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When Life Gives You Lemons. . .
(Part Three)

Table of Contents

Part OnePart TwoPart Three

Deep Litter Benefits

To summarize the many benefits of managing the housed flock on deep litter:
More healthful
Manure does not accumulate as a reservoir of excess pathogens. When processed by our microbe friends in the litter, the droppings actually become a substrate for health rather than a vector for disease.
Labor saving
Deep litter is incredibly labor saving: The chickens do most of the work, both of dispersing their own droppings and of managing the process of their proper decomposition. We may clean out the litter only once or at most twice a year, and (assuming we’re using an earth floor) we avoid the additional labor of composting, since the litter is already a finished compost.
Temperature moderation
Since, just as in a compost heap, decomposition of organic materials generates heat, a deep litter moderates the bitter temperatures in the winter housing.
More pleasant
The poultry house is a much more pleasant environment for us and, I have no doubt, for our birds.
Less stress
The birds when confined do not become stressed by boredom. They remain continually engaged in interesting natural behaviors—scratching the litter, taking dust baths in the driest areas, etc.

Caveats

There are almost no disadvantages to using deep litter, and they are easily resolved. Here are a few precautions:
Exoparasites
In the wettest season we ever had here, more ground moisture wicked into the litter than usual. The litter was not wet, but it was not dry enough for decent dust-bathing. For the only time in the history of our flock, we had a serious outbreak of exoparasites (lice or mites). The solution was simple: I provided a dustbox for effective dust-bathing at any time, whatever the moisture content of the litter, and have had no further problems with lice or mites. (See “Making a Dustbox for the Poultry House”.)
Eye infections
That same unusually wet season was also the occasion for a number of serious eye infections. It may be that molds or pathogens encouraged by the additional moisture helped cause the outbreak—in any case, I’ve never had a recurrence of the problem in more normal seasons. On those rare occasions when excessive groundwater gets the litter too moist, addition of spaghnum peat moss or some other powder-dry litter material should help reduce the moisture.
Keets and poults
I had dreadful luck trying to start guinea keets and turkey poults that same year. These hatchlings are much harder than chicks to start, in my experience. It may be they were more sensitive than chicks to possible higher levels of molds in the litter. In any case, it may be better to start these two species on completely fresh litter.
Digging predators
Despite its advantages, an earth floor potentially exposes the flock to digging predators a wood or concrete floor would exclude. It is therefore crucial to put into place a barrier below foundation level. I used 24-inch metal roof flashing (half-inch hardware cloth would work as well), nailed to the sill plates under my siding boards, dug in to a depth of 18 inches around the entire perimeter. That’s a lot of digging (my aching back!), but it saves a lot of digging (by unwelcome intruders).
Fertility: Too much of a good thing?
If you use poultry litter as a major component of your fertility program in the garden, do not use any other source of phosphorus. Excessive use of litter over many seasons can lead to unhealthy levels of soil phosphates.

The Sniff Test

I know I’m on the right track with manure management when a new visitor tours the poultry house. If she has ever been in a chicken house before, at some point she invariably stops talking, looks around, twitching her nose, and asks with a puzzled look, “Why doesn’t it stink in here?”

I encourage you to switch to deep litter as the more wholesome, labor saving approach to manure management. Once your litter has begun to “mellow”—to break down well—bend down and scoop up a handful. Sniff. The smell will not be even remotely like raw manure—more like good topsoil, or compost, or forest leaf mold. A fine batch of lemonade, indeed!