Is the Deep Litter System Right for Your Homestead?

Learn about the advantages and disadvantages of the deep litter system and how you can manage a small flock’s manure easily and efficiently.
By Tom Javitz
August 3, 2012
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“The Integral Urban House” is a comprehensive guide to achieving a completely sustainable urban lifestyle by creating a mini-ecosystem where residents grow their own fruits and vegetables, raise chickens, rabbits and fish, recycle 90 percent of their waste, solar heat their hot water and use a variety of other alternative technologies — all on a 1/8-acre city lot.
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With its vision of an intimate connection between the urban habitat and ecological principles The Integral Urban House (New Catalyst Books, 2008) will inspire and empower people to act within their own communities to create places where they can live more sustainably. The following excerpt from Chapter 10, “Raising Small Stock,” explains one effective way to control chicken manure: the deep litter system. This method of manure management provides great benefits, such as rich compost, effective pest management and odor control. Keep reading to find out if you’re ready to give the deep litter system a try on your homestead. 

Manure Management

When we first started raising animals in the city, the purpose was as much to obtain nitrogen for the compost pile as it was to provide food for ourselves. In other words, fast aerobic bin composting came first. Think through ahead of time the manure-management approach you will use. Otherwise, within a short time after acquiring the animals, you will have an odor and fly problem that your neighbors may well consider to be the kind of nuisance many city ordinances were created to prohibit. In keeping with this advice, we will discuss the possible methods of manure management suitable for an urban environment before discussing the raising of the stock.

Chicken Manure: The Deep Litter System

The simplest approach with chickens is to use a deep litter system. Dan Clancy, a friend and former instructor at a local college, designed and once marketed a self-contained chicken house that incorporates such a system. This chicken house, which we used on the porch of the Berkeley Integral Urban House, is illustrated in the Image Gallery. In the deep litter system, the ground of the chicken house and, if the chickens are given access to the outdoors, the surrounding pen in which they are confined, is “seeded” with eight to twelve inches of compost, leaves, straw, grass clippings, and weeds. With this method it is essential that the chickens have access to all areas in which their manure falls. Then chickens themselves will consistently nick through this material, over and over, eating any fly larvae that develops. Their thorough scratching will expose all debris and manure to the drying action of the air so that odors will not develop. The regular addition of weeds, debris, and kitchen wastes will gradually build up on the floor, and at intervals of a half a year or so a portion can be removed and used in the garden as compost.

The advantage of the deep litter system for waste management is its simplicity. The chickens have access to a number of insects that may start to live in the material. Being able to give themselves dust-baths periodically undoubtedly helps to control external parasites such as lice, unlike chickens raised in wire cages, not having access to their litter. This system works as a management approach for kitchen as well as animal wastes. As mentioned before, chickens will eat almost anything, including meat. Instead of being stored to be used later in making a batch compost, the leftover materials from preparing, cooking, and eating meals can just be taken out to the chickens daily. With a deep litter system the uneaten leftovers from the chickens will help form the litter. Feeding scraps to chickens on wire is sometimes difficult because scraps fall through the cage, and the residue of leftovers in their feeding trough needs to be removed.

The disadvantages of this system are the loss of nitrogen, greater needs for space and climate protection, and the greater chance of cannibalism among the chickens. Let’s take these points one by one.

The constant turning and exposure to the air (and any rain or other water that may fall on the material, if there is an outdoor pen), will cause nitrogen in the manure to move into the air as ammonia or be leached down into the soil. The latter may be prevented to some degree if there is a cement floor beneath the litter, but a soggy mass, which may develop if any excess water accumulates and cannot drain away through the soil, is undesirable also. Nitrogen that is lost from the chicken pen in this way is not available to the plants in the garden.

Chickens that are running about freely require more space per bird (about three square feet of room per hen) than confined chickens, and use up more of their food energy in physical activity, rather than putting it into producing eggs, which is why commercial growers keep layers on wire in separate cages. The large space encompassed by the deep litter system must be adequately protected from rain and snow if compost is to be provided for the garden at a later date. The entire area must also be securely enclosed to keep out dogs, coyotes, raccoons, possums, and rats, the most common predators on chickens and their food and eggs in urban areas. Obviously, this protection should be provided in any case, but is more of a problem when the chickens themselves have a larger area in which to roam.

Finally, chickens are very aggressive; they compete fiercely for food and even kill and eat each other. Therefore, if they are confined to a small pen where they can get at each other freely, it may be necessary to clip their beaks. A chicken beak is made of the same type of horny material that composes human fingernails. Similarly, since it contains no blood vessels or nerve endings where it protrudes beyond the flesh, the beak can be cut off without causing pain or blood loss. This is easiest done with a young chicken, since the beak is soft and the small bird is easier to restrain, but it can be done at any age. One person should hold the bird steady; it is best to tuck the bird under an arm. The other person holds the bird’s head firmly, so that the end of the beak that protrudes beyond the flesh can be plainly seen against the light, and trims off the very tip with a pair of sharp kitchen shears.

The methods of manure management most applicable to urban situations are these:
1. Apply directly to the garden (rabbit manure only).
2. Use in compost pile or bins.
3. Allow chickens to pick over deep litter.
4. Use manure as worm culture (ideal for rabbit manure, but the process requires special care).
5. Use in an anaerobic digester, with or without algae ponds (more complex to establish, and not really suitable for small-scale systems).

Read more: For more from the The Integral Urban House, read Growing Plants Indoors: Pest and Disease Management. For more expert advice on the deep litter system, read Save Work and Time With the Deep Litter Method.


This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Integral Urban House: Self-Reliant Living in the City, published by New Catalyst Books, 2008. 


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Post a comment below.

 

Wren
6/19/2013 5:59:15 PM

I used this method in the 1970's and thought it was really great. The articles I read then were definitely NOT promoting an adaptation of commercial methods. At that time some studies found that chickens kept on deep litter were particularly resistant to parasite infestations. It would seem that picking through the deep litter provides a place for valuable small food organisms to grow. At that time the advice was to scatter a handful of high phosphate fertilizer through the litter every so often to encourage the growth of microorganisms. I think perhaps picking through deep litter provides good bacteria to chickens in much the same way fermented foods supply probiotics. I only did deep littering in the chicken house, not in their outdoor run, and that worked out fine. My chickens were not debeaked, and in my mind that is a completely separate issue from deep littering. This method provides an extremely healthy environment for chickens and efficiently produces high quality compost.


James Bryan Cox
1/17/2013 2:31:11 PM
Clipping of the beaks if done PROPERLY is not harmful to the chicken; however it is extreemly easy to ust off too much getting the cut into the blood vessels of the beak can prove disasterous. In backyard production this extree measue is not needed as in a commercial house where a chicken is only allowed a few feet of floorspace to roam. I will also say that some backyard coups I have seen are overstocked for the amount of space the birds are allowed to have and canibalisim is a problem for some backyard producers... I use litter to fill the floor of my indoor chicken house an area 10ft wide by 30 ft long it allows me to have more time between cleanouts.. the chickens are allowed access to an outdoor area 16x32 and most sunny days they are in the yard eating grass and kitchen scraps along with the scratch feed in the afternoon.. Using litter (SAWDUST, Spoiled hay and straw some grass clippings etc) I am able to do clean outs once per month instead of every day.. but even using this system you have "Trouble spots" areas where litter gets wet etc..the key is keeping it dry as possible to avoid problems in the feet... Common Sense is the key.. move your outdoor coup often will keep manure from building up in one spot and keep smell issues at bay. You can collect the manure and add it to compost or use your coup like a chicken tractor over small sections of the garden too... The problem there is no one system that will work for everyone.. pick and choose a system that works best for you.. if neighbors are not complaining you are doing a good job believe me if you leave that coup in one spot forever and do not have a way to handle your manure etc when the ground gets soaked you are only asking for problems...

Chicken Keeper
1/16/2013 5:31:05 PM
I hope new urban chicken owners do not follow this really really poor advice. I was appalled to read this.

Jan Smith
1/16/2013 4:08:50 PM
I would not allow this author anywhere near my chickens. This advice reeks of someone who is trying to adapt a commercial system to the backyard. If you are new to keeping poultry please do not follow this author's advice; it is inhumane, full of falsehoods, and just flat out wrong.

beccaWA
8/16/2012 9:03:13 PM
Horrible advice re the de-beaking. I don't declaw my cats; I don't de-beak my chickens. The cannibalism is caused from lack of space or lack of protein/nutrients. This is NOT your Mother of the 70s....

Heather Allan
8/16/2012 1:52:29 PM
This is a great example of - don't believe everything you read. I was shocked and disappointed to find this printed here. The debeaking stuff is awful. I'm not raising industrial chickens. I hope this article is quickly removed.

Sanne Stockwell
8/16/2012 5:16:07 AM
I did clip the very tip of 2 of my older chickens......they bled... The otherwise red comb turned blue...and the chicken died.....my husband was helping me!! I thought I must have done something wrong...so with the next chicken...again just cut the very tip of the chickens beak.......guess what.....it also bled, turned blue and died....DO NOT CUT tHE BEAK on a adult chicken......

Frank K
8/15/2012 11:09:23 PM
So true, Celeste. I have had free range chickens for more than 30 years and I have never had a problem with cannibalism; however, this condition does exist with large poultry producers who jam the birds together. In this case, the birds actually go insane over a lack of living space. So it is critical for all size chicken farmers to provide their birds with plenty of space, particularly when confined. Further if the birds are to be confined, which I do not recommend, be sure to choose only those breeds that can tolerate these living conditions.

Celeste Colborn
8/15/2012 10:59:12 PM
WOW! These days you can't even trust your "Mother!" Hacked together articles pushing book sales are bad enough- but when they're filled with destructive, misleading information it's time for raising something other than chickens. . . . In forty plus years of poultry husbandry, I have never witnessed fierce competition for food, killing or cannibalism; nor was it necessary to commit the cruel act of debeaking. Sounds like Mr. Javitz is more familiar with the practices of commercial enterprise. Do your homework Mother- you have a responsibility to the newbies to do better than this.

terri corbin
8/15/2012 9:58:31 PM
I was surpised and upset at the information in this article I have chickens and have never had to debeak any of them. My chickens free range beause we live in the country, I would not have them if I had to debeak them.

Maria Biancheri
8/15/2012 5:49:27 PM
I have to say, I am surprised at this article coming from Mother Earth News. I am a newbie to backyard chickens, but even I know you don't have to clip beaks if there is enough room. And even in an urban setting, you need to give chickens enough space to move around, and enough food to eat!

Abbey Bend
8/15/2012 3:49:50 PM
The list of stupid and wrong ideas in this article would take an entire new article to list! If chickens are going to be debeaked, it needs to be done with a debeaking tool when they are baby chicks, like day old chicks, The beak does grow partially back, but often with a deformation apparent. Better chicken management is the better method, and raising them on a compost heap, feeding them scraps it not the way to do it! If you want aggressive chickens, always fighting for food, then follow this idiots method. If you want to do a true deep litter, one that explains the problem with raising them on a compost heap, the read Robert Plamondon's information at http://www.plamondon.com/faq_deep_litter.html It uses science and debunks the false ideas set forth in this article! As Rachel said, Stupid, Hardcore Stupid, is where much of this article lies! If one wants to raise chickens, then learn the science of chickens, not the fairy tales of chickens, as posted here!! I am an ardent chicken raiser for the last 55 years!

Rachel No
8/15/2012 3:06:25 PM
Hens with clipped beaks can't eat properly. It's not like a fingernail. Using that analogy, it's more like instead of clipping your kid's fingernails, you clip off the ends of their fingers to the first knuckle. And then say it was for their own good. They can't scratch each other without fingernails. Hens that peck at each other don't have enough space. That's the human's fault. Not the chickens. Someone who is just a back yard chicken keeper should never be trying to cut the ends of the beaks off of their own chickens with kitchen shears. That's stupid. Like, hardcore stupid.








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