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Managing Manure: How to Use Deep Litter in Your Chicken Coop

Here are some tips on how to use the valuable resource of chicken manure by harnessing the birds’ natural scratching tendencies to make great compost. It helps keep them healthy too. This is just one of the many subjects covered by Harvey Ussery in his recent book The Small-Scale Poultry Flock. It’s full of great ideas on how to care for your flock in a holistic, beyond-organic way.

Article reposted from: Suburban Hobby Farmer

Maybe the very best idea from Harvey Ussery’s book The Small-Scale Poultry Flock is his strategy for using what he calls “deep litter” to manage manure in the chicken coop. Ussery’s coop doesn’t even have a hint of ammonia, yet he almost never cleans it out, and his chickens are healthier because he doesn’t.

As you can imagine, excessive ammonia from chicken manure can damage a chicken’s sense of smell and, of course, it can be unpleasant for humans, too. So Ussery essentially turns the chicken manure into compost right inside the chicken coop.

According to the author, composting inside the coop keeps his chickens healthy because the good compost microbes keep the bad microbes in check the same way they do in your garden. As a result, the chickens are less likely to develop infections. Also, chickens love to scratch and rummage through the litter, so they are entertained and happy. No one knows for sure, but I bet happy hens lay more eggs.

The key to deep litter

The key to his strategy is to start with 12 inches of high carbon bedding material to balance the high nitrogen manure. The litter must fluff up and not compact so that it contains enough air to feed the good microbes. Ussery usually uses oak leaves as bedding because he has a free source of the material, but straw or black and white newspaper stripes would be good alternatives. Anything that is carbon rich and will fluff up.

Just about anyone who is interested in making compost knows that there are three golden rules you need to follow to get a pile cooking. You must:

1. Maintain a carbon to nitrogen materials ratio of about 30 to one.
2. Keep the pile moist but not too wet (like a damp sponge that has been wrung out).
3. Supply air to the microbes to keep them cooking.

The same rules apply with the deep litter method of chicken manure management. It’s also probably better to have a coop with a dirt floor when using this method. A floor would slow down the microbes migration from the dirt to the litter. It also would prevent the compost from wicking up moisture from the ground. See my post on Making Compost Faster.

The main problem with this method is keeping the litter damp and not too wet. Chickens are messy drinkers. You’ll have to take precautions to keep the drinking water out of the litter, otherwise mold and pathogens are likely to grow, which would be unhealthy for chickens and people.

One of the pluses of this type of manure management is that the chickens will happily turn the compost as part of their normal activities. You can even get them more excited about digging in the litter by hiding a little food in it.

Add bedding before it smells

At the first sign of ammonia (or even a little before), Ussery adds more litter. This adjusts the carbon to nitrogen ratio, making the microbes happy and eliminating the smell. If you do it right, you should generate a little natural heat from the compost, which the birds will appreciate in the winter.

Using this method, Ussery only has to clean out his coop when he needs compost. This takes some of the work out of raising chickens. Sounds like a good idea to me.

What do you think of this strategy? Does Harvey Ussery have the right idea or are there better methods? Let us know by commenting below.


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