You're all ready for your new flock of laying hens. But what do you use for litter on the floor of the chicken coop? One way to manage the coop is the deep litter method or built-up litter system.
It is a sustainable method of managing chicken litter in the chicken coop by forming a compost pile of your chicken poop on the coop floor. When done right, it does not get stinky, you don't have to clean it out as often, and the chickens can thrive. However, it requires a delicate balance of getting it right and managing it to keep your chickens safe and healthy.
After a contagious disease like Marek's disease breaks out in your coop, no matter the litter method you use, to keep your current flock or new flock safe, you should fully clean and disinfect the enclosure from top to bottom. That means you will need to start from the beginning with the deep litter method too.
What Is the Deep Litter Method?
The deep litter method is a natural method of chicken poop management; it's like a compost pile for your henhouse. After six months to a year, you will have enriched compost for your garden.
The litter will go through three phases of decomposition: the moderate-temperature phase, which lasts for a couple of days; the high-temperature phase, which can be a few days to several months; and the maturation phase, the several-month process of the compost cooling off. Then, it becomes ready for use as compost.
You begin with a layer of pine shavings or other organic matter in the "browns" category. The high-nitrogen chicken poop is the "green." As chickens poop, you add another layer of litter to the floor. The key is to keep the litter aerated since oxygen keeps the decomposition going. Chickens aid the aeration process with their scratching behavior. Scattering corn or feed on the coop floor encourages the chickens to peck around.
The coop also needs good ventilation and moisture control. If the litter gets wet, it can destroy the decomposition process.
Ammonia may not kill your birds, but it can cause eye and respiratory diseases, lower their disease resistance, and affect the growth of young birds and egg-laying production. Do not allow ammonia odor to build up in the coop. If you smell ammonia, the balance is off, and decomposition is not occurring correctly.
The litter has beneficial microbes, similar to probiotics for your hens. If chickens miss a spot with their scratching, use a light rake or pitchfork to aerate a section of the litter.
The deep litter method will not work with an overcrowded coop. Many coops can go a year using this method without requiring a complete clean-out. However, if you notice the enclosure getting stinky, you'll need to correct the compost balance.
Or sometimes, the chicken ratio is off (only one chicken for every four feet). If a smell persists after attempts to correct the ratio, aerate the pile or build up the litter. If that fails, clean out the coop and start over.
Benefits of the Deep Litter Method
When done right, the deep litter method has many benefits. It's the most economical method—time and money-wise, but it does take some diligence. Let your nose be your guide, and keep on top of it.
- It doesn't take much time to manage, and you have fewer coop cleaning chores.
- You end up with rich garden compost.
- The birds get to scratch through the microbes and beneficial culture of the living compost litter material, which is good for them.
- It doesn't smell.
- It's safe, and the birds stay healthy when done correctly.
- The heat from the decomposing litter can help keep your chickens warm in the fall and winter months if you pace the process correctly.
What Do You Use on the Floor of the Coop?
For the deep litter method, use pine shavings or hemp bedding as your bottom layer since they are small pieces and compost fairly quickly. Pine shavings are inexpensive and available online or at your local feed store in bales. Hemp bedding is a little more expensive but is the more absorbent and favored most as a base material. If you have a tiny coop and limited storage, buy smaller bags at pet stores, although buying in bulk saves you money.
Some small farmers prefer using hay or straw in the coop for litter. Hay or straw may work in the nest boxes, but it's not a good option for the base layer. It can attract and hold too much moisture, and it attracts mold and fungi, which can cause disease in the birds. Also, hay or straw is not absorbent and can create excess moisture problems.
You can also use dry grass clippings, leaves, pine needles, or a combination of bedding types. However, those may sometimes contain too much moisture, which can be problematic for a deep litter coop.
Never use cedar shavings, which can be toxic to chickens. Chicks raised on cedar bedding commonly die, and adult chickens living in coops with cedar bedding may get sick and die.
Once you have the suitable materials, begin to build up your litter. First, put down a 6-inch base layer. You can leave it like that or put down a very scant thin layer of hay or straw on top. Never use diatomaceous earth or lime on a deep litter pile. Those materials will kill the formation of beneficial microbes.
Every day, turn your litter bed, adding more shavings, straw, or hay to the top layer. You will eventually build up to a 12-inch deep litter bed. No bedding is ever removed; it is only turned over with a shovel, rake, or pitchfork to let the droppings fall to the bottom. The chickens will also help turn the pile if you toss some scratch grains on the litter bed.
The high-nitrogen chicken manure mixed with the carbon-based bedding and oxygen aeration are the critical components for decomposition. Turning and adding oxygen will reduce the chance of ammonia buildup. The magic ratio is 30:1 of carbon to nitrogen, which is why you need 30 parts carbon-based litter to one part manure. Ammonia forms when this ratio is off balance.
Adding hay and straw as a regular top layer material is fine as long as the wood shavings and manure have heated up and established the decomposition process. The heat from the pile will kill mold and fungus that may occur in hay or straw.
Once the bed has reached 12 inches, remove about six inches of the deep litter to continue the decomposition process. The removed litter becomes organically rich compost for your garden. You don't want to remove all the litter, even when cleaning out the coop. Leave a couple of inches of the composted litter at the bottom. You want to keep the beneficial microbes and bacteria that give your compost pile a head start.
Is This Method Right for You?
The deep litter method is a sustainable, easy-to-maintain system that works well for flocks with an earthen floor. The natural moisture from the earthen floor helps start the decomposition process.
If you have a wood or concrete floor, you can still do a variation of the deep litter method, but you might want to introduce some active compost (adding the microbes) to jump-start the process. Moisture is necessary for the decomposition process. Also, if you have a wooden coop floor, you might want to coat it with spar urethane or cover it with vinyl flooring to protect the wood from slow rot.
Litter and chicken manure are safe for a compost bin. If you live in an urban or suburban area or have a tiny space for your chickens and a small flock, you may want to clear the litter level down (anywhere from weekly to monthly, depending on your situation). This way, you won't have to contend with a large amount of litter to dispose of at one time.
Another consideration, and one of the best for the winter, is timing the start of your deep litter system correctly, so the heat from the pile keeps your flock warm during the cold fall and winter months. Winter is not the ideal time to start building up the litter. Since a compost pile requires a lot of heat to start decomposition, you want the pile at its warmest phase of decomposition in the fall. Building up the litter keeps heat running through your coop during the winter.
Some choose to start the process in the summer, so the coop is not at its hottest in the summer. And the summer's heat helps kickstart the decomposition process.
Troubleshooting Your Coop
If your deep litter pile starts having problems—namely bad odors—it's a clear sign your deep litter system needs better management. Left unchecked, it can lead to health issues for your birds.
- Too much moisture: Moisture is necessary to start the decomposition process. You will only need to add a spray of moisture if you have an overly large coop, too few chickens, and the air conditions are very dry. However, if the climate is humid or rainy, add more litter to absorb the moisture. Too much moisture, especially near watering areas, can lead to a stink and invite harmful microbes and parasites to grow.
- Ammonia smell: Check the ventilation of the coop. Your coop will require cross-ventilation or open eaves for typical gases to escape. Also, make sure your chickens are scratching at the litter, and if not, turn the entire litter bed daily. Ammonia is a natural by-product of chicken droppings. Too many chickens (more than one per four feet) will cause an excess of ammonia.
- Litter looks odd: If your litter has a whitish, cake-y appearance, that means the litter is oxygen-deprived and needs more frequent turning. Also, break up straw or hay matting. It can inhibit moisture and affect the microbial biome. You can evaluate if your compost has the proper moisture balance by looking at its texture. It should be crumbly. It should not appear too dough-like or gooey like brownie batter; it should be closer to a barely moistened dry cake mix.
Marek's Disease in Chickens. PennState Extension.
Raising Chickens for Eggs. University of Minnesota Extension.
Diseases of Small Poultry Flocks. University of Minnesota Extension.
More About Chickens. North Carolina State Cooperative Extension.