Cat Poop Compost Installment #2

Drum full o’ cat litter

WARNING: Human waste and cat waste contain dangerous bacteria.  I fully believe that composting is a safe and sane solution to a waste stream problem–that’s why I’m writing about it, after all– I also know that it can be handled badly. (The stories we hear!) So please, read up on the subject before starting. You should have a solid foundation in regular compost to begin with, because all the basics apply. Take a good composting class or find a compost mentor. Read the Humanure Handbook. For complete safety, all cat/human waste compost should be allowed to sit for two years, and it should not be applied to food crops (but it can go around fruit trees).

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Last year at the end of July I posted about our experimental cat litter composting solution in The Cat Poop Portal post. It’s been a while since we reported in, and I’ve received some gentle pokes from readers, so this is an update.

Long story short, it’s going slowly. At the time of the last post we’d installed a 50 gallon drum in our side yard. That drum filled up fast. We have two indoor cats now (I think we only had one when this started) and they are slinky little poo machines. Also, we were using pine pellets which require a complete change-out more often than clumping litters, so we managed to fill the drum in about four months. That was faster than I expected, and a little disappointing, but there are two ways to ease this problem.

1) Changing litter, so we use less. Most clumping litters are either clay-based, which is not good for compost, or have sketchy chemicals in them. We’ve recently found World’s Best Cat Litter, which is a clumping litter made of corn. I called World’s Best to make sure there was nothing added to the corn, and they promised me that there’s nothing added to the standard formula–the magic is all in the way the corn is processed. So yes, we’re supporting Big Corn…but what are you going to do? The stuff works really well and is compostable. Now that we’re using it we’ll reduce our overall litter waste volume.  (Of note: our friend John, a madman with six cats, swears by Swheat Scoop, which is wheat based. I don’t find it works for me, but he blames my litter management skills. It’s an alternative.)

2) We’re offloading half-finished cat compost to My Big Fat Worm Bin. Regular readers (and Vermicomposting workshop participants) might remember that composting expert Nancy Klehm had us add a good amount of mature cat litter compost to the mix when we built up the bedding material for the worms. She said she wouldn’t want to foist raw cat litter on the worms, but when it was well broken down they could handle it.

The drum has been, shall we say, resting productively over the winter. Today I went and dug it up to see how it was doing. As with any pile, the stuff on top was less finished–it looked pretty much like a cat box. It isn’t stinky, though, as long as I make sure all the cat poo is buried.

Down lower the material was more broken down. It’s an interesting rusty orange color. But I didn’t get the sense of lots of activity going on. It was a cool pile, and it showed very little insect life. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The pile is decomposing, just on a long timeline. But at this rate of decomposition I suspected it would need at least another year of sitting to be fully broken down, and then it would need to rest even longer for safety. Compost made from carnivore and omnivore poop needs a two year cycle to allow the pathogens to die off.

Digging down all I see is decomposing red sawdust

Wanting to move it along faster, I did what I’d do for any compost pile that was a little pokey: I turned it, and added nitrogen and water.* Shoveling 50 gallons of kitty litter is exactly what I want to be doing on any given Saturday! As I shoveled, I decided that if I didn’t already have Mad Kitty Disease, I’d have it by the end of the day. As if to confirm this, Trout sat in the bedroom window over the poo-bin, wearing a peculiar, self-satisfied expression while he watched me slave away over his waste. (Phoebe didn’t join in, because she doesn’t admit to creating waste at all.)

Okay, he doesn’t look smug here because he’s wondering what I’m doing with the camera. Prior to this I assure you he he looked very smug.

But back to business. For those of you who are new to composting, turning a pile stirs everything up, increasing bacterial activity, making the materials hotter. This speeds decomposition. There’s much debate over whether to turn or not to turn and how often to turn, and I’m not going into any of that right now, except to say that humanure piles are not usually turned, and I’d hoped not to do so with this catmanure pile, either, but necessity drives.

Just like turning, adding a nitrogen source to the pile heats it up. All compost piles are a balance between carbon and nitrogen sources, aka “greens and browns.” Too much carbon and your pile is cool and slow. Too much nitrogen and its slimy and stinky. But if you get the balance right, you end up with lovely compost.

In kitty litter composting, the litter is the carbon and the urine and poo deliver the nitrogen. Starting out on this path, I had no idea how the natural carbon to nitrogen ratio in a cat box would play out. Now it seems to me that the ratio is carbon heavy. Cat litter materials, such as compressed sawdust, are really dense carbon sources and need tons of nitrogen to balance them.

So my preliminary finding on this point is that it might be help to add extra nitrogen when you add a new layer of litter. Extra nitrogen could come in the form of green yard trimmings, veg scraps, urine, fresh horse manure, etc. Today, though, I decided to add alfalfa meal because we had some wasting away in the garage. Alfalfa meal is ground up alfalfa. It’s used as a natural fertilizer and top dressing, and is high in nitrogen. Generally speaking, I think nitrogen should be free, but if you don’t have a lot of scraps/trimmings/spare urine around, you could do worse than to have some alfalfa meal on hand to perk up your compost pile if it’s gone carbon heavy.

Mixing in the alfalfa meal and water

When it was all done, I thought my pile looked a little more loved, and I think it’s going to heat up nicely. I was able to move ten gallons of the more mature compost over to the worm bin, but the barrel is still pretty close to full.

Adding the kitty compost to the worm bin

For the near future we’ll probably be able to send about half our litter to the barrel, and the other half will have to go to the landfill. Eventually we’ll get rid of this big mass of pine litter, and I hope that by using the clumping litter will keep the bin from filling up quite so fast, and will somehow reach cat:compost equilibrium.

*To be clear, I added water because the pile was dryish, not because water in itself is a magic activator to be used in all circumstances. If a pile is too wet, I’d blend in dry stuff while turning. The goal is for the materials in the pile to be about as wet as a wrung out sponge.

Is This Egg Good?

From left: Very Fresh • Pretty Fresh • Bad • Cat

When you’re wondering about the age of an egg, put it in glass of water.

Really fresh eggs lie on the bottom the glass, flat. These are the eggs you want for poaching and other dishes where the egg is the star.

If one end bobs up a bit, as does the middle egg above, the egg is older, but still good. The upward tilt can be more extreme than it is in this picture. In fact, the egg can even stand up straight, just so long as it is still sitting on the bottom of the glass. The egg in picture above is just a tiny bit past absolutely fresh, but still very suitable for egg dishes. If it were standing up a little more, I’d use it for baking or hard boiling. Indeed, older eggs are best for hard boiling, because fresh eggs are impossible to peel.

What you don’t want to see is a floating egg. A floating egg is a bad egg. (Like a witch!) Old eggs float because the mass inside the egg decreases–dries out–over time, making it lighter. I personally don’t trust any floating egg, but I do know that other people draw a distinction between eggs that float low and eggs that float high, and only discard the high floaters. And I honor their courage.

Cat allergies, cat hearts, cat cuteness: an update on all things cats.

Many apologies to people who don’t come here to hear about the cats.
This won’t take long.

I just wanted to give two quick updates. The first is to let you all know that Phoebe is doing amazingly well despite having an insanely malformed heart. The meds have perked her up, so she and Trout are playing all the time. To look at her you’d never think anything was wrong. So thank you so much for all  your supportive thoughts and let’s hope she stays with us a good while.

The second update is on allergies. I’ve posted about this before. When we got Phoebe I was technically allergic to cats, but I decided to push on through that little impediment, powered by the twin engines of Denial and Will, just as I’d done when we got our dog. It worked.

Then Trout came into our lives. I hoped that I’d get a pass on the allergies, as I’d already adjusted to Phoebe. But instead I had to start all over fresh with him. And it was worse this time around. Not least because Trout is super affectionate and is always, quite literally, in my face. (He kisses!)

I worried that I might have overloaded my system beyond all tolerance, but guess what? The symptoms have been gone for almost a month now, long enough for me to declare victory over pet allergies–my third victory so far.

The secret? Pig-headedness. Willingness to be constantly snotty. Absolute faith in mind over matter. I took nothing for relief, nothing at all. Not even nettle tea this time, because I was out of nettles. I think it’s important not to have a crutch, to force your body to work through it. The whole process took about three months.

I realize that there are people with worse allergies than mine, and I don’t mean to underplay anybody else’s experiences. I’m sure some allergies are so severe that they can’t be ignored. But I’m intrigued that this works, for me as well as for others I’ve heard from, and just wanted to say that it is possible to break free.

Goat Worship: A Halloween Exclusive!

Dance with me in the witches’ grove! Bwah ha…ha…er…. Well, okay, if you’re not so into that, I’ll take an apple instead.

This Saturday our friends Gloria Putnam and Steve Rudicel at the Mariposa Creamery in Altadena gave a free, two-hour class on the basics of goat keeping. I was there with bells on. I’ve always wanted goats.

It was a wonderful afternoon–about forty “goat curious” people like me showed up. Gloria and Steve’s goal in this, as in many of their activities, is to build community. They want more goat owning neighbors. They want everyone to be as excited about goats as they are.

Gloria also said that when she got her first goats, she didn’t know any goat keepers. She knew nothing. Everything she read on the Internet contradicted and confused her. The goat message boards were full of scary stories. She wants people to know that it’s not hard to keep goats. A lot of it is common sense. Good management goes a long way toward preventing the situations that lead to the scary stories you read on the message boards. As a beginner, what you really need is other goat keepers you can call on, and watch, and learn from. This is why she and Steve are spreading the good word–they want to build community–so local goat keepers can support and educate one another

Gloria produced a beautiful handout which she has given me in PDF form to share with you all out there in Internet Land. Download it here. It’s a great overview of the basics, with a list of resources at the end. It does focus on goat-keeping in the Los Angeles region, but it will be useful no matter where you live.

Lots of goat porn to follow, interspersed with some of my notes.

Steve and Gloria tellin’ it like it is to the goat curious. Steve is wearing his Altadena booster shirt. Altadena rocks! And Gloria is in her Backward Beekeepers sweatshirt, which is the fashion statement of choice in these parts.

Why keep goats? Why operate a home dairy?

Why should you keep goats? Well, for the milk, of course. And the cheese–which is milk’s higher purpose.  In an urban area (at least in this part of the world) it can be nigh near impossible to lay your hands on fresh, organic raw milk. If access to that kind of food is important to you, you almost have to be DIY. Did you know that a good milk goat can give a gallon of milk a day?

Then there’s the ethics. As many of you know, Erik and I stopped buying eggs at the supermarket because we couldn’t support the egg factories anymore, especially once we learned that “cage free” and “free range” are just marketing gimmicks. We started keeping hens to sidestep the insanity. If we had the room, we’d keep goats in a heartbeat, for the same reason. The industrial milk business is not something we want to support. We use very little milk, and the milk we do use is goat’s milk. 

Beyond this, there’s pure pleasure. Believe us, fresh goat’s milk from a well run creamery does not taste “goaty.” Nothing can compare with fresh, raw milk from animals well loved and fed and carefully milked.

Gloria also points out that for her, goat keeping provides an almost mystical connection to our ancestors, a reconnection to this ancient, ancient human activity of caring for milch animals. Again, like keeping chickens, keeping a few goats was once normative. Well, it is still is normal in a lot of the world–but here and now, it’s exotic, an almost forgotten art. And that’s a shame. Goats are wonderful creatures.

Enter the paddock! Goats are escape artists, so gates like these need to be secured–carabiners work well

A milking station elevates the goat and provides snacks, which are a great incentive toward cooperation.

Look at that foam! A good dairy goat can give a gallon of milk a day. Steve and Gloria milk their goats twice a day. Once a day is acceptable, too, but twice a day increases the yield by 20%.

This device is called a strip cup. The first squirt of milk from the goat goes in here. The screen lets you know if the milk texture is off–a sign of trouble.

How much does it cost? 

You don’t keep goats in the city/suburbs to save money. Just as it is with eggs, you’re always going to be able to buy milk at the store for less than it costs to raise it at home. However, if you’re committed to high quality, fresh, raw dairy and gourmet cheese, you know how hard it is to find, and if you can find it, how expensive it can be.  I think you can get good milk for more reasonable prices in other areas of the country, but around here raw goat’s milk goes for about $20 a gallon. Gloria and Steve estimate their own milk costs more than that, but they admit it is much higher than it need be because a) they are keeping several non-producing goats as pets and b) they are buying really expensive hay for logistical reasons and I’ll add 3) they’re paying SoCal prices for everything.

(I should insert here that Mariposa Creamery is not a commercial dairy. They are producing milk and cheese for their own consumption–and keeping goats because they love goats. So this isn’t at all about profitability.) 

They say they could save a lot of money on hay if they had somewhere to store it and could buy it in bulk, instead of having it delivered in small quantities. They’d save even more if they had time to forage for the goats. Goats actually prefer tree trimmings to expensive hay. All in all, they figure it costs them about $5 per day to support each goat, that include the food, supplements and medicines. But theoretically you could almost feed your goats for free, if they had access to forage or you had time to forage for them.

In planning your own costs, you will also need to factor in the cost of the infrastructure: fencing, housing, feeding and milking equipment. This can be expensive or it could cost relatively little. It depends on your circumstances and leanings. 

How much does it cost to buy a good milk goat? Around $300 locally. That’s for a goat with her kids just weaned, ready to milk. Of course it’s much less cash up front to raise up a baby.


Meet Mint. She’s thirsty after being milked.

How much food? What kind of food? Milkers eat 2 flakes of hay each per day. The non-milkers eat 1 flake. (There are 10-12 flakes per bale, roughly.) Goats eat hay, but would prefer some nice foraged tree branches. They also get a little grain, veg scraps, and access to the condiment bar. See the next pic…
This surprised me as a goat newbie: the goats get constant access to three nutritional supplements: kelp, mineral salts and baking soda. They nibble at these when the like, when they feel they need them.

Spontaneous still life: hay hook and a green egg

Goat milk does not taste “goaty” if handled properly. First, it has to be processed instantly: out of the goat, straight into the dairy, where it is filtered–which is what is going on in this picture–and then chilled down as quickly as possible. All the equipment, of course, is very clean.

If only my kitchen were so clean.
I admit I was kind of getting off on all the stainless steel.
But back to the point. Once the milk is filtered it is cooled down fast by being placed in a bucket of cold water packed with those blue ice brick thingees, and then put in the fridge. Submersion in ice water cools much more quickly than simply putting the milk in the fridge, or even into the freezer.
If you have goats, even just a couple, you’re going to have plenty of milk. What do you do with it?

Make cheese, of course! Aren’t these incredible? Gloria and Steve made these with their own hands. This is the triumph of the DIY spirit.

Source–>Product–>Paradise

Goats in the City and Suburbs

Goats, being smaller than cows and happy to live on forage rather than pasture, are ideal milch animals for smaller spaces. You need to keep two goats minimum, because a single goat in an unhappy goat. Three goats is apparently a very good number, though Gloria says the more the better. They’re busy, curious animals and having lots of companions keeps them happy and less dependent on you for company.

Exactly how much room you need to keep goats is one of those questions which is hard to answer. More room is always better. Gloria and Steve’s eleven goats are living in a yard about the size of generous suburban back yard. The kind of yard where you can play fetch with a big dog or toss a football–but by no means a pasture or huge space. Within that space is the goats’ shelter, a pile of logs for them to climb on, their feeding and watering stations and a chicken coop. The specific codes of your city or county might specify a certain size lot for livestock or a certain distance the animals must be from neighboring structures.

This is their first aid kit for the flock. It’s pretty straightforward. Stuff for wound care, charcoal paste for poisonings, an epi pen for allergic reactions, and antibiotics for serious emergencies. The most important item in here may be the thermometer, which is an important early warning device.
Sometimes life is just pretty
Did I mention these are Nubian goats. Their milk has the most butterfat for any goat this size.

This is my new best friend, Dot. The sweetest kid in the world. She followed me around like a puppy asking to be scratched and giving me the big eye treatment. I was seriously tempted to stuff her in the hatchback and make a getaway.
Hay, nice manger!

Dot is shaking her head, saying, “No, you cannot capture my cuteness with your tiny box. Put it away and pet me!”

A milking goat drinks 5 gallons a day. This system refills automatically, so Steve and Gloria know their goats will never run out of water, even if they get stuck somewhere and can’t get home to refill.
A log pile provides entertainment for busy goats. So do children.

Goats and chickens get along well, but goats will eat all of the chickens’ feed, so you have to protect those areas. It’s very bad if a goat is allowed to gorge on large amounts of grain–it can kill them. Yep, they can digest oak branches but grain is a problem. It turns septic in their stomachs.

This kid got up on the log pile and started posing. She’s Dot’s sister.

This is my wistful look.

Did you want a profile?

I pulled back to capture the nobility of her pose.

Seriously. Can we just bronze it and put it in a park?
All hail our Caprian overlords.

Happy Halloween everybody! (Photo courtesy of Gloria Putnam)

Cat Update

Last week was fairly traumatic around here. We learned two scary things–the first was that we might be living on a Superfund clean-up site, and the second was that something was seriously wrong with our kitten, Phoebe.

As Erik just posted, the lead issue remains up in the air, and will be for quite some time. But we did find answers regarding Phoebe, and while it is bad news, it is not as bad as our worst imaginings, and it’s good just to have answers and a course of action. We’re finding our feet again and will get back to a regular blogging schedule this week.

Turns out little Phoebe, found on the street when she was only 4 weeks old and bottle raised by us, was born with a heart defect. The kitty cardiologist (the excellent Dr. Zimmerman at AVCC for you Angelenos) identifies it as a complete AV canal defect. This is a rare and serious heart deformity.  Dr. Zimmerman drew us a picture of a normal cat heart and then one of Phoebe’s heart, and all we could think was that it was a miracle this kitten lived a minute outside the womb.

As I understand it (and please forgive the very loose terminology) there are four chambers to the heart, the left and right atria and the left and right ventricles, and each pair is divided by a septum, a wall. In Phoebe’s heart, the septa are breached in both pairs, so her blood is flowing around her heart all willy-nilly. (In precise terms she has atrial septal defect and a ventricular septal defect).

We really don’t know how she’s functioning at all. It’s also a miracle that she survived her spaying. We will no longer be using the services of the vet who somehow overlooked her loud heart murmur when prepping her for anesthesia.

There is little we can do for her. There is medication which will ease her heart action some. Dr. Zimmerman would not give us a prognosis because, as she says, “kitties always surprise us.” So Phoebe might have weeks, she might last years. She’s not in pain–she is just not as active as she used to be before the symptoms of this defect became more pronounced. Basically she’s acting like an elderly cat, happy to nap a lot and watch our other kitten, Trout, play. If she does start to roughhouse with Trout she’ll run out of air and have to stop. But it seems like she’s figured that out already, and even simple Trout seems to understand that he has to leave her alone.

So yes, we’re sad, but we’re also relieved we don’t have to make any big decisions regarding surgery (there is none) or her quality of life. We’ll just enjoy her each day and be thankful we have that day together–which is, after all, how we should enjoy all the people and critters that we love.

End of Summer Photos

I’ve got a backlog of random photos that, somehow, never made it into full blown blog posts. Here’s some of those pics starting with our modest passion fruit harvest. Beautiful flowers and tasty fruit.

Kelly accidentally planted some potatoes amongst her sweet potato patch. We got a few potatoes and some pretty potato flowers.

My friends Gloria and Steve, who own a small herd of goats, did a goat milk tasting at the Institute of Domestic Technology comparing their backyard milk against a couple of store bought goat milks and some cow milk. Guess what? Fresh goat milk from the backyard is delicious and does not taste “goaty”. Store bought goat milk just doesn’t compare, though the Summer Hill brand at Trader Joes is passable.

Lastly, two of my favorite things: cats and corded telephones. 

Best wishes for a happy fall for all Root Simple readers.

The Practical Beekeeper by Michael Bush

“There are a few rules of thumb that are useful guides. One is that when you are confronted with some problem in the apiary and you do not know what to do, then do nothing. Matters are seldom made worse by doing nothing and are often made much worse by inept intervention.”-Richard Taylor

Michael Bush, in his new book on natural beekeeping, The Practical Beekeeper Beekeeping Naturally, begins with Taylor’s quote, which could just as easily apply to gardening or many other areas of our lives. Yet doing nothing is one of the hardest things for us Homo sapiens to wrap our busy heads around. Nassim Taleb is fond of pointing out the huge number of medical mistakes that could easily have been avoided by the doctor having the courage to not intervene with some needless procedure or pharmaceutical. Up until some time in the 20th century, in fact, you were actually better off not going to see a doctor.

Michael Bush’s The Practical Beekeeper is the new bible of natural no-treatment beekeeping. Bush’s non-interventionist approach is based on the work of Dee and Ed Lusby and is at odds with conventional (beekeeping associations and academics) reliance on chemical treatments, re-queening, artificial insemination etc. Beekeeping, in my and Michael Bush’s opinion, is one of those fields, like economics, where the experts have been thoroughly discredited by recent events–our current econopocolypse and, in beekeeping, colony collapse disorder. Of CCD, Michael Bush blames chemical treatments, directed at controlling mites and other issues, which throw off the microbial balance of the beehive. Bush’s emphasis in symbiotic microbial relationships puts his work in line with soil scientist Elaine Ingham and the pro-biotic movement in human health.

The Practical Beekeeper would benefit from an index (something said of our first book) and some editing for repetition, but those minor points aside, this is a must-have book for beginning and advanced beekeepers. There’s much good, practical information and I learned a lot reading this book on a long train trip. Bush has many interesting tips and tools that you can build yourself. And it’s the few books I’ve seen that tells you how to do swarm captures and cut-outs.

Bush’s website, The Practical Beekeeper also has an encyclopedia’s worth of handy info.

Free Postmortem Exams for Backyard Flocks in California

It’s too late for us now, but if I had another two chickens die in close succession, I’d consider rushing the bodies off to one of the California Animal Health and Food Safety’s labs run by the University of California Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine.

A Root Simple reader who is a veterinarian tipped us off to this service. You don’t need a veterinarian (though you might need one to help interpret the results) and the service is free to those with less than 1,000 birds. All you need to do is get the body, as soon as possible, to one of four labs in either Davis, Turlock, Tulare or San Bernardino.

The backyard flock submission form is available at: http://www.cahfs.ucdavis.edu/submission_forms/index.cfm. The addresses of the labs are on the form. I’m sure that many other states offer similar services. Call your local Extension Service for details and leave a comment if you know about your state’s testing programs.