Sustainable Backyard Chickens: Repurpose Litter & Reduce Waste

backyard hens

It’s not surprising that keeping backyard chickens continues to grow in popularity. The availability of fresh eggs — or even meat — from humanely raised hens is a clear benefit.

But while sustainably produced food may make you feel good, disposing of soiled chicken bedding may be a problem you hadn’t anticipated. How does an urban chicken farmer sustainably dispose of soiled bedding?

Fortunately, you don’t have to worry about throwing soiled bedding in your garbage. Reduce the waste and repurpose dirty litter — as compost — with the deep litter method.

What Is the Deep Litter Method?

The deep litter method is an easy and sustainable way to dispose of soiled bedding. It involves placing fresh litter on top of old, soiled litter to allow the bedding material to decompose inside the coop.

The most obvious benefit of the deep litter method is that it produces rich compost material for gardens. According to the University of Georgia, poultry manure improves soil structure and makes the soil more fertile. This will produce healthier flowers and plants in your garden.

This method of managing waste also helps keeps chickens healthy. Compost material is loaded with microorganisms that help keep the pathogens that can make chickens sick at bay. Additionally, the decomposing litter will help insulate the coop and keep chickens warm during the winter months.

Ready to start? Here are a few tips to help you successfully repurpose chicken litter with the deep litter method.

Tip #1: Purchase Absorbent Bedding

In order for the litter to decompose correctly, the bedding used in the coop needs to be absorbent enough to soak up moisture. Chickens and More recommends using mulch, sawdust, or shredded newspaper to save money. Alternatively, The Government of Alberta recommends using pine shavings, although this type of bedding can be expensive.

Tip #2: Layer Bedding

Start with a layer of bedding in the coop that is around four inches thick. Every few days, or around once a week, toss a few handfuls of fresh bedding on top of the soiled bedding. How often you should add fresh bedding depends on how many chickens you keep in the coop. The more birds, the more often you should add fresh bedding to the coop.

Tip #3: Break Up Big Chunks

One reason why the deep litter method is preferred by backyard chicken keepers is because of how hassle-free it is. Decomposing litter requires the incorporation of oxygen, but chickens typically do this themselves by stirring up the bedding. However, if the bedding appears to be caking up, take a shovel or rake to break up these large pieces and redistribute them around the coop. This will help expedite the decomposition process. It will also help protect chickens from foot injuries from walking on hard bedding.

Tip #4: Be Patient

The deep litter method requires lots of patience. It typically takes several months for chicken litter to properly decompose and be ready for use in gardens. The University of Minnesota-Duluth recommends waiting until the bedding in the coop reaches about 18 inches deep before cleaning out the coop. If the litter doesn’t smell and has no large chunks, it is decomposed and is ready to use as compost in your garden. If the litter is not fully decomposed, add it to another compost pile to let it further decompose.

Tip #5: Don’t Completely Clean Out the Coop

It’s best to leave a couple of inches of decomposing bedding in the coop when it comes time to clean out the coop. This is because the good microorganisms that help the decomposition process have already been established in the soiled bedding. Placing new bedding on top will help kickstart decomposition.

Win-Win: Healthy Chickens, Healthy Garden

The thought of throwing away large quantities of chicken litter may deter some from keeping backyard chickens. However, the deep litter method is an easy and sustainable way to repurpose soiled litter and greatly reduce waste. Not only does this method help keep chickens healthy, but the compost produced will help plants and flowers around the yard flourish.

About the Author

Chris Lesley has been raising backyard chickens for over 20 years and is Chickens And More poultry expert. She has a flock of 11 chickens (including three Silkies) and is currently teaching people all around the world how to care for healthy chickens.

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