I told my husband the other day – I spend a large amount of time moving poop from one place to another. Such is the life of a farmer. Livestock waste represents both a challenge and a resource for the small sustainable farmer. One of the best fertilizers for gardens is high quality compost. Generally this is made from organic wastes of one sort or another. However, getting it from poop to compost can be tricky. On our farm, we generate a lot of organic waste in the form of chicken and horse manure. We needed to figure out how to put it to the best use possible. I may write a totally different blog post about this subject in a few years, but here is where we are now.
In the recent past, when I first got chickens, I industriously cleaned their coop and replaced the bedding weekly. I did this even in the coldest months when the bedding was frozen solid. I had a designated spot where I dumped the stuff and it grew to a remarkably large pile over the winter. I didn’t use it in my garden the following spring because frankly, the idea kind of grossed me out. It didn’t really seem to break down and it looked like raw chicken poop and straw – which is what it was.
The horse manure we handled a bit differently. Our horses were 100% pastured in those days and did not have a barn where they spent most of their time and deposited much of their poop. At the end of spring when the ground was dry enough to work, we used a pasture dragger pulled behind the ATV to move the poop out of areas of high concentration. We tried to evenly distribute it across the pastures and in the process it got nicely broken up. Our pastures did well but we lost a lot of the beneficial nutrients of the compost through leaching, so we weren’t getting the most out of our manure.
This year, we decided to experiment with the Deep Litter Method (DLM) of waste management. The basic premise of the deep litter method is to allow bedding and droppings to accumulate through the winter. The chickens turn it and break it up regularly during their normal chicken activities. In the spring, you have lovely compost for your garden. This is an old method that has been gaining popularity as people try to save time and increase sustainability on their small farms.
What DLM is not – it is NOT an excuse to be lazy and let your animals wallow around in unhealthy conditions. The deep litter method does require some work on the part of the farmer, but this winter I found it quite nice to not have to fight several feet of snow to clean out the coop and replace the bedding every week. In fact, this winter that would not have been possible in our current situation.
How it works – one of the biggest mistakes people make when composting is letting the compost be exposed to the elements, thus leaching all the good stuff out. Protecting compost from the weather is one of the most important things you must do. One of the benefits to the DLM is that the composting takes place inside the coop (or barn). The second thing that is important for good quality compost is aeration. The biological processes that are necessary to take the nutrients from poop to compost require lots of oxygen. Most people accomplish this by turning the compost regularly. In the DLM, the chickens do the work for you. However, in order to keep your chickens healthy whilst they are acting like little compost turners – your coop should be very well ventilated. Chicken waste is quite wet and without a good source of fresh air, it will not compost properly and may cause your chickens to become sick.
Again due to the moisture content of chicken manure – it is best to start with 4-6” of really absorbent material like shavings. On top of that, just keep layering straw as the bedding gets soiled. You can do this on about the same time rotation as traditional coop cleaning. I wasn’t as dedicated as I should have been this year because of the huge amount of snow we had, but nonetheless, I have healthy hens and nice compost. This definitely works best when you have perches for them to escape the litter and nest boxes for any industrious little hens that might want to lay eggs all winter.
About a week ago, when I thought winter was pretty much over, I moved the entire chicken coop down to the garden. We have the girls in a temporary coop until we get their ‘real’ coop built, so it is essentially a plywood box that was easy to pick up with the pallet forks. Now that it is in the garden, I am going to move it into a corner and it will be the spring coop every year. I will just move the girls down there in the spring, clean out their coop, put the compost on the garden, and let them get to working it in for us. This spring, because they had been in the temporary coop all winter, I just cleaned all the composted bedding and manure out into the garden and spread it around a little. The ladies are happy to scratch and dig and peck all through it looking for goodies. It seemed to be going well – and then it snowed. So we will have to wait to see how nice of a job they have done.
We basically used the same idea in the horse barn. I put down shavings to start with and then we have just been layering fresh straw over the top of the dirty all winter. The horses have done an excellent job of mixing it and breaking it down. The challenge here is the sheer volume of compost – and how to get it out of the barn. We haven’t worked on that yet but we think our small antique tractor with a blade can move it at least into the pen where Roger the Red Tractor can scoop it out and take it to the garden. Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms (www.polyfacefarms.com) brings pigs in to dig it all up and turn it. We don’t have pigs…..yet.
So that’s it, your introduction to the Deep Litter Method of waste management. Have fun and go grow things!