Is the Deep Litter System Right for Your Homestead?

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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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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.
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Chickens will consistently nick through the compost, leaves, straw, grass clippings and weeds, over and over, eating any fly larvae that develop.

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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