How to prepare your chicken yard for winter: make a deep litter taco!

This timely post was updated in November 2015:

deep litter chicken

“I’m one happy hen, ’cause my farm lady cares enough to build me a big layered mess in my yard that I can climb on and dig in and scratch about it, and eat little titbits from . . . !”

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.

Truth.

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!) ๐Ÿ™‚

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.

chicken yard taco

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.

chicken yard taco

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 wantย  . . . 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 litterโ€™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. ๐Ÿ™‚

favetoms4.2

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:

โ€œIf you are around any livestock operation, regardless of species, and you smell manureโ€”you are smelling mismanagement.โ€ ~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.

chicken yard taco

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.

chicken yard pile

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!

chicken yard taco

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.

chicken yard taco

“Yup. We work our fingers to the bone for that farm woman. Gosh.”

P.S. I’ve written more posts about chicken feeding and care through the winter, which you can check out here:

* “Surprising Chickens: Bobbing for corn on the cob, and winter feeding tips” <—–this one’s fun! and also . . .

*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*

*hugs* also

my French rolling pin

By the way. I’m opening a shop soon, and this is what will be in it: rolling pins made by my Dad. Pretty sweet, hmm?

26 thoughts on “How to prepare your chicken yard for winter: make a deep litter taco!

  1. Mary

    Your Bone Broth team reminded me so much of a banty rooster we had on our acre growing up. Seems he took a major dislike toward me, and would attack every chance he had. It got to the point where I feared the daily egg-gathering chore. But one day, I was home alone and had little choice. So I took the handle of a shovel with me for defense. It may sound cruel, but this guy was getting the best of me. Well… he came at me, I took a swing… and I kid you not.. I broke that shovel handle in half as it sent the bird flying through the air. I watched him sail through the air, land, get up, shake it off… and come at me again. A week later he ended up in our freezer. It was of little surprise that his meat was tougher than all get out!

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      OH MARY, we’ve had similar things happen with mean roosters at our place. We don’t allow them to boss people around for long, though. They can be downright dangerous, with their spurs and their fearlessness. Bah on them, say I!

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Liese–thank you and you have earned my undying gratitude for passing it along to your neighbor. ALSO for reminding me that I was going to add a note about city-dwellers and how it is possible to make a deep litter for your chooks, even if you live in town, just on a smaller scale. Thanks again for sharing! *smooch*

  2. elly stornebrink

    Amy, I love your style of writing and the pics (though wish the post was a bit shorter!) and your ‘chooks’ are pretty; however, I would love to see a video of this, not necessarily making the taco/burrito/lasagna pile, but the hens in there scratching and digging and stuff! Oh, and by the way, you sure do sound like a farmhand in a stereotpyical way, though I sure do enjoy it, truly! ๐Ÿ™‚ <3 And by the way, I don't have chickens nor plan to; however, who knows I may go spend time on an organic farm some day… ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. Alana(@RamblinGarden)

    Poor Butterscotch. Her saga reminds me of when we owned chickens, nearly 30 years ago. There was one rooster who was the barnyard bully and dared to attach spouse, putting a spur in his calf. After that the bully was named Chicken Crowquette. Before he could make this threat come true, we found the bully cowering behind a feed bin. The other roosters had gotten fed up with his antics. Mr. Chicken Crowquette met his fate the following day, and yes, he made a pretty delicious (if not tough) croquette.

  4. K. Lee Banks

    Amy, I love reading your stories! You have an engaging writing style! Your chickens are so pretty, too. Unlike you, I really don’t know much about them, so I had no idea there were so many different kinds of chickens with such brilliant colors and markings.

    I will have to share this post the next time I see someone writing about caring for chickens.

    By the way, did you ever figure out why the bullies were picking on poor little Butterscotch? Is she OK now?

  5. Stacie

    Thanks for the post. I’ve been doing the same thing this fall & winter. I also sump the muck bucket after I clean the goat’s pen into the chicken pen, my chickens just love it! They think it’s someone’s birthday when I bring it. I think I’ll start raking some up and putting it into the chicken house also ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Carolyn White

    I love this idea of keeping the coop and area but I live in northern Wisconsin where we can get 15″ of snow in one day — thinking all that wonderful straw, leaves etc for the chicks to scratch around in would be buried . . . anyone else from Wisconsin and what/how do you approach this? Thanks! I am a newbie, first year with chickens, have 12 meat chicks, 5 hens 2 roosters (mistake by where we got them), 2 turkeys and 2 ducks. We plan to bless and process to my pantry the 12 meat chicks in 3 weeks, either give away or process our duckies because it’s too much wetness with winter coming up. We were going to have the turkeys for the holidays but my husband is getting so attached to them they may be guests rather than dinner! So for over the winter we will have 7 birds possibly the turkeys. Any tips would be greatly appreciated!

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Hi Carolyn! You raise a very interesting question (about what to do with the chicken yard in deep snow areas) and I will post it in my vomitingchicken Facebook page- (https://www.facebook.com/vomitingchicken?fref=ts) so you might want to follow along, if you’re on Facebook. Here are my recommendations, for what it’s worth: First, I’d process one of those roos with the meat chickens. Two roos with 5 hens is a very roo-heavy proportion, and by winter’s end the hens are going to be in poor shape, poor things. Then I’d erect some sort of a shelter against the snow–think a sheet of plywood leaned up against the coop? and anchored with t-posts?–and build your deep litter in there. With only 6 chickens, even just a tiny bit of yard will be wonderful for them. We get snow, too, though very rarely 15″ at a shot. I have to scoop a path to my coop, and will even scoop an area in the yard, if necessary. The chickens will still get out in their yard if they have a path scooped for them. ๐Ÿ˜‰ OR when there’s lots of snow, I’ll pile an armload of dry hay on top of the snow and the chickens come right out in it. Blessings to you, Carolyn–let me know what you do!

  7. Lynda Holliday

    Well, I was going to just lay around on my day off today, but after reading a few of your articles I think I will be outside today. Really a much better idea since it is a beautiful day. Thanks for all your ideas and information!
    Lynda

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Lynda, good for you. You really need to be out in the sunshine soaking up that vitamin D while you can, if you’re anything like me. I miss the sunshine during the winter months, to be sure!

  8. Chef William

    I love it when you have had two cups of bullet proof coffee, you writing takes on a whole different twist. Taco feed for chickens that could someday become taco filling themselves. I love it.
    I will watch my brother in law and see what he does for his chickens for the winter but I think it is pretty much what he does for them the rest of the year, let them run around all day digging for food, then a little before sundown, tossing some corn to them to round off their meal….they sleep in trees, although they do have a coop if they wish, but most of the prefer the trees.

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Oh Chef, you are a diehard reader to recognize my writing when I’ve had too much coffee!! Your comment made me laugh! I think your chicken raising in Mexico is quite a bit more natural than ours here in Nebraska. Your climate allows for more free-ranging, and perhaps people aren’t so uptight about where chickens do and don’t belong. In fact my mother has always wanted a couple of hens at her place (in town) but the town rules haven’t allowed it in the past. Perhaps they do now.

  9. Ali

    Hi! I’m new to the whole chicken thing and am planning to get some in the spring – i get so put off reading some chicken blogs but yours always inspires me so much! It’s matter of fact but without dumping a load of negativity on your reader- and it’s funny too! Anyway, thanks to you I’m sold on chickens!
    What I wanted to ask was, do you have or have ever had a problem with rats? I had heard that putting grain into deep fill encouraged rats. I’m going to deep fill my chicken yard but need no excuses for neighbours to complain! Any advice always welcome.

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Ali, you’ll have to clarify this phrase for me: “putting grain into deep fill.” Is that deep litter (American translation)? I’ll give you my RAT experience, free: I’ve only had trouble with rats twice. One time was when we lived in town (ironically) and the feed was going so FAST I couldn’t believe it; until I walked in one morning and saw RATS! Yuck!! I got some rat poison and put it in a shoebox, securely taped against the chooks, of course, with a rat-sized hole in the end. They cleaned it up and no more rats.
      The second time was out here at our acreage, but it was when I was leaving food out in the yard. When I started only feeding my chooks what they could eat in a day’s time (rather than leaving a full feeder out all the time) the rats went away. We live not far from a landfill, so there are rats about. ๐Ÿ™ My advice: only put out as much food as your chickens can eat in a day’s time. When they are finished with it, they’ll scratch and root and find goodies in the deep litter. Chickens will go after mice and rats, too, if they see them. Good luck! And check back with me. I’d love to hear how it’s going for you! *hugs*

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