket, into the wet compost, and leave it all to bubble.  The resulting concoction is through-the-roof in beneficial microorganisms, helping to boost the health of anything that grows in soil.

photo 3
Brown Gold… Compost Tea!

One of the things I particularly want to nurse into good health are my new seedlings.  Since we are still in the midst of planting season, I have seedling trays on my basement grow shelves.  Right now, it’s primarily squash, melon and cucumber starts — along with some lettuce plugs (because those never stop through the season).  I’ll take some of this wonderful product, and dilute it by about 50% with fresh water, and then dump it into the seedling trays to be taken up from the bottom by the 3″ pots.

photo 4
Diluted Tea — While Plants Love It, I Wouldn’t Advise Drinking It
photo 5
Seedling Starts Under LED Grow Lights, Healthy Thanks to Compost Tea

Now we come to the link between the nasty sprouting residue and the wonderful compost tea.  Stink coming from any kind of decaying product is a sign of anaerobic (oxygen deprived) digestion, specifically the nitrogen that is given off in the process.  This nitrogen, however, is a prime nutrient for our plants, and we want to capture it instead of allowing it to escape into the air, and stinking things up in the process.  Since the level of the bucket is lowered after watering the seedlings, I just take the sprouting detritus and dump it into the brewing compost tea.  Since the airstones keep the solution aerobic (oxygen-rich), the anaerobic microorganisms and bacteria cannot survive and become food for the aerobic ones.  The nutrients in the washout are also food for them as well.  Within less than 24 hours, the mix is completely aerobic again, and I can keep it going for an extended time rather than having to use it all up within a few days of making it.  This kind of an operation is also infinitely scalable — you just need larger tanks and stocks to bring it up to a farm scale.

As I said above, this isn’t presented necessarily as something that everyone out there needs to do — but it is an example of how seriously I take the concept of “closing the loop,” even down to the smallest of levels, in order to turn wastes into valuable resources.  If I take the time to think even these small concepts out in my own homesteading activities, just imagine what kind of a difference this kind of thinking can make in helping you to improve resilience and efficiency in your own systems!

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