Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Q&A: Coop size, and the Deep Litter Method

I gave my Yardbirds Backyard Chickens 101 class to a lovely group of folks at the Marshfield Farmers' Market this past Saturday, and one of the attendees sent me this follow-up question that I get asked about a lot! 

So, here are the thoughts of The Chickeness on the Deep Litter Method in our usual backyard micro-flock settings... Enjoy!

Hi Khrysti,

My wife and I attended your workshop on Saturday (we were the ones that had to leave early).  I wanted to say thank you, we found the class informative and helpful.  We don't have chickens yet so we're in the due diligence process right now, which leads to a question I wanted to ask you at the class but didn't have the chance.  I purchased a book called "The Small-Scale Poultry Flock" by Harvey Ussery.  I don't know if you're familiar with it but it advocates for the deep litter method.  I wanted to see what you're thoughts were on that.  Also, in the book he emphasized the need for good ventilation, even in the winter and more space inside the coop (approximately 5 ft/bird).  In reading this it makes sense to me but so does the small keeps a coop warmer concept.  Again, I was hoping you may have some experience that would help shed some local insight on the matter. 

Thanks again,
Hi P.,
I'm so glad you two enjoyed the class! 
Short answer: I'm not familiar with that book, but that sounds to me like a classic "traditional farming" approach where he's talking about the henhouse being their primary enclosure, without a secure, attached run... so, think about having a shed or a barn that is their entire house - dirt floor, probably a flock of at least 50 birds or more, feed and water is kept in the henhouse, maybe let them out to roam the property during the day, maybe they don't really get let out much, especially in the winter... So I don't think those recommendations are wrong, I think they simply reflect a different style of chicken-keeping than we tend to see in a backyard micro-flock.  (Just out of curiosity, how does he define "small-scale"?  For example, the State of Massachusetts considers anything up to 300 birds to be a "small flock"!  Makes sense in comparison to some of the 3-million-birds or larger commercial farms in the midwest...)
To address those two points specifically (and their overlap):

My experience with the deep litter method is that it works fine if you have a "traditional" ground-level coop with a dirt floor, but the raised coops I was describing as helpful for smaller yards mean that the "auto-composting" function that is at the heart of the DL method just doesn't seem to work super well.  Maybe it's that you aren't getting all the great microbes that exist in the dirt, maybe it's just that it can't get hot enough with the raised floor (i.e. airflow underneath)... I'm not sure the mechanism, but the poop doesn't really break down fast enough to avoid getting some build-up (and therefore ammonia, which is the real problem). 
This is also part of the argument for more space inside the coop - if you have X number of hens, and you're using the DL method in your traditional henhouse, having more surface area per bird means you have more dirt/bedding to "dilute" the poo that is being created.  Another way of thinking about that is that you have a higher "brown" (bedding/carbon) to "green" (poo/nitrogen) ratio, which will aid in the proper balancing of your in-house compost system (an ideal compost ratio is somewhere around 3:1 or 4:1 brown to green).

The counter-point to all that is that the "auto-composting" idea IS what will happen in your run - if that's on a well-draining dirt/sand substrate AND you have plenty of space per bird, all the poo that gets deposited out there will gradually break down and you basically never need to remove it.  Maybe just till it a bit if you notice that it's getting a hard "shell" on the top, and perhaps add more sand.  Might be a good idea to turn it all over every other year or so... otherwise it should be fine!
And, of course, that "plenty of space" idea is variable depending on what aspect you're talking about... 5 sq ft/bird in the run might be enough space for your in-run composting to function just fine, but it's not enough to keep your birds happy and healthy as far as behavioral issues, so my recommended 10-12 sq ft per bird of run space takes care of both!  :)

I hope that helps answer your questions - please let me know if you have more!
Happy chickening,