When I first obtained chickens, I had four: three hens and a rooster. I eagerly scoured the internet and library reference books in an effort to learn everything I could about chickens. I want the very best for my birds! In terms of coop litter management I came across one recommendation fairly often: deep litter composting. Of course this was how I decided to manage my litter initially but after a year of trying I called it quits.
Deep litter composting is a method of litter management in which the chicken litter is left inside the coop to compost as the chickens are still using it. This means the litter must be turned regularly, with new bedding added as needed. The litter is supposed to compost and therefore not smell. The idea is you use less litter and as an added bonus in the winter, composting generates heat from the good bacteria breaking everything down which helps keep the coop warm. Spoiler alert: this did not work for me. Additionally, when writing this article I’ve searched Google Scholar for evidence that deep composting is effective and came up with exactly zero articles. It’s all speculation!
There are numerous types of litter and even more opinions regarding each type but here’s the most common types for backyard chicken keepers: straw, untreated pine shavings, or sand. For deep litter composting straw and pine shavings should be used as sand does not compost.
I don’t have a picture of my initial coop set up but I was using straw and at its deepest it was roughly 2′ deep. I stirred the straw regularly with a pitch fork and added new every two week or so and the coop always smelled like an old barn. When summer ramped up it started to smell of ammonia so I did a deep cleaning and put all new straw in. However, within a month of the deep cleaning I added seven new birds to the coop and it only took a couple of months before I threw in the towel. In case you didn’t know: chickens poop a lot!
Every morning there were massive piles of droppings under the roost. I’d turn them under and add new straw, but despite doing this daily the coop was dusty and wreaked of ammonia. I was going through a bag of straw every two weeks! That was NOT cost effective and the litter was straight up nasty. Ammonia also poses a serious health risk for chicken’s delicate respirator systems. And news flash: it wasn’t even warm. There was no composting action happening at all even with the addition of Mana Pro’s Coop N’ Compost.
That’s when I came across a post by popular blogger The Chicken Chick: “Dropping Boards, because Poop Happens“. The idea is you put a board underneath the roost to catch the poop and you scoop it up daily. I was sold.
I consulted with my handy-dandy boyfriend and laid out my idea. I wanted to use scrap plywood and install it using scrap 2x4s as braces against the wall. He thought I had lost my marbles, but he complied with me anyways! This was on Thanksgiving Day 2019. We ended up having the materials on hand, and we added a little trim piece from more scrap wood to help contain everything. As a bonus I also had leftover cabinet paint that I used to paint the whole thing. Cabinet paint is water resistant so the plywood should last for ages. The only tools we used were a circular saw and a drill. It took longer to paint it than it did to build it, and even if you had to buy the materials brand new it should cost less than $20 without paint. This is a trivial amount compared to the cost of all the straw I was buying!
As I’m sure you’ve noticed: that’s not straw I’m using. I decided to switch to pine flake at this point because the straw was just way too dusty. Pine can be dusty too, but so far it’s been much less than the straw. The Chicken Chick swears by sand but I decided not to use sand because one of my ladies has a recurrent case of bumble foot and the vet said jumping onto hard surfaces can cause it or worsen it. Additionally my large roo, Rooster Cogburn, likes to nest with his lady Henrietta on the coop floor. Sand would not be very comfortable for them and with pine shavings (vs straw) I can easily scoop up their larger clumps of poo with a cat litter scoop. Sand doesn’t compost either and depending on where you purchase it, it can also be dusty.
That brings me to my final point, the fine layer of sand material that you see on the dropping board is Sweet PDZ. You know that expensive Coop N’ Compost from Manna Pro that costs $9 for a tiny bottle that is gone in one application? Don’t waste your money on that. I purchased Sweet PDZ, a horse stall refresher in a 25 pound bag for $11 at Tractor Supply and this stuff is the bomb, and it is essentially the same thing as the Coop N’ Compost. Not only is it safe for compost, but it’s safe for ingestion if an animal eats it. I spread some over the litter and a nice layer of it on the dropping board. It’s now February 2020 and I’ve never witnessed my birds try to eat it or get onto the dropping board.
It has been three months since installing the dropping board and I have not had to change my litter once! I’ve added extra as needed which has totaled one bag of pine flake and half of a bag of Sweet PDZ. I do still rotate the litter with a pitch fork every 1-2 weeks do stir in any missed droppings. Thus far the litter has remained dry and not smelly. Only a daily basis I scoop up roughly half a gallon of poop from the litter board and it only takes a couple of minutes! The poop goes straight to the compost pile. This system is dynamite!
My advice is, if you have less than five birds, deep composting may actually work. Any more birds and you should reconsider using deep composting as a safe and effective method of coop management.
Edit (04/10/2020): I made it until the end of March with no need to change the pine shavings since Thanksgiving, but roughly three weeks ago I decided to purchase a new litter type from Tractor Supply, Grounds All Natural Animal Bedding. It is made from recycled, used coffee grounds. I spent $30 and bought three bags which covered my 5′ by 6′ coop with roughly 3-4″ of bedding. I continued to use pine shavings in the brood boxes. Grounds is dust free, recycled, and fully compostable. My thoughts are it is better than sand because it is compostable, and sand can contain dust. As an added bonus, I can now scoop any wayward poops. It’s been three weeks and my coop smells like a fresh cup of joe and is largely poop free. I have also started saving and drying my own coffee grounds to help replenish any that is lost. I hope to make it six months to a year without changing the bedding!