• Annie

How to Compost Chicken Litter


One of the amazing benefits of raising backyard chickens is all the chicken litter! Chicken litter is a natural fertilizer for your garden that provides nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium to your plants. Chicken litter is the organic manure produced from the birds, spilled feed, feathers, and bedding materials. For home gardeners, chicken litter can be one of the greatest assets to growing healthy plants, flowers, fruits and vegetables for your family.


This article will provide a step-by-step guide to help you get started composting chicken litter and provide safety tips for your family.


Before You Begin Composting Chicken Litter

Did you know that chicken litter is too strong to be used directly on your garden in raw form? If chicken litter is used without composting it first, it could damage roots, possibly kill plants, and may contain bacteria and pathogens that are harmful to humans, such as salmonella and E. coli.


The good news is that once chicken litter is composted, it turns into what backyard chicken owner’s and gardeners refer to as “black gold”.


Benefits of Composted Chicken Litter

Composted chicken litter provides a slow-release source of macro and micronutrients that act as a good fertilizer and soil amendment.


Fertilizer

Chicken litter contains the macronutrients nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, as well as important micronutrients such as calcium needed for healthy plant growth. In addition to micronutrients, it also contains magnesium, sulfur, manganese, copper, zinc, chlorine, boron, iron and molybdenum.


Chicken manure is more nutrient rich than horse, cow, pig and steer manure. For example, when you compare chicken manure to cow manure the ratios of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK) are different. Chicken manure contains 5% nitrogen, 4% phosphorus and 2% potassium per ton or 5-4-2 NPK. Cow manure is made up of digested grass and grain and has an NPK ration of 3-2-1 respectively. Having a higher NPK ratio means those nutrients are more available for plants.


Soil Amendment

A soil amendment is any material added to a soil to improve its physical properties, such as water retention, permeability, water infiltration, drainage, aeration and structure. This helps provide a better environment for roots. The amendment must be thoroughly mixed into the soil to deliver the greatest benefit.


Soil high in organic matter is less prone to erosion and retains fertilizer better. Chicken litter adds organic matter to the soil, which improves soil structure, moisture-holding capacity, drainage capacity and aeration. Additionally, the organic matter in chicken litter feeds soil microbes allowing organic nutrients to breakdown faster, which in turn makes them more available to plants more quickly. Who knew poultry litter could do so much?


The organic matter in chicken litter has another benefit: it feeds soil microbes allowing organic nutrients to break down faster, which in turn makes them available to plants more quickly.


Chicken Litter Composting Method

The method used for composting chicken litter is called hot composting and it requires carbon, nitrogen, moisture, oxygen, and temperature.

  • Carbon: often referred to as “browns”, this is the bedding material from your chicken coop. Other examples of browns include fall leaves, pine needles, twigs, straw or hay, corn stalks and paper (newspaper, writing/printing paper, paper plates, napkins and coffee filters).

  • Nitrogen: often referred to as “greens”, this is the chicken manure. Other examples of greens include grass clippings, coffee grounds/tea bags, fruit & vegetable scraps, trimmings from plants and eggshells.

  • Moisture: water, but not too much, just enough to provide the right consistency. To test compost for the right consistency, pick up a handful and squeeze. If there is sufficient moisture content when you open your hand, it will crumble, and some will stick slightly. If it is too wet, it will form a ball and not break apart. If it is too dry, it won't stay on your hand.

  • Oxygen: found in the air around us.

  • Temperature: composting is best in warmer temperatures and will slow down in colder winter months.


How To Compost Chicken Litter

Step #1 Collect Chicken Litter

Chicken owners normally use bedding such as wood shavings, sawdust, or straw to provide a dry cushion for chickens and to control odor and pests. The coop bedding can be collected with the manure and dumped into a composting bin. Combing the chicken manure and the bedding creates chicken litter. For convenience, we recommend using the deep litter method.


The deep litter method consists of repeatedly turning over the soiled bedding, then adding a new layer of bedding and allowing the droppings to decompose on the floor of the coop all winter, at the same time creating heat to keep the coop warm naturally. In the spring, the chicken litter can be cleaned out and put into the compost. We recommend cleaning out your coop twice per year.


Keep in mind if you do not use the deep litter method and you prefer to pick manure and soiled bedding out of the coop daily, the steps for composting will differ.

Tip: A great way to help control odor and moisture in your coop is using Coop Recuperate.

Step #2 Carbon (Browns) to Nitrogen (Greens) Balance

To keep things simple most composters, follow the general rule of 1 part Carbon (browns) to 2 parts Nitrogen (greens). However, because chicken litter is so high in Nitrogen you may be more successful using a 2:1 or even a 3:1 mixture. This will create the ideal environment for microbes to break down organic material to produce compost.


Step #3 Turn Your Pile into Compost

Combine the correct ratio of bedding and manure at one time to form a pile, approximately one cubic yard, then add water. Turn or stir the compost. The material should be about as wet as a well wrung sponge. If you squeeze the compost and get a drop of water out, that is ideal. This will produce a hot pile.


It is recommended that the compost pile heat to 130-150 degrees Fahrenheit and maintain that temperature for 3 days.


Heating is necessary to destroy bad bacteria but temperatures above 160 degrees Fahrenheit can kill beneficial bacteria and slow the process. To help you achieve appropriate temperature you can purchase a compost temperature gauge from a local farm store.


Tip: To speed up the breakdown of chicken litter in your compost, add Coop to Garden.

Step #4 Repeat the Heating Process

Once the center of your compost pile has reached the required temperature for three days it will start to cool. After it cools, pull the center apart and move the core material to the edges and bring the edge material into the center to heat. For 1 cubic yard of material repeat the process of bringing edges into the core at least 3 times.


To keep it simple, we recommend repeating this process once every ten days.


Tip: Regularly turn your compost pile which optimizes microbial activity. Turning or stirring speeds up the process and exposes bits of browns and greens that aren’t fully decomposed to moisture and heat to make them breakdown.

Step #5 Let It Cure

Monitor the pile and once you are satisfied that the entire contents of your bin have been heated, loosely cover, and let it cure before using. It’s ready when most material is dark, crumbly and sweet-smelling like soil.


Step #6 Add to Garden!!!

Congratulations! You just made “black gold”.


You can add the resulting compost to your vegetable garden or flower bed by spreading it on the surface or by gently working it into existing soil. Now your soil and plants will thrive and your family can enjoy the fruits of you and your chickens labor.


Manure Safety Tips

Fresh chicken manure may contain disease organisms that could contaminate root crops (carrots, radishes, beets) and leaves (lettuce, spinach).


DO NOT spread uncomposted manure on the soil in your vegetable garden.


The following safety tips are summarized from the Stewardship Gardening Program provided by Washington State University:

  • Apply only aged or composted manure to your soil.

  • Always wear gloves when handling livestock manure.

  • Thoroughly wash raw vegetables before eating.

  • Do not use cat, dog, or pig manure in compost piles.

Ready to Get Started?

Raising backyard chickens, composting and gardening is a way of life that you can be proud of. Your chickens provide you eggs, you can give your chicken table scrapes from your garden and you can use the chicken litter to create “black gold” compost for your garden. It is environmentally conscious with less waste in and out. And following these six steps make it easy!


To learn more or if you have more questions regarding composting or gardening, The Garden Hotline is a great resource.


References:

Crop Fertility Services (CFS), Chicken Manure vs. Cow Manure – Comparing Fertilizer for Organic Crop Farming.

Tilth Alliance, Composting Chicken Manure. Complied by Judy Duncan, WSU Cooperative Extension, King Country Master Gardener, and Cooperative Extension Livestock Advisor.




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