Using the deep litter method in your coop can make the difference between you enjoying keeping chickens and you hating your coop every weekend. Many people I talk to that gave up on raising chickens blamed the amount of work it took to keep a coop clean. Unfortunately, they didn’t know about the deep litter method, nor did they know how to use it.
Deep Litter Method
What is the deep litter method? It’s a straightforward way to manage the floor of your coop, and it works just as it sounds; it’s a deep bedding pack of litter, or more specifically; pine shavings. A properly managed deep litter floor will save you time and effort, potentially changing your monthly coop cleaning into an annual one.
Best Litter Type
There are a few potential options for litter in chicken coops including hay, straw, sand, pine pellets, and pine shavings. In my experiences, the best litter for deep litter method coops is pine shavings by far, but let’s talk some pros and cons of the other options.
Hay And Straw
Hay and straw are common go-to bedding choices for new chicken keepers, mainly due to preconceived notions. Unfortunately, they are the worst options out there by far. Hay and straw may smell nice and give your coop an old-time feel at first, but it’ll quickly become the bane of your existence if you let it. Firstly; hay and straw have a habit of matting down in a coop or barn. When you go to muck out a coop that is one big, thick sheet of hay or straw, it’s a back killer. You need to tear the solid blanket of bedding apart to remove it, making it very time-consuming.
Hay and straw also soak up the moisture in your coop, which sounds good, but it never lets it go. This lack of evaporation causes nasty ammonia smells and gives bacteria and mold an ideal environment to hide and multiply.
Dry, loose hay and straw are very flammable, especially when fluffed. If you’re using any heat source, especially any source of radiant heat (i.e., heat lamps) or open flame heating (i.e., Propane brooders), the risk of fire is unreasonably high. If you’re keeping poultry in winter months, this should be a big concern to you. Additionally, wet hay can auto-ignite, which means it can get hot enough to start burning without any outside ignition source. That’s why bales must be dry before being put up in a barn or loft.
Pelleted bedding started becoming popular when wood pellet stoves became all the rage. Pelleted wood bedding does work for some species, being most popular with horse barns, but chickens don’t discern between bedding pellets and food pellets very well. Having your birds fill up on wood is not conducive to a nutritious meal, which is why I steer people away from pelleted bedding.
Sand is a valid option. Many pigeon keepers prefer sand as their bedding of choice, and it mostly works for them. Sand works best in outside chicken runs in my opinion. When used in conjunction with a proper sub-base of crushed gravel and attention paid to drainage concerns; sand can turn a mud hole into a decent chicken run. For those who want a good tip on how to raise free range chickens, consider using sand with a gravel base in your high-traffic areas, such as near stationary feeders and around your coop.
Pine shavings are the hands-down best product for bedding, especially in a deep litter method system. Unlike straw and hay, pine shavings don’t create the abdominal mat that’s guaranteed to make you hate your life when mucking out the coop. Pine shavings absorb moisture well but also releases moisture into the atmosphere, which is essential to us as poultry keepers. This release of moisture prevents the buildup of moisture that would otherwise breed bacteria in our bedding.
The deep litter method works best in non-commercial applications when the depth is between eight inches and eighteen. Any less, and you lose the mass to absorb normal moisture levels in the coop. Any deeper than eighteen inches and you eventually create a hard pack of compressed shavings at the bottom of your litter.
If you intend to turn your bedding with a pitchfork or other means, then you can go as deep as you’re willing to dig. My personal experience has been that chickens won’t consistently turn the bedding deeper than ten inches. In commercial operations, the use of industrial equipment is an option for tilling the litter which is why some floor operations will go beyond eighteen inches. Unless you plan to rototill inside your coop, I don’t suggest going that deep.
Why It Works
If you run a sponge under water, it soaks up water until it can’t anymore. You set that sponge on the counter, and it’ll release that water back into the atmosphere eventually. Deep pine shaving bedding does the same. When moisture from droppings or small leaks from a waterer enter the bedding pack, it soaks it up and allows it to escape into the atmosphere later. This soaking and releasing stops moisture from causing that strong ammonia chicken coop smell we’re all trying to avoid, and keeps your bedding dry and loose.
Why It Fails
This deep litter method is not fool-proof. Grossly leaking water dispensers and rainwater infiltration of the coop can saturate the bedding so much that it’s a total loss. Being mindful of leaks in the coop will keep your bedding pack functioning properly.
A properly managed bedding pack will slowly absorb manure and eventually turn grey on top. Layer chickens are always rummaging through their environment, so they should be mixing the top layer of shavings, continuously exposing fresh shaving to add to the mix. Eventually, the bedding pack will turn grey all the way through, indicating that it has absorbed all it can absorb and it’s time to change it.
If you have broiler birds, they won’t likely help you much with turning the bedding. In this case, a pitchfork will have to do the job for them. Alternatively, if you set the bedding deeper than your layers will dig, you will eventually have to manually flip the bedding to bring up the fresh shavings from below.
The lifespan of a well managed deep bedding depends on way too many variables to cover here, but my free-range flock gets a bedding change about twice per year. I raise pullets in the spring from day old until they reach six to eight weeks in my brooder barn, then sell them to backyard flocks. I can run two pullet batches and one run of broilers on the same bedding pack before changing, assuming that I maintain tight biosecurity and properly maintain my bedding pack. Your mileage may vary, but I can assure you that it will make your life easier by reducing the frequency of cleanouts.
Most barns and coops will need a kick plate at the doors when using the deep litter method. Without a kick plate to keep the bedding depth consistent right up to the door, you’ll create a nasty mess where you step most. A simple two by eight piece of nominal lumber or a slice of plywood will suffice.
Spent Litter Use
Don’t throw away your spent litter! I suggest aging your spent litter in compost piles for a year, then using it as a soil amendment. You’ll be amazed at your results in the garden but use it sparingly, so you don’t burn your garden beds with a high concentration of nitrogen. If you’re not interested in doing that, ask your gardening neighbor, they may be interested.
Have you used the deep litter method? What’s your experience been? Let us know in the comments below!