Chickens

Deep Litter Method for Coop Maintenance

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I love using the deep litter method for coop maintenance!  Not only does it save you time but when properly implemented it gives you rich garden compost material, can help keep your flock healthy and can even help keep them warm in winter.

What is Deep Litter Method?

Essentially, it is when you allow manure & bedding to accumulate and decompose, with proper management, inside your coop.  It is like having your compost pile inside your chicken coop.

Isn’t it smelly?

Not at all.  If you are doing it right, there should be no smell other than an earthy-compost smell.  If you can smell ammonia you are not doing it right.

Deep Litter Method

Isn’t it unhealthy to leave all that poop in there?

No!  Actually the opposite is true.  There are beneficial microbes that are eating and breaking down the manure. They will also eat and destroy some bad bacteria that can make your flock sick.  It can help prevent (prevent, NOT treat) infestation of lice and mites.  There is also evidence deep litter can help protect your flock from coccidiosis.  Coccidiosis is a potentially deadly intestinal parasite, the good microbes in the deep litter will destroy the coccidia bacteria.  Common treatment for coccidia includes spraying the coop with a 10% ammonia spray.  The higher ammonia levels present in a deep litter coop would be unfavorable for growth in the first place.  It is also thought that exposing brooding chicks to deep litter will help provide them some immunity from coccidiosis.

How can it help keep the flock warm?

Chicken manure is high in nitrogen, pine shaving are high in carbon.  As the two mix and decompose they release heat.  Your will find your deep litter coop will be about 10 degrees warmer than the outside air.  That makes this method popular in northern climates especially n the winter.

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Sold yet?  Here’s how to properly maintain Deep Litter

Deep Litter is an easy way to maintain your chicken coop, but there are some important steps you have to take to make sure the balance of bacteria doesn’t go from good to bad.  If you were to just toss a thick layer of shavings in the coop and let the manure accumulate, eventually the manure would outnumber the shavings. The composition will be off, everything will be damp & humid, high ammonia levels could threaten the health or lives of your flock and bad bacteria will infect your chickens.

*To start, spread a layer about 3-4 inches deep of pine shavings.  You want to use pine shavings to get started because they will decompose quickly and won’t harbor mold or fungus that could be present in hay or straw.  After this initial layer you can switch to hay or straw for the top layers if you want, but I personally think pine shavings work the best because they decompose the most thoroughly.

*Twice a week,  take a hoe and thoroughly stir all the shaving up.  You can also employ your chickens to help with the stirring process.  If you toss some scratch or food scraps in the coop it will encourage them to scratch and dig.  I wouldn’t rely entirely on the chickens to stir everything.  It is an important step, stirring introduces oxygen to the composting bedding  which will aid decomposition and prevent the build up of ammonia fumes.  Ammonia  fumes can cause eye & lung irritation in your flock, and in extreme cases can lead to death.  Also, chicken manure is about 85% water.  Too many droppings sitting on top of the bedding without being stirred in is going to raise the humidity of your coop, which can lead to frostbite in the winter.   It’s too important a step to leave to the chickens and it only takes a few minutes to stir up the coop.

Deep Litter Method

*Once a week, add more bedding to keep the manure/bedding levels balanced.  It doesn’t have to be a thick layer, I just toss in enough for a thin cover and then stir it up.  I also sprinkle in some Coop & Compost at this time.  Made with naturally occurring zeolites, it helps hasten composting and neutralizes excessive ammonia build ups.

Deep Litter Method

*If you end up with more than 8-12 inches of bedding on the floor, scoop some off the top and toss it in your compost pile.

*Twice a year (spring & fall) I completely empty my coop (Click here for my tips on deep cleaning the coop) toss the bedding in the compost pile, clean the coop and start over.  Many people using Deep Litter only clean out once a year in the spring.  Some will never completely empty it, leaving that bottom “hot” layer of compost on the floor at all times as a “starter culture” to jump start the new layers.  Do what works for you.

Helpful tips to keep in mind

*I add the Coop & Compost once a week, but that is totally optional.  The one thing you don’t want to add is DE (diatomaceous earth) or any other insecticide.  These products are made to kill insects & bacteria, but they will kill off the good bacteria & other microbes that you want in there to aid composting.

*Good ventilation is SUPER IMPORTANT.  Make sure your coop is well ventilated, all that composting manure is going to produce ammonia fumes & humidity, both of which are not good for your flock.  If there is condensation forming on the windows of your coop, you have a ventilation problem.  A great way to test your ventilation levels is to monitor the humidity levels in your coop.  You want to keep it between 40% – 70%.

*Pay attention to the litter conditions on the floor.  You want it to be dry & look absorbent.  If it looks muddy, pasty, or caked on, the balance if off.  Add some more shavings and stir the litter up.

*Remember that chicken manure is “hot” compost, which means it needs to age at least 6 months before adding it to your garden.  When you empty your coop, some of that manure will be 6 months old, but some of it will be brand new, so it still needs to go into the compost bin before being added to your garden.

Chicken Coop


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23 Comments

  1. Elaine says:

    I have been using deep litter method for over a year and it isn’t breaking down. It is very dry. We only get around 40mm rain per year here. There is no smell of ammonia. Every morning I mix the litter with a rake and once or twice a week add a thin layer of pine shavings. It is very dusty when I rake it. Should I spray it with water to help the decomposing process?

    1. Is your coop much larger than it needs to be for the amount of chickens you have? If you have a ton of shavings and not a ton of droppings, that could make it drier. You don’t really want to introduce extra water to your coop. I usually empty my shavings out twice a year and put them into the compost pile to finish decomposing, so the litter is not completely breaking down inside the coop

    2. beekissed says:

      Yep…you need moisture to decompose anything. Using wood shavings makes it hard to decompose as well, as they are very dense and woody. Try using materials of various size and break down and also try preserving the moisture in it. Concentrate all your efforts just below the roosts, placing dry bedding from other areas to cap off nightly deposits. Don’t stir the bedding…this just loses moisture. Leaves make great bedding and break down easily. Avoid things like wood shavings, straw, etc. During the warmer months add greens from your garden, lawn, etc. This is something that needs cultivated and moisture is essential for break down, so yes, you DO need extra moisture in your coop. Just allow for good ventilation and extra moisture is never a problem.

  2. Jenna says:

    I’m wanting to start the deep litter method but have a plywood floor in my coop…would it be best to leave the floor as is or should I finish the floor with a tar or floor material of sorts so that it won’t mold or damage the plywood floor?? I also don’t want to introduce any chemicals to my compost or my chickens…. Thoughts???

    1. Yes, I would definitely cover the floor because all that moisture will rot the wood. I covered my plywood floor with peel & stick laminate tiles

  3. Amber says:

    If your doing the deep litter method just for ease and keeping the smell down. Is it ok to use DE for a mite problem? We don’t plan on using bedding for compost.

    1. Yes sprinkling some DE in there, especially along the edges, will be fine. Be sure to wear a mask if sprinkling DE in an enclosed area. The particles can irritate your lungs

  4. Lindsey says:

    I have 5 ducks and am wanting to use the deep litter method. I was wondering if you use it for your ducks? We are using straw and after 1-2 days there is tons of feces and flies. Would pine shavings be better or is there some other way to keep their space clean?

    1. I’ve found ducks aren’t as good at doing the deep litter method because they don’t have the same instinct to scratch and turn over the litter. So if you only have ducks in there, you are going to want to turn the litter yourself with a pitchfork everyday. I also think pine shavings work better with deep litter because it absorbs the liquid and the composting process can start. Straw is a great option for ducks, but you need to change it out as it doesn’t break down as easily

  5. Danielle says:

    Do you use the lime stuff too?

    1. Some people use lime to adjust the ph, the only thing I add in there is the Coop n Compost pellets a couple times a month

  6. Donna Schroeder says:

    I live in Texas so extra heat during summer is not good but can I use cedar shavings?

    1. Cedar shavings should not be used with chickens, they are toxic to chickens and can effect their respiratory system

  7. We have a small coop and are looking at using deep litter method. What I’m not sure about is how much chicken waste per sq.ft it can deal with? If a chicken produces 1 cubic foot of waste per month how many sq.ft of deep litter area do we need to prevent odour?

    1. I don’t think I have ever calculated out the math, but in deep litter method you are going to have decomposing waste of all stages. The older, more composted stuff will take up less space. The best way to prevent odor is to stir the litter a couple times per week, and when you notice the balance of clean litter & composted materials is starting to get off you add more litter. We moved recently and the house has a barn for the girls to live in but when I had my old coop, it was 4 feet x 8 feet and we had up to 12 chickens in there at times. I would stir the litter a couple times a week and probably once a week I would add a few handfuls of fresh litter. As long as your litter to manure ratio is good, there will not be a chicken poop ammonia smell -it should be an earthy compost like smell

  8. Hi, I got my first batch of chickens in late July and am trying out the deep litter method. I currently have 4 hens in an 8×8 coop with 4″-6″ of pine shavings.

    When standing in the coop everything smells normal and seems dry, but I when I mix the litter (several times a week) I do faintly notice ammonia. Is this expected when I stir the litter? Presumably because I’m giving any buried ammonia buildup a chance to escape. Or is it a sign that I do not have enough litter and/or need to clean out the coop completely and start again?

    Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

    1. Yes when you stir it up it’s normal to get some whiffs of ammonia as you stir it around. But you shouldn’t smell it just normally standing in the coop. So you are doing great!

  9. Rachel Britts says:

    Hi! Thanks for your helpful post! We got 11 chicks in June. Started the deep litter method about 7 weeks ago, using pine mulch from a local arborist (trying to be resourceful). It was going so great! Smelled great! So much easier! And excited to be producing something for my garden!
    Then…A couple weeks ago we discovered some type of mite infesting it. We can’t walk into the coop without getting swarmed up the legs and my daughters and I are getting bit like crazy (my son and husband not, for some reason). The chickens seem unaffected according to the normal chicken mite symptoms I’ve read about…but I can’t imagine the mites are leaving them alone. I ordered some Permethrin and I’m ready to deep clean out the coop and spray it like crazy and use the powder treatment on my chickens. But I’m totally discouraged about the deep litter method. After a few weeks of treatments, am I just going to open the doors for the mites to return in a never ending vicious cycle? Should I destroy my current mulch bedding instead of using it on my garden? Is the arborist chips/mulch the problem? We have a 4×12 coop, so I hate the idea of spending that much money on packaged shavings. I’m so discouraged. And irritated. Do you have any thoughts or suggestions???

    1. That is terrible!! Have you checked your chickens for mites? Part their feathers to look down to the skin (particularly under the wing, near their vent), they are really tiny but most types of mites you can see (click here for my article on mites -https://thecapecoop.com/mites-lice-chickens/) . The mite that most often lives in the coop as opposed to on the bird is the red mite. The thing with red mites is they mostly come out at night. They hide in the coop/shavings and then feed at night when the birds are roosting. It doesn’t sound like that is what is going on here, unless you and your daughters are out there at night. And you said your birds don’t seem to be showing signs of infestation. I have a feeling there is some sort of biting insect that was in the mulch you got. It might not be mites. Definitely completely empty your coop and give it a good scrubbing. If possible, before treating your flock try to identify the type of insect you are dealing with. If it’s not something infesting your birds, you might be able to avoid treating them. Have you asked the arborist if they have any ideas on what the insect could be? I have never had an infestation that involved bugs biting any of the humans in my family. I really suspect you are dealing with something that was in the mulch. I am sorry you are dealing with this, definitely no fun. I hope you get it sorted out soon!

      1. Rachel Britts says:

        Thank you! I plan to empty and deep clean the coop tomorrow! I think I’ll treat the coop with permethrin for a few weeks just to be safe and then start the DLM again after that with store bought pine shavings this time. We live in Southern California, so winter cold isn’t much of an issue, especially not until January, so at least I have time to get it started again. Thanks for replying!

      2. Kerri Clarke says:

        I am currently experiencing a major mite outbreak in my hen shed, but not sure if these are red mites as they are a pale brown. I noticed them crawling all over me after collecting eggs and then realised how badly the nesting bantams are being impacted. I think the mites could have been introduced by starlings that are impossible to keep out of the run and house area. I live in Canberra Australia and lined the tin shed with bales of straw (just one layer) and put a thick layer of straw on the bare ground in the house for insulation through the winter. Nesting boxes sit on top of the bales around the edges. I have replaced a couple of bales that were pea mulch and collapsing with straw. I have used deep layers in the house before without problems. Now I have the mite outbreak I will need to pull all the straw out of the shed and wanted to form a compost pile to (hopefully) kill the mites and make use of the straw that cost me quite a bit too purchase. Has anyone had any success with composting infested bedding. I was thinking I could solarise the straw in plastic bags for a month and then compost, but would be a lot of work and extra exposure to mites. I have been steam cleaning the nesting boxes and shed to try and eliminate some mites until I can do the full clean, and used pestene powder (sulphur and rotenone) with limited impact. Just too many mites. Have been taking antihistamines for myself to stop the reaction to bites and spraying my clothes and self with personal insect repellent to limit my own infestation 😊. Wet weather is currently hindering clean out and treatment. Any tips would be welcomed. Kerri

        1. Oh Kerri that sounds miserable!! I think your idea of solarizing the bales would definitely work, but you are right that is a lot of work. Have you treated the birds? If you don’t want to bag up or dispose of the straw, I would suggest you spread it out in a sunny area. Most mites like dark, cozy spaces so being exposed out in the open will help – I am sure your chickens will be more than happy to help you scatter the straw about. I don’t know that I would put the infested straw in a compost heap unless its in the sun and you are going to be turning it often. Sounds like you are taking a lot of good steps. I’ve never had an infestation like that. I hope you can get it under control soon!

          1. Kerri Clarke says:

            Hi Liz
            I treated the nesting girls with off label Ivomectin 0.5 cc per 1 kg applied externally and dusted with pestene powder, which was also added to the nesting boxes. Non-nesting girls were powdered, but have not been bothered as much with them free ranging and dust bathing. I’m still getting bitten, but keep steam cleaning nesting boxes and ground, dusting birds, and changing bedding. Hopefully I’ll get on top of the infestation soon. Good idea about spreading the bales in the sun if the mites won’t live in the exposed hay.

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