This article series is about managing the backyard chicken flock effectively so that ALL of their outputs, not just the eggs, are put to good use in service of the ecosystem they live within – your garden.
In Part 1 we looked through this lens at the pros and cons of allowing unlimited free range and of using mobile pens.
Here in Part 2, I’ll describe two common challenges associated with backyard chickens and explain how we addressed them, along with describing 7 advantages to be found in deep litter housing.
The foraging requirements of chickens, versus protecting the greenery
In 2015 we moved to our current home – an old dairy farm with no chicken coop. Initially, our only option for housing our flock was a concrete-floored shed, with about 10 to 20cm of mulch hay on the floor as bedding.
Once they were settled in that shed, we opened the door and let them out to forage during the day. We were back to free range.
Earlier, I described how plenty of established chicken-friendly habitat made up for our sloppy management on the previous property we lived on.
That was not the case here, where the main plant life was grass and low, ground covering weeds. Ground level plants are the most susceptible to rapid defoliation by poultry.
Also, we had a bigger flock, and we were trying to develop a lot of different new plantings, all of which were vulnerable to damage by the chickens.
We rolled out our white chicken mesh and additional rolls of regular chicken wire and made endless configurations of fences as our plans for where things would go on the new place continued to evolve and change.
The chickens defoliated the areas available to them, de-mulched our new plantings faster than we could mulch them, and deposited lots of nutrient rich chicken manure in places where we could not make good use of it.
This picture of poultry out foraging looks pretty good – until you look in the lower right-hand corner and see the brown patch creeping out across the green.
The same area, about 3 years later. We’ve done our best to provide foliage the chickens can’t destroy (bamboo and vetiver grass are visible here), but the ground covering plants are completely gone.
On managing chicken litter in the coop
Another challenge we had at the new place was that on the concrete floor of the shed the flock was housed in, the chicken litter couldn’t break down as it should. It stayed dry, stinky and dusty, and it had to be cleaned out frequently.
We often thought longingly of the earth floor of the chicken coop at our previous, rented place.
With that coop, all we had to do was add a wheelbarrow load of shavings or mulch hay/straw when there was too much chicken manure building up.
When we wanted soil amendments for the garden, we would scratch aside the surface layers under the roosts, and from a bit deeper down we could take out a wheelbarrow load of the most amazing, dark, friable, fully-decomposed material that would make any gardener drool.
We didn’t recognise it as such at the time, but that was a deep litter system[i].
At our new place, we decided, we wanted to get back to that picture for the floor of our chicken house.
So, Alain built a large three-sided shed with an earth floor, raised above the surrounding ground-level. He built roosts and we moved in the nesting boxes and the waterer, filled the entire floor area with a layer of mulch hay about 20cm thick, and moved the chickens in.
The old chicken shed being cleaned out and having its infrastructure removed.
Our new chicken shed. Still needs another bale of hay rolled out.
Two birds, one stone
Initially, we planned to keep the chickens locked in their new home until we were sure they’d come back there to roost, then we were going to let them out to forage during the day again. But…
The moment we looked at them all in their new home, happily scratching through the deep layer of hay and already making themselves dust baths in the earth floor where-ever they pleased, we began to wonder if we had accidentally solved the chicken fencing problem as well as the chicken litter problem.
It seemed to us that between the exercise and entertainment afforded by the deep litter, and some creativity on our part to provide them with fresh greens and live, wriggly foods, they could be happy and healthy in that large shed without needing to be let out to forage.
And then we could tear down every messy, frustrating chicken fence on the property, and never have to rebuild them or move them again!
7 Deep litter pros
- No odours. A chicken manure pong would mean something is wrong, such as not enough carbon, too much moisture, the bedding needs turning and aerating, or the right microbial activity isn’t getting up and running. (Our chicken litter on concrete system often got stinky because without any soil microbes, it couldn’t decompose the way it should.)
- Relatively hands-off processing of chicken manure – it’s almost all done for you by the microbial processes in the litter, and by the scratching of the chickens. No more cleaning out the chicken coop! (It’s sometimes necessary to turn it over or break it up a bit with a fork to help the process along, and of course you have to add carbon—such as straw/hay/shavings—as needed.)
- ALL of the chicken manure is harvested into the deep litter and ends up being put to use rather than scattered about your property where you have no control of it or deposited in places where it’s counter-productive. (This of course assumes that the chickens are kept 24/7 on the deep litter.)
- Healthy bedding and chickens, because the necessary beneficial microbes can build up in the bedding and maintain balance in there. It’s a bit like housing your chickens on an active, healthy compost heap where most of the material is decomposed, with a clean, earthy smell.
- Better nutrition. Once it’s off and running (i.e.teeming with life) the living biota in the deep litter will provide some additional nutrition[ii] for the chickens that approximates that found in an active compost pile or in the deep litter of a forest floor – the environment in which the ancestors of the domestic chicken evolved.
- A ready supply of garden amendments. Right now, whenever I want hay that’s been broken into small pieces and mixed with feathers and small amounts of chicken manure, I can go in there and get it. It’s wonderful mulch and is easy to arrange between closely spaced plants. Later, when the deep litter system has been running long enough, I’ll also be able to collect fully decomposed material from the layer below the litter and above the soil.
- A tighter connection between our chicken system and our veggie gardens. The chickens’ changed living arrangement has resulted in my taking better care of the veggie gardens.Knowing that the chickens are hungry for greens reminds me to take a chicken bucket as well as a harvest basket when I go into the veggie garden most mornings. I harvest food for us, and weeds and grub-infested plants for the chickens. Then I go to the chicken pen and swap the bucket of chicken goodies for a bucket of chicken-processed mulch (or, in future, a bucket of decomposed litter) to return to the garden.
Deep litter cons, and their solutions – coming soon
Originally, this was only going to be a two-part series. But addressing the “cons” that would come with confining the flock to a deep litter pen with no outside foraging turned out to be worth a whole separate section.
That’s because we came up with a lot of creative ideas to meet the two major challenges we knew we would face.
The result, we hope and expect, will be a more tightly integrated, healthier farm ecosystem, while the chickens themselves end up as well fed and busy as they were when they were out foraging for themselves.
I’ll tell you all about it in Part 3. You can also download this Series for free at ARealGreenLife.com.
[i] Some articles on what a deep litter system is and how it works:
[ii] This article shares figures from trials in which chickens on incomplete rations, but bedded on deep litter, grew almost as heavy and had much lower mortality rates as chickens on full rations but not on deep litter.