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The Deep Litter Method of Winter Chicken Coop Maintenance

Using the Deep Litter Method of coop litter management through the winter not only produces a bit of natural heat, is easy and economical, it results in nice soil for your garden come spring.

If you're not familiar with it, The Deep Litter Method is a brilliant old-timers method to manage your coop litter through the winter.

It's easy, economical and results in beautifully composted chicken manure and bedding (whether it be straw, shavings, leaves, pine needles etc.) for your garden come spring.

The first few winters we raised chickens, I would trudge down in the cold and ice to clean out the coop every other week or so.  I would remove all the straw bedding, then sprinkle DE (diatomaceous earth) and replace the straw with new bedding.

The old soiled bedding would sit, partially frozen, in our compost pile until spring.  I didn't enjoy doing it, it didn't seem practical and I knew there had to be another way.

Well, there IS another, better way: it's called the Deep Litter Method.

The Deep Litter Method of Winter Chicken Coop Maintenance

I did a bit of research and stumbled across the Deep Litter Method. It is an almost-forgotten (at the time I wrote this back in 2012) old-timers' method that allows manure and bedding in the coop to accumulate and decompose inside the coop all winter.

Then in the spring you clean the whole thing out and have beautiful compost for your spring garden.

Now, before you ask, no, it doesn't smell. No, your coop won't be wet and gross. Done correctly, the Deep Litter Method isn't messy at all.

What is the Deep Litter Method?

The Deep Litter Method basically consists of repeatedly turning over the soiled bedding, adding a new layer, and allowing the chicken droppings to decompose on the floor of the coop all winter, at the same time creating heat to keep the coop warm naturally.

As a further bonus, same as when you compost, beneficial microbes grow that actually help control pathogens, making your chickens less susceptible to diseases.

Benefits of The Deep Litter Method

In fact according to Harvey Ussery, "An absorptive litter at least several inches thick is almost magic stuff. [Researchers] Kennard and Chamberlin discovered in a number of critically important experiments in the early 1940s that “built up” litter (litter allowed to become more and more biologically active over time) not only provides sanitary decomposition of the droppings, but provides positive feeding benefits as well.

The decompositional microbes produce Vitamins B12 and K, which the chickens take in as they find interesting things to eat in a mature litter. The experiments even demonstrated that biologically active litter compensates for deficiencies of key nutrients, including protein, in ways that are not fully understood."

In the spring, you just clean your whole coop out and dump the litter into your compost pile or right into your garden.  It sounded easy and practical.  So several years ago, I decided to give it a try.

First I had to give the coop a good cleaning. Here's what I do on a regular basis to keep the coop clean and smelling fresh. And the best part - its all natural.

Click to learn how to Clean your Coop the Natural Way

Now for the deep-cleaning.  I use this same cleaning routine every fall.  I pick a nice, warm sunny day to do my twice yearly cleaning.  First I shovel out all the soiled straw and sweep out the coop as best as I can.

This is also a good time to check the exterior of the coop for loose screws, hinges, shingles, etc. and make any repairs necessary before winter.

A new 6" layer of pine shavings goes down on the bare floor. With the Deep Litter Method, you should use pine shavings or hemp bedding as your bottom layer since they are small pieces and compost fairly quickly. Then put a thin layer of straw over the shavings.

Note: if you are using the Deep Litter Method, DE or lime shouldn't be used since it can inhibit the growth of the good microbes. It also shouldn't be needed because a properly maintained bed of litter shouldn't smell or attract flies or other insects. 

However, a thin layer on the floor of the coop before you start adding your bedding material shouldn't be a problem to control any insects or smell before the bedding really starts to decompose. And no worries, DE isn't harmful to garden toads or earthworms.

How to Do the Deep Litter Method

  • Starting with the 6" layer of pine shavings on the floor with straw on top, each morning I turn over the top straw so the soiled bedding from the night before ends up on the bottom.
  • You can also use dry grass clippings, hemp bedding, leaves, pine needles, or a combination of bedding types.
    • I continue doing that each day, adding straw after that as needed to eventually build up to a 12" deep layer. 
    • No bedding is removed, but rather turned over to let the droppings fall to the bottom and turn over the bedding.
    • You can turn the material with a shovel or rake. The turning and introduction of oxygen will reduce the chance of ammonia buildup, so daily turning is very important.
    • Chicken manure is very high in nitrogen.  Mixing it with a source of carbon (something like straw, hemp, shavings or dry leaves) will balance the mixture and hasten the rate of decomposition.  It is important that your composting material contain oxygen, so turning is crucial.
    • Fortunately the hens will help you with that part, especially if you get in the habit of tossing some scratch  grains or sunflower seeds into the coop for them before bedtime. They will learn to scratch through the litter to find the scratch when they wake up in the morning.

    Chicken Coop Winter Composting 

    After just a few weeks, the droppings, shavings, straw and other bedding will start to decompose and you will end up with a fine dirt on the bottom that looks like this.

    As anyone who composts for their garden knows, when properly done, composting does NOT smell and does general quite a bit of natural heat.

    This is the same idea as you would do in a compost pile or bin, you're just doing it inside your coop!

    Spring Chicken Coop Care

    Continue to do the Deep Litter Method in this manner all winter.  

    • Early in the spring, sweep the composted litter into a wheelbarrow or dump cart and toss it into your compost pile.
    • Then scrub down the entire coop and let it dry.
    •  Replace the bedding with a 6" layer of straw, shavings or hemp bedding.  
    • Through the spring and summer, I remove the soiled straw and it goes into our compost pile for the following spring's garden or out into the run to soak up the mud.  
    • I only replace the bedding in the coop as needed to maintain a 6" base.

    The Deep Litter Method is  generally not appropriate during the warmer months, since it does generate quite a bit of heat in the coop which you only want in the winter.

    Here is what you will end up with come spring.

    A few caveats before you try The Deep Litter Method

    • Your coop must have good ventilation. Of course this is very important regardless of whether you use the Deep Litter Method or not, to keep the humidity levels in the coop down to prevent frostbite.
    • The bedding must be turned regularly to keep oxygen flowing through.
    •  If you smell even a hint of ammonia, you need to either add lots of dry bedding and turn everything to try to dry thing out or clean the entire coop out, let it dry, then put down a new layer of bedding and start over.  Ammonia fumes can cause eye and sinus irritation in your flock, so it's important that the coop stay fume-free.
    • It's best not to use DE or lime when you're using the Deep Litter Method because the DE will inhibit the good microbes you're trying to grow.

    As I mentioned, the winter of 2011 was my first time trying the Deep Litter Method. I was very impressed.  My coop didn't smell, there was no ammonia scent at all, and the coop consistently stayed 10 degrees or more higher than the outside temperature due to the decomposing litter and the chickens' body heat.

    I will definitely use this method every winter going forward. It is inexpensive, easy and you end up with perfectly composted litter each spring!

    Just a few weeks in, and already we're starting to see a nice amount of composting going on. It's not smelly, not wet, in fact, as you can see,  I just scooped up a handful without even wearing gloves.

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