When Life Gives You Lemons
I wrote this article for the December ’06/January ’07 issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine, a great resource for the homestead flock owner.
“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, 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 1940s 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.)
It is good to remember the analogy between deep litter and a compost heap when choosing litter materials. In the compost heap, carbon and nitrogen sources must be in balance. (A ratio of 30:1 is recommended when the pile is assembled). If there is too much carbon, the heap remains “cold”—that is, the microbes have insufficient energy from nitrogen sources to thrive. If there is too much nitrogen in the mix, however, the microbes cannot utilize it fast enough, and much of it converts to ammonia (a volatile gas of nitrogen and hydrogen) which is lost to the atmosphere rather than being converted to more stable forms usable by plants.
The major difference in the initial composition of litter is that the proportion of carbon in relation to nitrogen should be much, much higher—indeed, the higher the better. Poultry (especially chicken) manure is a potent source of nitrogen, so we must ensure that the initial mix has enough carbon to absorb a great deal of nitrogen (poops) before the ratio gets low enough to start spontaneous generation of ammonia. As in the compost heap, ammonia production signals a decomposition process out of balance.
When choosing organic materials for the litter, physical as well as chemical (percent carbon) properties must be considered. Materials that will “fluff up” easily by chickens’ scratching are preferable to those that mat down and resist aeration. We should use what is easily and cheaply available to us. Almost any non-toxic, high-carbon organic material is suitable. I have a neighbor who prefers to rake up and dispose of the abundant “harvest” of leaves from the many oaks on her place—she’s even willing to haul and dump them at my place, so that is my preferred material for litter. It may be that litter materials available to you are byproducts of crops grown in quantity in your area—rice or buckwheat or peanut hulls, for example, or chopped corn cobs.
Wood shavings make excellent litter, so long as they are cheap enough and we avoid black walnut and aromatic woods such as cedar. Wood chips are good (and often free for the taking from tree and brush clearing companies), so long as they are well aged—they should not be used “green.” An excellent example of successful use of wood chips is Joel Salatin’s “raken” (ra-bbit and chic-ken) house: Cages for the breeding rabbits are suspended over a 12-inch litter of coarse chips. The chickens work the urine and droppings of the rabbits, as well as their own, into the litter. With such a deep, high-carbon litter, Joel only has to clean out once a year.
As for sawdust, it too must not be used fresh, though well-aged sawdust is a possibility. I have used sawdust from time to time in the past, though it is not my preferred material. It tends to pack down and resist aeration more than coarser materials. If mixed with looser materials, however, it will remain better dispersed and aerated in the litter and will contribute abundant carbon. (The C:N ratio is as high as 500:1.)
I prefer to avoid straw, which in the slightly moist conditions of litter over earth can support the growth of Aspergillus molds, the spores of which are not good for either birds or us to breathe. I’ve received reports from a number of poultry keepers, however, who use straw over earth with no problems. I do use straw in a wood-floor building I use for my breeders during the breeding season. In this case, the litter remains dry, and does not support the growth of molds.
Please note that certain organic materials do not make effective litter, usually because the nitrogen content is too high to effectively balance the manure being laid down. Examples are hay and the plant residues from threshing soybeans.
The great thing about deep litter is that the chickens do most of the work of manure management. However, a few management practices are required of us as well.
A litter outgassing ammonia is essentially poisoning the air our flock is breathing. Breathing ammonia damages the sensitive mucous membranes of the lungs, and leads to vitamin imbalances in the system and toxic reactions in the liver. Thus that first whiff of ammonia must not be ignored—it is our signal either to clean out the litter, or to add more high-carbon materials.
If you are not building your chicken shed from scratch but using an existing building with a wood or concrete floor, that’s okay. A deep, loose, organic litter is still the best manure management choice—it will still absorb all the poops the chickens incorporate into the litter. In this case, however, you don’t get as much “composting” effect because the litter is so much drier, and microbial populations not as diverse and active. You may find that you get that whiff of ammonia sooner than in an earth-floor litter, and have to clean out or add more carbonaceous material a bit more frequently. Also, since the litter has not had as thorough a decomposition, such a dry litter should be processed in a compost heap before use, to avoid “burning” crops with forms of nitrogen they cannot use.
When cleaning out the litter, it might be a good idea to leave a bit in place, in order to introduce active microbe populations into the fresh litter material. (Such “inoculation” is probably less needed in the case of an earth floor, which serves as a reservoir of microbes.)
Be generous with the amount of space you allow your birds. Joel Salatin observes—and my own experience bears this out—that five square feet per mature chicken is ideal. At this stocking density, all manure laid down will be incorporated by the chickens themselves. At four square feet, there will be some “capping” (build-up of a solid layer impervious to the flock’s scratching), usually under the roosts. At three square feet (still two or more times the space allotted in commercial operations), there may be capping over most of the litter surface. You should break up capping as soon as it occurs, using a spading fork. Once you have broken capped material into chunks and turned them over, the chickens can scratch them apart.
The litter should never be wet. Wet litter is anaerobic (lacking oxygen), a condition conducive to certain pathogens, in contrast to decompositional microbes, who thrive with abundant oxygen. Should wet spots develop—for example, around the waterers—again use your spading fork to disperse the soaked material out over the rest of the litter, where the scratching of the birds will dry and aerate it. (Don’t be concerned about a little water, however. I often swish out the rims of waterers onto the litter in order to rinse. The resulting increase in moisture, if not excessive, actually benefits the microbial processes in the litter.)
Waterfowl are a special case. Since they do not scratch, they lay down an accumulating layer of quite wet droppings. Either bring the spading fork into play again (only this time doing all the work of turning and dispersing yourself), or—my usual choice—simply allow the chickens and waterfowl to share the same space, and the chickens will provide the service of turning in the waterfowl’s droppings.
In the best of circumstances, waterfowl are pretty sloppy with their water. The best choice is to water them outside the poultry house. Since they are quite cold hardy, you can do this even in winter. If you have to water them inside the winter house, prevent soaked litter with the sort of catch basin described and illustrated in “The Homestead Waterfowl Flock”.
Deep Litter Benefits
To summarize the many benefits of managing the housed flock on deep litter:
- More healthful
- Manure does not accumulate as a reservoir of excess pathogens. When processed by our microbe friends in the litter, the droppings actually become a substrate for health rather than a vector for disease.
- Labor saving
- Deep litter is incredibly labor-saving: The chickens do most of the work, both of dispersing their own droppings and of managing the process of their proper decomposition. We may clean out the litter only once or at most twice a year, and (assuming we’re using an earth floor) we avoid the additional labor of composting, since the litter is already a finished compost.
- Temperature moderation
- Since, just as in a compost heap, decomposition of organic materials generates heat, a deep litter moderates the bitter temperatures in the winter housing.
- More pleasant
- The poultry house is a much more pleasant environment for us and, I have no doubt, for our birds.
- Less stress
- The birds when confined do not become stressed by boredom. They remain continually engaged in interesting natural behaviors—scratching the litter, taking dust baths in the driest areas, etc.
There are almost no disadvantages to using deep litter, and they are easily resolved. Here are a few precautions:
- In the wettest season we ever had here, more ground moisture wicked into the litter than usual. The litter was not wet, but it was not dry enough for decent dust-bathing. For the only time in the history of our flock, we had a serious outbreak of exoparasites (lice or mites). The solution was simple: I provided a dustbox for effective dust-bathing at any time, whatever the moisture content of the litter, and have had no further problems with lice or mites. (See “Making a Dustbox for the Poultry House”.)
- Eye infections
- That same unusually wet season was also the occasion for a number of serious eye infections. It may be that molds or pathogens encouraged by the additional moisture helped cause the outbreak—in any case, I’ve never had a recurrence of the problem in more normal seasons. On those rare occasions when excessive groundwater gets the litter too moist, addition of sphagnum peat moss or some other powder-dry litter material should help reduce the moisture.
- Keets and poults
- I had dreadful luck trying to start guinea keets and turkey poults that same year. These hatchlings are much harder than chicks to start, in my experience. It may be they were more sensitive than chicks to possible higher levels of molds in the litter. In any case, it may be better to start these two species on completely fresh litter.
- Digging predators
- Despite its advantages, an earth floor potentially exposes the flock to digging predators a wood or concrete floor would exclude. It is therefore crucial to put into place a barrier below foundation level. I used 24-inch metal roof flashing (half-inch hardware cloth would work as well), nailed to the sill plates under my siding boards, dug in to a depth of 18 inches around the entire perimeter. That’s a lot of digging (my aching back!), but it saves a lot of digging (by unwelcome intruders).
- Fertility: Too much of a good thing?
- If you use poultry litter as a major component of your fertility program in the garden, do not use any other source of phosphorus. Excessive use of litter over many seasons can lead to unhealthy levels of soil phosphates.
The Sniff Test
I know I’m on the right track with manure management when a new visitor tours the poultry house. If she has ever been in a chicken house before, at some point she invariably stops talking, looks around, twitching her nose, and asks with a puzzled look, “Why doesn’t it stink in here?”
I encourage you to switch to deep litter as the more wholesome, labor-saving approach to manure management. Once your litter has begun to “mellow”—to break down well—bend down and scoop up a handful. Sniff. The smell will not be even remotely like raw manure—more like good topsoil, or compost, or forest leaf mold. A fine batch of lemonade, indeed!