Deep Litter

Chickens do most of the work.
The chooks do most of the work in a deep litter system.

Nearly all of the fresh, clean, organic material that comes into Ligaya Garden and most of our kitchen wastes and garden prunings goes into our 4 cylinder, deep litter system.

I say ‘4 cylinder’ because that’s how many chickens we have! They’re some of the hardest workers in the powerhouse engine of organic conversion that is our deep litter system.

So, what is ‘deep litter‘ (said with a deep, resounding voice for emphasis)?

It is the floor of our chicken house, though there is much more to it than that though, as you shall discover.

A deep litter system is a deep layer of organic material that forms the floor of a chicken run. Our’s starts at 30 deep and is composed of layered straw and organic material of every kind we can get our hands on. Eventually, it gets to about 45 cm thick!

The chickens live on the litter, scratching around and foraging for edible bits and pieces. As they live their comfortable life, they break down the size of pieces and turn the layers, bringing oxygen to the microbes and insects that quickly populate the system. They are constantly adding fertilizer to the mix in the form of poo and they constantly mix this into the bed of materials.

As soon as it is established, microbes and arthropods rush in to colonise this new living space. They find food, moisture and shelter there and begin breaking it down. After a little time, fungi will start to populate the deep litter and, if you turn some over, you will see the white threads of mycelia sewn throughout the material. They break down different materials, the ones that the microbes can’t digest. This is mostly woody material that is high in lignin and cellulose.

Mycelia show that all is well.
Fungi show their presence through white threads of mycelia.

The microbes and bacteria form a symbiosis, each feeding the other and, in turn, providing food for the arthropods.

This is the bit that the chickens love. They get to eat a pretty constant supply of fresh insects, worms and crustaceans (Slaters are Crustaceans and taste like Shrimp!). Pretty well all of the requirements of being a happy chook are met by a deep litter system. To that, we add daily grain, shell grit and fresh, cool water.

It is an ecosystem of its own, all contained in a chicken run.

Digging out the goodness to put on the garden.
Digging out the goodness to put on the garden.

The benefits of deep litter

There are any benefits from having a deep litter system, some for the chook, some for the garden and some for me too!

The benefits for the chickens come in several forms. There’s mental health – chooks are foragers and like nothing more than scratching for their food. They love to scratch and dust bathe in the drier material. There are reduced parasites because the deep litter is a complex ecosystem and the nasty type of worms and their eggs just don’t survive the conditions (the good worms – earthworms and composting worms will move in as soon as possible to help with breaking the litter down at its lowest levels and provide a happy find for the girls from time to time when they dig deep).

They get a pretty mixed diet from it too. All the variety of organic material that gets thrown in as well as the bugs that come to partake as well make for a pretty good selection of food. Chickens can also produce a precursor for vitamin B12 from broken down chook poo. This is good for them and also gets passed into the eggs, so that’s good for us!

There are benefits for we human folk too. The system needs minimal care and only takes major effort when the deep litter is being removed and another batch started. The microbes, insects and chickens take care of most of it for us, we just need to keep on adding organic material and making sure that it doesn’t get too wet for too long. The aforementioned B12 is a dietary bonus and the joy of knowing that our flock is being fed and entertained safely away from vulnerable plants in the wider garden is a great relief.

How to start a deep litter system of your own

When starting the next system, I always start with a bale of dry Lucerne. This is a super-nutritious food source for the biota to start feasting on. The chickens mix it around but don’t eat it. They prefer the next layers, which are regular straw followed by and mixed with dry leaf litter, small branches and twigs. Then there is a layer of kitchen scraps and grass clippings from Dad and as many neighbours as we can get them from. The final layer is a bale of fine straw or sugar cane mulch. This gets laid straight over the soil and remnants from the previous system that I left for this purpose. The two are lightly mixed together. Try to avoid Pea Straw as it can harbour mold and other nasties in its hollows until it is broken down.

Other excellent materials to add are sawdust, wood shavings and Pine needles.

I water the first two layers and the rest pick up their moisture from being constantly mixed and exposure to the rain.

After that, the chooks are let loose and, over time, more and more organic material is given to the chickens in the course of their normal feeding. They work this I to the deep litter pretty quickly and very effectively

A deep litter system is a living, moving, growing compost heap that is constantly stirred and fertilized by happy chickens. It provides a finely cut, rich organic additive to the garden that won’t burn the roots of plants or the leaves of seedlings when it is added, as it is already well composted.

Just add water!

Take your chook poo to the next level with this percolator.
Take your chook poo to the next level with this percolator.

Maintaining the deep litter

The key to successful deep litter system is stopping it getting too wet. If is is mostly dry and friable, it’s easy for the girls to scratch around in it. Once it becomes waterlogged, it will become compacted and start to smell a bit.

Turn over the deep litter occasionally. Our girls really love this part because they can get to titbits that they missed earlier and there are also new bugs that have made their way into the system. It’s heaven for a chook! Turning it also helps reduce moisture build up, and introduces more oxygen into the system which helps it all break down more quickly and removes any chance of it going anaerobic and smelling. You can add sand or sprinkle shell grit in from time to time to improve the drainage and airflow. The shell grit will help to buffer any excess acidity too.

If the system gets waaaay too waterlogged, you can try mixing in sand to improve the drainage or wood shavings or even sawdust from untreated wood to absorb some of the excess. As a last straw (pun intended), you can remove a good quantity of the wet deep litter material and replace it with something drier.

As our deep litter system is mostly enclosed, I’ve made sure that there is great ventilation. Moving air helps reduce smell and the chance of pathogen build up and helps keep the place drier. Without ventilation, the deep litter in the chook house would smell worse than a teenager’s bedroom!

Another way to reduce the chance of building up nasties and reduce any odours already present is to sprinkle around wood ash or hydrated lime from time to time. Coffee grounds work nicely too if you can get your hands on a large amount.

I recommend not dumping the cleanings from the chook house or roost into the deep litter. This is pretty concentrated stuff and may overwhelm the efforts of the chickens, microbes and insects to break it down. Remove it and use it in the garden. You can check out our Chicken Poo Percolator idea for a way to get the maximum benefit from it.

Removing the deep litter

From time to time, I will remove a couple of bucketfuls from the chicken run to use ar required around the garden. Sometimes, we have too much material in the run so a little has to be removed for it to work effectively.

Four times a year, I dig out roughly three quarters of the (now, well composted) deep litter and spread it on the garden. Our chicken run provides enough for a 2 – 3 cm layer of compost and mulch throughout the entire garden. Digging it out and distributing it is probably the physically toughest job in Ligaya Garden. It’s hard work 🙂

Whatever I remove gets watered into the garden with rain water – tap water would kill off those precious microbes that are now being introduced to the wider garden. So much goodness is washed into the soil and continues to enter the soil ecosystem as the deep litter continues to break down.

When I remove it from the chicken run, I leave about 10%. Some of this remains untouched – a refuge from which the litter life can sally forth and colonise the new materials that are soon added. The remainder of this gets roughly mixed with the first layer of new material that is added. This is so that populations can quickly grow and spread to colonise and start breaking down the new stuff.

Our Community adds to the system

We’ve reached out to our community for materials to add to the deep litter and were overwhelmed by what we’ve received. There’s too much for a small setup like ours so we’ve connected with a few other folks around Gawler who can use it. Nathalie across the road contribute grass clippings and some of the local coffee shops, Poetic Justice, Cafe Sia Gawler and Cafe Nova contribute spent coffee grounds by the bucket. Boost Juice Gawler donates all of their scraps and pressed fruit and vegetables and their empty buckets. Greg’s Shared Garden give us compressed bales of straw here and there and I we swap herbs with them.

Uncle Rob’s Worm Farm take all of the scraps and grounds that we can’t use (and that’s a lot!) and Barossa Gourmet Mushrooms gladly take excess coffee grounds and the plastic buckets from Boost.

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