Chicken manure is one of the best nutrient boosts you can give your soil. But not all chicken manure is created equal. You can buy bags of organic chicken manure at a garden center. Or, if you have neighbors who raise chickens organically, ask them for some of the manure.
Here’s the scoop on what’s also known as “black gold” from the coop:
What Is Chicken Manure?
Also referred to as poultry manure, chicken manure is an excellent source of nutrients. Its nitrogen and phosphorus content is at least twice as high as that of other farm manures such as cow manure.
In addition to chicken droppings, chicken manure contains everything else that gets swiped up when a chicken coop is cleaned out: urine, feathers, leftover feed, and coop bedding material such as straw and hay, pine or cedar shavings, grass clippings, shredded leaves, and recycled paper. That’s why the NPK ratio in chicken manure varies greatly.
The percentage of chicken feces and other materials is not the only variable in the nutrient content. The age of the chickens and the way the chickens are raised also plays a role.
The Benefits of Chicken Manure
As a non-synthetic organic fertilizer, chicken manure has numerous benefits. It is a complete fertilizer that contains the macronutrients nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, as well as important micronutrients such as calcium needed for healthy plant growth.
Chicken manure is more than a fertilizer though. It is also a good soil amendment; it adds organic matter to the soil, which improves soil structure, moisture-holding, drainage capability, and aeration. Also, soil high in organic matter is less prone to erosion and retains fertilizer better.
The organic matter in chicken manure has another benefit: it feeds soil microbes allowing organic nutrients to break down faster, which in turn makes them available to plants more quickly.
The Difference Between Bagged and Fresh Manure
Chicken manure comes in two types: commercially processed or fresh. The bags you can buy at your local garden center are dried and pulverized or pelletized chicken manure. On a weight-for-weight basis, dried manure is more concentrated than fresh manure, which contains up to 76% water. Dried manure has usually been sterilized and it’s odor-free.
Fresh manure from a backyard chicken coop or a farm on the other hand, has a strong smell and may contain harmful pathogens such as E. coli or Salmonella. Unlike dried manure, it cannot be used as such but must be composted or aged before it is applied, or else the high ammonia content will burn the plants.
Chicken manure from conventionally raised chickens could be contaminated with antibiotics. There is little research available about the amount of residue from antibiotics in aged chicken manure. Using only organic chicken manure is the safer option.
How to Age Chicken Manure
The goal of aging fresh manure is to destroy harmful pathogens and reduce its ammonia content. The pathogens in the manure stop reproducing at temperatures of 140 to 160 degrees F, a temperature that can be reached in a compost pile.
A common method of aging manure is to compost it. This requires the compost pile to be turned weekly to introduce oxygen and shield it from the elements, as rain or snow will reintroduce more moisture. A compost pile with manure should be far away from your garden and other areas of your yard with human traffic, such as children’s play areas, to prevent contamination from the runoff.
After five to six weeks, the resulting aged manure is more compact, drier, and lighter. The nutrients in it have been stabilized so they will be slowly released once you add the aged manure to your garden soil.
How and When to Apply Chicken Manure
Here again, processed manure in bags is different from composted aged manure.
Bagged chicken manure can be applied any time. Trees and shrubs are usually fertilized in spring. Flower beds and vegetables are fertilized in the spring and repeatedly throughout the growing season. For specific amounts, follow the instructions on the label.
If using composted aged manure, the timing is much more restricted. For trellised or staked crops where the fruit has no contact with the soil, such as tomatoes or beans, the manure needs to be applied at least 90 days before harvest. For crops that have contact with the soil—all root vegetables, strawberries, and leafy vegetables—the manure must be applied at least 120 days before harvest. Counting back from the expected harvest date, this translates into a late winter or early spring application for most locations. Apply 45 pounds of aged manure per 100 square feet.
No matter what type of chicken manure you are using, make sure to work it evenly into the soil. And remember to always wear gloves when handling manure.