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How to make deep bedding for chickens

Cross section through deep beddingIn my last post, I pointed out that well-managed deep bedding is healthier for chickens than constantly giving them fresh litter.  But how exactly do you manage a deep bedding system?

First of all, think of your deep bedding system like you would think of a compost pile.  If you smell anything or if the deep bedding is wet, you're doing it wrong (probably not adding enough bedding or cramming too many chickens in a small space.)  This photo is a cross-section through our deep bedding, now about a foot deep, and it just looks like a mass of slightly chopped up leaves.

Start out with about four inches of litter on the floor of your coop.  This litter can be anything that's high in carbon, like chopped straw, ground corncobs, cut or shredded corn stover, wood shavings, wood chips, peat moss, cane litter, shredded paper, or autumn leaves.  Recently, I tossed in an old bag of lawn clippings and I'll let you know how that more nitrogenous bedding does in comparison to the straw and autumn leaves I've been using so far --- I suspect it will need more frequent refreshing.

Grass clippings as chicken beddingSince some of the benefits of deep bedding depend on microbial action, you never want to clean the entire coop out at once.  Instead, your goal is to keep a constant ground cover of six to twelve inches of bedding, removing and adding litter as needed to keep from hitting your head on the ceiling and to keep the bedding from getting soggy.  How often you add fresh bedding will depend on your coop size and number of chickens, but be sure to add bedding before you start seeing poop all over the floor and smelling ammonia.  An inch or two of bedding is sufficient when refreshing the litter.

While deep litter can be good for chicken health, mismanagement of deep bedding can make your chickens sick.  Manure caking on the surface of the deep litter is a bad sign --- you can use various chemicals like hydrated lime (no longer recommended) or absorbent clay as long as you stir it in so the chemical doesn't burn the chickens' feet, but you'd be better off fixing the problem by adding more litter or giving your chickens more space.  Excess moisture is another big no-no since it can lead to conditions that promote the growth Chickens on deep litterof bad microorganisms in the bedding.  To prevent wet bedding, add a fresh layer on top, reduce the number of chickens, use one of our homemade chicken waterers so you don't get leakage on the floor, and provide ventilation in your coop.

Despite the potential for problems with deep bedding, I have to admit that in our well-sized coop, with bedding added every week or two, I haven't noticed any problems at all.  I'm looking forward to removing a few inches of bedding in the spring to go on the garden, but meanwhile my work on the deep bedding system has amounted to about five minutes per week.

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I've been using an old fire poker to turn the bedding every couple of days which cuts down on the need for new litter even more. What's really cool is turning the litter and not finding any poop in there... just some grey dust.

I still add shavings to the solid surfaces (top of nest boxes, window sill) several times a week. The chickens eventually knock the shavings & poop onto the floor, keeping the surfaces much cleaner than before.

Comment by April Friday evening, January 28th, 2011
I like your idea of adding shavings to solid surfaces to cut down the poop even more! Great addition to an already great system.
Comment by anna late Friday evening, January 28th, 2011

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