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 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?