Composting Chickens: How to Design and Manage a Composting Chicken House

There are lots of different designs and schools of thought about how to house chickens, such as free-range or rotational yards. We've tried a few methods over the years, and found that deep-bedding composting chicken houses are the best system for us. Imagine: on only 2 x 2 meters you can keep 8 hens and produce over 2000 eggs and over 5 m³ of compost every year! Check out the video and blog post below for the inside scoop on chicken houses:

Active Decay Cycle

Today we're going to be talking about alternative ways to keep happy healthy chickens, no matter where you live in the world. But before we get into that, I want to start by looking at ecosystems. I'm going to paint you a picture. Imagine there's a raccoon walking along in a forest, and all of a sudden - BOOM, it drops over and dies. What happen? Within a matter of minutes things start to come and use the resources from that raccoon body. Maybe some birds come and get some of the fur. Some scavengers eat some of the meat, and within a couple of days all of the raccoon body has been worked back into the forest. This is an example of a healthy ecosystem and of an Active Decay Cycle. But let's look at an alternative. What happens if that same raccoon is walking in a Walmart parking lot, falls over and dies? Then what happens? The next day maybe some flies come and lay some eggs, maybe a couple of seagulls or pigeons or some weird birds come. It starts to smell really bad. It could potentially get people sick. And eventually someone has to come and expend energy and effort to clean it up, because that resource has become a waste. That's the big difference: an Active Decay Cycle has no waste. All potential waste gets worked back into the system.

ADC + Chickens

But what does this have to do with chickens? Let's consider our typical backyard chicken setup. It is often recommended that first you build a chicken coup and then you give them a range, maybe sectioned off by fence. Or maybe they don't have any fence and they're just allowed to go wherever they want. But what happens over time? On the first day the chickens go out and they eat all of their favorite plants and all of their favorite bugs. They go back in. The next day they go and eat their next favorite plants and bugs. As soon as their favorite plants start to grow again, the chickens immediately come and eat them back down. And over the time the chickens change the composition of plant species that are growing on their range. Now the range is no longer providing the nutritional benefits for the chickens. Furthermore, the manure and constant scratching burns the organic matter and creates bare patches and hard ground in the range. It starts to look less like a forest and more like a Walmart parking lot. Which leads to unhealthy or sick land, which eventually leads to sick chickens.

So if free range is not an acceptable solution, then what are our alternatives? As long as you have enough space to build a small chicken coop, you can keep happy healthy hens. How do we do this? We will build the active decay cycle directly underneath the chickens. Let's take a closer looks at this system!

Composting Chicken Houses

Inside the deeply bedded, stationary chicken house we're actually going to build a compost pile underneath our chickens. So before we go any further, we need to talk about the basic recipe of compost. Every compost system has two basic types of ingredients. On the one hand we have carbon. Organic material that is dry and brown is considered high in carbon. Examples might be straw or hay, wood chips, dried leaves or even newspaper or cardboard. On the other hand we have nitrogen. Nitrogen is green and wet organic matter. All manure and urine, as well as green plant material and kitchen scraps are high in nitrogen. If we mix them together at 30:1, we have a perfect recipe for hot compost. If you're wondering what 30:1 actually means, I strongly recommend that you check it out online and look around a little. This principle is very important in the composting process. In short, every organic material has an inherent carbon-to-nitrogen ratio. For example, a cotton shirt has one, or wood, or leaves. All material has a carbon-to-nitrogen ratio. And to achieve compost, you want to mix them so that they balance to 30 to 1.

In a more practical setting, what does that mean? It means to follow your nose. Nitrogen is the waste, it smells bad. Carbon is the diaper. We use the carbon to balance the nitrogen. We use the diaper to absorb the waste. So when in doubt, add more carbon. When you do this, you always get a great compost pile. In our chicken house we have achieved this over time, by continuously adding carbon materials to the bedding. This is a real live compost pile, that is being turned and maintained by our chickens.

What happens is as we add organic matter and carbon to the top and they add nitrogen, three layers start to form. The top layer is what they're scratching in and contains things like the straw and the wood chips that we add, even sticks that go in here, as well as leftover kitchen scraps. Some green material also gets thrown in here. That's the top layer and that's what the chickens are actively scratching. The next layer down you can see from about here to here is partially composted organic material, and it's really hot. And if you smell it it doesn't smell bad at all, it actually smells like a forest because it is an ecosystem. And this is where all the microorganisms are. This is what the chickens actually trying to get at. The bottom layer is about a meter deep. When we get down to the bottom layer, what we find is a layer of dark, rich, finished compost. This compost is amazing for the garden. You can put it anywhere: fruit trees, vegetable garden, anything. And this is all over the bottom of the chicken house. You get about 10-20 cm of this at the bottom, and each layer above that is about 30-40 cm. 

Building and Managing the Composting Chicken House

Depending on where you live, you'll have to take special precautions for predators or weather or climate conditions. Beyond that, there's only really two special design aspects of this type of chicken house. The first is that you need to have a wall that holds in your deep bedding. Our wall goes down 1 meter 20 cm, and we recommend a minimum of 70 cm of depth. The other design aspect is that we want to make sure that the chicken poop always falls into the bedding and not onto hard surfaces. The hard surfaces are the Walmart parking lot. We want to make sure that the raccoon always dies in the forest. There's actually a design flaw in our own house and because of that, every morning we come in with our broom and we sweep off all our chicken poop.

As with all chicken houses, you need to provide your hens with a few basic necessities to keep them happy and comfortable. You need some perches for them to sleep on, that are raised above the ground. You need a feeder or two. You need nest boxes, and you also need a water. We recommend that all of this stuff should be raised above the ground level so that no compost gets kicked into the feed or water. We recommend using chicken wire as the flooring for any raised surfaces that the chickens will stand on so that their poop will fall straight down into the bedding. It's a good idea to make 50% of your roof out of transparent material to allow sunlight in. Don't forget that chickens need to be protected from drafts, but do like some airflow during the hot weather. 

Before you build your house, you have to ask yourself one question: how many hens do you want? The number of hens will determine the size of your house. We recommend two hens per square meter.

As for the management of this house, in addition to chicken feed and water, we recommend that twice daily you bring your kitchen scraps and all the garden wastes right into the house and throw it into the compost. We also recommend that once daily you bring a carbon source in and spread it over the wetter spots in the area. We like to make sure that the house isn't too wet or too dry. Compost needs moisture to really get started and heat up, so oftentimes we water the house. We also like to help chickens by turning the compost a little bit for them each morning. This not only helps the compost to heat up, but it provides the chickens access to deeper layers in the compost so that they can go find good treats to eat, and help us in the composting process.

One of the most important parts of the management of this house is that you have to practice to 2 day poop test. The way you do that is first find a real fresh steamy chicken turd and you make a mental note of where it is. Then you come back the next day and you look and see if you can find it. If you can, your house has failed the 2 day poop test. The goal is that within 24 hours all the poop is worked back into the bedding. Imagine that, on only 2 x 2 meters you can keep 8 hens and produce over 2000 eggs and over 5 m³ of compost every year! For real! So if you're down with happy healthy hens and tons of hot compost and super awesome eggs, check out our design and build your own today!

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Atitlan Organics blog

Studying Permaculture and natural building in Guatemala offers amazing opportunities to learn from indigenous cultures, rich natural patterns, and enormous diversity. Permaculture in Central America is representative of the edge effect or Edge Valuing Principle of Design. As one of the world’s centres of biodiversity, Central America attracts people from all over the world interested in learning through nature. Permaculture practices can be seen in action via the surviving indigenous traditions that are common in Guatemala. Studying permaculture in Central America offers designers great opportunities to learn from diverse groups of people in incredibly diverse natural settings.