Making Compost in a Chicken Coop

MAYBE THE VERY BEST IDEA Maybe from Harvey Ussery’s book The Small-Scale Poultry Flock* is his strategy for using what he calls “deep litter” to manage manure in the chicken coop. Ussery’s coop doesn’t even have a hint of ammonia, yet he almost never cleans it out, and his chickens are healthier because he doesn’t.

As you can imagine, excessive ammonia from chicken manure can damage a chicken’s sense of smell and, of course, it can be unpleasant for humans, too. So Ussery essentially turns the chicken manure into compost right inside the chicken coop.

According to the author, composting inside the coop keeps his chickens healthy because the good compost microbes keep the bad microbes in check the same way they do in your garden. As a result, the chickens are less likely to develop infections. Also, chickens love to scratch and rummage through the litter, so they are entertained and happy. No one knows for sure, but I bet happy hens lay more eggs.

The key to deep litter

The key to his strategy is to start with 12 inches of high carbon bedding material to balance the high nitrogen manure. The litter must fluff up and not compact so that it contains enough air to feed the good microbes. Ussery usually uses oak leaves as bedding because he has a free source of the material, but straw or black and white newspaper stripes would be good alternatives. Anything that is carbon rich and will fluff up.Chicken Coop

Just about anyone who is interested in making compost knows that there are three golden rules you need to follow to get a pile cooking. You must:

1. Maintain a carbon to nitrogen materials ratio of about 30 to one.
2. Keep the pile moist but not too wet (like a damp sponge that has been wrung out).
3. Supply air to the microbes to keep them cooking.

The same rules apply with the deep litter method of chicken manure management. It’s also probably better to have a coop with a dirt floor when using this method. A floor would slow down the microbes migration from the dirt to the litter. It also would prevent the compost from wicking up moisture from the ground. See my post on Making Compost Faster.

The main problem with this method is keeping the litter damp and not too wet. Chickens are messy drinkers. You’ll have to take precautions to keep the drinking water out of the litter, otherwise mold and pathogens are likely to grow, which would be unhealthy for chickens and people.

One of the pluses of this type of manure management is that the chickens will happily turn the compost as part of their normal activities. You can even get them more excited about digging in the litter by hiding a little food in it.

Add bedding before it smells

At the first sign of ammonia (or even a little before), Ussery adds more litter. This adjusts the carbon to nitrogen ratio, making the microbes happy and eliminating the smell. If you do it right, you should generate a little natural heat from the compost, which the birds will appreciate in the winter.Rooster

Using this method, Ussery only has to clean out his coop when he needs compost. This takes some of the work out of raising chickens. Sounds like a good idea to me.

What do you think of this strategy? Does Harvey Ussery have the right idea or are there better methods? Let us know by commenting below.

Related articles:

1. Do Tumbling Compost Bins Work?
2. Composting Compostable Packaging
3. Seven Eco-friendly Ideas for the Garden

*If you purchase using this link, I make a small amount of money that helps me continue to keep writing this blog.



Don't miss an article. Enter your e-mail for FREE updates. NO SPAM. I promise.

16 Responses to “Making Compost in a Chicken Coop”

  1. January 6, 2012 at 8:14 pm #

    I don’t know where Harvey lives,so i have to say this may work for him,but i must say i don’t agree with most of it.However i do agree people should keep a few hens if they are able to.The first thing you should do is check your climate,just like you would do if you were putting in a garden.Your climate will change what you do to your litter.For instance,if you live in a high humidity area compared to a dry air area you will have to add as much litter because of the moisture in the air.What you use for a litter makes a big difference to,as chicken manure is always on the wet side.Peat moss is the best to use for the litter as this will absorb lots of moisture.Straw is the next best thing,but it tends to get greasy after a while.The other thing,that is not mentioned here,is fly’s.Chickens do not use up all the food they eat,so some of it comes out as manure.This being,if your litter is left too wet,it is an ideal place for fly’s to blow their eggs as there is lots of food in the manure for the maggots to eat.Keep your litter always on the dry side and this will not happen.Now i would not use the litter strait from the coop,no matter how much it had composted.The reason being,no matter how much you pick through it you will always get some raw manure with it.There lots of things to consider when doing this.If you are keeping your hens inside all the time,you need a bigger coop than you would if you had a chicken run outside.Having a chicken run outside is the best way to go,you can put your manure on the compost pile outside and compost it properly.Chicken manure is one of the strongest manures to use,and should be used with caution.I do not use any of this on my potato’s or beets,it will cause scab on both because it burns the skin.It is good for the onion family though,but don’t use too much.By the way,if you keep your hens inside all the time they are FREE RUN eggs,on the other hand,if you let them run out in a chicken run to run and scratch outside,they will be FREE RANGE eggs.The latter being a lot better for you.

    • January 6, 2012 at 9:31 pm #

      Hi Bob — Thanks for all the info. This is really good stuff. Harvey and his chickens live in Virginia I believe. He’s a very big believer in free range chickens and tries to get them as much pasture as possible.

      I have a lot of oak leaves on my property and I’ve noticed that they do a very good job absorbing moisture. They are very much like peat except that they don’t have to be drenched before they start absorbing moisture. The main difference is their pH is much more acidic than peat.

  2. January 24, 2012 at 11:17 pm #

    I hope one day to be able to own chickens. I heard its the best manure around! I also didn’t know that you could use it dry, seems easier to handle.

    • January 25, 2012 at 8:51 am #

      Kallie — It certainly is one of the best ways to feed your garden soil.

  3. February 27, 2012 at 9:59 am #

    Thanks for this info. I’m dying to have a chicken coop, not only for the eggs but for the compost as well. Unfortunately, the township I live in doesn’t allow it.

  4. Corrine
    March 10, 2012 at 4:15 pm #

    Raising chickens with our kids’ 4-H projects we’ve done it both ways, but we prefer the deep litter method as long as we keep up with it. If you don’t and it becomes wet & smelly we start over. With deep litter method you must keep adding more to maintain proper balance. We clean it all out 2-3x a year because there is a limit to how deep we can go with the coop’s wire doors between storage area & front door we use.

    On a nice spring or fall day we remove it prior to a big clean removing everything top to bottom & then spray with pinesol & let dry.

    It sure beats the 4″ method that gets smelly in a few weeks & then you clean out monthly if not sooner in wet winter weather.

    We like to use a mix of what is available at our local feed store unless we have a supply of bedding in our gardens such as dry leaves, pine needles, or dry grass clippings. White wood shavings and the wood stove pellets make a good balance. When we get it from a coffee shop we also use coffee chaff in the mix.

  5. Corrine
    March 10, 2012 at 4:18 pm #

    I forgot to mention we have screened off the area under roosts & remove those droppings every few weeks. The hens are not allowed to scratch those into the bedding & since they excrete quite a bit during roosting time we save on bedding costs.

    • March 10, 2012 at 5:09 pm #

      Adding a screened in area under the roosts is a great idea. It kind of combines the traditional method with the deep litter method, so that you need to add LESS litter but still benefit from the deep litter method .

  6. Barbra
    May 1, 2012 at 3:47 am #

    You’re ready for your new flock of hens: you have the coop, feeder and waterer and the chicks are on order. But what do you use for litter on the floor of the chicken coop? Pine shavings, hay, straw, or what? How often do you have to clean it out? And, for urban and suburban homesteaders especially, is it going to smell?

    • May 1, 2012 at 7:07 am #

      Barbra — Poultry expert Harvey Ussery suggests that if you use a high carbon material to balance out the nitrogen from the manure, it will not smell. He goes so far as to suggest that, with the deep litter method, you only need to clean out the coop when the compost is finished and you need it for your garden. I know that if you keep a compost heap balanced and not too wet, it doesn’t smell.

      Others think this is crazy and that it will never work. There’s just too much manure in most coops.

      As for what you should use for litter, that depends on what you can get at a reasonable cost. No sense in raising chickens if the litter costs you a fortune. I would be partial to oak leaves as a high carbon material that I can get for free. The key is it needs to be high carbon and absorbent. This is especially true if you try the deep litter method.

  7. Frankt T
    June 1, 2012 at 3:46 pm #

    If you are going to build a backyard coop I highly suggest using some chicken nipples to build your own hanging chicken waterer 😉

    The nipples screw into the bottom of a bucket and then you hang the bucket from a post or the side of the coop and it waters your chicks while keeping the water clean and fresh 🙂

    I purchased my chicken nipples from here:

  8. June 2, 2012 at 5:49 am #

    good information provided. I have built chicken coop

  9. Ray
    January 30, 2014 at 11:54 am #

    I have pine shavings in my coop . Every time I see lots of droppings under the roost I WORK IT IN THE SHAVING and my coop has a lot of ventilation and no smell . Litter was put in last September.


  1. Managing Manure: How to Use Deep Litter in Your Chicken Coop : Chelsea Green - April 3, 2012

    […] Article reposted from: Suburban Hobby Farmer […]

  2. Add Carbon: Deep Litter Method - Daddykirbs Farm - December 21, 2014

    […] There are many great examples of homesteaders using this technique. Here’s one I found with a quick search. Making Compost in a Chicken Coop. […]

Leave a Reply