As a mother of 5, I am always trying to find ways to work smarter, not harder. This means cutting chore times down as much as possible without negatively affecting the desired result of the task at hand. When it comes to keeping chickens in winter, my favorite chore “hack” is the deep litter method.
When using the deep litter method, you only need to clean out the chicken coop once per year! This is a huge time saver! This sustainable method has many benefits in addition to the reduction in chore time.
What is the Deep Litter Method?
The deep litter method is essentially an in-coop composting system. Instead of cleaning the bedding out consistently, you pile a new layer on top of the old bedding. This creates a thick layer on the floor of the coop. The deep litter system is a great way to generate heat naturally in the winter months and to produce an incredible compost for your spring garden beds.
What are the Benefits of the Deep Litter Method?
As I mentioned earlier, there are several benefits to the deep litter method. Let’s talk about the top 5 benefits.
1. Generates Heat
The build-up of bedding mixed with chicken manure over a 6-month period can raise the temperature inside the chicken coop by about 10 degrees F.
2. Creates Beautiful Compost
When it is time to clean out the deep litter, you can add it to your compost pile or straight to the garden (as long as the manure has decomposed). This makes an incredible addition to the spring garden.
3. Cuts Down on Chore-Time
With this method, you only have to clean out the coop once per year! You will need to turn the bedding a few times each week, but that beats an entire cleanout!
4. Creates No Smell
When the deep litter method is used properly there should be no smell. If you notice a smell, there is a problem that should be addressed.
5. Promotes a Healthy Flock
The deep litter method can promote beneficial microbes within the coop and help to control harmful pathogens. Vitamins are also created during the decomposition process. These vitamins are picked up by the chickens as they scratch.
What Bedding Materials Can You Use?
Choose a carbon-based brown material for your coop bedding. Chicken manure is very nitrogen rich so it is important to balance it with a carbon source. This will speed up the decomposition process.
Some good choices for bedding are:
- Dried Leaves
- Wood Shavings
- Pine Needles
**Never use cedar shavings for chickens. Cedar contains natural oils that are toxic to chickens.
Deep Litter Requirements
When you are getting started with the deep litter method, you need to be sure that you have your bases covered. The most important things to remember are good ventilation, balanced moisture, oxygen, proper bedding, and a disease-free flock. Let’s talk about those for a minute.
1. Good Ventilation
The coop needs ventilation at the top of the structure. Yes, this will allow some of the warm air to escape, but it is very important for humidity control. If the excess moisture isn’t able to escape, then the bedding will become wet and that can cause frostbite, parasite growth, and respiratory issues. See how I cover and ventilate my chicken tractor.
2. Balanced Moisture
Bedding that is too wet can cause frostbite, respiratory issues, eye irritation, and other issues in your chickens. If you notice that the bedding is saturated in moisture, turn it and add a thick layer of dry bedding on top. If mold has started to grow, you will need to remove the old bedding and start over.
Dry bedding can also cause respiratory issues (due to the dust) and it can slow the decomposition process.
You can prevent ammonia build-up and caking by turning the bedding frequently. This will introduce oxygen to the pile which will promote the growth of good bacteria and speed up the composting process.
4. Proper Bedding Material
Carbon-based bedding (dried leaves, straw, etc.) is necessary to balance out the nitrogen in the chicken droppings.
Do not use diatomaceous earth because it will kill beneficial microbes which will slow or stop the decomposition process.
5. A Disease-Free Flock
If you have a disease break out in your flock, completely clean out the coop and restart with fresh bedding.
How to Implement the Deep Litter Method?
Start with a layer of pine shavings, hemp bedding, chopped-up dried leaves, or another material with small absorbent pieces. This is important because the small pieces will decompose more quickly and absorb more moisture giving the process a head start.
Add a layer of straw (or whatever carbon-based material you chose) on top of the initial layer of deep litter bedding.
Aerate a few times a week. Simply turn the bedding so the most recently soiled layer gets turned under. Some people do this daily, but I do it 2-3 times per week and it works well. The hens will also be helping to aerate as they scratch. Turning the bedding like this introduces oxygen and helps to reduce the ammonia smell.
Clean the bedding out in the Springtime when the weather starts to warm up. Don’t let it go to waste through! Use it as garden compost. If you don’t have a garden, offer it to local growers.
Ammonia Build-Up in the Chicken Coop
This has been mentioned a few times throughout this post, but it deserves its own section. When the deep litter method is used properly, ammonia will not be an issue. However, excess moisture, poor ventilation, and overcrowding can cause ammonia build-up which can cause a plethora of issues within your flock- eye irritations, respiratory illnesses, parasite growth, reduced egg production, etc.
If you notice any ammonia odor, you should evaluate your setup. Do you need better ventilation? Should you add bedding more often? Do you need to add an absorbent layer like wood shavings? Is it time to aerate?
Deep Litter Clean Up
When the weather starts to warm up, it is time to clean out the deep litter. Scoop all of the layered bedding and dump it into your compost pile for use in the garden. During warmer months, clean out bedding as usual. The deep litter method will generate too much heat in the coop during spring and summer so hold off on building up bedding until late summer or early.