Over the years I’ve met many one-time backyard chicken keepers. I always try to understand what exactly caused them to give it up, and I’ve found that the vast majority became tired of cleaning their coop every week. I understand it can be a less than enjoyable task, and that’s why I use the deep litter method and clean my coops once a year.
What is it?
The Deep litter method is the standard bedding management method of most commercial floor raising operations. Basically, when preparing a barn or coop for birds you add what some people may consider an inordinate amount of pine shavings to the floor of the coop.
Why should I use it?
The major benefits of the deep litter method are;
- Longer times between cleaning
- Gives the birds a better environment
- Reduces ammonia levels in the coop
- Results in a better fertilizer
- Reduces bedding consumption
- Some degree of heat retention
- Saves your back, your time and your money
The theory of the deep litter system is this; the pine shavings absorbs moisture, holds it and then allows it to evaporate over time. This is why a deep pine shaving pack stays dry, but if the bedding is too shallow it will hit it’s saturation point quickly and have no where else for the moisture to go. The gig is up at that point and the only way to fix it is to add more bedding or change it out completely before it becomes a nasty hard crust (and that’s miserable to clean out).
This is how a commercial floor operation sets up their barns; They start with an empty building that has been cleaned and sanitized. Depending on the length of time and type of birds to be grown, they will fill the barn with a pad of pine shavings from 12” to 3′ thick on the floor. For broiler production after every 6 week cycle they will add another layer 6” to 12” thick until the pad is too deep. They do this to avoid the labor of a full clean out. A side note; they only reuse litter if and only if the last batch proved to be free of disease. If their Biosecurity plan failed and there was an outbreak then they would purge the barn and start again. For layer or breeder flocks that will be held for 18 to 30 months, the bedding pack is usually closer to the 3’+ depth.
How to use it
Unless you had the forethought or happy coincidence of setting up your barn for this method, you’ll want to alter your coop before you can use this method. You need a way to keep it all in the coop, so I use 2×6 or plywood kick plates across all doorways to stop the bedding from spilling out or jamming the doors.
Bedding material is extremely important here. Use commercially available pine shaving bedding. Do not use hay, straw or wood chips! These beddings will trap and hold moisture creating a reservoir of disease, mold and perpetual ammonia. Pelleted bedding looks like chicken feed, so you can see why that would also be a bad idea and wood dust such as that available from most wood working shops tend to be too fine, resulting in a mushy mess. I also generally dissuade people from using cedar shavings for poultry since the smell can be overpowering for the birds.
Birds naturally dig and forage as you know. They get into your garden, your neighbor’s flower beds or the kid’s sand box and go to town making dust bowls and looking for tasty morsels in the ground. This same behavior serves to rototill the bedding pack frequently so fresh bedding is always being uncovered and existing top bedding is being aerated. Broilers and turkeys don’t typically do these behaviors as much as a layer, so I used a pitchfork to turn the bedding over from time to time for them.
Gauge your bedding with a shovel. Dig to the floor every few months and see how far down the gray shavings go. When the entire bedding pack has turned to a consistent gray color, it’s time to clean out or add more shavings. Now don’t go throwing that stuff away! Just because your birds can’t use it any more doesn’t mean you can’t. If you’ve managed your bedding correctly, it has stayed dry which preserves the nitrogen-rich waste your birds left behind. Your local gardeners would love to take that off your hands for composting or soil amendments since plants thrive of nitrogen.
Using this method will save you time, money, back ache and aggravation. Hopefully this will make keeping chickens truly easy for you, so I don’t meet you as a one-time chicken keeper! Don’t forget, you’re also harvesting your chicken’s most unglamorous by-product too! Use that gray gold wisely, or barter it with a gardener since it makes little sense to let it go to waste.