Many of us use them, but how many understand the production processes involved in bringing the Dendrobaena to the bank? Very little seems to have filtered through to the angler about one of the finest baits known to man... it's certainly the most natural bait anglers have ever used... pre-dating pellet by several centuries!!! Therefore to bring you the very best information on the subject, we visited one of our trading partners, WAGGLER WORMS, operated by the Holmes family in Loscoe, Derbyshire. This small compact business has been suppling high quality dendrobaena worms across the land since 1997.

It's farming, but not as you know it!
The first thing that struck me about my visit to WW's was that this was very much a operating farm, rather than a fishing business. The Holmes family run a proper farming operation, with up to 50 beef cattle along with fields containing grass for grazing and winter fodder. The move into vermiculture came about as a form of diversification and has proved itself to be a very successful one. Although worm production accounts for only 2% of the farm's total output, it represents a considerable proportion of its turnover. This diversification has proved lucrative for the family, but has only been achieved as a result of many years hard work. The interesting thing about the family is that they are not anglers as such, just farmers who have sought to diversify in the changing economic climates of previous years. Having rather stumbled into vermiculture, they had been actually looking for something extra, to support the livestock business, which would be fairly compact and easy to run. The original idea came from a company who were selling small worm breeding units to farmers. However, back in the 1990's, this market was not that big and the family quickly discovered that there were hundreds, if not thousands, of anglers in the Midlands and they ALL wanted worms! The family now supplies many shops throughout the region, along with some wholesalers. They also have a thriving local custom, available at the farm gate and also sell online to the public via their website

The farms' layout
The worm farm is laid out into two distinct sections, the outdoor breeding beds and the worm house.

Outside, 5 metre wide x 100 metre long beds stretch up a gentle slope at the side of the farm and it is here that the breeding stock is kept. As the young worms are nurtured and mature, they are graded prior to harvesting for the final stage of production in the worm shed.

Once inside the worm shed, they are fattened up, weighed and packed for distribution to the general public and angling trade. Such is today's intense demand for worms, that the family now buy in smaller worms from other breeders and fatten them up before selling on. This is where the similarity of an animal farming background comes in. Take lambs for instance. They are frequently brought down from upland farms, where the grazing may not be so rich, to lowland farms for a month or two to 'fatten up'. The lowland farmer can then gain profit from any extra weight he can add to the sheep. The same is true of worms. There are certain breeders who are good at producing lots of small worms, but struggle to bring them on to a saleable size. The Holmes family find they can buy in these small worms and add extra weight to them by keeping them in the worm shed. Ideally, they like to add an extra 40% to them, however, anything from 20% upwards is acceptable, depending on the worms themselves and the time of year. A close record is kept of all the worms going through the shed so that the weight gain, as well as potential profit, can be closely monitored.

Let’s take a look in detail at each of these main areas of the farm, starting with the breeding beds.

Breeding worms
Each bed is constructed with 20cm deep planking and lined with black porous micro-fibre sheeting which ensures water runs freely through the beds, but stops the worms disappearing into the top soil and spreading across the hillside. The cavity is filled with a mixture of soil and well rotted horse manure. More manure is added to the beds as time goes on to keep them topped up. It is important that this manure is well rotted and not too hot, as this would actually kill the worms! Black plastic sheeting then covers the beds which is then kept in place with worn car tyres. Obviously the worms could easily escape over the sides of the beds if they wanted to, but their conditions are so comfortable they tend to stay put!

Initially, the breeding is introduced into the beds at a ratio of about 5 kilos of worms every 12 metres of bed. The worms quickly spread throughout the bed and the breeding cycle begins. Worms are hermaphrodites, that means they both have male and female reproductive organs, but they need to line-up against each another in order to begin the breeding process, which can take several hours to complete.

Small cocoons/eggs gather in the mucus on the breeding worms saddle, or nose. This, as it implies, relates to the position near the worms head. These tiny eggs then drop off into the soil, ready for hatching. Each egg may contain up to 8 tiny worms, but 1 or 2 is more normal. The worms take 14 days to go from breeding to hatching and the population can double in the space of a few weeks. A dendrobaena will have a breeding life-span of up to 5 years, but the beds will always be in a constant state of rejuvenation and replenishment from younger worms, which means the beds are never empty.

In terms of worm farming, each bed is normally harvested on a 4 week cycle to avoid too great a build up of worms, it also allows time for the breeding cycle to run its natural course. How many worms you're able to harvest from each bed will depend on a number of factors, however, air temperature is critical. Jon Holmes, our guide for the day, reckoned that between 10 and 14 degrees was the perfect breeding temperature span. To harvest the worms from a bed Jon liberally sprinkles some food over the top of the bed and leaves it for a day or two. The worms then congregate there and can be easily gathered (more details about worm feed below).

The outdoor beds require a lot of manual work to keep them productive. The four week harvesting cycle can be rotated round the beds, but when you are harvesting hundreds of metres of beds, it tends to become non-stop back-breaking work! The problem with 'Waggler's' own breeding unit, was that the family found that as demand for worms increased, it became more difficult to keep up the productivity of the breeding beds. This was when they started buying in smaller worms from other breeders and fattening them up in the worm house. Today, there is still a reasonable breeding operation on the farm, but because of demand, more worms are being ushered through the worm house, rather than expand the bed area because of the heavy labour involved in harvesting worms. There are a number of farms in England specialising in just breeding worms for other markets, such as green composting and soil improvement, as well as angling. Jon keeps in touch with a network of these farms as a source of information and 'growing stock' for fattening up!

The worm house
To anglers, this is perhaps the most interesting part of the business as most of us cannot hope to have worm breeding beds stretched across our gardens. We can, however, learn much on worm health and storage by looking inside a professionally operated worm house. The first thing that strikes you about the 'house' is that it's a fairly low-tech building with long rows of trolleys containing shallow wooden trays. However, don’t let this first impression fool you, there's a lot of experience gone into the design of the 'house' in order to get conditions just right for the worms. So let’s start with the technology and equipment used.

Although I said the worm house was low-tech... it's not NO-TECH! There are several vital pieces of equipment that have very specific functions:

Lighting and back-up lighting. The lighting used in the 'house' might not look that flashy, but they operate day and night, with back-up lights on a separate standby generator, in case of power failure. So why is lighting so important? Worms do not like bright light, so if you didn't run the lights all the time, the worms would simply crawl out of the trays and vanish. For those contemplating any escape, traps are placed at the bottom on each trolley. Now the word trap conjures up all sorts of mechanical devices, but nothing could be further from the truth. A 'trap' in this sense means a patch of peat which will hold any prospective escapee until their capture. This is because worms DO NOT like crawling on concrete floors, they much prefer to they gather in the patches of peat and as you can imagine, escapes are rare!

Fly catchers. Another problem during warm summers are flies which can lays eggs in the worm trays. Jon has several fly catching devices around the shed to keep numbers down.

The 'Tumbler'.
This is a piece of bespoke machinery designed to roll the peat off the worms. When Jon wants to prepare some worms for despatch, he slowly runs them through the tumbler were the peat falls through the holes. While the worms that come out of the end are not perfectly clean, the machine does remove the bulk of the peat in preparation for a final hand clean.

You might expect a worm farm to be super cool and kept at a constant temperature, but as Jon explained, temperature is not the greatest danger to the worms... it's stale air! You can keep worms in relatively hot temperatures, provided they have constant supply of air circulating around them. During hot summers, temperatures inside the shed can rise to over 25 degrees. This is much too warm for the worms, but they will not suffer so long as air keeps circulating. For us anglers, it does question how effective it is for us to travel long distances with them, sealed tightly in cool boxes. Again, when on the bank they wouldn't they be much safer in bags, rather than containers?

Electronic digital scales. These are important to accurately weigh the raw worms ready for dispatch. The reputation of any worm merchant, relies most heavily on giving the customer an honest measure!
Not too much technology on a worm farm, but what there is, IS necessary!

In terms of non-technical equipment, you need shelving and trays, some larger trays for sorting, a work bench for cleaning worms and bags/pots for distributing... that's about it.

Having set up your worm house, how do you manage it? With the aid of the Holmes family experience, we give you a step-by-step guide...

The trays... what the worms are kept in
The wormhouse revolves around managing the trays of worms as they go through the system. The trays are made from plywood and are approximately 80 x 40 centimetres and 15cm deep. Each tray holds no more than 2 kilos of dendras at the start of the process. By the end, it may have increased to around 2.8 kilos. It's this 'fattening-up' weight gain, that produces the profit.

The trays are filled with peat, which originally use to be fine sedge peat, but whilst the worms liked the peat, the growth rate achieved was not what the Holmes family wanted. After some experimentation they arrived at a mixture of sedge peat and sphagnum peat moss, this seemed to maximise the worms growth. The sphagnum peat moss is derived from decaying live sphagnum moss, rather than the green sphagnum some of us used to keep redworms in many years ago! The unusual thing about sphagnum, is that the worms don’t like it very much! Jon said that when the worms are first introduced into a tray of this mixture they recoil into a ball. Sphagnum is acidic and worms prefer soil conditions to be neutral. However, it's precisely because they don’t like sphagnum that they put on weight! Jon reckons that as the worms eat, they use their excrement to modify the trays environment and bring the pH back to neutral. Therefore, because the mixture has a fair proportion of sphagnum peat present, the worms will eat more food in order to excrete more and bring the tray back towards a more pleasant neutral environment. Eating more, means putting on more weight... a simple logic that has been developed after years of experimenting. The trays are kept covered with a black plastic sheet to ensure a darkened environment.

The storage system
The storage system is based around a number of moveable trolleys, each supporting six trays of worms. NB: Although our photo shows seven trays in each trolley, only six are used. When a tray is 'peated-up' and a fresh batch of worms added, the date is recorded on the side of the tray in chalk. Because Jon may have two types of worm, ie  internally bred and bought in, he will give them different periods in the 'house'. Ideally, the worms bought in will remain for at least a month, in order for them to fatten to a decent weight. However, worms bred within the farm normally take three months from egg to an acceptable finished weight/size. Therefore, if Jon harvests them from the beds after 4 weeks, they will remain in the 'house' for at least two months, or such time that Jon thinks they will need to add on sufficient weight prior to sale. Peat only has a four week cycle, so it needs changing if worms are required to remain longer in the trays. The old peat is taken off in the tumbler and the worms are introduced into a fresh mixture. Once the worms are prepared for sale, they leave behind vacant trays, which are then refilled with a fresh batch of peat and small worms, then re-dated. If you look at the number of trays going through Jon’s shed during a two month period, each containing 2 kilos of full sized worms, you get some idea of the volume of worms moved... it's quite impressive!

Feeding the worms
Jon has experimented with various feedstuff's over the years such as potato peelings, which are good, but he's found a much simpler feed... commercial chicken feed, or layers mash. It's sold in bulk bags to the poultry industry and recommended for hens who are laying eggs, hence the name layers mash! Comprising of maize, wheat-germ, soya, grass seeds, barley and various salts and minerals in the form of grit and ash, it's proved a superb feeding solution for fattening the worms. Although layers mash is an easy an effective feed for the worms, there's one slight problem with it. Seeds in the mash often germinate and the resulting shoots need to be cleaned off the worms prior to packing. To minimise this time-consuming process, Jon surface feeds the worms every 2 days, by simply sprinkling the mash over the top of each tray then covering it again. This not only allows him to monitor the worms progress, but it also limit the amount of seeds being distributed inside the peat tray. It's far easier to clean germinated seeds from the top of a tray, then hunt around the whole box! Once the worms reach their desired size/weight they are moved on to the final stages below.

Cleaning the worms
Once a batch of worms are ready for sale, Jon takes a tray at a time to the tumbler. This rotates very slowly and riddles off most of the smaller peat elements and allows the worms to gently roll down into a container, however, what's left is not pure worm! Although they are cleaner, there are still some larger peat particles and seed sprouts remaining which have to be removed by hand. The worms are returned to the tray and carried back down the 'house' to the sorting bench, directly under a strong neon light. It's this light which helps sort the worms out from the waste! Worms will always move away from the light and in doing so, will push peat and shoots up to the top. Jon has a lot of experience in quickly picking this waste off and can clean a tray of worms in about 10 minutes. There are various machines which claim to clean worms, but Jon believes that doing them by hand is not only more efficient, but better for the worms. Worms get stressed when left too long in bright light, they want to be covered up in the darkened soil. As they get stressed, they start to foam up and loose moisture. Now if you've spent time and money getting your worms to put on weight then the last thing you want is for them to lose moisture and weight at the last moment! While we were talking, I could see that Jon's cleaning speed was getting slower and the worms were becoming visibly stressed, so I kept the interruptions down to a minimum. Jon explained that no mechanical cleaning system, he has seen, gets the worms as pure as hand-cleaning. It was clear that he really knew the best way of cleaning the worms. In farmers terms, this was the final stage of husbandry, getting his produce ready for market.

Weighing and packing
Once the tray of worms is cleaned they weighed on the scales clean and free from any peat, weighed into kilo and half kilo batches and carefully bagged. Jon uses the nylon mesh worm bags, which we are all familiar with for storing worms. These are an essential component as they allow good air-flow around the worms.

To keep his worms in top condition Jon then adds three different dry ingredients. For every kilo of worms, he adds a measure of a dried paper product. This is a recycled by-product from paper mills and is very dark, probably due to the inks in it and provides an environmentally friendly and light medium for the worms. He then adds measures of light Mossy peat and finally a Sedge and Sphagnum peat, which the worms have been bred in. These three ingredients add nearly another kilo of weight to the worms. This can pose Jon a postage problem for his mail order business, but as he explained, it's better to charge a bit more on postage to ensure that the worms arrive in peak condition, than skimp on weight and risk the worms arriving in poor condition. It's worth mentioning that all Jon's worms have a 24 hour delivery time.

Once bagged and ready for distribution, Jon stores the worms on a concrete floor in a separate shed. Even in summer, this is the best way to store them. It's an all-week long process putting together orders for the many shops, wholesalers and mail order clients with spring and early summer the busiest months. With UK anglers heading for Ireland and Holland for major fishing festivals during this period, worms are an important bait and can get shipped in anything up to 5 kilo batches. Although in demand throughout the year in the UK, the farm cannot be left to run itself for a holiday break! This is where the family nature of the business kicks in. Jon has his brother and father working on the farm with him and one of them is always available to keep the worms fed and orders filled.

Final thoughts
Finally, Jon noted the weight of worms that he had produced from the tray whilst talking to us... one full kilo bag, three half kilo bags and had about 300 grams of worms left-over for the next load. So in farming terms, he had managed to add about 800 grams weight to his 2 kilo tray. That's a 40% increase in weight, which is excellent! But when you stop and look at the work, care and patience involved in making that 40% return, you realise that you need to sell an awful lot of worms to make a living from farming them. Think of the hours spent feeding the worms, moving the trays, cleaning the worms by hand… this is neither glamorous, nor easy, but Jon clearly loves it... and he's not even an angler! He's proud to be a worm farmer and will talk about worms and their culture for hours on end having learnt a lot about worms through trial and error and making the odd mistake! Anyone wishing to learn more about professional vermiculture, would be well advised to talk to someone like Jon first. You need to work hard and be interested in worms to make a success of this as a business. For someone with some land, looking to diversify, this could be an attractive business. I cannot see demand for worms ever dropping in coming years, either in the UK or abroad. It proven to be the perfect bait time and time again for our river and lake systems. Although, to be a successful worm farmer you need a lot of experience and an appetite for hard work. Could you imagine what an advert in the local job centre would look like?
  • Salary – uncertain
  • Hours – never ending
  • Holidays – not really
  • Job description – feeding, digging and cleaning worms by hand
May not sound that good, but that's not to say it’s a bad idea, in fact far from it! So where would we be without farmers like the Holmes family... probably back on the s**t heap, looking for those redworms!