Chicken Manure in the Garden: Build a Bigger Coop to Take Advantage of the Poop

Get free, top-quality chicken manure fertilizer by expanding the size of your chicken coop with this advice from Gene Logsdon’s book “Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind.”
By Gene Logsdon
January 4, 2011
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Our society throws away animal and human manure worth billions of dollars in fertilizer value, all while the supply of mined or chemically synthesized fertilizers dwindles and their cost skyrockets. In “Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind,” renowned farmer Gene Logsdon explains how we can put this natural resource to work for us as valuable fertilizer and humus.

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The following is an excerpt from Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind by Gene Logsdon (Chelsea Green, 2010). In his humorous, anecdotal manifesto, Logsdon imparts how to transform farm, pet and human manure into fertilizer and humus, describes the crucial role manure plays in keeping food production in line with our increasing population, and explains how we can conquer our societal fear of feces. This excerpt is from Chapter 7, “No More Poop Coops.” 

The chicken is the easiest and most productive animal for the small garden farm, especially in terms of handling manure. Humans have known this forever, which is why in almost all so-called Third World countries — and now even in First World countries (indicating that we First-Worlders are advancing, too) — chickens are usually a part of the local scene. New regulations are now allowing hens (but not roosters) in American suburbs. I love it when I am listening to a radio news report from someplace like Afghanistan, Liberia or Somalia, and suddenly I hear a hen clucking in the background or a rooster crowing. I know that this is the real news. If only a reporter could interview the chickens, I bet we’d get a much truer picture of what’s going on in the world.

Reporter: “How do you feel about being occupied by U.N. peacekeepers, Mrs. Hen?”

Mrs. Hen, ruffling her feathers: “We are occupied enough just staying alive. I wish the foreigners would get the cluck out of here.”

Reporter: “Do you agree with that, Mr. Rooster?”

Mr. Rooster, nervously wagging his head from side to side: “Well, cock-a-doodle-doo, I hardly think so. Those of us who cooper­ated with the foreigners would get our bloody heads chopped off.”

The best indication that we are entering a new era (or returning to an old one) is that I am hearing about websites where garden­ers offer to clean out chicken coops for free — in exchange for the manure. I am not surprised that chickens are first in this undertak­ing. Chicken manure is the easiest of all barn manures to handle, mostly because chickens do not urinate in the same way that, say, a horse does, flushing out enough in one session to drown a chicken or two. Nevertheless, I am often shocked at the mess I sometimes see in the coops of even very small flocks. There is not enough bedding. Little stalagmites of pure crap rise up under the roost. Or there’s a roost with an old-fashioned, screened-off catch board under it covered with gooey manure 6 inches deep and swarming with flies because the chickens can’t get to them. Invariably, the coop itself is so small a rooster would have to go outside to find enough room to crow.

None of this is necessary or practical or economical. It all comes from a mistaken notion that if something is right for a big hen factory, then it must be right for six hens in the backyard. First of all, if you have a manure catch board under the chicken roost, take it out and burn it. Then, if the manure is a problem building up on the floor, use more bedding, or, better, knock out one or two walls and double, triple or quadruple the size of your coop. A coop for 10 hens year-round with the addition of 20 broil­ers fattening for three months should have at least 200 square feet of space in it. That is roughly 7 square feet per chicken for the three months when the coop is occupied by broilers and layers. The rest of the year, your 10 layers have 20 square feet of living space each — about 20 times that of poor factory hens shut up in cages.

You may think that a coop of that size for so few chickens costs more money than it’s worth, but it depends on how you view the numbers. As long as you are building a coop, how much more time and money does it really cost to build a 10-foot-by-20-foot coop rather than a 5-foot-by-10-foot one? The cost of the wood may be double (unless you tear down an old building or other­wise find waste wood that you can use). But your time is about the same, whether you use your own labor or hire someone else. Furthermore, the coop should last a lifetime — or at least 80 years. Prorate the yearly cost of a 50-square-foot coop versus a 200-square-foot coop over 80 years and the difference is small — and certainly worth every cent when you’re stepping into a cleaner, pleasant coop versus a crappy one. Then add on the value of the litter in your generously bedded coop, which preserves the fertil­izer value of the manure in the best possible way. Then add in the savings achieved by your hens turning table scraps into valuable fertilizer. Add on the savings from not having to build and main­tain a composting bin because the hens will do it right there in the coop — present you with a nice loamy fertilizer, and not charge you a cent. You are going to be saving money and you’ll also have the best tomatoes in the neighborhood, unless the neighbors are all raising chickens, too.

But keeping a coop generously bedded costs money, say the experts in agricultural economics. Not necessarily. You can bed with dry lawn clippings all summer and with dry tree leaves all winter if you have a place to store them. You can pile leaves against the coop’s walls to use as needed, and, in the meantime, the leaf piles will keep the building warmer and cozier in winter. When we lived in the suburbs, we built a small loft under the roof of our coop to store the wheat that we grew and didn’t need for bread-making. The roof joists were already there. All I had to do was put a few boards over them to make a floor. Every day I fed a couple of bundles of wheat to the chickens. They ate out the grain and the straw added bedding to the floor.

A good way to utilize almost all of the plant nutrients in chicken manure is to keep hens in a so-called chicken tractor. Such a coop is movable and can be pulled to a new spot at will. Inside it, the chickens scratch and eat weed seeds and bugs while depositing their droppings directly on the soil. This fresh manure enriches the soil with hardly any loss of fertilizing nutrients. The wake of a chicken tractor leaves a rich, ready-to-till garden plot. Lately, the chicken tractor idea has been transformed into the chicken bus. Innovative chicken farmers are turning old buses into coops parked out in pastures. Want to move the coop to another section of pasture? Drive on. Or if it is a bus with a dead motor, hitch the tractor to it and pull it — much easier than moving a coop on skids.

Where a garden farmer has the room, manure handling is made easy by allowing the chickens to roam over pasture, woodlot or lawn in spring, summer and fall. In some instances, even commer­cial growers intent on raising organic or all-natural meat or eggs can divide their pastureland around a stationary coop into several lots projecting out like wagon wheel spokes from the coop. The chickens are moved from one plot to another as necessary, like rotational grazing of livestock. One or two of these plots can even be planted to grain for the chickens to eat right off of the stalks, while clover grows up under the stalks to provide more good food. In such a system, the manure, except for what collects in the coop, is fully utilized without any work on the part of the poultry farmer.

The deep litter system — putting down generous bedding regularly and cleaning out the coop only once or twice a year — was welcomed by all of us farm boys of yesteryear. Before that, we had the weekly or bimonthly job of cleaning out the chicken coop. The experts, who did not have to clean out chicken coops, harped constantly on the myth that leaving the manure in the coop was unsanitary. Actually, there are vitamins and minerals in the deep litter that are vital to the health of the chickens. Because of the notion that they were saving money by using only mini­mal amounts of bedding, farmers were slow to realize the fact that there was the deep litter alternative — until they ran out of sons and daughters to do the weekly job.

I didn’t much mind forking out the floor manure, which was relatively dry and loose. I pretended that the floor was the map of Europe and I was the advancing American army cleaning up the Nazis (obviously this was World War II times). The line between cleaned and uncleaned floor was the battlefront. And so, every Saturday, I liberated Europe in the chicken coop.

But cleaning off the catch boards under the roost was pure misery. I likened it to the battle of Iwo Jima rather than the libera­tion of Europe. My father, thankfully, had found a faster way to handle this stinking slime. The roosts were built along the back wall of the coop. The wall at that point was hinged and could be opened outward and raised high enough to get the manure spreader right up next to and under the catch boards. Then it was “simply” a matter of raking the gooey mess out into the spreader with a long-handled rake. The stuff didn’t rake very well, but you get the idea.

That coop measured 15 by 30 feet, or thereabouts, and housed 120 hens year-round — that’s about 3 square feet per hen. Had the coop been lengthened a mere 10 feet more, it would have meant 5 square feet per bird, which would have made the catch boards unnecessary, if they weren’t anyway.

Then, instead of the weekly cleaning of the floor, not to mention the twice-yearly cleaning of the catch boards, I would have just had to spread a bale of clean straw on the floor every Saturday and let the manure and bedding build up. The deep litter that the chick­ens would busily scratch in and turn into compost would have to be cleaned out only once a year, and it would be dry and without offensive odor.

Presently, in a 10-foot by 20-foot coop, I keep an average of a dozen hens year-round and 20 fattening broilers for three months. The coop is divided into two rooms so the broilers have their own space. Otherwise the old hens would harass the broilers — even peck them to death. (It’s a good idea to have a coop with two rooms, anyway, and a door between them, to separate new hen chicks from the old hens, who may otherwise bother them. They have to get used to each other on different sides of a screen partition, and then they can be slowly introduced by letting both generations meet outside, where the young ones can beat a hasty retreat if necessary.) For roosts, all I have is a 2-by-4 that stretches across one corner of each room, about 2 feet off the ground. In the morning there’s a line of fresh manure under the roosts. By nightfall it has disappeared under the scratching feet of the hens into the composting litter.

I just looked into my nephew’s new chicken coop. For a roost, he split lengths of tree limbs about 3 inches in diameter, nailing two of them about 6 feet long as verticals to three others about 5 feet long as horizontals. He leaned the assemblage against the wall and nailed the slanting verticals at the top to the wall. Voilà! A three-perch roost for a dozen chickens.

I sprinkle wheat or corn over the floor occasionally to encour­age the hens to scratch in the deep litter, but they would do so anyway. Table scraps I just scatter on top of the litter. What little the chickens don’t eat soon disappears and eventually decom­poses into the litter.

When cleaning, I always leave a small amount of the composted manure on the floor for the chickens to drop fresh manure into, because that compost has a high, developed population of all kinds of microbial life that hasten the break­down of fresh manure. I use a silage fork to handle the compos­ted manure because it would fall right through a regular manure fork. Sometimes the compost is dry and loose enough to scoop up with an aluminum grain shovel. I haul it to the garden in a wheelbarrow, or more often with the pickup truck.

Reprinted with permission from Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind, published by Chelsea Green, 2010. 

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Post a comment below.


5/12/2013 11:04:55 AM

Community Chickens suggests sand for litter in the coop and in the run as well. Any thoughts?  Could I also compost with that? It was builders sand not play sand.  I want to keep four to six hens in a very small yard in town where they would have to be penned in some way at all times.  Maybe the neighbors would complain less.

mhollfi1949:  If you are expecting apologies or mea culpas you have come to the wrong site.  We are in the same damn mess as you.  Big Ag wants to control everything in America, also.  The seeds, the plants, the animals.  Some are fighting at a government level by taking the llikes of Monsanto and Cargill to court. Bless them.  Some are fighting quietly by only raising heirloom plants and animals. Some go to the elders to learn what they remember of the old ways and put those ways into practice.    

You don't say where you are from but my advice to you is to find others who think as you do and band together.  If your electoral process works, start at the local level and vote in like minded people. Begin small, go to the older farmers, even if they no longer farm the old way, they probably remember some very useful things.  Order heirloom seeds off the internet.  If you live in town and can only grow tomatoes in a planter, do it.  Never register your farm animals with the government.  Do not accept tax breaks for owning a farm or they will own you.  These are all traps we have fallen into. Remember the biggest lie is "We're from the Government and we are here to help." 

Oh and learn to barter because if you can't sell your goods out right because of unjust laws, you can trade for what you need and do what most of us in this country have to do who want to farm sustainably, get a day job. HTH

4/29/2013 10:30:16 AM

Until 50 years ago, in your country, the fertilizer were human waste, fish, animal waste. American came over and educated us not use those things, instead purchase chemical fertilizer.

Now, there are very few farmers left in our country and they are mostly old people. We are importing 90% food.

American destried our countries farm industry.

Congraturations for your great success!

4/29/2013 10:29:53 AM

4/28/2013 2:56:20 PM

I have been using the deep litter method for a little over a year.  We have an 'egg mobile'-an old camper converted to a coop- for our free rangers that we pull around the pastures with a Polaris Ranger.  I use (free) sawdust from an Amish sawmill in the roost area.  Most of the time it has a bit of cedar in it, but the ventilation is good, so I'm not too worried about it.  Sometimes I do get a slight ammonia smell, and I figure that is because I'm not putting enough sawdust down?  When I do smell ammonia, I usually throw another layer of sawdust down and that seems to work.  Any tips and/or advice from anyone would be greatly appreciated. BTW, I have this book and it is great!  It maybe time to re-read it!

4/28/2013 2:08:33 PM

Ya know there was a day when this would be considered offensive, I long for those days.

4/28/2013 9:22:12 AM

I have 9 hens and 1 very happy rooster! My coop is an old barn built from straw bales that I sectioned off an area about 15' by 30'.  They seem to like to poop ontop of there nesting boxes, so I take a scrapper and scrap it into a bag and put it in my garden and around my plants.  If it seems to smell I make sure I cover it with a little dirt and the smell is gone.  I also feed my chickens cloves of garlic, it is a great antibiotic and although its not the first thing they eat they will definately eat it.  They are very very healthy!

Dale Hagood
2/20/2011 11:40:33 AM
I've been recieving Mother Earth for about five years now and enjoy every artical in every issue. I read and reread each issue and have learned so much over the years and can't wait for the next issue to arrive. I have a few chickens now, that I love to work with. I get my supply of eggs and sell a few dozen to help out on feed. Now that I'm not physicaly able to farm, I still raise a garden and use the chicken manure to help keep my garden rich in nutrients and have good sucess most years. My dad and grand-dad taught me much about the value of poop when I was a boy and I have not forgotten it. Thank you Mother Earth for all the great information and hours of entertainment.

Barry Russo
1/10/2011 5:28:04 PM
I have 5 hens and 1 rooster in an 8 X 8 winterised coop. I have a few inches of straw on the floor covered by a couple inches of pine shavings. I am in the coop 3 times a day with an ash shovel from my woodstove picking up the chicken poop and that seems to keep the stink down, I completely empty and clean 3 times a year, I just add a little straw or shavings occasionally as needed. I haven't had any complaints yet.

Ed Lagniappe
1/9/2011 12:39:07 PM
I'm putting in a high tunnel next to my bird run & planned to use the poultry coop cleanings to fertilize inside the high tunnel BUT all the local farmers cringe & say it's highly ill advised because of salmonella. But I also realize that salmonella is a problem only in unhealthy, commercial production poultry. But once IN the bird house, it can certainly become a problem. HOW can I tell if my birds have / get salmonella, and, outside of horrendous amounts of antibiotics, how can I deter, get rid of salmonella? How can I insure that I'm not putting salmonella onto my garden? Will 6 mo of simple composting do the trick? Thanks for any suggestions.

1/9/2011 7:02:45 AM
I use the deep litter method also, but I do change it a more often then once a year. I would say probably about 4 times a year, I do it when it needs to be done. I spend a lot of time outside so I can usually tell when it's a tad gamey. It is great though and it does not smell, as the article stated chickens do not urinate liquid so it makes clean up easy. I use pine shavings and also throw down hay for nesting, and also insulation in winter.

jeanne scherer
1/6/2011 9:30:33 AM
I just did my first winter cleaning of our coop a week ago. I'm going to try just adding another bale of wood shavings next time, partly because I want to see if it'll really not stink, but also because trying to get the wheelbarrow through the snow to dump is a major chore! I took several wheel barrows full out to a garden and spread it around like I've seen farmers do with manure on their fields. A couple days later I had the chance to ask an organic gardening expert if I could count on the chicken bedding and manure being broken down enough to plant in without burning roots by May. His concern was actually about regulations for those who may wish to sell their organic produce. He said that here in Wisconsin, we can't plant anything that would fruit above the ground for 90 days after spreading and not for 120 days for things that fruit on the ground. I'd be interested in the feedback from others on this.

Veronica Vatter
1/5/2011 6:09:51 PM
I use the deep litter method, and I can say it is awesome! Everybody that goes into or by the coop can't believe that it doesn't smell bad. I use wood chips mostly, but I do add straw to the laying area. I'll empty it in early spring. something that wasn't mentioned is that DL coops are a little warmer in winter because the litter is composting. This warmth isn't noticeable in summer.

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