Better Chicken Health: Deep Litter Manure Management

Composting chicken manure in deep litter in the coop will build better chicken health and reduce labor.

  • Chickens Walking
    If you keep your chickens in a run, they will scratch down all of the vegetation, leaving you with bare dirt. Covering the dirt with a bed of litter will absorb manure, retaining most of the nutrients for your garden.
    Photo By Fotolia/Fotolyse
  • Hen With Hen House
    A free-range hen standing at the top of a wooden ladder giving access in and out of the henhouse.
    Photo By iStockphoto/George Clerk
  • Black Hen
    This outdoor run has a bed of straw litter which will absorb manure and convert it into rich compost for the garden
    Photo By iStockphoto/SharpeshooterPho

  • Chickens Walking
  • Hen With Hen House
  • Black Hen

If you are around any livestock operation, regardless of species, and you smell manure — you are smelling mismanagement. — Joel Salatin 

Repugnance for what comes out the far end of an animal is not merely cultural conditioning — our senses are warning us of potential danger: Feces can be a vector for disease. Joel’s quote above implicitly advises us to trust that repugnance: If it smells bad, it could be dangerous. But it also implies that there are ways to manage manure so it doesn’t stink, giving us our most important hint that its threat to chicken health has been neutralized. Properly handled manure, in other words, is not a danger.

How compost works

Many folks have already experienced the transformation of things yucky into not only something pleasant, but a valuable resource: the alchemy of the compost heap, which starts with manures and rotting vegetation and ends with compost, smelling as sweet as good earth, ready to fertilize the garden. The compost heap is our model for making the same transformation in the henhouse.

You assemble a compost heap from nitrogenous materials such as manures and spent crop plants, mixed with carbonaceous ones such as leaves and straw. Coarse materials will eventually compost, but if you make the effort to shred them more finely, the composting process speeds up considerably. Inconceivable numbers of microbes multiply in the pile, using the nitrogen in the manures and fresh green matter as a source of energy to break down the tough, fibrous high-carbon materials into simpler components. The ideal balance of carbon to nitrogen in the mix is 25 or 30 to 1. Too much nitrogen is signaled by the smell of ammonia, meaning that some of the nitrogen — a potential source of soil fertility — is being lost to the atmosphere. (Ammonia is a gas of nitrogen and hydrogen, NH3.)

Moisture in the heap is essential to the microbes driving decomposition, though it must not be soaking wet — a condition that would inhibit decomposers while favoring pathogens. Oxygen also is essential for the decomposers, so you turn the heap over completely at least twice during decomposition, maybe more. Heat is a byproduct of the composting process — a well-made compost heap becomes amazingly hot. The end result of this devoted effort is compost, one of the best possible fertility amendments a gardener can find.

It is possible to make the chicken coop in effect a slow-burn compost heap if you leave the earth itself as the floor, and keep it covered deeply with high-carbon organic litter. The sorts of decomposer microbes at work in the compost heap — and in the soil food web — migrate out of an earth floor into the deep litter; the slight wicking of moisture out of the earth helps them proliferate and thrive. If you have an existing building with a wood or concrete floor to use for poultry housing, by all means avoid the effort and expense of building new. You can still use deep litter to keep the henhouse sweet with a couple of tweaks discussed below, including the use of straw as litter and the additional decomposition time of constructed-floor litter in a compost heap before use in the garden.

1/11/2018 6:54:22 AM

I am thinking if letting the litter get to a metre deep. Do I need to turn it over from the very bottom every week? Or do I just turn over the top part. The chickens can’t go a metre deep with their scratching! I know that litter this deep is very healthy. But I don’t want the button layers going bad through lack of oxygen. Please tell me the best way to manage this really deep litter. Thanks.

1/11/2018 6:54:20 AM

I am thinking of letting the deep litter build up to about a metre, as the older the litter, the healthier it is. When it gets to a couple of feet deep, and deeper still, should I be turning it over completely and bringing the layer nearest the floor to the top? So that the litter is completely turned over once a week? Or is there a depth at which I can stop doing that and just let the chickens scratch at the top layer? Will the lower layers go bad if they do not get air?

5/31/2015 9:26:33 AM

Great in-depth post, thank you! I have an 8"x10" composting chicken coop with a dozen Ameruacanas in a tropical climate, and it works wonderfully. All household, kitchen, garden, and orchard waste from my 2 acres goes into the coop, and I recently started digging out the first finished layer of compost after about 7 months of use. I've never had any odours, If I may share, I wrote a brief post on my very positive experience with the deep litter/composting coop method on my blog recently, in hopes of inspiring more people to adopt this method:

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