Chipping frozen clumps of chicken poo off the floor of my chicken coop in the middle of winter is not my idea of a good time.
I figured this out fast my very first year raising chickens – it is cold, hard, back-breaking work.
Then I discovered it’s ok to leave all that chicken waste in the coop – if you use the deep litter method.
The deep litter method is a means of composting chicken waste in the chicken coop. To use the deep litter method for chickens, you add layers of bedding such as straw or pine shavings and mix them in. Over time, the litter and manure will compost, creating warmth for the chickens and keeping them and their coop healthy.
In this article, we’ll give you a guide to use on how to use the deep litter method for chickens.
We’ll take a look at the pros and cons of using the deep litter method and help you understand what kinds of bedding will work best.
But first, let’s define what the deep litter method for chickens is.
What Is the Deep Litter Method for Chickens?
Here is a video by Carolina Coops explaining the deep litter method, and how it works. They recommend using a product they sell, which is industrial hemp, instead of wood shavings. You will notice in this article I recommend wood shavings, primarily because it works so well and is so inexpensive. The hemp is $60 per bag. I include this video mainly because it does a great job explaining the deep litter method.
The deep litter method for chickens is a type of coop management based on the principles of composting. Rather than completely cleaning out your chicken coop several times per month, you continually add bedding to the chicken coop and allow it to compost along with the chicken manure.
Occasionally, you may need to turn the bedding over to facilitate composting, but overall, the maintenance required is much lower. So instead, clean out the coop once or twice per year. Then, you can use the composted bedding in your garden and flower beds but leave a few inches of material behind to facilitate the next round of deep litter.
The composting process will create heat, which keeps your chickens a little bit warmer in the winter. It will also create a means for beneficial microbes to grow. These microbes will control pathogens, which will help your chickens to be healthier.
I love using the deep litter method for my coop, but it has pros and cons. However, if you know what they are, you’ll be able to decide if this method is suitable for you and your chickens.
Pros and Cons
Pros of the Deep Litter Method
- It’s easy. The deep litter method doesn’t take a lot of work, and it isn’t physically demanding, either. There’s no complicated system to follow, and you can use the type of bedding you like best.
- It keeps your chickens warm. The deep litter method is great if you live in a climate with cold, harsh winters. Although most breeds of chicken are pretty cold hardy, they can still get frostbite on their toes and comb. So the deep litter method will add a little bit of free, natural heat to your chicken coop.
- Your chickens will do most of the work for you. While you may need to stir up the litter every once in a while, your chickens love to dig and scratch in compost. They’ll likely do most – if not all of the work for you. They’ll dig through the bedding, scratching it up, turning it over, and snacking on bugs, vermin, and little bits of food that might be in it.
- It takes care of the chicken waste. You won’t have to worry about disposing of chicken waste. Left on its own, chicken manure is smelly, gross, and can grow dangerous pathogens. However, the deep litter method will compost and decompose those droppings, creating a more sanitary coop for your chickens and you.
- The microbes produce vitamins. Microbes in the decomposition process will provide Vitamins B12 and K for your chickens, which will help make up for vitamin deficiencies in their winter feeding.
- Dust bathing. The deep litter method creates a warm, safe spot for your chickens to dust bathe in the winter, which is a lovely gift to them when there is snow outside. In addition, dust bathing helps prevent mites and other skin issues.
Of course, just like with anything, there are cons to the deep litter method, and you should be aware of potential sources of problems before you jump into this method.
Cons of the Deep Litter Method
- The litter must be turned regularly. To decompose, the litter needs oxygen. If the chickens aren’t turning the bedding enough, you’ll have to take a good old shovel and rake to the coop and do it yourself.
- Ammonia can build up in the coop. If the coop bedding is too wet, it can create ammonia fumes. If the fumes build up, they can cause irritation to your chickens’ eyes or worse. If you smell ammonia at all, you’ll need to add lots more dry bedding to the coop or clean it out and start over.
- You’ll want to avoid DE, lime, or other types of pesticides and miticides. Products like DE or lime will inhibit the growth of good microbes, which will prevent your bedding and manure from breaking down properly.
Types of Litter Used for the Deep Litter Method
There are plenty of options for what kind of ‘stuff you can use as litter in your chicken coop. And no, we don’t mean cat litter! Instead, we’re talking about coop bedding, and you can choose the type that fits your lifestyle, budget, and accessibility.
You’ll want to consider what you put in. Remember, the deep litter method is based on the rules of composting. In a typical compost pile, you would want to have 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. Your chicken bedding is the carbon, and their manure is the nitrogen. You don’t have to get too technical to get it right, but just keep in mind that you need a LOT of carbon to offset the amount of chicken poo!
- Pine shavings. Pine shavings are probably the best type of bedding that you can use. They are inexpensive, easy to find and break down quickly. They also absorb a lot of moisture. Since pine shavings are lightweight, they are easy for the chickens to dig through and easy for you to turn over if needed.
- Dried leaves. Dried leaves are a great addition to your coop. Of course, you would need an awful lot of them, but they do make a great supplement to other types of bedding, even if you don’t have enough leaves.
- Straw. Straw works great if there is enough of it. However, straw pieces are larger, harder for the chickens to turn, and clumps are heavier if you need to turn it yourself. Straw and hay are also pretty expensive right now, so this might not be the most budget-friendly option. Also, unless you are using organic straw or hay, it might be treated with chemicals that do not break down in the composting process, which means they could hamper the growth of your garden if that is where you use the deep litter bedding.
- Sawdust. Sawdust is great at absorbing moisture and odors, but it can get pretty clumpy and hard-packed. So you may want to turn it often or mix it with some other type of bedding, such as straw. You may be able to get free sawdust if you have a local sawmill.
- Woodchips are also a great option for bedding material. Just make sure you are using plain, untreated wood chips.
- Dried grass, pine needles, and other dried organic plant matter.
How to Use the Deep Litter Method for Chickens in 9 Steps
To use the deep litter method, you’ll want to start with a well-ventilated coop. The coop can be wood, metal, plastic, large, small, or in-between. The floor can be concrete, treated wood, etc.
This method works well with pretty much any type of coop, just so long as it has good ventilation.
- Start with a fresh, 6-inch layer of bedding on the floor of the coop. The bedding should be some kind of dried carbon materials, such as pine shavings, wood chips, straw, etc. Whatever you have that fits your budget will work just fine. You can even use a mix of beddings if you prefer.
- Keep building up your layer of bedding each day until it is about 12 inches deep.
- Don’t remove manure or bedding. Instead, just allow the manure to fall right into the bedding.
- Make sure you or your chickens are turning the bedding regularly. Turning the bedding makes sure there is enough oxygen to create the composting process, which reduces the ammonia that can build up in the coop. Some people say you should do this daily, but you probably don’t need to as long as your chickens are helping with the process. Just keep an eye (or a nose) out to ensure there aren’t ammonia odors. You can toss some grains or seeds into the bedding to entice the chickens to scratch More.
- In a few weeks, your bedding will start the decomposition process. The bottom of the coop will begin to have something that looks like dirt. If everything is composting correctly, you will not have odors, flies, or other issues in your coop, just like in a compost bin.
- Keep an eye on your coop, adding layers of bedding and turning as needed. If the bedding feels damp and cold, you need to add more dry stuff like pine shavings or straw. Just keep this up all winter – no need to scoop out the poop! It will decompose and heat the coop by up to ten degrees over outside temperatures.
- You can shovel out the litter in the spring and put it in your garden or compost pile. It shouldn’t be too heavy or too smelly.
- At this point, some people will completely clean out the coop, scrub it down, and start fresh. Other folks will leave about 3 inches of composted bedding on the bottom of the coop to jumpstart the composting process for the following year. I recommend seeing how well the chickens have done in the bedding. Then, of course, if the coop smells, you’ll want to start over with everything fresh. But if it seems like healthy compost, there is no need to empty your coop completely.
- If it is very hot in the summer, you might want to clean out all of the composting bedding and stop using the deep litter method until the temps drop again. You may want to stop using the deep litter method because the composting process does generate heat, and you may not want to make your coop any hotter than it already is. Chickens tend to be more cold-tolerant than heat tolerant, so consider this when you make your decision about whether to use the deep litter method all year round.
Tips and Tricks to Using the Deep Litter Method for Chickens
If you have too many chickens in a small coop, you may have trouble keeping up with the carbon to nitrogen ratio. Joel Salatin recommends 5 square feet of coop space per bird.
If you smell ammonia or some other kind of funk, you probably need more dry material in the coop.
If you want the chickens to scratch more, throw scratch grains into the bedding.
If you have a wood floor in your coop, the composted remains might be too ‘hot’ to put directly on your garden. That’s ok. Just throw it in your compost bin for a few months. If you find that the composting process is too hard on the wood floor, you might want to cover the floor with a tarp to prevent the floorboards from rotting away.
Avoid using bedding that has been treated with pesticides or herbicides because it may impede the decomposition process.
Chickens aren’t too picky! They will be happy whether or not you use the deep litter method as long as the coop is free of ammonia build-up and bugs. However, they do enjoy scratching for treats in the deep litter.
The deep litter method is safe for chickens when done correctly. However, if you allow too much nitrogen, waste, or ammonia to build up in the coop, it can be harmful to the chickens and people.
You can use the deep litter method for chickens and goats, but it is inappropriate for ducks. Ducks splash too much water around the coop, and it will be difficult, if not impossible, to keep it dry enough to work properly.