Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Carbonaceous Composting in the Chicken Coop

Living in a Northern climate, our chickens are kept indoors over the coldest months of winter.  Cleaning out the coop used to be a very difficult thing to do during winter, as we had to wait for a break in the weather so the chickens could safely be outside without suffering from frostbite while we shovelled out the coop (which was a nasty, smelly job that nobody looked forward to).  

In the past, we used wheat straw as bedding in the coop and we simply layered fresh straw on top of soiled straw when things got "nasty" in there.  Over time, those layers of straw got matted together from the chickens walking on it and of course the weight of the droppings.  That method created a thick, matted (smelly) anaerobic mess which was HARD to clean out.  There had to be a better way!

In my study of permaculture, I've been intrigued by the concept of grouping functions and elements together that can mutually benefit one another.   By creating a needs/yields analysis, we see that (among many other things):

Chickens NEED heat and clean bedding (carbon) in winter but GIVE nitrogen.  

Compost NEEDS nitrogen and lots of carbon also, but GIVES off heat.  

Looking at that, we see that both elements can logically reside together in a mutually beneficial (symbiotic) relationship providing that I can manage the carbon component more effectively.  I'm happy to say that this plan is working rather well and I've not had to plug in the chicken coop heat lamp ONCE all winter, saving electric energy use.


 I learned a lot about composting in the Organic Master Gardener course that I recently completed and one of the most helpful bits of information was that I was not using NEARLY enough carbon to compost correctly.  The ratio of carbon:nitrogen needs to be between 30:1 & 40:1.   I was clearly falling WAY short of that ratio for my carbon component.     I also needed to find a better carbon source if I was going to be composting in my coop, as the straw was prone to compaction.

Enter:  Wood shavings/chips! 

I LOVE using pine wood chips, because they smell SO fresh.   I actually LOOK FORWARD to adding more carbon to the coop as they're lightweight and easy to spread but best of all, the chickens do a FINE job of stirring them up for me saving me MORE work and time (which is another form of energy savings).  Simply by sprinkling some grain onto a fresh layer of chips, I can motivate and instruct my hens to scratch and peck to their heart's content as every chicken loves to do.   Within a day, the hens have fully aerated and stirred my "compost", all the while having a grand time with their "housekeeping" duties.   The hens stay clean, the coop smells great, the chickens get exercise, activity and stimulation, and I have reduced my workload by eliminating a few hours of smelly, sweaty work simply by arranging the correct elements elegantly together. 

Come Spring, when the hens are largely out of doors, we'll remove the "nearly finished" compost and let it sit and mature for a few months.   I'm not dreading that job because the wood chips have created a light, fluffy textured compost that is very easy to pick up with a snow shovel.  With hot manure in the mix though, I know that it will need to mellow before any garden application ~ by Fall it should be ready for use.

I want to bring up the topic of biological diversity....  In order to enhance the microbial diversity in my compost (and therefore improve the quality of my finished compost), it is important to vary the carbon feedstock.  While pine wood chips are the spine of my chicken coop compost feeding regime, I am careful to add other sources of organic carbon to round out the diversity.  I've added shredded paper (no glossy prints), shredded plain cardboard, a small amount of straw, brown leaves and anything else I can get my hands on.  The smaller the pieces, the faster they decompose (which is why you see a few larger pieces of paper in the above picture).  I'm always on the hunt for different sources of carbon but I want to mention that we will all will have different choices available to us depending on where we live, the natural vegetation around us and the industry near us. I can source pine wood chips reasonably cheaply very close to my home, but we hope to create some of our own this year.    Also, because we add other nitrogen sources to the coop compost in the form of kitchen scraps, we are also increasing biodiversity in that way as well.  The hens do eat most of what we bring in, but whatever they choose to leave, gets composted along with everything else.

I am in no way an expert and I humbly defer to those who have gone before me in this learning process, but I'm hoping that someone might be encouraged by this post, to give this method of composting a try.

Let me know how you make out if you try it!


  1. We do a similar method using pine shavings, but I discovered last spring that I wasn't quite doing it right. I think I added enough carbon, but too much at once if that makes sense. The top of the bedding was great, but the bottom was very compacted and stinky. I wonder if I didn't give the chickens enough time to turn the compost before adding a deep new layer of shavings. They smell so good, though, it's hard to show restraint ;) This year we've been adding less on a more consistent basis, so hopefully both of our spring clean outs are a lot more pleasant this year!
    P.S. I'm loving all your enthusiastic, informative posts about all the wonderful things you're learning. Thanks so much for sharing it with us!

    1. That's a good point, Jaime. I have been using a pitchfork to lift up shavings from the floor of the coop to get the incorporation process going for the hens. It's easy to do and it seems help get that lower layer brought up so that the hens can mix it more thoroughly, but who KNOWS what we'll find once we clean out in spring!

      I will be mindful of adding carbon in smaller amounts, more consistently rather than huge quantities at once. Excellent tip - thank you :)

  2. I wish I had chickens, but till then, I read and wish.

    http://matronofhusbandry.wordpress.com deep beds her chickens (and cows). She uses straw for it. If you've got time, you might check out her posts on such.

    1. Yes, she has wonderful information doesn't she? LOVE her blog - I have learned so much from her.

  3. Sherri I've just printed your post to rad at lunchtime, you sure have absorbed a lot of permaculture concepts!

  4. Thanks so much for the info. I did a compost course over a few hours and had the general idea down but you have expanded my knowledge. Of course, its always good to learn from those who have gone before. Im still planning my coop and given that i have a suburban backyard was thinking i might have two separate yards (only 4 chooks) running off the coop (in the corner of the yard like an L shape so that when they are using one yard the other can be turned or have seed growing for them to scratch. Keeping it smelling fresh is going to be my biggest priority as i have a family sensitive to smell (autism) and 5 neighbours to pacify.

    1. Lynda, that sounds like a great plan. It's much better for the soil to have a break so keeping the hens off of one area gives the land a chance to recover and yes, you could easily plant fodder crops for the hens. When will you get your hens?

    2. Oh Goodness, its a process of my having to; plan and research(if you look at my blog, that in itself is a long process); then my husband doesnt have a job at the moment (there are none even for electrician's with 35 yrs experience) so there's the money factor; then i have to overcome there fears that its not all going to fail - hence my plannng. This month i have a chook course so i am hoping to drag hubby along.

    3. This is a great post! And the comments are helpful as well. :)

      We moved in December (note to self, do not move in December when you live in Oregon!) But, it was as fate and luck would have it - we finally found our little piece of paradise - and we do love it...
      But we had to move chickens and gardens and everything...
      Big job!

      I'm kicking myself now that I didn't unload the bags of coop cleanout onto the new garden area when we arrived, but we've been so busy unloading and unpacking and - well, moving in... but now I've read this, I'm setting up the new composting area in the corner of the garden site right away for use later in the season.

      I was taken by your short paragraph:

      " In my study of permaculture, I've been intrigued by the concept of grouping functions and elements together that can mutually benefit one another. By creating a needs/yields analysis, we see that (among many other things):

      Chickens NEED heat and clean bedding (carbon) in winter but GIVE nitrogen.

      Compost NEEDS nitrogen and lots of carbon also, but GIVES off heat. "

      I've been studying and reading and I had really gotten stuck on the coop issue - as ours is a stand alone coop and not so big and so I do have to clean it out - and I think my brain is starting to really get this - I am going to spread some of the coop cleanings out in the areas the chickens have already been in (on the ground out of doors) since we arrive and lay in a layer of garden soil (I brought it all with me! No point leaving behind what you build, right?) and then seed it with the clover and peas and other field legumes etc I have to begin to turn this neglected mono-culture field grass back into a real eco-system for the girls to rotate through.

      I also think that in summer we really will not use the coop at all, as cute as it is, because they can easily be rotated through a large area with a minimal 'summer house' and that way we can really let the coop area regenerate over the summer season.

      Thanks for the great post. Gave me lots to think about!

    4. Becky - LOVED your comment. Permaculture certainly does give us lots to think about :) I recommend the book Gaia's Garden and because of your locale you should check out Throwback at Trapper Creek's blog. Must read!

    5. Thanks for the tip:D I've been reading and re-reading Gaia's garden for about two years now. lol and also have now got Sepp Holzer's book on his austrian style of permaculture too. I am itching to get the original Permaculture: A Designer's Manual, but it's so pricey! :( bleh.

      We have put in our first swale and berm and are building the first row of hugel beds at a 45 degree angle off the swale, just down slowpe. It's a lot of heavy work doing it all by hand but I'm very excited to get the first beds done and covered and planted - hope to be there within the next two weeks...

      I'll go check out this blog you mentioned. :) thanks -

      We also have ducks here and I've been reading and listening to a fellow who builds duck ponds which he uses to drip irrigate his gardens/hugel beds. LOL love that! One thing is for sure, I'll never be bored! I may never catch up to all my ideas and visions, but I'll never be bored! lol.

  5. In these testing monetary times, it's likewise a brilliant way to become more independent. Wooden chicken coops are perfect poultry houses for persons who need to raise chickens with a tight spending plan.