Why I Don’t Use Deep Litter

The deep litter bedding system has been widely touted and has become a trend. The gist of it is that you start with a 12-inch layer of clean bedding, and leave it there for up to a year. The chickens add manure, which they shred as they scratch around, it eventually disappears into the bedding. The bedding itself breaks down creating rich humus. Bugs arrive and burrow and the hens eat them. The bedding is added to over time so that the top layer remains dry, and yet underneath it is like a warm, damp compost pile. Done properly there is no rank odor and the hens are happy, busy and healthy.

It’s wonderful in theory, and is a good system – but only in certain situations. It is rarely adaptable for the backyard chicken keeper of a small, mixed-age flock. It is also not the no-work system that people say it is. LIke a properly done hot compost pile, it requires constant attention to maintain the right balance. Done right, your hens’ entire coop floor becomes a rich playground to scratch and feed in (for bugs will thrive). Done improperly and you have a manure-laden, disease-breeding, stinky mess.

My first issue with deep litter is that is should be built on a dirt floor. A wood floor will absorb ammonia and moisture and will eventually rot. Concrete doesn’t allow for microbes and drainage. But, I don’t like dirt floors. They allow for vermin like rats and mice to burrow in to the coop. Predators can gain entrance. Depending on drainage, a dirt floor can absorb and hold wet and ammonia.

Secondly, you’ll have a foot of bedding in your coop. Do you have the appropriate doors that can open and shut with a that much bedding pressing against them? Are the walls of your coop constructed in such a way that they won’t disintegrate with that bedding fermenting against them?

In order for the deep litter system to work, the bedding needs to stay damp under the top layer of dry shavings. There will be a lot of moisture in the air. The coop has to have very good ventilation. Production farmers who do deep litter in large and airy barns, often with fans and cupolas, are providing their flocks with good air quality. But, I’ve heard of many backyard hens, housed in small coops with deep litter who suffered from respiratory ailments due breathing bad air.

Another issue that I have with deep litter is that its success depends on active hens foraging and turning over the bedding. If your chickens spend most of their days outside and only roost in the coop at night, the poop will build up, especially under the roosting bars. The barn floor will simply turn into a big, stinky manure pile. If you have old hens that stand around more than scratch, then they won’t be able to keep the deep litter working properly. If you have too few hens, the deep litter will not be turned over as needed. Too many hens and manure is added faster than the system can break it down.

I also worry about the buildup of internal parasites that happen in deep litter systems. Manure carries eggs and bits of nasty creatures like tapeworms, that burrow into the bedding, and continue their life cycles by being consumed by insect hosts, which are then eaten up by the chickens. I control internal parasites here by mucking out the pens weekly and so interrupting the parasite’s lifecycle. I’ve never had a parasite problem here and have never had to use chemical wormers. The deep litter system, by housing the hens over their manure, can be a breeding ground for infestations. On top of that, it can also be a nursery for fly larvae. I recently heard from an inexperienced chicken keeper who lost two birds to fly strike (maggots get into the animals’ flesh. It’s horrible.) Supposedly, with deep litter, the chickens eat all of those larvae and maggots. However, if the population of the bugs becomes greater than the chickens can control, you will have a very serious problem.

Deep litter can be accomplished successfully in an all in/all out system. This is when the farmer gets a flock of pullets and puts them all into fresh deep litter bedding. After one or two laying cycles, the hens are harvested, the bedding removed, the barns sanitized, and then a new flock is brought in. This mitigates the fly and parasite problem. Also, the hens don’t live long enough for an internal worm problem to take hold. But, all in/all out is not practical for the backyard enthusiast.

People who advocate for deep litter claim that their barns stay warm, because the deep litter, while breaking down, creates heat like a hot compost pile. A deep litter system in a perfect balance does make the coop cozy, but chickens really don’t need heat in the winter, and the damp that comes off the pile can cause an unhealthy chill, especially if ventilation isn’t ideal.

Promoters of deep litter talk about the ease of care, that all you have to do is top off the bedding once in awhile. That’s true, but when I think about a year’s worth of manure and compost to shovel and haul, my back starts to hurt. I’d much rather tidy up weekly.

I do agree with the advocates of deep litter that earth and compost contains healthy microbes, and that loose dirt to scratch in provides necessary activity and also protein from the bugs that are consumed. But, you don’t need deep litter to provide these things. I have a compost pile in the chicken run. It does all of the positive things of deep litter, but it also keeps the run and coop dry and tidy. My compost in the chicken run is a modified deep litter. There’s soft earth for digging, healthy microbes, and bugs. I toss in garden refuse, bedding cleaned out of the goat stall, and scraps from my kitchen.

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Meanwhile, the coops are dry and clean. It works for me.

The deep litter system might work for you. If you have the proper housing. If you are experienced enough to recognize when it is right and when it isn’t. If you have active, young chickens to do the work. If you know enough to regulate moisture and can judge when to top off the bedding. Don’t jump onto the deep litter bandwagon because it is the trendy thing to do, or because you’ve been told that it’s the best way to be sustainable/organic. It’s one option. It can provide an enriched environment for your hens. But it can also go very, very wrong. As with all animal keeping, pay attention to the individuals under your care. Think critically about the facilities you have. Constantly monitor your flock’s health and behavior. There’s a lot of advice out there and right now, it might seem as if everyone is telling you to switch to deep litter. Heck, I give a lot of advice here on this blog – of course I hope that you’ll agree with me. But, what I’d really like you to do is not to blindly follow what I say, but to listen to your animals. Spend time in the barn with them. Breathe their air. Watch their behavior. Then you’ll make the right decisions for them and yourself.

Comments:

  1. Thank you Terry for your wonderful, insightful wisdom here. I completely agree and often wondered why/how the deep litter method could be a good thing. I have 8 hens and clean it at least once a week to keep things fresh. A bit of tidying every day seems MUCH easier than a once a year clean-up – wow.

  2. We too, did the compost thing and it is the best! It gives the girls more to do during the day and especially in the winter! They have more variety in their diet and there is less work for me too! It was one of the best tips you have offered Terry. We actually just built this on to our coop with a hinged lid and front door for access/cleaning. It’s fabulous and the girls love it!

    • Love the idea of the compost attached to the coop, so you can fill outside and not traipse through muck. Why didn’t I think of that???

  3. Terry, that is a great statement, “breathe their air.” How true of all creatures we keep in our care! If it’s not pleasant to me, it can’t possibly be pleasant to those I’m taking care of.

  4. I thought about a deep litter system for this winter, but quickly disposed of the idea. Mostly because I also cringed at the mucky mess I would have to clean out of the coop in the spring. Your post is helpful because I now realize I also don’t have the right kind of structure to keep litter that deep.
    I do have a question about the level of humidity. I have a wireless monitor in the house that tells me what the coop temp and humidity level is. The humidity has been fluctuating widely due to crazy weather – one day 40 degrees, the next night -4 (this happened in Vermont just last week!). I’ve also for the first time ever had a couple of chickens get frostbite on their combs when we had a number of nights with temps in the teens, and VERY windy. The humidity has been as high as 61 and then goes down and hovers around 45-54. I read on one site that around 50 is the best.
    Terry, in your experience what is an ideal humidity level? Should I be drilling more holes for airflow?
    Thanks!

    • I’ve never measured the humidity with a meter. I can tell you that if the windows are frosted over from the inside, then it is too damp inside. Also, humidity harbors germs, so in my opinion, the lower the better. The “ideal” level comes from the commercial industry which balances humidity/heat against disease levels caused by too much. You can’t have too much draft-free ventilation. If you can add a cupola, do.

  5. When the deep litter works, it works fantastically, though. My girls are four this year, and they have never had lice, mites, or internal parasites (I have had them tested by a vet.) The litter (unless they lay a fresh poop) is never dirty smelling. I can sit right down with them in it, put my hands in it, and it seems “clean”. When I do dig it out, it’s never a sticky mess, but is pretty much just like compost. The Girls spend the day free-ranging in a very large yard, but they like their coop, and go inside frequently to dig around and relax. It’s such an easy system for me; hardly any work at all!

  6. Two reasons deep litter wouldn’t work for me: 1) It would rob me of the intense, compulsive satisfaction I get from cleaning out the coop each week and having it all fresh & tidy (If only I felt the same way about my own house.) 2) Albert the bunny and his preference for conducting ALL of his daily activities in the coop make it imperative that it gets scooped out weekly. He’s a bigger polluter than all the girls put together.

    • I agree about enjoying the cleaning. But, I’m surprised about your bunny! My indoor rabbits have always gone in a litter box, and my outdoor buns prefer to pee and poop in the corner of the pen. They like tidy and clean as much as I do. I wonder if you gave him a litter box, perhaps he’d use it?

      • Good idea on the litter box. He is “tidy” in that he does more or less everything in one corner of our pretty large coop, but he’s prolific with the pee….gotta keep it scooped or it becomes a gnarly mess fast!

  7. I, too, prefer the once weekly coop cleaning. You explain this in excellent detail, I thank you for the effort.

  8. I have read some glowing reviews of having sand in the coop instead, and then raking droppings out like you would with kitty litter. It supposedly keeps the coop drier and cleaner and cooler in the summer. Does anyone have any experience with sand in the coop? I currently just clean everything out weekly, but a every other day or so quick poop scoop sounds appealing.

    • We have sand in our coop. It does scoop out easy. The coop looks so neat and tidy after it’s scooped. I rake down the sand in the floor with pretty designs for an added touch for me. I’m sure the girls could care less. The one thing I miss, is that cozy, warm look that comes from the pine shavings. The sand is cool to the touch and the girls would probably like a warmer floor. We have hardly any expense outside of the sand itself. I did see Terry say that sand may, or does hold moisture. This may be a problem. We try to be vigilant about applying the petroleum jelly to their combs and waddles in freezing temps. As of now, no frostbite. My girls seem to keep liquid in their noses. They shake their heads and sling droplets here and there. The sand may be the problem or maybe chickens just sling droplets of water. I’m not sure. We definitely want sand in summer and so far, it’s ok in winter. This is our first flock, time will tell. We use the pine shavings in their nesting boxes. We also use DE in boxes and with the sand in coop.

      • Sand is cold, damp, and doesn’t absorb moisture. Liquid in noses is not good. You should never see that. I’d get them right onto nice dry shavings. The sand probably was okay in the summer, but now is the time to switch :)

        • Yeah, I’ve been putting it off Terry. The sand is so convenient and cost efficient, but I knew I would have to make that move of getting the sand out and putting the pine shavings in this winter. I don’t want my girls sick. The sand is not worth it. Thanks for the nudge.

          • Thank you for the comments about sand. I’ve also read a lot about it being very good but we have very cold winters here in Italy and my gut feeling was it would be too cold. In the summer though, I’m thinking it would be good to keep the hens cool.

            Is there a particular type of sand I would need to use? I’m concerned about the possibility of cut feet.

            • I don’t like to see all sand. It is minutely very sharp. I do mix sand into the dirt of the outside run to improve drainage. Inside the coop I prefer absorbent bedding.

  9. Awesome post! One of the things I like about you is that YOU are not a blind follower!

    I used to work horses for a living, once upon a time. I remember back in 70’s to mid 80’s deep bedding became a ‘thing’. What a mess. And, of course, it would be packed solid and have to be hand dug in the spring. The horses heads were up near their ceilings. The most fun I had was when a entire colony of rats moved into the bedding and set up house. They just simply chewed through the stall walls to connect the stalls together. Which meant we were digging into nests and such. They were so used to people that one day when I was just leaning against the barn door with my face in the spring sun, I turned around and there were 5 of them stretched out in the sun on the aisle floor. Like 6 feet away from me. Ahhh, the memories!

    • Oh, that brings back memories. I was in England in the summer of 1975 at a riding school. There was a drought and a straw shortage and we had to do deep litter. We didn’t have the rats, but we had the miserable task of mucking out two feet of rotting bedding.

  10. I’ll bet climate is a big factor in success of deep litter. Good for places where it’s hot and dry, and the hens might spend more time in the shade, scratching up the litter.

  11. I could repeat everything you wrote here and say I AGREE, I AGREE! Not that I have years of experience, only a little over one year, but I have come to the same conclusions. The in-yard compost pile is wonderful, and my chickens thank you. I wish I could be as disciplined as you are, Terry, about weekly tidying. I do go around the chicken yard and try to pick up at least “2 poops per bird” with a dog doodoo picker-upper daily, but I am not 100% yet.

    So nicely written!

  12. Excellent post!! I’ve done deep litter not only for the chickens, but for the cows for several years. You hit all the key points.

    Our coop had a wooden floor already. We created 18″ step walls, and built the door on top of it when we built the coop. We then covered the walls and floor with a cheap linoleum remnant. This has worked very well for us.

    If you want to do deep litter, you must plan ahead for it, as you carefully pointed out.

    And yes, clearing out the deep bedding is a chore. But one I’d rather be doing in the nice weather of May, than picking out in -20F of January. We don’t deep bed from May to October. This is because: 1. the hens aren’t inside as much, 2. we have no need of heat through that time, 3. pest problems would be greatly enhanced.

    • I was wondering what you’d think of the post because I know you use deep litter. Interesting to me that you do stop with it through the summer. My readers should know that you are a “real” farmer. The added heat in the barn will increase winter laying. Not noticeable for a flock of 4, but it makes a difference when you have hundreds. I bet you have a tractor of some sort to haul the bedding for the big clean out!

      • Our laying flock is just 17 this year, has never exceeded 20, but that’s a far step up over 4-6. We use lights to continue winter laying. Though if it does get bitter cold (-20 to -25F) laying does fall off, 17 being too small to make the difference. We do supplement with fatty meat at night during those times, to provide energy to keep warm.

        And yes, we use a manure spreader but only because the chicken bedding goes into the (now unused) cow stalls in May for the current piggy occupants to turn it, and the stabilized cow bedding, into compost in place. So we have a bucket on our tractor and an antique ground driven manure spreader to spread it on the pastures.

        The key, even in a small system, is to stabilize the nutrients, compost them under cover, and then spread them when the plants can take up the nutrients (during warm months only). Otherwise the nutrients either leach away or evaporate, especially with the heavy rains here in New England the last few years.

  13. Terry, I use shavings and some straw in the shed and thier hutch, the hutch is not designed correctly but I bought it as a very inexperienced chicken starter, I clean it out completly weekly also the floor of the shed, I expanded thiet space into an existing shed when I realized how poor the hutch was, but they still sleep in the hutch, creatures of habit. My question is the outside area, thier run is deep composted shavings, straw leaves ect. Should I dig this out in the spring¿ There is no odor, its rock hard

    • Unless the straw is chopped, don’t use it. It doesn’t absorb moisture and can mold. Long strands can also cause crop impaction. Chopped straw (1-inch or shorter) is good, though. If the pen has no odor, it’s fine. But if it’s rock hard and doesn’t drain, that’s bad. I’ve a number of posts about how I turn over my pen yearly and add sand for drainage. Do an archive search and you’ll see photos.

  14. I’m also not a fan of deep litter- in theory or practice. Our now defunct cooperative voted for this method last year. Lots of people brought leaves, etc. from their yards. We had 54 chickens and what a mess! Spring cleaning was a horror (my poor husband and another gentleman did the deed). Never again.

    • Leaves do not work well, and you have to use a HUGE amount of them. The key is getting the proper carbon:nitrogen balance between manure and whatever bedding. Leaves are low carbon, so you need a LOT. I use them in the outside pen, and they work well there. But an 8 – 12″ deep bedding of them there will be bare in 2 weeks with 17 hens.

      It also has to do with sufficient space. For 54 hens I’d think you’d need a coop a minimum of 25 sq. ft. and it would have to be bedded 8 – 12″ weekly, at least, if using leaves.

      Clean out would not be fun as what leaves the birds don’t shred, pack down tightly. An alternative source of carbon, should you ever decide to try again, and with that many birds, might be sawdust (but not fine dusty sawdust), wood shavings (again, not dusty), or fine wood chips, but not from hard woods, especially oak. These are dense sources of carbon, don’t pack as hard if the birds don’t get a place turned over, and keep the smell down.

      But whatever source of carbon is used, it’s essential to have enough so there’s NO AMMONIA smell ever.

  15. I’ve been experimenting with using deep litter in our partially covered run. Going on 9 months now and so far so good….. No smell, fewer flies, no poopy feet, less work. My main worry at this point is the possibility of internal parasites and plan to do fecal tests regularly. Sometimes I have to stir the compost to aerate if it’s been raining a lot.

    I don’t do deep litter in the coop. I have a tray filled with Stall Fresh under their roost that I scoop out every morning. I keep pine shavings on the floor of the coop and for some reason they almost never poop on the floor, so the shavings are always clean. As an extra bonus, they like to dust bath in the tray of Stall Fresh when is wet outside.