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I love the deep litter method! What is the deep litter method, you ask? It is a way of turning old chicken litter into deep, rich compost.
It controls odors, keeps bad bacteria at bay (while using the good bacteria), and even heats the chicken coop slightly. All while lessening your work load with your chickens. Talk about a win-win!
Let’s talk about it more to see if the deep litter method is right for your chickens.
Basics of deep litter
The deep litter method (DLM) is just as it sounds – deep – from about 8 to 12 inches. Really deep litter should only be used in the winter time, since the break-down of the materials adds about 10 degrees of heat. Although I use the deep litter method year-round, it’s fairly thin throughout the summer. Coops using the deep litter method properly don’t stink, at all!
The deep litter method focuses on using carbon-based material (the pine shavings that is the base for your chicken litter), and nitrogen-based material (the manure and urine from the chickens). These are the essential items for regular compost, and the DLM effectively helps break these down into rich compost.
Benefits of deep litter
The deep litter method has a few valuable benefits:
Chicken manure is too “hot” to use on gardens alone, unless it is aged and composted. By using the deep litter method throughout the winter, the manure is aged and breaks down with the bedding. In the spring it is almost ready to add to your garden soil. You can just do a quick hot composting and have it ready to go.
Keep in mind, that a good ratio of browns to greens in compost is 30:1. If you’ve had the deep litter in with your chickens for about 6 months (as recommended), you should have about that. So it should be a fabulous base to start your own compost.
The deep litter method is the “lazy way” of raising chickens. You only have to clean out the coop once in the spring, and maybe once in the fall. About once a week, I use a pitchfork or a rake and turn over the litter.
If it smells at all or is too wet, I add more litter. The best bedding is pine shavings. I buy a bag of pine shavings from Tractor Supply Company about every two weeks. It’s only about $5/bag, so it is very economical. As a side note, cedar shavings should not be used, as it can be harmful to the chickens’ respiratory system.
While most people may think the deep litter method is unsanitary, it’s really not. If managed properly and kept dry, the deep litter method can actually result in healthier chickens.
I’m not an expert yet, so I’d like to share a great article on the deep litter method. You can check it out here. It goes really in-depth on the subject, with case studies on how it even makes your chickens healthier. He also talks about mixing hydrated lime into the bedding for moisture control.
Materials to use for deep litter
Hands down, the best material for the deep litter method is pine shavings. Since pine shavings are small, they don’t clump together and become a mat. They are easily fluffed up with a pitchfork or a shovel.
Straw, since it is hollow, harbors lice and mites, and gets extremely heavy when wet. It can become a breeding ground for diseases and mold. And it tends to build-up with a heavy ammonia odor. Only use straw in a very dry area.
Hay can get very dusty and will also get very heavy when wet. Since it’s typically in longer pieces, it is a little harder to turn. And hay tends to hold in ammonia odor as well. Only use hay in a dry area.
Dried grass clippings can be used in a pinch, but you will come across the same issues as hay. It will be dusty, and will mat and hold in moisture too much if it gets wet.
Dried leaves can also be used, but they are best used in conjunction with one or more of the other materials. Leaves can tend to mat together, and can be difficult to turn. If you do use dried leaves, you may want to turn it more often to lessen the compaction.
Using the deep litter method
The best place to use the deep litter method is in the coop and nesting boxes. If you have a covered run that doesn’t get too wet, you can use it in there too. But if your run gets wet and muddy during the rainy months, you really shouldn’t use the deep litter method there.
Pine shavings will get too wet if in an open area to properly start the decomposition process. They will actually get pushed down into the soil and make it even more mucky. Plus, wet litter is a recipe for mold and disease to multiply.
Clean out twice a year
In the spring and in the fall, I suggest doing a thorough cleanup of your coop and run. If you have been using deep litter, remove it all and put it in a pile to compost. Disinfect the roost bars, and if possible, the whole coop, with a very diluted bleach solution. Allow the whole thing to air dry before letting your chickens back into the coop.
After the coop cleanup, I usually rake up the run as well, even though I don’t use shavings there. My run is just dirt. I’m planning on trying sand at some point, since our run gets pretty mucky.
I like to put down a light layer of barn lime in the coop after cleaning and before putting down my litter. This will help deter bugs, and absorb excess moisture and ammonia.
Put a generous amount of pine shavings in the coop. It should be 8-12 inches deep (you can use less for the summer months). You will probably need several bags of pine shavings. If this is cost-prohibitive for you, you may be able to check with a mill or cabinet shop to get their shavings and sawdust. Or you can check into Chip Drop.
Once a week or so, go into the coop and turn over the pine shavings. This will mix the manure into the shavings, which in turn starts the decomposition process.
If you don’t even want to take the few minutes once a week to turn the deep litter, you can throw some scratch in the coop and let the chickens go after it. They will turn it themselves!
Have you ever used the deep litter method? Please let me know in the comments if you have any other labor-saving tricks!
If you’re just starting on your backyard chicken journey, you might want to check out our e-book, Chickens For Newbies. It has all the information you need to start raising happy, healthy chickens!