What is the Deep Litter Method for Chickens?

Here at J&R Pierce Family Farm, I think it’s important to connect my readers with valuable insight from other experts. Today’s post is a guest post brought to you by Samantha Rainwater.

Keeping chickens can be fun and rewarding, but changing their bedding? 

Not so much. 

There are various ways to house your chickens, like chicken tractors, but generally they will have a main coop where they spend a majority of their inside time—unless you keep house chickens!  Most chicken owners cover the flooring of the coop with some sort of bedding such as straw, hay, wood shavings, sand, and more. 

This bedding will of course get dirty over time, but you may not have to replace it as often as you might think. 

By using the deep litter method for your chickens, you will spend significantly less time scooping or shoveling soiled bedding out of your chicken coop—sign me up!  

deep litter bedding

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What is the Deep Litter Method for Chicken Coops? 

deep litter bedding
Photo: Unsplash

With the deep litter method, you will add thin layers of bedding as the top layer becomes soiled; the bedding underneath will compost, providing benefits to your chickens and potential for later use. With the deep litter method, you will only have to fully clean your coop out once or twice a year, depending on the size of your flock. 

How to Use the Deep Litter Method

deep litter bedding
Photo: Unsplash

The deep litter method is fairly simple, but it does require some care and attention to ensure your chickens still have a clean and healthy environment to live, sleep, and lay their eggs. 

1. Choose Bedding

The first step is to choose a sustainable bedding material with which to implement the deep litter method. Many chicken owners claim that pine shavings are one of the best options for this method, but straw, leaves, and grass clippings also make the list—really any bedding that is carbon based should do the trick. It is generally best to start with wood shavings as a base layer and use other bedding for future layers if desired.  

To start, it is generally a good idea to add somewhere between four to six inches of wood shavings as a base layer. Then you can use other bedding for future layers if desired. You will want to sustain this four-to-six inch depth as the layers start to decompose; this means adding thin layers over the top occasionally. Eventually, your bedding level will start to become deeper as it can only compress so much, but you will still need to add clean layers over the top. 

2. Start the Composting Process

The basic requirements to start the composting process are carbon-based materials and nitrogen-based materials. In the case of  the deep litter method, the bedding added to the chicken coop is going to be the carbon-based material and the chicken waste provides the nitrogen. 

To start the composting process in your coop, simply add enough bedding and the chickens will provide the rest. If you find yourself needing more carbon, you can add in additional materials such as leaves and grass if your primary bedding is wood shavings. Aeration is another important step in the composting process, so make sure the bedding is being turned enough to ensure oxygen is spreading throughout. 

3. Regularly Add More Bedding

As mentioned previously, you will need to add thin layers of bedding over your main layer as it starts to decompose and accumulate too much waste. Depending on the size of your coop and how many chickens you have in your flock, you may need to add new layers anywhere from once a week to once a month. 

While it is generally recommended to start with wood shavings, the additional layers that you will be adding regularly can be almost any carbon-based material. You can even use straw. Many chicken owners like to change it up occasionally or use what they have on hand at the time. 

4. Clean out Periodically

Once your bedding reaches twelve inches in depth, it is a good idea to clean a majority of it out—some chicken owners prefer to clean at closer to eight inches. Many chicken owners will only have to clean out their coop once or twice a year, generally in spring and/or fall months.

When cleaning out your chicken bedding, never remove all of the bedding if you are planning on continuing with the deep litter method. By leaving a thin layer of the original bedding, you will be able to start the composting process easier with the next batch as some of the beneficial microbes will stay behind. 

Helpful Tips When Using the Deep Litter Method for your Chickens 

deep litter bedding
Photo: Unsplash

When using the deep litter method for your chicken coop, there are a few extra steps you can take to make your life even easier. While there is always more than one way of doing things, here are a few tips to take into consideration.  

Let the Chickens do the Work

An important step when creating compost is to turn the contents occasionally to work oxygen throughout which encourages the composting process. While you can turn the bedding yourself with the use of a small shovel or spade, why not let your chickens do it for you?  

An easy way to encourage your chickens to turn their own bedding is by sprinkling chicken scratch or grains across the top of the bedding throughout the coop. As the chickens search for the small food pieces, they will nudge and turn the bedding as they go—and it makes for a fun chicken activity!

Add Ventilation

It is always a good idea to have ventilation in your chicken coop as this helps to keep ammonia gasses and excess moisture out of your chickens’ home. This is especially important when utilizing the deep litter method because there will be a higher concentration of waste in the coop at most times, giving more opportunity for ammonia gasses and excess moisture to occur.

When adding ventilation, you want to make sure you aren’t creating a weak spot in your coop for drafts to come through. Open eaves are ideal for chicken coops, but cross-ventilation is also a good option as long as it’s not letting in too much cold air in the winter time—chickens need to stay warm too. 

Start in the Spring

While it is not necessary to start your deep litter set up in the spring, it can be ideal for the composting process and for later compost usage. Compost creates heat as it processes, but this process will not start right away. By starting in the spring, the bedding and waste compost will start to create heat starting in fall, keeping your chickens warm when they need it, and not overly warm during the summer. 

Spring can also be a good time to start your deep litter method process because then you will be on schedule to do a clean out either the following spring or the following fall and spring—depending on how often you need to do cleanings. Many gardeners like this timing so they can use the compost for their garden beds—spring, and occasionally fall, are the most likely times gardens need composting. 

Deep Litter Method: Pros and Cons

deep litter bedding
Photo: Unsplash

As with any kind of chicken raising advice, you’ll want to weigh the pros and cons before you decide to use this method in your coop. Here’s what you need to know. 

Benefits of Using the Deep Litter Method

There are numerous benefits to using the deep litter method with your chicken coop; some for you and some for your chickens. While this method may not work for every situation, if you think it may work for your coop, here are some benefits you can look forward to. 

1. Spend Less Time Cleaning

By using the deep litter method as opposed to regularly cleaning your chicken coop out, you will spend much less time cleaning overall—and who doesn’t want that?  

With the deep litter method, each time your chickens’ bedding becomes overly soiled, you will simply need to add a thin layer of bedding over the top instead of reaching in and scooping out the waste and then reapplying the bedding. This method should not only save you time and energy, but it should also reduce the amount of litter you use in the long run. 

2. Create Compost

As previously mentioned, the bedding used for the deep litter method creates a compost which can be used on your garden or flower beds as needed. While the bedding does not necessarily have to stay in the coop to be composted, this is an effective place for the composting to take place—and you won’t have to move it more than once. 

By composting your chicken bedding within the coop, you are saving yourself a few steps overall if you would have been composting it elsewhere instead. If you time everything correctly, you will be able to move your compost directly from the coop to your garden beds in one sweep. 

For more information on composting with chicken waste and bedding, see this article published by the University of Idaho. 

3. Beneficial Microbes

Not only does creating compost within your chicken coop save you steps, but it can provide benefits to the chickens living in there as well. 

When you compost, microbes are responsible for the composting process. While this may not sound like something you want your chickens exposed to, these microbes actually provide benefits to your flock. These microbes can help to control pathogens, helping your chickens become less susceptible to diseases when exposed regularly. 

4. Reduce Smell

While this may seem counterintuitive, leaving your chickens’ waste in their coop with the use of the deep litter method can actually help you to reduce your overall chicken-related smells. If you clean your coop out regularly, all of that waste has to go somewhere—generally either the trash or the compost pile. 

These locations are more likely to be exposed to the air, meaning that smells may travel with the wind—hopefully your house is not downwind!  When the waste is left in the coop, not only is it contained, but it is being converted into a compost, breaking down a majority of the foul scents. 

What Are the Disadvantages of Using the Deep Litter System?

There are many good reasons to utilize the deep litter method in your chicken coop if you can, but there are also potential downsides that can be dangerous for your chickens. When using the deep litter method, just be sure to do plenty of research beforehand to help you prevent any negative outcomes. 

1. Excess Moisture

Without proper ventilation and turning, the bedding used for your deep litter chicken coop may be more susceptible to becoming overly moist. Bedding that is housing too much moisture is prone to mold growth and bacteria and may also lead to diseases in your chickens such as coccidiosis and bumblefoot. 

Excess moisture is more likely to occur with the deep litter method because you are not removing soiled bedding—this includes any spilled water from your chickens’ watering source. While this is a problem to watch for, it can be avoided with proper ventilation and turning of the bedding. 

Additional information regarding the importance of avoiding wet floors in your chicken coop can be found here

2. Ammonia Gas Build Up

As with moisture build up, ammonia gas from the chicken waste is also more likely to build up when using the deep litter method. Since the waste is not being removed from the coop regularly, any ammonia gas will be released into the coop; this is where proper ventilation becomes important. Similarly to the excess moisture problems, ammonia gas build up can be easily avoided with ventilation and turning the bedding occasionally. 

3. Diseased Bedding

If your chickens do contract any sort of disease, is it always a good idea to remove and replace any used bedding with fresh bedding right away. Bacteria and viruses can live in the bedding, particularly when using the deep litter method because living conditions may be ideal for these microorganisms to thrive. 

When removing bedding under normal circumstances, you are only losing your cost in the bedding itself. If you are using the deep litter method and your chickens get sick, you may also be losing months’ worth of composting efforts in addition to all of the bedding used so far. While it may be upsetting to have to remove all bedding and start over, it is worthwhile to keep your chickens safe and healthy. 

Deep Litter Method vs. Sand and Other Options – Which is Right For You?

deep litter bedding
Photo: Unsplash

When it comes to bedding your chickens, you will need to think carefully about your needs and goals. If you want to completely eliminate the possibility of disease among your chickens, then the deep litter method might not be your best bet. While disease is still unlikely with the deep litter method, there is still the possibility it could rear its ugly head. 

Of course, you will only completely eliminate the likelihood of disease with an alternative to deep litter if you are diligent about cleaning the coop once a week or more frequently (depending on how many chickens you have).

Consider the factors above as you decide which method is right for you.

Do you use the deep litter method for bedding your chickens? Be sure to let us know in the comments!

Celebrate Black Artisans and Makers

Samantha Rainwater is a full-time business owner and recent mom who spends her free time writing. Her degree in Biology gives her a background in science, which she likes to apply on her small hobby farm. Writing about her experiences is one of her passions, and she finds joy in sharing her experiences with others. 

Want to learn more about farming? Be sure to take a look at these other articles.

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Author: Rebekah PierceI'm a writer and small farm owner, and lover of everything outdoors. I'm hoping to share my passion for farming, gardening, and homesteading with you on my blogging journey.

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