Home Worm Production
Mary Appelhof, author of Worms Can Eat My Garbage (Flower Press, 1982) describes a system called vermicomposting. This system includes raising worms, producing rich compost that is very beneficial for plants, and disposing of kitchen waste all in one.
Find A Suitable Place
The worms and bedding should be contained in a small box or bin, approximately one foot high, 2 feet deep and 3 feet wide, so you'll need that much space. Temperatures of about 60 to 80 degrees F. are ideal, but the worms will tolerate temperatures from 40 to 90 degrees F. You'll want the location convenient to your kitchen to make disposal quick and easy. Even though a properly maintained bin is odorless, most would rather not have a box of worms inside their house. Most people prefer a basement or garage location.
Purchase Or Build A Container
The worms aren't too picky about housing, so mainly consider what suits you. Some people prefer building a box usually with the dimensions mentioned above. If you decide to build your own box, use exterior grade plywood and construction grade lumber. Don't use pressure-treated wood for those parts on the inside surface, as the chemicals may be toxic to worms. You can paint or stain the exterior of the box, but leave the inner surface unpainted. Be sure to drill at least twelve 1-inch holes in the bottom of the box for drainage.
Prepare The Bedding
Commonly available sources of suitable bedding for your worm bin are shredded newspaper, cardboard, or computer printout paper. Knowing someone in an office with a paper shredder is helpful, but you can easily shred your own paper. With newspaper, use only the regular black and white sections - not the color sections - as dyes maybe toxic to worms. Tear the paper along the center fold, then keep tearing in parallel strips of about 1 inch in width. You'll need about 10 pounds for an average sized bin.
Put the shredded newspaper in the bin. Add a gallon of garden soil-the worms need the grit to aid their digestion-and 4 gallons of water to provide sufficient moisture. The bedding material should be moist but not soggy. Prepare moistened bedding at least 2 days prior to adding worms, as it may heat initially and harm the worms.
Get The Worms
These worms are commonly raised for fish bait and can be readily purchased locally for stocking. You'll need approximately 2 pounds of worms for each pound of garbage your household produces daily. For example, if you are stocking one worm bin and your household generates one pound of kitchen waste a day, common for an average household of four, start with 2 pounds of worms.
Caring for the worms is easy. Spread the worms gently over the top of the prepared bedding. They can be fed on plant-derived products such as potato peels, lettuce leaves moldy bread, spaghetti, orange peels, tea or coffee grounds, and garden waste like corn shucks or pea shells. Large amounts of meat or bones can cause odors and attract dogs or rodents and should be avoided.
You can feed the worms every day, twice a week, or only once a week. Let your schedule, not the worms, be your guide. If you're going to be away from home for more than a month, you may wish to have someone feed the worms for you. To feed your worm bed, push back the bedding, place the food, and cover it so that it's an inch or so beneath the surface. There's no need to chip or grind the food; let the microorganisms and worms do that for you.
If you place the garbage in sequence at different locations in the bin over the course of several days, you won't come back to the same place twice and thus will avoid a disagreeable encounter with freshly decomposing garbage.
You'll need to change the bedding and harvest the larger worms after about 2 months and every month or so thereafter. To harvest the worms, you can dump them and the compost onto a piece of plywood in a cone-shaped pile. In a few minutes, the worms will move into the pile to escape light and exposure. At this point, you can remove the top few inches of the pile, wait a few minutes, and repeat. Eventually, you will be left with a pile of mostly worms. You can harvest the large ones for fish bait and return the small ones and the egg cases to a freshly prepared bin with new bedding.
Use the old composted garbage and bedding as a nutrient-rich soil amendment around plants or in your garden.
Worms move by the powerful stretching and pulling strength of their muscles. They detect light from dark and are very sensitive to vibrations in the soil. Each worm bears the reproductive system of both sexes, but two worms must mate for reproduction to take place.
Redworms consume large amounts of organic matter and are found in manure and compost piles and decaying leaves. They live closer to the surface than earthworms and reproduce very quickly in captivity. Eight redworms become 1,500 redworms in six months!
Commercial Earthworm Production
Many Texans are interested in raising earthworms as a hobby, for their own use, or as a source of income. Much interest in vemiculture (worm raising) has been kindled by extravagant claims of enormous potential markets for earthworms in agriculture, in large scale waste disposal systems, and as a source of food for animals and even people. The major use of earthworm today is as bait for freshwater sport fishing. Some worms are also sold to home and organic gardening enthusiasts for soil improvement and composting of organic refuse. Although research and development activities relating to other uses for worms are underway in various places, the opening of new markets for worms and castings will be slow and somewhat uncertain. Thus, anyone interested in the earthworm business should explore the potential local markets carefully, particularly if a full-time occupation is contemplated.
Some earthworm wholesalers sell breeder stock to new growers and promise to buy the worms back from the grower at a "going wholesale price." These wholesalers then resell the worms to bait shops, home and organic gardeners, and other users. Such an arrangement could help a new grower market his produce, but his success would depend almost entirely on the wholesaler's honesty and ability to meet his obligations to the grower. Prospective growers considering such an arrangement should check carefully with their local Better Business Bureau and Chamber of Commerce, and also with the wholesaler's other growers or customers, to determine his reputation before entering into a contract.
Establishing an earthworm-business should not be done on a trial and error basis. Earthworms are a form of livestock and there are certain minimum requirements of care that must be met on a regular schedule. New earthworm growers should consider entering the business on a small scale and learn to raise worms successfully before attempting mass production.
Earthworms are scientifically classified as animals belonging to the order Oligochaeta, phylum Annelida. In this phylum there are about 1,800 species of earthworms grouped into five families and distributed all over the world. The most common worms in North America, Europe, and Western Asia belong to the family Lumbricidae which has about 220 species. Earthworms range from a few millimeters long to over 3 feet, but most common species are a few inches in length. Only a few types are of interest to the commercial earthworm grower, and of these only two are raised on a large-scale commercial basis. Some of the more common species used for bait are:
Nightcrawlers. This earthworm is common in the northern states and may be picked from fields and lawns at night for commercial fish-bait sale. Although very popular with fishermen, they are not commonly raised on a commercial basis because they reproduce slowly and require special production and control procedures.
Field worms (also known as garden worms). These make excellent fish bait and are often preferred by those who want a small number of worms for their own use. They are not prolific breeders and are not recommended for commercial purposes.
Manure worms (red wigglers). These are particularly adaptable to commercial production and are commonly grown by successful worm farmers.
Red worms. These are basically another type of manure worm, differing mainly in size and color from their larger and darker cousins. They are adaptable to commercial productions and together with manure worms constitute about 80 to 90 percent of commercially produced worms.
Manure worms and red worms can adapt to living in many different environments. They will eat almost any organic matter as well as many other types of materials which contain organic substances that can be ingested.
Worms are present it manure piles or in soils containing large quantities of organic matter, but the new grower should purchase breeding stock from a reputable grower or distributor.
Because the physical structure of earthworms varies only slightly from one species to another, a description of one species will apply in most respects to any other. Lumbricus terrestris, is used for descriptive purposes.
The earthworm, while primitive, has well-developed nervous, circulatory, digestive, excretory, muscular, and reproductive systems. The most noticeable external feature is the ringing or segmentation of the body, which involves nearly all of the internal structure. The nighcrawler has about 150 segments, while manure and red worms have approximately 95. Segmentation within the earthworm serves the same general function as the division of the animal body into organs --that is, different segments perform different functions.
The first section of the earthworm consists of the mouth and the prostomium, a lobe which serves as a covering for the mouth and as a wedge to force open cracks in the soil into which the earthworm may crawl. Small hair-like structures, called setae, are located on each segment. These can be extended or retracted for movement. The worm's lack of protruding structures other than setae facilitates efficient burrowing; in addition, various skin glands secrete a lubricating mucus which aids movement through the earth and helps to stabilize burrows and casts.
The earthworm's digestive tract is adapted to its burrowing and feeding activities. The worm swallows soil or residues and plant litter on the soil surface. Strong muscles mix the swallowed material and pass it through the digestive tract as digestive fluids containing enzymes are secreted and mixed with the materials. The digestive fluids release amino acids, sugars, and other smaller organic molecules from the organic residues. The simpler molecules are absorbed through intestinal membranes and are utilized for energy and cell synthesis.
Earthworms lack specialized breathing devices. Respiratory exchange occurs through the body surface.
Reproduction. Earthworms are usually not self-mating although each individual possesses both male and female reproductive organs. A mutual exchange of sperm occurs between two worms during mating. Mature sperm and egg cells and nutritive fluid are deposited in cocoons produced by the clitellum, a conspicuous, girdle-like structure near the anterior end of the body. The eggs are fertilized by the sperm cells within the cocoon, which then slips off the worm and is deposited in or on the soil. The eggs hatch in about 3 weeks with each cocoon producing from ten to twenty worms with an average of four.
Earthworms and soil productivity. Numerous investigators have pointed out the beneficial effects of earthworms. Some of these are as follows:
Although earthworms are considered beneficial to soil productivity or plant growth, few valid studies have been made to determine whether their presence will significantly improve plant growth. In one study Hopp and Slater (1949) found that growth of clover was improved by earthworm activity in a poorly aggregated, clay-type soil, but in another study Chadwick and Bradley (1948) were unable to demonstrate increased crop productivity. More studies with a variety of soils and plants are needed to further elucidate this. However. other soil organism and plant root activity may exert the same or similar beneficial effects on soil properties and positive results may not be expected in all soils. Before attempting to "improve soil through the addition of earthworms, remember that earthworms are a natural component of properly managed soils. If more worms are needed a food source must be provided and lime added if the soil is acid. Such additions of worms should be a one-time operation and not an annual situation to base a business upon.
- They aid in the degradation of organic residues in the soil with the release of elements such as carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, and other nutrients.
- The action of the digestive fluids and increased microbial activity in the casts (droppings) tends to solubilize inorganic plant nutrient elements present in inorganic soil minerals.
- The structural stability of ingested soil is improved through increased microbial activity while the soil is within the work and after it has been deposited as casts.
- The extensive burrowing of the earthworm improves soil aeration and may increase water penetration into soils.
- Under natural conditions the earthworm will feed on surface organic litter and deposit its casts in the plant root zone. After further microbial decomposition of the partially digested residues, plant nutrient elements are released.
Castings are a natural by-product of earthworms and are rich in organic matter, and nutrients for plants. When added to normal soils in gardens or lawns, they will provide the same kinds of benefits as other bulky organic fertilizers. The nutrient value of the casts will be dependent upon what organic materials are being fed to the worms. Generally the casts should be roughly equivalent to a compost prepared from the same organic materials less what was removed within the worms harvested. Castings today are not commonly used as fertilizer by large commercial plant growers, because their cost is relatively high compared to other fertilizers containing the same or greater amounts of nutrients. However, castings are used by some organic gardeners, and are sold commercially in a few nurseries as a sold amendment or planting medium for ornamental plants grown in baskets or flowerpots.
Earthworms as Food or Feed Supplements
Approximate analysis of earthwoms was completed by Dr. Carl Cater in the Oilseed Products Laboratory at Texas A&M. He reported that on the samples tested moisture (volatile) averaged 80.44%. A further analysis of freeze-dried earthworms indicated the following components: oil 6.8-7.1%, nitrogen 10.6 - 11.0%, protein 66.2 - 68.6% and ash 9.3 - 9.7%. This would indicate that on whole, live earthworms are less than 14% protein. Therefore its use as food or a feed supplement would probably be limited. It should be noted that the freeze-dried product (after water is removed) compares favorably with defatted soy flour from the standpoint of amino acid availability. Further research may lead to the use of earthworms as a food supplement but this use is at best only a potential market.
The basic environmental factors which affect earthworm breeding, growth, and general health are: temperature, moisture, aeration, food material, and ph (acidity-alkalinity).
Temperature. Earthworms will die in freezing temperatures, so they protect themselves by moving to lower depths in growing-beds or soils. They will live and breed at temperatures up to about 85 or 90 degrees F. For commercial earthworm production, ideal temperatures for growth and activity range from 60 to 80 degrees F. For intensive cocoon production and hatching, bed temperatures should be between 60 and 70 degrees F.
Moisture. Earthworms require adequate moisture for growth and survival. Beds should be crumbly moist, not soggy wet. They should not be exposed to direct sunshine. To enhance cocoon production after worms are fully established, beds should be allowed to dry until the top 2 inches are barely moist. Then sprinkle sufficiently to restore normal moisture content.
Aeration. Earthworms can live at relatively low oxygen and high carbon dioxide levels, and can survive in oxygenated water. In the complete absence of oxygen, however, they may be adversely affected or may die. Oxygen may be depleted if the beds are kept soggy wet -- under such conditions anaerobic bacteria may produce toxic substances.
pH(acidity-alkalinity). Earthworms will grow over a pH range of 4.2 (acid) to 8.0 (alkaline). For commercial production, however, it is best to maintain a pH of 7.0. Check pH regularly with litmus paper or a pH kit, which is available in most feed stores. Ground limestone may be mixed with bedding material to correct acidity.
Lights. In periods of high humidity and warm temperatures, worms may tend to leave the beds. Lights placed over or around the sides of beds will discourage such movements. This is especially helpful during violent storms and high rainfall.
Beds. Frames for earthworm beds may be constructed of almost any convenient material. For large-volume production large rectangular troughs are best. These worm beds may be constructed on concrete block, brick, pine or cypress boards on the ground, or they may be placed on a concrete slab. If you use pine or cypress, use at least 2-inch thick boards. Any convenient length is satisfactory, but the width should not exceed 30 to 40 inches, which permits reaching the center of the bed when harvesting the worms. The sides of the worm bed should not exceed 18 inches in height, and the worm beds should be separated by a walkway to permit easy harvesting. For better temperature control, the frames or containers should be partially buried in the soil. The worms can also be grown in pits in the ground or in row piles on the soil surface. Outdoor beds should be located in a well-shaded spot or under an open-shed roof. Indoor beds should be placed where there is adequate drainage and ventilation. A bed 8 feet long by 3 feet wide by 1 foot deep, will accommodate about 100,000 bed-run earthworms or approximately 25,000 mature breeders. While some growers consider these numbers excessive, such levels are recommended for forced breeding and increased production. The beds must be thinned out by harvesting about every 30-45 days or by dividing every 60 to 90 days.
Bedding materials. A good earthworm bedding material should retain moisture, remain loose in the pile, and should not contain excessive amounts of high protein or other readily degradable organic nitrogen compounds. These compounds would be quickly degraded with the release of ammonia and temporarily increase the pH of bedding material.
Almost any organic residue material, including plant wastes and most bulky animal manures, are suitable for bedding. Some growers mix sandy loam topsoil with the bedding material, but this is not needed and will increase handling time or costs and may decrease yields. Horse and rabbit manures are considered to be ideal.
If the bedding material contains high amounts of carbohydrates and other organic substances, it may heat in the beds. Under these conditions, temperatures inside the pile can reach 150 degrees F. or higher, which will kill worms or they will leave the beds. Therefore, materials of this type should be composted beyond the heating stage. This is accomplished by making a flat-top pile or piles, moisture conditions, and to return organic material on edges and top to the middle of the pile(s). When the heating stage has passed, material should be well-mixed and finely chopped. If the material is too coarse the earthworm will not be able to digest it and poor growth will result. High salt concentrations may reduce cocoon formation and worm body weight, so after aging the bedding material should be leached to remove excessive salts. After leaching, keep bedding material moist but do not flood, and check the temperature of the bedding material. If it remains below 80 degrees F. after 5 to 6 days the beds may be stocked with earthworms.
After worms are added, bedding should be kept moist but not soggy and the top 6 to 8 inches turned every 7 to 10 days to keep it loose.
About every 6 to 9 months the old bedding should be replaced with properly prepared new bedding. To change bedding, remove the top 5 or 6 inches (where most of the worms are). Harvest the worms remaining in the bed. Then remove the remaining old bedding (castings) and refill bins with new bedding, replace the top layer including the worms, and continue feeding.
Feed and Feeding. Animal manures, garden compost, shredded or chopped cardboard, wood or papers or almost any decaying organic matter or organic waste product may be used as feed or to produce feed for earthworms. Dairy, steer, horse and rabbit manures are excellent feeds. Low-nutrient feeds need to be supplemented with high protein or nitrogen materials such as grains, mashes, walnut shell meal or cotton seed meal. The feed and supplements can be used straight or can be mixed with 20 to 30 percent horse manure or old pine or fir wood shavings, and spread on top of the bedding in thin strips or patties. This method of feeding will draw the worms to the top of the beds where they may be harvested most easily.
The protein content of the total feed should not be less than 9 percent and no more than 15 percent. If too little protein is present worms do not grow well, and the beds become too acid for eggs to hatch. With too much protein, feed decays quickly and the beds become too hot for the worms. Soured beds become filled with maggots from flies. Using feed with about 10 to 12 percent protein gives best results. If reasonable care is taken not to overfeed, worms can be raised without growing flies.
Worms should be fed regularly, usually once a week. The best guide to feeding schedules and amounts is condition of the worms. When the last of the feed is almost gone, it is time to feed again.
Fattening earthworms. Earthworms may be force-fattened so that their girth and weight double. A good method is to prepare several new beds with 6 inches of bedding and soak until soggy wet. Harvest the regular beds, place the harvested worms in the fattening beds, and feed them straight mash or meal. If they are very active, feed them twice daily. A formula that has given excellent results is as follows: 700 lbs corn, 500 lbs. oats, 200 lbs. Milo and 600 lbs. alfalfa pellets. This formula contains about 12-15% crude protein. Additional cottonseed meal is often added by experienced growers but can result in sour beds. The worms will be ready for harvesting and selling in 7 to 10 days.
Harvesting. Earthworm beds should be harvested on a regular basis to ensure maximum worm production and minimum disturbance of beds. Regular harvesting (usually every 30-45 days) thins out the population, allowing remaining worms more feed and keeps bedding loose and porous so the worms can move about more easily.
One harvesting method commonly used is known as "table harvesting". A table or board placed next to or across the worm-bed frame and covered with waterproof plastic will serve the purpose. One or more containers for the harvested worms, and about 2 inches of pre-soaked peat moss for the bottom of each container, will also be needed. Use a pitchfork to carefully lift off the top 3 or 4 inches of bedding and place it into the harvesting board. Harvesting should always be done in bright sunlight or in the light of a bright overhead bulb. The worms will burrow down nearer the bottom of the bedding to escape the light. Using either your hands or a small broom, gently sweep off the top of the bedding pile. Wait a few moments for the worms to burrow down and then repeat the process. When all the bedding has been swept off the pile, a solid mass of worms will remain.
If many beds are to be harvested, speed the process up by first placing the bedding material in tubs. At intervals remove the top soil from the tubs and return it to the beds. When only a few inches of material remains in the tubs, combine them and pour the contents onto the sorting table.
There are several machines on the market today to harvest earthworms. Though the price of these is high, several growers may own one together or some contract harvesting is available in urban areas.
Grading and counting. Earthworms are sold by weight or by count, and there are two grades: bed-run (worms of all sizes) and bait-size (worms 2 inches or longer when drawn up and with bodies at least 1/8 inch in diameter). If worms are to be sold for bait, sort out the bait-size worms by hand or machine and put the smaller worms back into the beds.
Packaging and storing. Earthworm growers use a wide variety of packaging methods and containers, but more and more successful growers are using containers especially designed for holding and shipping worms. Such containers are available from various suppliers, and can often be purchased from an earthworm wholesaling company or distributor. Containers range in size from half-pints (holding 50 bait-size worms) up to gallon cartons holding 1,000 bait-size or 1,500 to 2,000 bed-run earthworms. Containers should be made of plastic or wax-coated cardboard to retain moisture and resist eating by worms. Small holes should be punched for air. Worms should always be stored in cool, well-shaded locations. Boxes should be securely tied or fastened with heavy shipping tape, and clearly marked on the outside: LIVE EARTHWORMS. HANDLE WITH CARE. DO NOT EXPOSE TO EXTREME HEAT OR COLD.
Selling the worms. A contract grower for an established wholesaler will have a steady market for the bait-size worms. To make higher profits, however, many new growers decide to go into the business either as independent wholesalers or retailers.
Sales may be made to locally-owned sporting goods or fishing tackle stores. Earthworms can be sold by mail by placing a classified advertisement in one or more of the national magazines directed to fishermen or to organic gardeners. Pet shops selling birds or fish may buy worms as food items. High school and college biology classes use worms for dissecting, but this market is difficult to enter.
Since the demand for fishing worms is quite seasonal, relatively few are sold from November through March. While the fall months also are excellent sale periods in Texas, the heaviest demand develops during April, May and June.
Earthworm Pests and Diseases
Earthworms are subject to attack by a variety of pests. Most outbreaks are the result of poor bed management. However, information on the full significance of the relationship between earthworms and their predators and parasites is scarce. Earthworm enemies include ants, springtails, centipedes, slugs, mites, certain beetle larvae, birds, rats, snakes, moles, mice, gophers, toads, and other insects or animals which feed on worms or molest them. The earthworm has a number of internal parasites including numerous protozoa, some nematodes, and the larvae of certain flies. Larger predators can be excluded from worm beds by proper construction of the bins, and by use of screens or gratings at the bottom and top of beds. Mites, springtails and ants are of greatest concern to the earthworm grower.
Mites. "Red mites" or "fishworm mites" frequently become a limiting factor in worm production. They are natural inhabitants of manure and similar organic materials and all worm beds contain low-level populations of mites. Several species of mites are present in most worm beds, but the most important is the earthworm mite. These brown-to-reddish mites are small, although readily visible. They are found most abundantly near the surface and edges of worm beds and around feed concentrations. They do not normally attack earthworms, but they do consume worm feed. When mite populations are high, worms will stay deep in the beds and not come to the surface to feed, resulting in poor worm-growth and reproduction.
Control. The best control for earthworm mites is proper management. High mite populations are nearly always associated with one or more of the following conditions. (1) over-watering, (2) over-feeding, or (3) feeding of wet or fleshy garbage. Bed conditions ideal for worm production are not conducive to high mite populations. Feeding schedules should be maintained so that feed is consumed in a few days, thus preventing accumulations of "soured" feed in the beds.
Worm beds with poor drainage frequently become too wet, creating conditions less favorable to worms and more favorable to mites. Watering schedules should keep the beds moist but not wet.
High mite populations are frequently associated with the feeding of garbage, and other vegetable refuse having high moisture content. Such feed should be used with discretion.
When mites start to build up, uncover the beds and expose them to the sun for a few hours. Cut down on feed and water. Till the beds and add calcium carbonate every 1 to 3 days. When mites or other insect populations build up in the beds, some growers attempt to reduce them by a heavy watering to force the pests to the surface and then burning them with a hand-held torch. However, physical or chemical removal of mites will be only temporary benefit unless bed conditions are altered to create a less-desirable environment for the mites. Chemical control of earthworm mites is suggested only as a temporary control measure until bed conditions can be altered.
Ants. Ants can be kept from the worm bed by dusting the area around the bed with pyrethrum dust whenever ants appear. As ants are attracted to feed, remove any that is spilled in the vicinity of the beds. Do not use any soil in the worm beds that might contain insecticides. If ants are found in the beds, saturate that area with water and they will usually leave the bed.
Springtails. Springtails are small, white to gray, oblong insects that jump when disturbed. They can sometimes become abundant enough to turn the surface of the bed white. Their greatest harm is feed consumption, but they have been observed to attack and consume weak or dead worms. When springtails are abundant, worms stay deep in the beds and refuse to come to the surface to feed. Control procedures are the same as for mites.
White worms.A small, white threadlike worm called a planarium (Bipalium sp.) is often found in the earthworm beds. It is common in fecal material and eventually gets into worm production beds via manures. This species does not appear to be parasitic or harmful to the earthworm, but will utilize some of the feed material.
One source of worms-by-mail is:
5132 Vienice Blvd.
Los Angeles, California 90019
200 worms min.$32(incl.ship)