This timely post was updated in November 2015:
Chicken yard . . .deep litter taco? What in the world—?? Bear with me, Gentle Reader. This is great information for you, trust me on this. For all of us. For the world. Valuable. Timely. And so on. Mostly if you have chickens in your backyard, and even if you don’t.
Even if you merely have chicken aspirations at present.
And who wouldn’t?? I mean, really. Chickens are so awesome.
Newsflash: I’m pretty tender-hearted where my chooks are concerned. You’ve probably guessed that by now, though. After all, anybody who would spend most of a day trying to get her hen to vomit to save her life (Well. It worked.) could be construed as a tender-hearted person.
As a matter of fact . . . a couple of days ago, when I noticed that the o’er-amorous (ahem) attentions of my superfluous roosters (until that day, we called them “The Idiot Quads” but afterwards, I renamed them all Bone Broth: Bone Broth 1, Bone Broth 2, and so on. . . ) had bloodied one of my very favorite little hens (“Butterscotch,” a petite Buff Orpington bantam), it pretty much ruined my entire day.
I found my little Butterscotch–on a nice day, too–hanging out in the coop all by herself, feathers missing, scabs on her back, trembling, disheveled, ill at ease–for good reason, too. Poor little hen! I watched her for a few minutes, wondering what-in-the-world? She clearly wanted to go outside with her friends, where the feed and water was, too, but when she hopped up to the back door and stuck her beak out the door, tentatively, daintily . . . then the trouble would start.
Those Idiot Bone Broth fellows would drop whatever mischief they were involved in outside (giving wedgies to the smaller roosters, drawing moustaches on political ads and whatnot), and make a mad dash straight to Butterscotch. “There she is, guys, let’s get ‘er!!” The first one to the terrified little hen would jump on her, and then the other three would follow suit. They’d continue to squabble over her until I came running with a pitchfork to break up the lustful brawl.
“For Pete’s sake!!” I’d shriek, like the crazy chicken lady that I apparently have become. “You big fat dummies—Get a life!!”
But wait, hear me out. Butterscotch is only 8″ tall, if that, and those BB fellows are all big, strapping, full-grown regular-sized roosters. Pshaw!! Can you see why I was so disgusted? I hate a bully, and I hate four bullies working in tandem even more.
The crazy thing was: at that moment in time, there were only about 35 other hens standing idly by, most of them plump and placid and full-sized, so why did they pick on tiny little Butterscotch? I can only guess. But anyway. Those fellows are going in the freezer in just a couple of days, so they won’t be ruining my day–or any more of poor Butterscotch’s days, either–much longer.
(Later--the fellows are in the freezer now, so I can sleep nights and so, Gentle Reader, can you, if you’re feeling sympathetic toward my smallest hen. And so can Butterscotch. Crazy Chicken Lady gets the last laugh. HA!) 🙂
So back to the tender-hearted thing: it’s a blessing and a curse, isn’t it? The blessing is that I’ll go to great lengths to make sure my chickens are comfortable out in their coop, especially with winter coming. The curse is that if I fail, and I know that they are suffering, I’ll lie awake and worry about them. Literally–lie awake. Yes, I will lose sleep over my chickens.
Somebody help me.
On to the topic at hand. One thing I really enjoy about fall gardening and yard clean-up is making my chicken yard deep litter taco. Gosh, I can’t figure out what to call it: deep litter burrito? Deep litter tostada? Deep litter open-faced sammage? Deep litter super-nachos?
Oooh! Deep-litter Better-than-Robert-Redford dessert?? Something with lots of layers . . . .
During the growing season, weeds and small sticks and garden refuse and grass clippings go into my dearly beloved compost pile by way of, you know, my trusty wheelbarrow. But in the fall, my compost pile is o’erfull, and I start to haul all that goodness to the chicken yard. And believe me, I’m smiling the entire time, especially since I discovered the wonders of sprouting grains. . . . not to mention the incredible surprise of the secretly sprouting grains! You’ll have to click on those links to remind yourself of all that excitement, though.
Also quite satisfying is letting my flock do my work for me, in making a nice supply of compost for my spring garden. However is all this accomplished at once, you’re wondering? Are you dizzy yet, or are you following my train of thought? Forgive me. I’m getting so excited thinking about it all, I’m rapidly losing my coherencey . . . corehncy. . . ability to be understood.
Well. Before I continue, let’s review the deep litter idea in the coop itself, and then we’ll build (no pun intended) on that. Harvey Ussery (I really really want this book!!) writes extensively about deep litter in plenty of online articles, not to mention in this book that I really, really want . . . here’s a quick quote from Backyard Poultry, by Mr. Ussery, since I couldn’t say it better myself (after the screen shot of the book I really desire with all my heart–):
“A deep organic litter, constantly turned by the chickens, absorbs the droppings, their nitrogen content serving as “fuel” for the microbes breaking down the litter’s carbon content, readying the result for return to earth (a.k.a our gardens) to power fertility cycles. Sounds a lot like composting, which I thought was a lot of work.”
In other words, by keeping a deep litter (I heap layers of straw, or hay, grass clippings, and leaves) in the coop, the chickens toss it and poop in it and scratch in it and poop in it some more and make the most beautiful compost, by the end of the winter. I help it along, too, by tossing it once a week with my pitchfork. Awesome, huh? In the early spring, I haul out much of that prime compost from the coop, straight out to my garden. (And you thought it was my green thumb . . . ) The secret’s out: it’s my chickens who are responsible for my beautiful garden. Well, the chickens–the compost they make–and my work with the pitchfork. 🙂
I keep a deep litter in my coop year-round, and the chickens continually add to it, scratching and fluffing and finding all sorts of things to eat in it. It becomes a perfect soil amendment, after months of degradation, and believe it or not–as long as it doesn’t get deep wet spots it doesn’t smell.
As Joel Salatin says:
“If you are around any livestock operation, regardless of species, and you smell manure—you are smelling mismanagement.” ~Joel Salatin
And speaking of great books to read, I’m reading this one right now by Mr. Salatin and . . . you need to read it too, Gentle Reader. I think you’d LOVE it. I do, at least so far.
Every time I sit down to read this book for even just a few minutes, I get up with my head spinning (not literally) with all sorts of new/old ideas. I’ll write a review on it when I’m finished. But you could just skip my review and read the book! Your head really ought to be spinning, too, in my opinion. Everybody ought to read it, I can say that right now, before even finishing it. Joel Salatin is a forthright fellow, and a very successful farmer, and he calls himself a “lunatic farmer” so of course I know I’d like him. But be careful–this book could change your life.
But back to our deep litter and hopefully–finally–to the Subject At Hand: the deep litter lasagna pile! As in the compost heap, ammonia production in your coop (or yard) signals a decomposition process out of balance. I layer dry leaves (oak leaves, I think, are the best, in my experience, although most leaves work well) with grass clippings, hay, straw, even wood chips in the coop. Now and then I stuff fresh bedding in the egg boxes so the eggs have a chance at being clean when I pick them up. That’s about how fancy I get in the coop with bedding. About twice a year, I scoop out about half the bedding and use it in the garden, for fertilizing heavy feeders like asparagus and tomatoes and rhubarb, or I give it to my mom (who does the same) or I add it to my compost pile to heat it up. I love the stuff. So does my mom. So do both our gardens.
So should everybody. So should you.
Deep litter, basically, is awesome stuff, and it’s easy to maintain: the chickens do nearly all the work of making it into compost! And I’m a BIG fan of delegating any many chores as possible, as you might imagine.
Okay. Now here’s the really cool thing: you can let your chickens do the same magic trick out in their yard, by building a chicken yard taco. Or burrito. Or what-have-you. A multi-layered mountain of refuse and organic matter, which the chickens will spend the best parts of their day in, scratching and rooting and eating and grinning like crazy.
I don’t confine my chooks to their yard--they have free-range of our place much of the time–but in the winter, the colder weather does keep them closer to the coop. Once there’s snow on the ground, they will venture out of their coop, but only just. It’s not like there are grasshoppers or crickets or worms or weeds or other goodies outside the yard to snap up when the world is frozen, you know.
But. You can make sure that your chooks have plenty of good things to eat by augmenting their yard with a pile of layered organic matter. Believe me, a flock of chickens can make short work of a pile of grass, hay, leaves, sticks, and garden refuse. They will peck and scratch and find things to eat in there–I’m still not quite sure what–and if you have a high enough pile, there will be bugs and other little critters underneath that they will dig up and eat. Basically you want to avoid a bare, hard yard during the winter. You want crumbliness and diggability and all this organic matter will give you that. Underneath that pile, nature is making food for your chickens–food that you don’t have to buy or lug home from the store! Actually, probably better food than you can lug home from the farm store.
Are you sold yet on making a deep litter tostada for your chicken yard? It’s easy to do. I can guarantee that if your chickens were reading this over your shoulder, they’d be nodding and exchanging excited glances and nudging you gently on. “Do it–do it–do it–do it!!” That’s what they would be saying.
Here’s how I do it: in the fall, when I’m cleaning up my garden and yard, first I scatter plenty of (untreated, and unheated) grain on the ground in the chicken yard. If I have any old pieces of cardboard, I’ll put it on top of the grain. On top of this, I pile lots of garden and yard refuse: weeds. Tomato vines. Spent plants from the garden. Orchard trimmings. One thing I do not include: thorny trimmings from the locust trees or rose bushes. I don’t want my chooks to harm their feet, after all.
Once I’ve got a nice big pile (you’d be surprised at how a flock will decimate it, over time) I heap grass clippings and/or a couple bales of hay and/as many leaves as I can get my hands on, on top of it all. By the time I’m finished, I have quite a big pile!
And that, of course, is what I want. Now, whenever I got out to feed the chooks, I toss some of their scraps and also some of the grain that I feed them every day, on top of that pile. Not all of it, but some of it. So they’ll start scratching in it right away, to get at the good stuff. And they’ll scratch in it every blessed day this winter, except for those few days when there are inches of snow or ice on top of the pile. By spring, they will have made the nicest, fluffiest garden amendment that you can imagine.
My chickens do so much work for me! And yours could do some great things for you, too.
P.S. I’ve written more posts about chicken feeding and care through the winter, which you can check out here:
*On Sprouting Grains for Chickens, not to mention:
*I Keep My Chickens Laying All Winter Long! and here’s how (super secret info, just for you), but that’s not all–
*How Chickens Can Sometimes Cause You to Lose Your Mind: A Cautionary Tale (read at your own risk, it’s a tear-jerker)
Looky, Gentle Reader, you made it to the end of this long, rambling post! Yay you, and thank you so much for reading! *platonic smooch*
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