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When Life Gives You Lemons. . .
(Part One)

I wrote this article for the December ’06/January ’07 issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine, a great resource for the homestead flock owner.

Table of Contents

Part OnePart TwoPart Three

“If you are around any livestock operation, regardless of species, and you smell manure—you are smelling mismanagement.” ~Joel Salatin

There’s an old saying: When life gives you lemons—make lemonade. Certainly one of the most sour “lemons” we get when we raise poultry is dealing with the poops. The manure from our birds is foul-smelling, repellent, and a potential vector for disease among our birds, and perhaps for ourselves as well. Cleaning out the chicken house is not a pleasant chore, especially if the droppings have caked into a hardened layer that resists hoe or shovel. Flies come to the accumulating manure in droves, and may even breed in it. And many are the poultry enthusiasts who have faced the wrath of mother or spouse, entering the house after having “stepped in something.”

A bowlful of pretty sour “lemons” indeed. Is there any way we can make lemonade? Fortunately there are two. First, to the greatest extent possible, we should keep our flocks on pasture. Poops laid down over a growing pasture sod in good condition are “digested” by the sod in a way that is more healthful and pleasant for both the birds and for us, while fertilizing and boosting the teeming life in the top few inches of the soil—a win-win situation for everybody.

To the extent the birds must be confined to a house—perhaps just at night, perhaps almost all the time over the winter—is there a way we can turn the lemons of manure management into lemonade? The recipe is: deep organic litter over an earth floor.

A “Slow Burn” Compost Heap

If you are planning a new building to house your flock, I strongly recommend leaving an earth floor in it. Soil under the litter is a source of “inoculation” of the litter by billions of microbes. Also, the slight wicking of moisture from an earth floor into the litter boosts healthy growth of microbial populations.

Like most living things, the microbes at work in the litter require oxygen to thrive. Isn’t it fortunate, then, that chickens love nothing so much as scratching. Their non-stop turning of the litter not only disperses their droppings and mixes them in, but aerates the litter as well, boosting more active microbial life. The busy microbes feed on the droppings and the litter itself, decomposing them into their basic elements—in accordance with that great principle of Nature, that every creature’s waste is a priceless resource for some other creature. What they create in effect is a “slow burn” compost heap. The decomposition is not as intense as in a compost heap, but the same processes are at work. Like a compost heap, a mature deep litter is very much alive.

Boosting Flock Health

Read that last sentence again. It is good to remember that we are working with a living system here. And, like any living creatures, the microbes produce metabolites (byproducts of their life processes) in the natural course of making a living. Fortunately for our chickens, these metabolites include Vitamins B12 and K, as well as natural antibiotics and immune-enhancing substances, which the chickens ingest along with whatever it is they find so interesting in the litter.

Just as in a compost pile, a “mature” litter becomes populated with countless other “critters” you and I would not likely even see, but which the chickens do see, and eat—an additional source of protein. Indeed, studies done in the 1940’s indicated flocks on a 12-inch litter could meet all their protein needs from what they found in the litter. I can’t prove that from my own experience, but certainly my chickens find plenty in a mature litter to get excited about. (Source for this reference is Joel Salatin’s Pastured Poultry Profit$. I have not been able to find the original source.)

What About Chicks?

I’ve already referred to the potential for improvement of flock health using deep litter. But should we allow just-hatched chicks access to a litter containing significant amounts of droppings from mature birds? Aren’t we universally advised to practice the strictest sanitation when brooding chicks, to put down a sterile litter when placing them into the brooder, and to completely change out the old litter between batches?

I expect baby chickens are like young children: The more we try to ensure they will have absolutely no exposure to “germs,” the more fragile their immune systems become, and the more subject they are to infection when exposed to a pathogen penetrating the “bubble” we’ve tried to put around them. Normal exposure to pathogens universally ambient in the environment, on the other hand, challenges their immune systems, stimulating them to become more robust. I raise chicks with their mothers, mixed in with the main flock, all the time—whether on the deep litter inside, or on the pasture outside—and find that the chicks are hardy and vigorous, and that mortality rates are extremely low. (See “Brooding Chicks on Deep Litter” for a description of brooding chicks artificially on deep litter.)