Deep Litter For Chickens And Mistakes To Avoid

The "Deep Litter Method", also known as a Deep Litter System is a way of managing poultry manure and litter. It's an alternative to regular dry litter with regular clean-outs.

In this article I'll be covering  -

Who Deep Litter Systems are suited to
Benefits of a Deep Litter System
How to start a Deep Litter System
Common (huge!) mistakes to avoid
Working with the seasons for the ultimate Deep Litter System 
The best bedding materials for a Deep Litter System


Who Deep Litter Systems are suited to

Deep Litter Systems are best suited walk-in chicken houses and to larger areas that are covered over. They are the preferred system for poultry that can't free range

But if you've got a small coop that's mainly off the ground, a Deep Litter System will not work for you. It needs to be DEEP - as in around 30cm deep to actually work.

It's also not suited to flocks with diseases. Instead, disinfect all housing and change litter regularly. Do not commence a Deep Litter System until birds are healthy. 


Benefits of a Deep Litter System

1. Birds are kept busy (great boredom buster) and fit turning the litter
2. Great for people who are time poor
2. Easy to manage (once you get the hang of it)
3. Absorbs smell
4. As the litter ferments and composts it attracts fly predators, so it actually reduces fly populations. 
5. Helps to control temperature inside the shed
6. Decomposing litter is rich in Vitamin B12 and supports poultry health. 


How to start a Deep Litter System

Start with 10-15cm of your chosen litter. The best time to start a Deep Litter System in cool climates is spring to mid summer. This accelerates the composting process in the warmer months. 

Keep the litter aerated.

The best way to do this is to sprinkle whole grains (30g per bird max) over it, and get the birds to work the litter. This keeps them busy, fit and in great show condition. 

If they're not interested in working the litter, or any areas become matted or compacted, you're going to need to turn it with a garden fork or rake!


Common (huge!) mistakes to avoid

  1. Do not over-crowd your birds. This not only causes behavioural issues with bullying, but can make manure management a compacted, smelly nightmare. 
  2. Never use mouldy or dusty materials. Avoid hay or any treated timber shavings. 
  3. Break up any matted or soiled areas and stir in with a garden fork or rake as soon as possible.
  4. Ensure there is enough ventilation. If you can smell ammonia (strong manure smell) you have a problem!
  5. Wet or damp litter promotes the growth of worms, bacteria, viruses, coccidiosis and releases ammonia from wet manure. Any wet areas from water leaks or spills should be removed manually.
  6. If running an outdoor Deep Litter System, ensure there is good drainage or consider covering the yard in winter months. 
  7. Ensure drinkers and feeders are off the ground - you don't want bedding getting into the feeder or your chicken's drinker. 


Working with the seasons for the ultimate Deep Litter System

If you've tried Deep Litter before and failed, here's a system that may help:
1. Spring-mid summer - start with 10-15cm litter, wood shavings are the easiest to start with.
2. Top up with litter as necessary to absorb the manure. 
3. Autumn - If you have access to fallen oak leaves or any non-toxic tree, add them in!
3. Start of winter - aim to have a depth of 25cm
4. Keep topping up litter as needed to absorb the manure, until you reach a depth of 30-38cm.
5. 12 months after - Clean out coop, thoroughly clean. Start process again. 

Old school tip - many breeders who have healthy birds (free of parasites and disease) will leave a depth of 7cm to keep some of the composting microbes. They then top it up and start again!


The best bedding materials for a Deep Litter System

Materials high in carbon work best in Deep Litter Systems. Think wood shavings (untreated), chopped straw (long strands can become matted), rice hulls, dried grass clippings, dried leaves (from non toxic trees)...there are no rules!


I hope this article has been helpful. Got questions about Deep Litter? Drop them in the comments below! ~Elise McNamara, Chicken Coach.


Other Resources

Poultry Signals A Practical Guide For Bird Focused Poultry Farming

Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens by Gail Damerow

Previous article Feeding For Breeding - A Must For Healthy Chicks
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