Composting Chickens

AMAZING EGGS AND RICH COMPOST WITH SO LITTLE WORK

If you haven't already, at least watch the first minute of the video above to get an understanding of Active Decay Cycles. If you havnt watched the full video, I reccomend reading this article from Cornell University explains C:N ratios of common compost materials. Also, check out our Workshop Page for more information on upcoming permaculture courses and apprenticeships here in Tzununa, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.

ALL GOOD??? Alright then. Here we go...

In the ideal world, we would all have access to flat, sweet ground that can support arable crops, movable chicken tractors, and good swards of grass. The chickens would be moved daily over flat ground, allowing very small pieces to be utilized fully before being rested while regeneration can take place, chicken manure can be used, and grass can regrow. If you do have access to ground that can support movable chicken houses, check out Joel Salatin and Andy Lee for some innovative ideas for mobile chicken systems.

Clearly, we are not in an ideal world. Sometimes the terrain is too rocky or steep and movable houses just don’t work. Other times, we have only a limited space for chickens and the rest of our space we want to maintain chicken-free. Apartment rooftops, suburban garages, and other small-living conditions can also support healthy chickens, despite the lack of much available ‘free-range’.

In these types of situations, we must turn to stationary housing and very-small, or often non-existent chicken ranges. The key to the sanitary stationary house is Deep Bedding. Deep Bedding is basically any dry, organic material that gets thrown in on the ground under the chickens. Deep bedding should be high in carbon (higher than 30 parts carbon for every part nitrogen). Examples of good bedding material include dried leaves, wood chips, newspaper and office paper, cardboard, dried grass, and spoiled hay/straw. There must be at least 12 inches of actively composting deep bedding under your chickens, at all times!

If your hens do not go outside, that is OK. Just bring them plenty of green material each day and they are more than happy. And the eggs are just delicious!

If your hens do not go outside, that is OK. Just bring them plenty of green material each day and they are more than happy. And the eggs are just delicious!

SOME BENEFITS OF DEEP BEDDING:

  • Provides heat in cold situations, making animals more comfortable at night and in harsh weather conditions.
  • The chickens work for you, turning the compost. This real time system works by blending high carbon material with the poop provided by the chicken. In the process, chickens are encouraged to scratch in this bedding, looking for all the critters that live in this active decay cycle.
  • These critters are lunch for our chickens, reducing feed costs and creating healthier eggs and meat. Protein portions of the diet, which are the most expensive part, can be dramatically reduced if your hens live on deep actively composting bedding.
  • Antibiotic and anti-fungal compounds thrive in active compost piles and endow health benefits and resistance of disease to the chickens that come in contact with them. This natural medicine is a result of taking the chicken poop and using it as a resource to fuel the active cycle that once again engages the chicken.
  • Whereas the free range chicken poops everywhere, the enclosed chicken poops into an active decay cycle, which allows these concentrated nutrients to break down, stabilize, and then be harvested with ease. This concentration enables us to efficiently collect, compost, and harvest our chicken manure, which can then fuel other systems such as vegetable gardens and fruit tree orchards.
Each hen gives us a minimum of 5 eggs per week, 10 months of the year. Not mention all the beautiful compost and the work they perform with pure enjoyment.

Each hen gives us a minimum of 5 eggs per week, 10 months of the year. Not mention all the beautiful compost and the work they perform with pure enjoyment.

HERE ARE THE FACTS:

  • Give each mature hen or meat bird at least 5 square feet of area. Thus, if you have a stationary house with a foot print of 10 feet by 8 feet, the maximum number of mature birds you should keep inside is (8*10/5=) 16.
  • At least 12 inches, and preferably 24 inches of actively composting bedding that the chickens actively scratch in.
  • The floor should be natural earth, the walls predator proof, and a sturdy roof. F**k Cement!!!
  • A door that you can enter without ducking and the house ceiling high enough to be able to walk around inside comfortably.
  • Inside the house, there should be a table that is raised off the floor a couple of feet. This table should be made of something that allows poop to fall through spaces or a surface that is easy to clean. Bamboo or canya, with 2 inch spacings between pieces works very well. The chickens can walk on it fine and the poop is easily swept to a crack and falls through down into the bedding.
  • On this table top sits the feeder and waterer. If you leave it on the floor, the bedding would constantly dirty the feeders due to the scratching of the birds. This table can also house the nest boxes. Also, this table should NEVER be located directly under the roost where the chickens sleep, as they will poop on it.
  • About 1 nest box per 5 to 10 hens. This can be 12 inch square with a little lip on the front entrance to keep the bedding inside. You always want to leave bedding in the egg boxes so they have a nice bed upon which to leave their eggs. The nest boxes should not have roofs that the hens can perch on or they will begin roosting there and poop in hard to clean places. I like to put a very steep diagonal roof on my egg boxes so they do not get on top and hang out.
  • The roost is a simple pole that is accessible to the chickens, but raised off the ground a couple of feet. This is where they will sleep, which means this is where they will poop the most. Thus, you do not want to have anything that you want to keep clean located directly beneath this roost. On the other hand, a worm box or a small fish pond could utilize this concentrated poop output and would be a good fit under the roost.

That’s about it.

Management of the system is the key to success.

Management of the system is the key to success.

MANAGEMENT

  • Every couple of days, you have to add dry carbonaceous material onto the floor inside the house. Use your nose and your other senses. It should never smell. IT SHOULD NEVER SMELL!!! If it does, you need more carbon bedding. As Joel Salatin says, “If it smells bad or looks bad, it ain’t good farming!”
  • You need to practice the 2 Day Poop Test. Go in and check for fresh poop. Make a mental note of a nice looking poo and then come back 24 hours later. If you can still find the poop, the house has failed the 2 Day Poop Test.
  • The idea is that any poop that falls in the house eventually falls to the bedding, which is actively being worked by the hens. This activity covers the fresh poop, mixes it into the carbonaceous bedding, and it begins to break down and heat up.
  • Keep a small broom in the house above the egg box, which I use to sweep off the table top and any poop that may have fallen in/on the egg box or on a feeder. This should be the extent of your cage cleaning duties. As long as the roost is not on top of any surfaces, the sweeping is minimal.
  • Adding things like kitchen waste and fresh grass clippings it is not a problem, as long as you understand that this green material is not a substitute for dry carbonaceous bedding material. Even more, sometimes you may need to add extra bedding material if you are adding a large load of some green material.
  • Sometimes if you add a lot of wet material or fail to add good carbon for a few days or more, a wet cap can form on the top of the bedding and poop can begin to build up. The cap prevents the chickens from scratching and the decay cycle breaks down. If this happens, get a hoe and break up the cap, turning the material over a bit to entice the chickens to scratch again.

REAL TIME COMPOSTING

Now comes the real beauty of this whole setup. Forget turning large compost piles. Forget going outside to add your kitchen waste to the pile. Forget building large heaps from garden waste and tree trimmings that sit for years. Now, everything goes to the chickens. Everything. Really. Everything.

So throw all your kitchen waste to these guys. They love it. Throw all your garden scraps and weed plants, seeds, roots and all. Tree trimmings as well, although they take longer to break down. Throw heaps of noxious weeds as well, for if the chickens do not eat them, they will die completely in the heat that is generated beneath the top layer. Egg shells, citrus rinds, insects from garden, and all yard waste (grass clippings) are all good to add as well.

We call this real time composting because all the while we are adding dry and fresh material to our chicken house, we can also pull out rich, finished compost that is ready for the garden or orchards.

  • I find that with about 15 hens, we add about 1cubic yard of material a week and we take about a 1/3 cubic yard of compost weekly.
  • Say What!?! Yeah, you read that right. Once the system gets going, you can harvest fresh finished compost direct from your chicken house on a weekly basis. If you maintain between 18 and 24 inches of composting bedding and actively add a given amount of carbon material regularly, then you can take out about a third of that amount weekly of finished compost. This is because while the top layer has fresh poop and fresh bedding, the middle is already shredded and mixed up thanks to the chickens working, and it begins to heat up. Below the heat, the finished compost naturally builds up. When you want to harvest, dig down below the heat and look for the very finished, well broken down material and use it as you would compost.
  • I like to sift the compost through a chicken wire screen while I am in the house so that the less broken down material stays put to finish composting. This disturbance is good for the bedding and for the chickens, as it encourages more scratching.
  • As the beginning, you must wait about 4 months for things to really get going before you harvest any compost. Get the bedding mix up to between 12” and 18” and then within four months with steady management and you can begin your harvesting.

So there you have…a sustainable housing option for chickens in areas that are not adaptable to mobile chicken house setups. Now go forth and use active decay cycles to keep chickens in permaculture inspired stationary chicken house systems.