How to control and repurpose chicken coop waste the easy way.

In this article, we discuss what otherwise wasted food you can safely feed to your chickens, explain a low-effort method of composting their waste into nutrient-rich fertilizer, and explore what the future of chicken litter sustainability might look like.

Given how many people start keeping backyard chickens because of their concerns about large-scale food production and industrialized farming, it makes sense that many chicken-keepers worry about the ecological impact and sustainability of their chicken coops.

Photo by Hassan Rafi on Unsplash

Luckily, from carefully considering your feed choices and coop materials to using their insect-eating abilities to reduce your reliance on potentially dangerous pesticides, there are many ways to make chicken-keeping more sustainable. Just by raising chickens without antibiotics or hormones, your process for acquiring eggs is already more sustainable than most.

However, if you want to maximize sustainability and minimize waste, you’ll need to look at the part of the chicken no one wants to deal with: their litter.

What is chicken litter?

“Chicken litter” is just a fancy euphemism for the massive amounts of poop your chickens produce, along with the bedding or floor covering that tends to get mixed in with it.

In this article, we’ll go over several different ways to reduce the volume of your waste from owning chickens, make the waste they do generate as environmentally friendly as possible, and, perhaps most importantly, repurpose and reuse that litter in ways that are easy, helpful, and good for the planet.

Related: The Complete Guide to Building a Chicken Coop

Reducing waste

Unfortunately, there is no way to actually make your chickens poop less. Chicken poop is an unavoidable fact of chicken ownership–the price you have to pay for companionship and fresh eggs.

But you can use your chickens to reduce the amount of waste that your household generates overall. Chickens are not picky eaters. They will happily eat almost any kitchen scraps you give them. An unfinished salad or half-eaten apple makes a great treat for the flock, and it will also extract as much energy as possible from the food to have your chickens eat it – especially if you’re saving their waste to use as compost (see below).

There are some things to be aware of before you start emptying your dinner plates into the chicken feed.

There are some things to be aware of, though, before you start emptying your dinner plates into the chicken feed. For one, if you are planning to turn your chicken litter into compost, avoid giving the birds any meat. They’ll happily eat it, and it won’t actively harm them, but waste from chickens who regularly eat meat shouldn’t be composted, as it can release harmful compounds as it decomposes.

Additionally, you should know that not all table scraps are created equal when it comes to chickens. Highly processed and heavily seasoned foods probably shouldn’t be given to your birds, to help them maintain the healthiest diet possible. Potato peelings, tomato greens, and onions should also be avoided.

Some foods, like grapes, bread, and pineapple, make tasty treats, but have relatively low nutritional value or high amounts of sugar and should only be fed sparingly.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Deep litter composting

Composting is one of the most popular methods for repurposing chicken waste, especially for chicken keepers trying to grow their own gardens or vegetables without using chemical fertilizers.

Chicken poop decomposes into an excellent fertilizer because of its high nitrogen content, which makes it ideal for fertilizing plants like rosebushes or fruit trees, and also for restoring nitrogen to the soil after growing a particularly nitrogen-needy crop, like corn.

The easiest and most popular method for composting your chicken litter is called the deep litter method.

The easiest and most popular method for composting your chicken litter is called the deep litter method. The basic idea behind the deep litter method is to simply layer fresh litter over the used litter, so the chicken poop at the bottom of the pile can decompose and eventually become compost. This method doesn’t just create a continuous source of rich, nitrogen-heavy fertilizer, it also eliminates one of the least popular chicken-keeping chores: cleaning poop out of the chicken coop.

The deep litter method can also help insulate your coop against the winter cold and even protect your birds from some bacterial and parasitic illnesses, since the microorganisms that flourish in the compost will also help kill off the ones that will make your birds sick.

But how do you do it? Luckily, the deep litter method is relatively simple. Best of all, it can actually be less work than cleaning out your coop and throwing your chicken litter in the trash.

How to use the deep litter method

  1. Choose an absorbent, natural litter. While there are many chicken litters or beddings available, for the deep litter method, you’ll want something highly absorbent. Wood products are usually your best bet here. Wood shavings, especially pine, are a good choice, as are sawdust, mulch, and even old newspapers, which have the added sustainability advantage of having already been reused once.
  2. Spread a thick layer of bedding on the floor of the coop. This first layer should probably be about four inches deep.
  3. Add a few handfuls of fresh bedding every few days. How often and how much fresh bedding you should add will depend on the number of chickens you have and how much waste they produce. A relatively small flock will only need some added once a week, while a large or particularly poopy flock may need some litter added every couple of days. It may take some trial and error, but eventually you’ll work out the right pacing for you and your flock.
  4. Let the chickens and time do their work. This is most chicken keepers’ favorite step, since it requires almost no work from them. While most compost piles need to be turned regularly to keep the compost oxygenated, one of the advantages of composting in a chicken coop is that the chickens do this part for you by scratching at the litter on the floor. Still, it’s a good idea to go over the compost from time to time with a rake or shovel to make sure it’s all getting aerated and it still soft enough for the chickens to walk in.
  5. Clear out (most) of the chicken coop. When the litter gets to about 18 inches deep, you should be ready to start collecting your compost. You can tell it’s ready for the garden because it doesn’t smell and is fairly uniform in texture. If it’s not there yet, throw it in another compost pile to finish decomposing. Make sure to leave a few inches of compost on the bottom of the coop to kick-start your next batch.
  6. Fertilize! Spread your finished compost in the garden and watch your plants soak up the nutrients.

Photo by Autumn Mott Rodheaver on Unsplash

Other possible uses for chicken coop litter

Composting is the most common use of chicken litter, especially for backyard chicken keepers. However, given the volume of waste generated by the industrial chicken industry and the increasing number of backyard chicken keepers, it’s unsurprising that research is being conducted into other uses for chicken waste.

One of the most interesting and promising of these is gasification, processing chicken litter into gas that can be used to generate electricity and power buildings.

The idea of large-scale chicken litter gasification is still in the development stages, but the early research is promising. Chicken litter may generate as much as 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than the natural gas needed to produce a similar amount of energy, and it scores better than fossil fuels on 14 out of 16 metrics for environmental impact.

Perhaps most importantly, unless consumption of chicken meat and eggs declines to near zero in the coming years, the chicken industry will continue to produce massive amounts of chicken litter, more than can realistically be used as fertilizer. Not finding an alternate, environmentally friendly use for it seems irresponsible.

Research on this idea is ongoing, and the process has yet to be adopted on a large scale. Unfortunately, the process is unlikely to ever be scalable to a single backyard chicken flock. However, if a large-scale chicken litter gasification program is ever instituted near you, you may be able to donate or even sell your relatively small amounts of chicken litter to be added in with the large volumes of industrial waste. Your chickens may even help power your home one day!

Best practices for sustainable living

Chicken litter gasification is just one idea for how to sustainably repurpose chicken waste, but it’s a useful example of a broader principle of sustainable living. Especially in an age of cutting-edge science, rapid technological development, and a necessary focus on the environment and our relationship to it, the best practices for sustainable living are constantly evolving.

Practices like deep litter composting and feeding your flock kitchen scraps have likely been in use continuously since people started keeping chickens, and they will always be a good, cheap, low-effort option for making your life with chickens greener. If you’re particularly interested and invested in sustainable chicken keeping, keep an ear to the ground – there may be a game-changing development just over the horizon.

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