The deep litter method for chicken coops is pretty controversial among backyard chicken keepers.
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Some owners think it’s unsanitary, while others swear by it. In this article, we’ll take a look at the advantages of the deep litter method.
I invited my friend, Liz Martin of The Cape Coop to write an article for y’all. Liz is a deep litter method expert, and uses it in her chicken coop – and swears by it.
Take it away Liz!
What if I told you there is a really easy way to maintain your chicken coop with LESS cleaning that is actually healthier for your chickens?
I know, I was skeptical at first, but the more I researched deep litter, the more it made sense. Now two years after we started deep litter I am never going back!
So what is the “deep litter method”?
Deep litter coop maintenance is all about balancing the beneficial microbe levels to allow the manure & litter to compost right in the coop.
Done right, it allows for far less coop cleaning chores, a healthier flock, a warmer flock in the winter and rich garden compost. Done incorrectly it can make your flock sick and your yard really smelly.
Initially, I was concerned that allowing all that manure to build up in the coop would make it very unpleasant to spend any time outside, particularly in the hot, humid summer months.
Luckily, I have found that properly managed deep litter only has an earthy, composty smell. If you smell ammonia from the droppings, that is the first sign your litter is out of balance.
Deep Litter Method Advantage #1: Less Coop Cleaning Chores
This is the benefit that gets most people hooked! Deep litter takes just minutes a week, plus one or two optional big clean outs a year.
It really is perfect for busy chicken keepers (or anyone that doesn’t love constantly cleaning chicken poop!)
Deep Litter Method Advantage #2: A Healthier Flock
What you can’t see in that pile of chicken poop in the coop is that microscopic organisms are hard at work breaking down the droppings. The great news is that these beneficial microbes will also eat and destroy bad bacteria that can make your flock sick.
Your job as a chicken owner is to make sure the bad guys don’t outnumber the good guys. The presence of these beneficial microbes has been show to help prevent infestations of lice & mites.
They also can help protect your flock from coccidiosis (a potentially deadly intestinal parasite).
The microbes will destroy the coccidia bacteria that form, but also the slightly higher ammonia levels present in deep litter coops makes for unfavorable coccidia growing environment (common coccidia treatment includes spraying with a 10% ammonia spray).
It is also thought that exposing young chicks to deep litter will help them form additional immunities for an overall healthier flock.
Deep Litter Method Advantage #3: A Warmer Flock
Chicken manure is very high in nitrogen, add in pine shavings loaded with carbon, oxygen you are introducing as you turn the manure over, and some hungry microbes breaking things down and all that decomposition action will produce some heat!
Deep Litter coops are generally about 10 degrees warmer than traditional coops. This is a plus for cold weather chicken keepers, but something you also have to be aware of during warm months so your flock doesn’t overheat.
Having proper ventilation in your coop is vital when you are using deep litter. Ventilation will not only keep the temperature comfortable, but it will also keep the ammonia & humidity levels down.
Ammonia is very bad for chicken lungs, they can have (potentially fatal) respiratory complications if the ammonia levels build up in the coop. A good clue that you do not have adequate ventilation in your coop is if you see condensation building up on the coop windows.
Click here to read my tips on designing your coop. High humidity can be particularly bad in winter months as it can leave your flock susceptible to frostbite.
The best option is to keep a humidity gauge in your coop, aiming to keep the humidity levels at 40-70%
Deep Litter Method Advantage #4: Rich Garden Compost
Because chicken manure is so high in nitrogen, it will burn tender vegetation if you don’t let it age first. I generally let my chicken manure compost sit 6 months before I add it to my garden.
The tricky situation with deep litter is that at coop clean out time, you will have 6 month old manure but also brand new day one manure.
So at coop clean out, you still need to add everything to the compost pile to age, but when you do, you are adding materials that already have a rich microbe community that has been monitored and well feed as a starter culture for your pile.
When you add this material to your existing compost, it will enrich the whole pile, making for some great garden food!
How to Maintain Deep Litter Properly
I already mentioned the trick to deep litter is making sure the bad guys don’t outnumber the good guys. It’s really not as hard as you might think, but there is some work involved.
If you were to just let the droppings build up untouched for 6 months, the bacteria would far outnumber what the microbes can consume, everything would be damp & humid, ammonia levels would be off the charts…..all recipes for a very sick flock (and a very smelly coop!).
To start your deep litter coop, completely empty and scrub down the coop to start with a fresh slate.
Add a layer of pine shavings, about 3-4 inches deep.
Pine shavings work great because they are cheap, and they decompose nicely and quickly. Some people use straw or hay in their deep litter coops with success, but I worry about mold lingering in damp straw.
Twice a week, use a hoe to completely stir up all the shavings & droppings.
You can get your chickens to help with this part by tossing scratch or treats into the coop that they will have to scratch around to find. You will still want to be in turning it yourself at least once a week so that you can access the condition of the shavings.
The shavings should look dry & absorbent. If they are muddy or starting to look caked on, the balance is off and you need to add more shavings. Depending on how many birds you have and how big your coop is, you might have to add shavings once a week.
At the very least you should aim to add at least a 1 inch layer of shavings monthly.
An optional step (but one I have found to be really helpful if the ammonia smell is starting to build up) is to add some “Coop N Compost” by MannaPro.
Made with naturally occurring zeolites, it helps hasten composting and neutralizes excessive ammonia (and no I am not being paid by them, I just really love their product!).
That’s it! It really is an easy way to maintain your coop.
When the shavings start to build up too much (this will be different for every coop, but I usually do this when they get about 6-8 inches deep) you can pull some layers off the top and put them in compost.
Twice a year, I completely empty my coop, scrub it down and start over.
Click here to read about how I deep clean my coop. There are lots of people that use deep litter that never completely empty their coop. They just keep stirring up the shavings and pulling out the excess. The thought is to keep the bottom “hot” layer of decomposition to help act as a starter culture to jump start future new layers.
About Liz & The Cape Coop: Liz is a suburban homesteader who is passionate about gardening. She is raising a dozen plus chickens, ducks, wooly Angora rabbits, two dogs, two cats and four beautiful children along with her husband on coastal Cape Cod. She also crafts a line of natural handmade soaps and natural beauty care with a touch of the ocean using local seawater, sea salt & seaweed. You can catch up with her at http://www.thecapecoop.com/
I’d like to hear from you!
Would you try the deep litter method in your chicken coop? Why or why not? Leave a comment below!
Maat van Uitert is a backyard chicken and sustainable living expert. She is also the author of Chickens: Naturally Raising A Sustainable Flock, which was a best seller in it’s Amazon category. Maat has been featured on NBC, CBS, AOL Finance, Community Chickens, the Huffington Post, Chickens magazine, Backyard Poultry, and Countryside Magazine. She lives on her farm in Southeast Missouri with her husband, two children, and about a million chickens and ducks. You can follow Maat on Facebook here and Instagram here.