Through the summer the chickens get to rotate around the pasture hunting for seeds and little critters. But once the weather changes over to cold we stop rotating them and move them to their winter home. This changes how we need to deal with there poop. As we rotate them the poop is spread over the pasture. We move the coop almost every day to avoid buildup in one spot. Chickens do most of their pooping at night so the manure will concentrate where ever they roost.
Since we are not moving them during the winter we have to deal with this concentration. The way most people deal with this is scraping out a coop every so often to remove the build up of poop and the toxic ammonia that gets released as the manure breaks down. This is normally not a very fun chore taking a good amount of time and then you have to have a place to put the manure. If you leave it outside during thaws and rains you will loose nutrients through runoff and even if you protect it somehow that ammonia smell is nitrogen escaping through the air.
We’ve been trying to use a different technique called Deep Litter or Bedded pack. Instead of cleaning out every couple of days or week we let material build up in the coop. To do this we had to start off with a large amount of carbon. We layered up about 12 inches of wood chips on the dirt under the coop. This base will help absorb moisture and will be incorporated with the manure as the chicken’s scratch. We then add hay, wood shavings, and straw into the coop as needed. The hay tends to layer a bit to much because it’s not chopped up. If it were smaller pieces the chickens would do a better job incorporating it into the litter. Once we have a better place to store wood chips in the winter we will add more into to bedding more frequently to help it to reduce compression and help aeration.
With the really cold weather we’ve had this winter the composting on the edge of the coop has really slowed down. We have a ring of hay bales around the bottom of the coop so the pile doesn’t completely freeze. If it was a bit warming in the floor we would have a faster breakdown of material. Next year we will add another ring outside of the coop to help insulate the litter. After the pile is 18-20 inches high it stops growing quickly. The breakdown of material is just a bit slower then what we can add. Once it warms up in the spring it should actually start decomposing faster than we can add material.
Once the chickens are moved back out to pasture we will build a compost pile of the bedding to finish the process and then we will be able to add it to our vegetable and rice fields. But if you don’t rotate your chickens the bedded pack can still work. Once the biological process starts going there isn’t a need to clean out the coop. The litter will keep absorbing material and because you are creating a healthy soil ecosystem probiotic critters should be able to out compete bad pathogens reducing disease pressure on the flock. When you need compost material you can clean out as much as you need and the process will bounce back once new material is added.
Chelsea Green has a good book that takes about this system and other things to think about when you are raising birds.