I have a chicken coop and it never smells bad. It smells good. Mostly it reminds me of a forest floor and that’s were chickens originally came from: as jungle fowl from a thick rain forest.
Ok, I admit sometimes it stinks – but only when a chicken just took a dump behind me and the little chicken poopy is still steaming. One swish with my boot and a bunch of wood chips cover it up; gone is the smell.
This is me and my bedding fork.
Chicken poop stinks, but buckets with vegetable and food scraps can even reach the point of “stank from hell.” Wasn’t sulfur associated with satan? I have a drop-off in my driveway and neighbors come regularly to leave their scraps. This one time - thanks to the lid, the smell was first uncovered after I had dumped the bucket onto my chicken run area: A sour whiff of alcoholic fruit rot paired with some gutty undertones of ripening nastiness.
I instantly regretted putting that stuff there, because I had to hold my breath in order to avoid puking. Upon opening the bucket, it looked fine, it even had fresh watermelon rinds on top. After I covered my mouth and nose with my t-shirt, I grabbed the bedding fork and started to shovel chips from the inside of the coop onto that messy puddle. I topped them off with more wood chips from my storage and replaced what I had just taken from the inside.
It Didn’t Even Take More Than a Couple Minutes and the Smell was Gone.
Interested in the further advancement, I uncovered the spot the next day to find that the smell was still present under that coat of wood chips. The following days, I kept turning the spot about once a day and added a fork full of chips. After about a week no more odor occurred, even after uncovering the spot. I was pleased to see that the carbon odor-pad had done it’s magic once again.
Keeping a clean chicken coop can be lots of work and/or pretty expensive, if you rely on fresh wood shavings for your chickens. In my opinion, the only case that justifies using shavings is show breeding. It ensures that booted chickens won’t mess up the feathers on their legs and does a good job with the droppings.
However, if you keep your backyard flock for entertainment and eggs, you don’t have to buy pine shavings anymore. Even a larger flock of a small egg business can benefit from this method.
Stone-Drainage based bedding does smell less than bare soil, but you will have to use your hose often to flush away the droppings. I believe you are creating a fertile run-off that randomly washes somewhere. With many chickens included, it might even be harmful because of the concentrated nitrogen and phosphorus accumulation.
There are many carbon inputs that you can use for a deep litter in your chicken coop. A thick bed of carbon acts as a natural odor pad, absorbing and literally covering up the smell.
I like wood chips and leaves better than straw because of their size. It comes in smaller pieces and the chickens will do a better job turning it over by scratching and kicking. Wood chips are so more cost effective than buying straw bales. However, if you have a “good source” of straw – go for it – it’s carbon – it will do the job as well.
Depending on your final use of the compost, you can get free wood chips from municipalities or have a tree company drop of a truck load of chips. The tree company might charge you a small delivery fee but you can ask them what kind of tree it is and be sure it’s free of toxins or pesticides. On a municipal dump there is less quality control in terms of your wood chip source. It’s up to you to which level you want to take this!
I get fresh wood chips with leaves mixed in and store these in my interim storage. My urban garden is small, so I am using my wheel barrow to get them out of my driveway. Depending on the amount, the chips will already heat up and start to decompose. Stick a compost thermometer into the pile to monitor the temperature if you would like.
My wood chip pile sits right in front of my chicken coop and run. That way I can dump fresh chips into the run and roosting area with my bedding fork easily. It is very little work and quickly done while collecting eggs or delivering fresh water.
During the fall and winter season, I collect my neighbors’ neat piles of leaves off of their tree lawns with my wheel barrow and a bedding fork. Some residents even bag the leaves for me. In return, I bring them a carton of eggs. Make sure to not dump these into your coop and run directly. Always check the contents in your storage area for contamination. Fall-Leaves on the curb are usually pretty clean, but sometimes you will grab a bag that contains all the blow-off from your neighbor’s driveway, including paint chips and other garbage. Establishing this little measure of quality control will ensure a great composting input. I go by the premise: “You can’t have too many leaves.” I stacked dry leaves four feet high in my chicken run and before winter set in, it had already settled by a couple feet. Rain and your chickens will compact them.
You will divide your coop set-up into four zones:
You need a space, for your interim storage, by your chicken coop that you can use to collect your carbon inputs. If you have many chickens, consider truck access. However, it should not be far away from the coop itself. Your roosting and feed area needs a roof for rain protection and siding for predator protection. The floor is open/bare and will be covered with an initial layer of 6 – 12 inches of wood chips. The run area can be open/fenced in and will also be covered with wood chips. Within this area you will set-up your composting bins. The composting area serves to further break down all inputs into your finished product. All areas should be sized in correlation to your space and flock size.
Most chicken keepers will agree, that staying dry is very important for your chickens. Especially during the winter. Keeping your coop dry makes a difference and almost every chicken expert recommends it on their “how to winterize your chickens”-list.
Naturally, the composting process needs water input to work, because the generated warmth starts an evaporation process that dries out the composting material.
That is why I suggest a roof above your roosting and feed area. By doing this, the only water input comes from the moisture inside the chicken poop (or from occasional side-wind blowing in rain or snow – I use plastic tarp on the parts that are not wood but hardware cloth to prevent it).
During their daily scratching, your chickens will work in the droppings into your deep bedding. The sheer amount of wood chips will quickly absorb all moisture and dry out. Droppings that are present under the roost in the morning usually are no longer visible by afternoon.
All you have to do during the winter is add more wood chips on a regular basis. In a backyard setting, that means a couple of bedding forks per week. With a bigger operation, it could be a wheel barrow full or a bucket load with the bobcat.
The same principal can be used to actually activate your bedding into a giant heat pad. That is something to consider if you have extreme cold winters or breeds that are not as hardy.
The roof above will allow for you to add water in a controlled way and increase the moisture content in the bedding. That increases the activity in your bedding and it will heat up, just like your compost pile does.
In this case, make sure to add even more material, keeping a good layer between the freezing soil and your bedding above. Since I keep my bedding dry during the winter, I can not speak from personal experience, however, here are some examples from other chicken keepers.
Come next spring, you can empty out all bedding into your compost bin and start a fresh pile that will turn hot quickly. During the spring and summer months, my turn-around time is much faster. The warmth accelerates the decomposition and I also try to produce extra loads of compost. I will add more chips to the bedding, although it would not be necessary to “keep it clean and odor free” - now I am setting my goals higher: I want even more out of it.
Compost is a valuable resource. It transforms waste products into fertilizer and nutrition for vegetables, flowers and other greens in your garden. While store-bought fertilizers do add nutrients to your soil, they contain little organic matter, which is a much needed component in healthy soil. Compaction, run-off and erosion are being countered by adding compost on a regular basis.
With a wood chip based bedding in your chicken coop, you can finish a new batch of garden gold about every three months or stretch it out and age it further. Your chickens supply a steady input of nitrogen through their regular chicken feed. That alone is enough to break down your wood chips and turn them into compost.
My personal goal is to reach a wider spectrum of nutrients, bacteria and fungi in my compost and diversify the make up of my compost. I am adding other ingredients to the outdoor area: My fruit and vegetable scraps, eggshells and coffee grounds, as well as non-chicken meat scraps. Some of these inputs will be eaten directly by the chickens, like watermelon or meat. Since the chickens have a choice of various foods, other inputs rather attract insect life, bacteria and fungi. Indirectly, the chickens then feast on the life that is created by those scraps. Their omnivorous diet lets them seek out even the tiniest living things in your compost.
I never had problems with rodents or other critters being attracted to my compost pile. Food scraps will usually only sit out on the surface during the day. By nightfall, much of the scraps are already eaten or worked into the wood chips. Best case scenario, you have already taken measures to keep them out of your chicken coop and run in the first place. A physical barrier and odor-proofing will attract less unwanted wildlife.
The key to harvesting more compost is more sifting. If you have little time – let it work by itself and there is no need for you to work on it.
However, I would like to get more compost for my gardens and that is why I will sift out broken down compost more frequently. Besides the occasional turning to aerate the material, your compost will be fine by itself.
My compost thermometer shows me the core temperature and I monitor it during daily egg collection. After the pile has surpassed a hot-phase, above 140 degrees Fahrenheit and about a week long, it contains broken down material that can be moved on to the aging phase.
Because I speed compost with a hot pile, I want to give my compost additional time to break down further. Since space is precious on my urban lot, I do not have a dedicated aging area in my compost system. A three-bin system usually has the collection on one side, a hot area in the middle and an aging area on the other side. Well, I don’t have enough space in my coop area.
My “urban farming” solution is the use of crates. I layer the crates with newspaper and fill them up with the sifted compost. The black plastic crate itself works as my composting mesh. I stack three crates on top of each other. One to elevate, a second one to collect the broken down compost and the top crate to hold and sift. Once a crate is full, I add a bunch of worms and cover it to prevent seeds from entering. The worms do not like hot compost but a place below 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Their action further transforms the compost, breaks it down and adds valuable worm casting. When I need it, I can transport it easily in my crate to it’s final destination.
If you have more space, to include an aging depot, place it outside the run to prevent more chicken manure input or cover it up with a tarp. There is also no need for you to add worms. Your compost will age regardless and maybe even attract worms from your garden by itself.
Please leave comments and share your experiences with composting with or without chickens and whether you are going to adapt this method in your chicken set up.