Sunday, October 23, 2011

Deep Litter Method for Chickens

Deep litter method in chicken coop
Some notes from what I've learned:

Prior to getting chickens I read several articles on the ease of caring for chickens using the 'deep litter' method. The deep litter method is this: In the coop you start by laying down about 6 inches of pine shavings on the floor. As the shavings become covered in chicken poop, you turn them over mixing the poop right in. The shavings absorb any moisture and smell keeping the coop clean and ammonia free. As the shavings break down in the coop, you add more and by the end of a year you have around 8-10 inches of shavings. Once, or maybe twice a year, you remove all the shavings and start over new.  The removed shavings are a great pre-broken down mix perfect for your compost or right in your garden. The deep shavings helps keep your chickens warm in the cold months and dry in the hot summer months. Sounds perfect right? Well, I've learned this actually only works in certain conditions...

I'm a lazy chicken farmer; I don't like scraping poop, I don't like cleaning out bedding and I sure as hell don't like doing either of these on a regular basis. 'Farm chores' are only romantic in theory. I bought my very first 7 chickens this past spring and after reading about the deep litter method I planned on implementing it so I could do as little work as possible while obtaining maximum benefit (who doesn't?). I asked a lot of questions about the method on BackYardChickens but did not get the answers I was looking for. There was definitely a lot of opinion; some saying it's the best thing since sliced bread, some claiming it never works no matter what (Debbie Downer). I obviously decided to do it, or this would be a really lame post ending it here.

I had 7 chickens in a dreamy 4' x 5' coop with attached run. A chicken dinner and a freak car accident for a Barred Rock later and I now have 5 chickens in a dreamy 4' x 5' coop. I started with 6 inches of pine shavings back in May and have since added about 2 more inches of shavings. I have turned over the bedding maybe 10 times. They don't spend a lot of time in this part of the coop, they are usually in the fenced run, but their food is housed in here and so are the nest boxes. The coop is so dry and clean it always looks like I just replaced the bedding. These hens are almost self sustaining - it takes almost no work at all to keep them clean and happy. The deep litter method has been so easy and effective.
Inside of the pallet coop prior to adding
roosts and 6" board to keep the shavings in

In August we built the pallet coop and put 18 chicks in it. The pallet coop is a 4' x 8' coop without an attached run. We open the door's and let the chickens out to free range almost daily from late morning until night, they roost in the coop and their food and water is housed in there. The story is I was only supposed to get 10 chickens, so this coop is a little small for 18 (sold 4 over the weekend thankfully). I started with just under 6 inches of bedding in the coop. The chicks were only 6 weeks old when we put them in the coop and it looked like the deep litter method would work pretty well. 3 weeks later the coop started to smell and it didn't seem like the moisture was under control anymore. I added another bag of shavings and turned everything over. This lasted for a few more weeks but inevitably the coop was dirty again and I was worried the ammonia smell was getting too strong for the chicks. I admit I didn't do an awesome job of keeping the shavings turned over, but realistically I don't think it would have helped much. Too many chickens, too little space. These are Dorkings and I plan on putting the majority of them in the freezer by late November, so I didn't want to add on to the coop or build a new one just for this short time. After some trial I'm to the point now where once a week I scoop out the heavily soiled bedding, add new shavings and then turn everything under and mix well. This makes it so that I don't have to completely clean the coop every week yet controls the smell and ensures the chickens are in a clean low moisture environment. It's not ideal. It's not fun. But it's what has to be done. I'm sure the condition of industrial raised chickens is far far worse, but that's not how we roll.

I suppose some would say this is all common sense. A lot of chickens in a small space requires a lot more work to keep them clean. If you have a small flock of up to 12 or so chickens with sufficient space using the deep litter method is not only possible I would say for the health and comfort of your chickens it's recommended; unless you're the type who loves doing chores and prefers to clean a coop every day. On a larger scale especially using space preservation (a nice term for 'your chickens don't have enough room') the deep litter method isn't possible without some sort of modification.

A few other notes on things I did not know prior to trying this method out myself:
  • Fine shavings work better than flake shavings because they break down easier.
  • Just use pine shavings, hay or straw can make a really big mess.
  • Turn the bedding over as you see fit; for your particular housing you may need to do this every other day, or you may be able to do it once a month.
  • Mark the wall of the coop at 6 inches. The bedding breaks down a lot more than I expected, keeping a mark lets you know when to add more shavings.
  • The coop should not smell, if it does you need to adjust something.


Elizabeth said...

Great post! I use hay in my coop (I can get it for free, so that's why I've stuck with it) and I don't turn it over, I just add a fresh layer to the top. The chickens typically scratch around enough in it looking for goodies, I presume. I have found that I need to top dress it once every 1-2 weeks, depending (I typically wait until I can smell it too). I had to laugh at your post because I too spent a lot of time reading about it, but basically figured out what works through trial and error.

Geoff Cruickshank said...

We housed commercial layers on deep litter + range back in the 1960s. These layers were in the deep litter shed in flocks of 100 and were let out to range on pasture at about 1 pm each day. The rule as I remember it was 4 sq feet/bird of floorspace, but I think we allowed six. We used barley straw, which was cheap and abundant here, and we used as much of it as we could in the first few weeks of stocking the pen. The hens broke the straw down quite quickly into short lengths which formed quite a stable floor for more new straw on top. A few handfuls of grain well distributed each morning and the hens did all the straw turning that was required. At the end of the season the litter would be about 2 feet deep. Barley straw is much better than wheat straw by the way, both for chickens and pigs. It breaks down into a nice soft substrate and is more absorbant. I do wonder whether people who fail on this system are using sawdust which is a bit too fine and packs down too much and goes 'anaerobic'. Just a thought.
This was the best system we ever had for hens in my opinion- sad that the battery producers put this style of keeping layers out of business back then. The great virtue of it was that if the weather was really bad there was enough room on the straw floor for the hens to be happy- you could still open the door and some might go for a brief excursion, but most were soon back in their house. The litter was deep enough and dry enough that they dust bathed in the pen in wet weather.

Admin said...

Geoff - Great information, thanks for your contribution to this subject. I am very happy to see a successful case with so many hens housed together.

I am finding that the straw I have been putting down in the covered run is breaking down nicely, it is possible I did not start with enough straw in the first place and what was there got messy too quick. I am also interested in trying barley straw - I assume I am using wheat straw right now but I am no straw expert. I have found that straw in general is much easier to add to the pen and the chickens really love scratching around in it.

Thanks again

Tilly's Nest said...

Great post! Thanks for sharing your experiences. I just shared this on Pinterest and also on our Facebook page. I am sure this will help a lot of fellow chicken keepers :)

Amanda Orvis said...

Thanks for this post. I may have missed it, but was your coop not open to the ground below? I am about to try this deep litter system for my chickens and I imagine having the litter open to the soil would help with decomposition and cleanliness.

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