Clockwise from top left: Deep litter in the henhouse; Deep litter is scratched and turned by the chooks; Broken down deep litter ready for the garden. Photos by Lisa Steele
A chicken coop deep litter system is a compost heap inside your coop, where chook poo is deposited under where the chickens roost; or in the chicken run. Your chicken house should allow quite a bit of airflow. Closed housing risks building up ammonia levels that are harmful to chooks.
How It Works
Carbon-rich materials are layered and mixed with nutrientrich chook droppings forming a composting litter. Chickens dig through the litter, eating worms, slaters and other insects. The scratching and foraging activity turns the compost and can reduce insect pests such as lice and mites.
You’ll need to start with a clean space, so give the whole coop, including perches and nesting boxes, a good scrub down with natural cleaning spray. Scrub and scrape dried manure with a stiff brush and paint scraper; respray well to rinse off solids. Avoid inhaling dust or getting manure dust into your eyes by wearing personal protective gear and wash well after tending your coop.
After cleaning, replace nesting box material with fresh bedding; even shredded paper will do. You can add herbs such as rosemary, lavender, oregano or mint to deter bugs in the nesting box.
Scrape any fresh manure on the floor off to one side for adding to the litter later. Deep litter coop maintenance is all about balancing the beneficial microbe levels to allow the manure and litter to decompose in the coop. The build method is to create layers with dry ingredients. It’s not ‘deep litter’ until it reaches 200 mm deep, but the deeper the better.
Add a light sprinkle of agricultural lime to the base and again halfway through building the pile. Be careful to cover the lime as it can mildly burn your chickens’ feet.
Add layers of dry materials – pine shavings and needles, sawdust, dry lawn clippings, shredded paper, sea grass, leaves – and chook poo. Some people use straw or hay in their deep litter coops with success, but watch for mould spores and dampness.
As the chickens roost above the deep litter, manure may cake. Caked manure can become anaerobic, which releases ammonia, a toxic gas.
At least once a week, completely stir up all the material and droppings, so you can assess the condition of the litter. It should have a slightly nutty earth scent, but never a bad odour. If it smells rank, turn the litter for it to oxygenate. Regularly add layers of nesting and other dry organic material to maintain a nice balance with the droppings.
It should not be damp or powdery dry and dusty but absorbent, slightly moist and fluffy. You may need to add a light water spray in dry conditions. Add a light dusting of lime before turning it to maintain a good pH balance. In summer, expect the compost process to be faster.
After three or four months, scrape fresh poo to the side (this is a starter for the next deep litter) and take the composted deep litter to use on berries, fruit trees and other perennial fruiting crops. It is not suitable for leafy greens due to the pathogen risk from manure splashback onto edible crops when watering.
If the manure-litter compost you remove is thoroughly decomposed and odourless, you can work it directly into garden beds. If fresher manure hasn’t thoroughly decomposed, add it to the compost pile.
Natural Cleaning Spray
Into a large jar, place the peel of one lemon or some lemon oil, a big handful of fresh thyme, a couple of squashed cloves of garlic and white vinegar to cover the solids. Shake the jar every few days until the mixture is fragrant and the vinegar scent is gone. Strain.
You can also substitute the peel of one orange, two cinnamon sticks and two fresh vanilla beans; or the peel of one lime with lavender and mint or pine and cinnamon.