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Composting with Chickens: How your flock can help dispose of waste and make great soil

Learn the different ways your backyard flock can help you manage waste by implementing one of these methods of composting with chickens.

Let’s face it, chickens make a ton of poop!

When we were raising chickens in the city, we were constantly asked, “What do you do with all the poop? Throw it in the trash?”

Even a small flock of chickens will produce way too much waste to toss it in the trash, but then, what do you DO with all of it?

Over the years we’ve found lots of creative ways of composting with chickens. City dwellers especially need to make an effort at keeping the chicken waste to a minimum and getting rid of it without making a stink.

Composting to the rescue! This article will outline how you can not only get rid of poop, yard waste, and kitchen scraps with the help of your flock, but also turn it into rich compost to use in the garden.

The best part? It’s super easy and there are so many options that anyone can find a composting style that works for them.

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Chickens digging in compost.

Composting Basics and Tips

Composting can be so easy or super complicated, and it all depends on how deep you want to dive into the process. Here are the absolute basics you need to know to get started composting with your chickens.

In it essence, composting is turning waste from your livestock, yard, garden, and kitchen into soil that you can use to give a nutrient boost to plants. The best way to get great compost is to pay attention to the amount of ‘green’ and ‘brown’ material you put in the pile. This doesn’t always literally mean the color of the organic materials, but whether or not it’s more nitrogen or carbon heavy.

A good rule of thumb is to use 30 parts brown composting material to one part green composting material. You do not need to get out the measuring cup and make sure this ratio is exact, just use it a general guide.

Greens: Usually wet materials that provide moisture and nitrogren.

  • Kitchen scraps- Things like coffee grounds, banana peels, egg shells, and fruit and vegetable waste
  • Manure- poop from farm animals, in this case, chickens!
  • Fresh grass and leaves

Browns: Dry materials that provide carbon and bulk to your compost

  • Dead leaves
  • Dried grass
  • Dead plants
  • Straw
  • Hay
  • Wood shavings and sawdust
  • Shredded paper
  • Pine needles

Generally the greens and browns you’ll be dealing with for making compost with your chickens is chicken coop bedding and chicken manure.

A full compost bin.

Composting with Chickens to Make Great Soil

Compost Method #1: Direct to Garden

Gardens and chickens go hand in hand. Chicken poop is one the best fertilizers you can get, in fact many garden centers are now selling aged poultry poo to add nutrients to gardens.

The key word here is ‘aged.’

Never put fresh chicken poop into your vegetable garden while you’re actively growing plants. Chicken poop fresh out of the bird is full of pathogens and too high in nitrogen to put directly onto your veggies. It needs to be aged and composted so it won’t “burn” the plants or cause illness.

The easiest way to age chicken waste is to apply it directly to the garden at the end of the season and let it sit over the winter. We like to clean out the chicken coop and run in the fall, then layer it onto the vacant garden beds. The manure ages over winter, and in the spring, worms work the wonderful chicken waste into the garden soil, and it’s all ready to work in your favor come planting time.

We layer the organic material from the chicken coop with soil, mulched leaves, and grass clippings right into the garden bed so the composting process will work quicker and make a richer compost for our vegetables.

A chicken in the garden.

Compost Method #2: Bin/barrel compost:

This method of composting with chickens is super easy and most people find great success. This option is perfect if you’re cleaning out the coop in the spring or summer and don’t have a vacant garden to place it in.

The chicken manure and litter is cleaned out of the coop and run, and placed into the compost bin, along with food and yard scraps and a little soil. The compost gets turned as frequently as every few days or as infrequently as every few weeks and slowly breaks down to the point of becoming soil. Then it is added to the garden to boost the nutrient levels.

When you use the bin or barrel method it’s still a good idea to age the chicken waste for a full growing season before putting it into the garden. When we were using this method on our urban homestead we would take the compost out of the bin when it was mostly broken down and let it further age in a vacant corner of the yard. That way we had space in the bin for making more compost but weren’t risking our health by putting the compost directly into the garden.

If you want your organic matter to break down even quicker you can implement a hot compost system using a bin or barrel. Hot compost takes a little more work, but gives you more compost quicker too! Hot composting consists of getting your compost pile to high temperatures so it will break down quickly. The decomposition process in hot composting takes only a few weeks vs months for regular composting.

Find out how to hot compost here: The Spruce – How to Hot Compost

Black and white chicken digging through compost.


Compost Method #3: Composting with chickens in the run

A popular new method of composting involves conducting the entire process right inside the chicken yard. This includes tossing food scraps and yard waste right into the chicken run. You will still need to do the work and make sure the ratios of brown material and green material are as even as you can get them.

The great thing about this method is it provides free food for the chickens as they can chow down on kitchen scraps, weeds, and insects in the compost pile.

Another bonus is that when you’re composting with chickens, they do the work for you! Since you don’t have to turn the pile, it’s lazy composting at its best.

There are however, several downsides to this method.

The big downside to this method, especially if you’re raising chickens in the city, is that it draws pests and predators right to your chicken run. The aromas of decomposing food will bring rats and mice out of the woodwork, along with raccoons looking for a tasty treat. Definitely not a feature on a predator-proof chicken coop!

The other downside for some is that this method tends to be a little unsightly. If it’s important to you for you chicken coop to be picture perfect, this is not the compost system for you. The compost heap will frequently be full of half eaten food waste mixed with yard waste. It’s not the prettiest compost system for sure!

If you choose to use this method, be sure that your coop is on total lock down, and is protected from predators on all sides, including the bottom! Pests and predators will dig underneath fences to get to that food. Make sure you layer some hardware cloth on the bottom of the run if you choose to try this.

Two silkie chickens in a chicken run.

Compost Method #4: Slow Pile

This is the ultimate lazy composting for super busy chicken keepers. We currently use this method and love how low maintenance and simple it is.

To utilize the slow pile method, simply find a spot in your yard for your compost pile, usually a back corner or other tucked away spot is best.

Whenever you clean out the chicken coop, dump all the old bedding in that spot, piling it up high. The microbes and heat that naturally occur in a compost pile will slowly break down the material over time and turn it into soil. If you want this pile to break down quicker, you can flip and stir the pile every few weeks.

We’re lucky that we have 10 acres of land and plenty of space for several compost piles. We keep one big pile out in back of the chicken coop exclusively for the waste that gets cleaned out of the coop. This pile gets aged for a year before any of the compost is added to the garden. We also have another compost pile that’s for yard waste and kitchen scraps. We can use this compost anytime we want without waiting it for to age

Compost Method #5: Deep litter method:

This last method of composting with chickens is our personal favorite. It’s perfect for busy people who don’t have time to clean out the coop constantly, and even better, it’s actually really healthy for your birds. The Deep Litter Method can be the ideal choice when you’re deciding which chicken bedding to use in your coop

The Deep Litter Method in a Nutshell

What is it?

This method consists of starting with a few inches of bedding on the floor of the coop. As the chickens deposit their waste into it, the litter is stirred up and more litter is added on top. The litter is naturally turned by the chickens rooting through it, and if they need a little help with the turning, it can be flipped by a pitchfork every few weeks.

Turning the litter results in the nitrogen rich waste getting buried in the carbon rich litter, resulting in a great compost that’s made right on the floor of your chicken coop.

Why do it?

Using deep litter means you only have to completely clean out the coop and replace the bedding a few times per year. If you buy the bedding for your chickens, this method will save you money. The other major perk is saving time and energy. We like to call it ‘the lazy farmer’s way,’ because it drastically cuts down on the time and work required when keeping chickens.

Black and white chicken by a straw bale

Some Other Great Reasons to Try Deep Litter Bedding:

  • Clean and sanitary
  • Remarkably un-smelly
  • Results in healthier chickens, less likely to get coccidiosis
  • Helps to insulate the coop making it warmer in the winter
  • Saves time
  • Much less work
  • Creates amazing compost for the garden
  • Scratching through it gives the chickens something to do when they’re contained
  • The microbes in deep litter prevent parasites and illnesses
  • It’s completely natural

How to use the Deep Litter Method:

Start your deep litter method in the spring, right after doing a good deep clean of the coop. It’s best to do deep litter on a coop that has a dirt floor, but it can be successfully done on concrete or wood as well. Before beginning deep litter, make absolutely sure that your coop has adequate ventilation. This will allow any dust, ammonia, and moisture to flow out of the coop and let good fresh air in.

How to do deep litter, step-by-step:

  1. Lay down about five inches of litter onto the bare floor of the chicken house. The best litter to use is anything that’s absorbent and finely chopped and will break down quickly. We like to use wood shavings and many chicken keepers love hemp bedding.
  2. When the first layer becomes soiled, stir it up and turn it over so the waste is buried. Depending on how big your flock is and how much time they spend in the coop, they may have already done this step for you.
  3. Add another few inches of bedding on top of the first layer.
  4. When that layer becomes soiled, turn it again and add another layer.
  5. Continue in this fashion until it’s time to clean out. Some deep litter users only clean out their coop once a year, some clean it as many as four times. We clean our coop in the late fall, mid winter, early spring, and mid summer and spot clean in between.
  6. When it’s time to clear out, you’ll remove most of the litter, leaving a one to two inch layer on the bottom of the coop. This thin layer holds microbes and nematodes that will help the next layer of litter get started composting. If you’re doing it right, your coop should not smell like ammonia. If it does, you need to increase ventilation and use more bedding or turn it more frequently.

That’s really all there is to it. If your chickens are lazy, they may not do enough turning and you’ll have to fill in once in awhile, but it sure beats cleaning out the coop every week, doesn’t it? Do yourself, and your chickens a favor and give the deep litter method a shot. You just might love it! At the very least, your chickens and garden will love you for it!

Still have questions? Check out our Deep Litter Method FAQ Page!

white chicken scratching through leaf litter

What to do with chicken manure compost

So now you know how to go about making compost from the waste your backyard chickens produce, but what do you actually do with it?

As I’ve said earlier, it’s very important to age chicken manure at least for one growing season before using it for your plants. We pile any compost that contains chicken waste into one big pile and let it sit for a year before using it. This allows time for the nitrogen and pathogen levels to naturally lower, making it safer to use in the garden.

Ways to use compost from your chicken coop

The free compost you’ve made from your happy chickens can be used in a number of ways around your homestead.

  • Till it into your gardens, when planting a new garden, good compost is your best friend, mix as much of it as you can into veggie, fruit, and flower gardens before planting.
  • Mix it with potting soil before potting plants, they’ll thank you for the nutrient boost and you’ll need to feed them less frequently.
  • Side dress your already growing plants (both in the garden and in pots) by placing a ring of compost around the base of the plant.
  • Sell it- if you don’t want to use your compost, sell it or give it away to a gardener who wants it.

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Kristen

Saturday 19th of March 2022

When using the deep litter method, can you put it directly into the garden when you clean the coop?

Meredith

Monday 21st of March 2022

No you can't unfortunately, even with the deep litter method there will be some fresh poop mixed in, and fresh chicken poop is high in nitrogen and could have bad bacteria in it, it's best to let the manure age for a year before using it in the garden so it won't burn your plants or risk making you sick. We stack all our deep litter in a pile behind the coop and leave it there for a year then use it in the garden the following season.

Tessa

Thursday 2nd of July 2020

If I have a compost in my chicken run, can I put chicken poop in it? Or do I need to keep the poop out of my chickens eating range for sanitization purposes? Fyi we are using sand as litter so we only have the poop to deal with not wood shavings.

Meredith

Thursday 23rd of July 2020

We compost our chicken poop in a separate compost pile outside of the chicken run. Chicken poop needs to sit for at least a year before using it in the garden, so we keep it in a separate compost pile.

How to Use Plant Nutrients and Extend the Life of Your Soil

Tuesday 23rd of June 2020

[…] you live in an area where chickens are allowed, this is a great way to naturally compost your soil area naturally compost your soil area. You can let your chickens free-range or you can fence a large […]

Barbara

Sunday 5th of April 2020

If the bottom part of the coop is open to the elements, won't the material of the deep litter become moldy if it rains a lot?

Meredith

Wednesday 8th of April 2020

I guess I don't understand your question, do you mean in a raised up coop with a wire floor? I don't know how the bottom of the coop would be exposed to the elements.

Tolon

Friday 27th of September 2019

What type of chicken is suitable for deep compost style?. Thanks. Tolon

Meredith

Sunday 29th of September 2019

Any chickens can help with the compost! :)

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