You're ready for your new flock of hens: you have the coop, feeder and waterer and the chicks are on order. But what do you use for litter on the floor of the chicken coop? Pine shavings, hay, straw, or what? How often do you have to clean it out? And, for urban and suburban homesteaders especially, is it going to smell?
The deep litter method is one sustainable method of managing chicken litter in the chicken coop that many small farmers use. In the deep litter method, you're basically forming a compost pile of your chicken's poop right on the floor of the coop. Like a compost pile, you begin with a layer of pine shavings or other organic matter in the "browns" category. The high-nitrogen chicken poop is the "green."
You simply add enough shavings to keep the floor composting nicely, and the chickens do the aeration for you with their scratching behavior. Scattering corn on the coop floor encourages them. The litter has beneficial microbes - think of it as probiotics for your hens.
Once or twice a year or less, you clean the coop out. The resulting material can mostly be used directly as compost, though if you notice a few spots that are fresher than others, you might throw it into the compost bin for a while.The benefits of the deep litter method are:
- It doesn't take a lot of time to manage.
- You end up with 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.
For the deep litter method, pine shavings seem to work well and are inexpensively purchased at your local feed store in bales. If you have a very small coop and limited storage, you can buy smaller bags at pet stores. Be sure not to get cedar shavings, which can be toxic to chickens.
Some small farmers prefer using hay or straw in the coop for litter. I like using hay or straw in the nest boxes, but on the floor it seems to attract and hold too much moisture. Others agree that depending on your individual conditions, hay or straw can be too moist in the coop.
Who Shouldn't Use the Deep Litter Method?
The deep litter method is a sustainable, easy-to-maintain system that works well for flocks with an earthen floor. If you have a wood or other floor, you can still do a variation of the deep litter method, but you'll have to compost the litter when you clean it out before using it, because the earth supplies the moisture and culture to start the composting process.
If you live in an urban or suburban area or have a very small area for your chickens and a small flock, you may want to simply clean the litter down to the floor and do it frequently (anywhere from weekly to monthly depending on your personal situation). This way you won't have to contend with a large amount of litter to dispose of at one time. You can add the litter and poop to your compost bin.