European Nightcrawlers breeding experiment
I started this experiment on April 16th 2016. The plan was to see how the ENC would do in different bedding/food mix. The success of the experiment would not necessarily be a succesful breeding but rather learn from mistakes and the repetitive tasks such as maintenance tasks on the small trays the the monthly count of worms and cocoons.
The experiment has been setup with three plastic trays of 1 sqft of surface area and of a depth of about 4.5 in. Each tray would host 10 mature ENC ready to breed:
- The first tray contained a mix of cardboard and horse manure
- The second tray contained shredded cardboard and food scraps
- The third tray contained coco coir and food scraps
- Multiple times a week food (on tray #2 and #3) and moisture is to be monitored. Actions are to be taken whenever necessary
- Once a month a count is to be made: mature worms, juveniles, babies and cocoons
- The process of counting would also help aerating the bedding
Validity of the expermiment
Soon after the first count, I realised that the experiment is not valid for tray #2 and #3. The bedding mix has not been done properly and was lacking of nutrient and protein (thanks Larry J. Shier). I was still in the vermicomposting mind setinstead of a vermiculture one, still thinking of feeding the worms their weight in food per week. As such the amount of food was too little, diluted in a relatively large amount of bedding.
So although the experiment and the results were still interesting, IMHO, it was however unfair to declare those mixes as of low performance for breeding worms. Given a better bedding mix preperation I'm pretty sure these trays would perform well.
Additionally, running experience right before winter was also a bit of a mistake. Although I kept the trays in the former office room right next to garage, the ambiant temperature would still be ranging between 10 and 16 degrees Celcius.
Tray #1 CB/HM
Tray #2 CB/FS
Tray #3 CC/FS
What I learned from the results
The first thing I learned is that given the proper condition and bedding mix, it is possible to increase the breeding speed of the slow Eisenia Hortensis. Their stats says they produce 1.6 cocoons per week or about 6.8 per month per adult worm. However my best performing tray (#1 with cardboard and horse manure) managed to produce a bit over 100 cocoons per month from 10 mature ENC which is an average of 10 cocoons per month per adult worm.
My mistake with the food scraps bedding mixes was also a good learning experience. Would I have scaled up by using say a 2 sqft tray with 500 worms the food to bedding ratio would have improved and the results could have been different. This also taught me the nutrient requirements for breeding worms.
As I tried to fix things up with the last two trays, more errors have been done. On tray #2 I added some more food scraps and a bit of dry food (oat meal and corn flour). Not knowing that you needed to feed a wet surface. I burried that small amount. I think that was the reason why I found the dead worm near that block of gooey bedding. Tray #3 received the same treatment but did not suffer the same damage at the end of the experience and even seemed to have recovered and catching up slowly. It could be luck or it could be that maybe wet shredded cardboard is not as breathable as coco coir.
Although the cocoons production has been better then the stats, the number of new worms per month seem a bit lower. I'm giving this due to the colder weather, the cocoons might have waited for warmer days.
I also confirmed how easy it is to get a worm bin/tray invaded by another worm species. I found some Eisenia Fetida in some of the trays. Their source? The horse manure, shared tools, maybe they have already invaded the initialy worm farm where I picked the ENC from and I accidentally moved some cocoons.
What I learned from the experiment
Was the experiment a success? I have made mistakes since the start but the whole thing was a fountain of learning resources. So I personally consider this as a success in allowing me to be a better worm farmer.
The process itself is simple, given a properly prepared bedding mix, it is a matter of adding the worms and the doing the maintenance tasks. However the counting is tedious. My minimum time for just filtering the worms and cocoons out of the bedding is 40 minutes and the highest amount of time spent was almost 2 hours! Then I had to count up to two hundreds cocoons.
Talking about cocoons, some if them are quite soft and can be accidentally squashed by your fingers.
Just like plastic worm bins, these trays even though they were only 4.5" deep were still trapping moisture at the bottom when the surface was drying fast in this dry winter weather. The counting process was actually helping aerating the bedding deep down to the base.
One skill I acquired from these long counting session is to recognise the worms. By seeing ENC many times and filtering worms and cocoons from the bedding material requires a lot of concentration, that state of mind makes you unconsciously record a lot of details of the worms and the repetitive task helps memorising them. As soon as I picked up the red wigglers I knew they were aliens! That deep red sheen on the skin is so different to the brownish/yellowish skin tone of an E. Hortensis. Even better, I have started to tell the difference between ENC and RW cocoons. I'm still not proficient at it so I won't enter into details but there is something about their shape and color shades. George Mingin did mentionned to me ENC cocoons are rounder.
I discovered that vermiculture is quite different to vermicomposting. It is easy to feed a bunch of worms and harvest the castings. It is a different thing to try to breed an army of worms from just 10 of them. But I guess that is just a learning curve, haven't we all have our failure when we first started with vermicomposting? Not enough bedding, too much food, too much water etc...? So I will persevere just like I did with my first worm bin.
Are you ready to take it to the next level?
Whether you want to start or already have a business, or even if you just want to take your domestic worm farm to the next level, you might want to get involved in the Worm Farming Alliance (WFA). The members of the group includes industry leaders, scientists, technical experts but also people just like you and me who are just passionate about the subject and are keen to learn more.
For a very low monthly fee, you can access a lot of free and paid-for resources from marketing to technical documents.
I'm not really fan of spending two hours separating worms and counting them but as they say "no pain no gain" and there is no more valuable gain than personal experience. You are not just a parrot repeating someone else's knowledge, you will actually live the experience, learn from the mistakes, understand the essence of the subject.
So I will definitely do the experience again and refine my breeding bedding mix recipe. The next time around, I will add enough food scraps to last the whole experience without topup. But I will allow the food to go through the heating stage and be safe before adding the worms. A bit like what Bentley Christie did with his Four Worms Experiment
And now that I know how slow a slow ENC can be, I will not need to count the worms every month but every two months instead. This will allow me to extend the experiment time from three to six months which should reveal even more interesting numbers especially regarding the number of the worms themselves.
For those interested here are the individual reports (which includes photographs of worms and cocoons) from each of the counting sessions: