Ok, this post may be a bit “deep” (sorry for the pun), but I’ve been researching chicken litter management. For the past couple of years, our chickens were either housed in an Eglu (with a pull-out shelf for dropping removal), or in a barn stall, where we could shovel dirt and bedding in and out as necessary for sanitary control. However, now that we’ve got the new coop (see New Coop), I’ve been investigating the “deep litter” management method.
What Is It?
The “deep litter” technique originated in Ohio in the 1940’s, and was an important development in poultry management because it reportedly dramatically reduced poultry disease and the labor necessary to keep chickens. It introduced a sustainable method of managing chicken litter in the coop, and many flock owners adopted it. However, as small flocks disappeared from the backyard, the practice was somewhat lost, and was only continued by the large commercial poultry growers.
Basically, the premise is that you start with a 4” layer of pine shavings (or other highly absorbent bedding material), throw in chicken scratch daily so your chickens help aerate the shavings, and let nature compost the litter in the chicken coop. Just as with a garden compost pile, there is a brown “pine shavings” and green “chicken droppings” element that need to be managed. When the proportion of green to brown gets too large, additional pine shavings are added to the mix. Over time, the litter gets deeper, and eventually; some needs to be removed. What does get removed makes good compost.
According to the original proponents of the deep litter method – Kennard and Chamberlin (published in 1949), “old built-up litter is drier, more absorbent, and less obnoxious than fresh litter after a few days’ use. Often overlooked is the fact that nature’s chemical and biological processes have converted built-up litter into more sanitary, less obnoxious, residual compost-like material which is preferable to fresh litter”. Studies on deep litter conducted at the Ohio Experiment Station in the 1940’s also concluded that deep litter was beneficial to chicken health and in the control of coccidiosis.
In the original method, hydrated lime was added to the mix at the rate of about ten pounds per 100 square feet, and reportedly kept the litter more friable. While investigating this method, I found that lots of small flock keepers today have rediscovered it, but are also adding diatomaceous earth to help with parasite control. Many report that they continue to let the litter build, replacing it and cleaning the coop only once yearly, in the spring. A concern mentioned with this method is the buildup of ammonia, if you can smell ammonia, it’s hazardous to the chickens and ventilation in the coop is not adequate.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a neighbor I can consult about this method, but based on what I can discern, this doesn’t constitute cruelty to our chickens and we’re giving it a try. We put down about 4” of pine shavings, added a sprinkling of diatomaceous earth (only food grade should be used), and put the chickens in the coop on July 7th (see Chicks In Coop). It’s been 3 weeks and things seem to be going well (see Chicken Cam to view coop interior). Fortunately, the coop has three large windows in the front and a ventilation hatch across the back, so I don’t expect ventilation will be an issue.
I understand the reducing labor part, but I’d like to know why this method is credited with reducing poultry disease and increasing chicken health. It seems that there should be more science. I probably just haven’t found it yet; so if anyone knows where there’s additional information, let me know. I’m also curious about practices in other cultures and countries.