The Deep Litter Method
The Deep Litter Method
- Sep 12, 2018
Photo cred: Anna
Are you looking for a better bedding management system for your coop? Do you have a garden? Check out why the deep litter method may be perfect for your needs!
What Is It?
The deep litter method is a coop bedding management system that cultivates, rather than replaces, the litter material.
With your help, your chickens can turn their bedding into nutrient-rich compost! This is NOT a "set-it-and-forget-it" method, as it does take some preparation, planning, and maintenance.
What are the Benefits?
When managed properly, the deep litter method is healthier for the hens and less work for the humans!
Studies have shown that baby chicks raised on deep litter develop healthier immune systems than those raised on standard bedding. Because deep litter functions just like a compost pile, it fosters a population of good microbes that can mitigate disease-causing bacteria like coccidia, which is a common chicken illness with a high mortality rate. Deep litter can even keep lice and mites away. These beneficial microbes produce Vitamins B12 and K, and when protein that chickens will ingest as they scratch through the bedding.
Keeps Chickens Warmer
The chemical changes in a compost pile produce heat, and deep litter is no different. This is a great natural heat source for winter, especially in colder climates. Unlike heat lamps, it's not a fire hazard, you won't have to worry about it getting too hot, and a power outage won't affect it. Deep litter takes months to get rolling, so you shouldn't have to worry about it being too hot in the summer. The timing should be perfect for winter if you are setting up in the springtime.
Great for the Garden
When composted correctly, deep litter is one of the best fertilizers for your garden. You can reuse your litter by placing it in your gardens, or you can sell it! In some areas, well-composted chicken manure can be quite valuable.
Less Manual Labor
There is some work to do in the beginning, but overall the deep litter method is much less labor-intensive than the traditional way of managing standard coop bedding.
Before You Start
This will take some commitment. Just like any compost, the deep litter method will take several months before you start to see results.
When mismanaged or unmanaged, deep litter can smell terrible because of excess ammonia and moisture and be quite harmful to your flock. Properly managed, it should have an earthy aroma and be slightly damp to the touch but still absorbent.
Proper coop ventilation is absolutely necessary. See our post on designing a coop for more information on ventilation. Without ventilation, fresh air and the oxygen so vital to this process can't be accessed, and ammonia will have no way to escape.
Don't use DE! Diatomaceous Earth is great for standard bedding in coops because it kills lice and mites and bacteria. However, in a deep litter coop, it will also kill your populations of good bacteria!
Most of the work is done in the beginning. You'll want to completely clean and scrub down your coop before starting, especially if you've had any problems with illness in your flock in the past.
Put down a layer of bedding about 5 inches deep. The bedding can be anything dry and organic like pine needles, wood chips, grass clippings, or leaves. You can mix and match! Hay and straw can be used, but are best avoided because they are more likely to harbor fungal growth that can be harmful to your flock.
Throw scratch grains and other goodies strategically throughout the coop. Your hens will till the litter as they pick through it. They will miss some areas like the corners and directly under the roosts, so you'll want to go behind them every few days and turn the bedding for them with a pitchfork or hoe. Do this once a week at least. If it starts to clump up, break up the clumps and spread them around. Mixing up the bedding like this introduces Oxygen for the microbes and also helps to dry out saturated areas.
The rate of decomposition depends on many factors which are influenced by the climate and humidity. Keeping a close eye on it and turning the litter regularly will tell you what you need. If it starts to thin out, add more bedding material. If it starts to build up, remove what litter has broken down and set it aside or put it on your garden. It's best to keep the bedding about 6-8 inches deep.
The litter should have a slight earthy odor. If it is wet or smells bad, let it break down more before putting it in your gardens. Fresh chicken manure can burn plants if it hasn't had a chance to break down.
When you combine manure (Nitrogen), organic material (Carbon), and regular turning (Oxygen), you'll have the makings of fantastic compost!
Only do a full cleaning once or twice a year in the spring and/or fall. Most deep litter chicken keepers clean once a year in spring because it coincides with planting season. Studies show that it's best to leave a thin layer of the old, healthy litter to foster a new population of good microbes in the next round of deep litter. But you can scrub clean and start over if you so desire.
Have you used the deep litter method before? What did you think? Please share your experience with us on social media!