How to Use Deep Litter in the Chicken Coop

Winter is coming. No matter how hard I fight it. That’s just the way it is.

So begins the annual chore of preparing our animals for what will inevitably come. Iowa can be brutal during the winter months. But with the right preparation and care our animals will thrive even in the heart of our coldest months.

Chickens are no exception.

There are many thoughts and questions on how to keep chickens warm during the winter. But it’s really not as difficult as it might seem, and to do so safely. For the most part, we won’t use heat lamps in the coop unless the temps get dangerously below zero like they did last winter. Even then it’s only for a short time.

A natural method we use to keep our coop warm is Deep Litter.

What is the Deep Litter Method?

Think of Deep Litter as a diaper for your chicken coop.

The Deep Litter Method is basically like building a lasagna of different materials in the coop. By adding subsequent layers of litter, and turning the layers frequently, you’re allowing biological microbes to break down the chicken manure and organic material to create a wonderful compost. Heat is created in the process, just like in the compost pile, which will help to keep your chickens warm all winter long.

Benefits of using the Deep Litter Method in the coop

I’ve mentioned the natural heat that comes from deep litter as a benefit to your chickens. Here are a few other benefits that come from using deep litter through the winter months:

  1. There is no need to clean out the coop multiple times
  2. Deep litter reduces harmful ammonia and keeps the coop smelling good
  3. Deep litter will produce rich and beautiful compost for the garden
  4. Reduce fly and mosquito larvae in the coop
  5. Chickens enjoy scratching through the litter

How to use deep litter in the coop

Step 1: Clean out the coop.

We’ll usually do this in the fall, removing all the litter from the coop and moving it to the compost pile to continue breaking down for spring application in the garden. Scrape everything down and clean the coop thoroughly.

Step 2: Apply a layer of pine shavings.

We use pine shavings because they absorb moisture really well and help to keep the coop smelling fresh. Essentially this is your base layer. Sand can also be used instead of pine shavings. However, steer clear of using cedar shavings in the coop as cedar can induce respiratory issues with your chickens.

Step 3: Apply a thin layer of straw.

We like to use Flock Fresh but you can use any kind of straw available. However, I wouldn’t suggest using hay or grass clippings. Both tend can attract mites more than straw, and both are high in nitrogen. Since chicken manure is also high in nitrogen, a material with higher carbon ratio (like straw) is needed for proper composting.

Step 4: Turn the litter frequently.

In order for the litter to break down properly, it needs to be turned over to introduce oxygen to the bottom layers. Using a pitch fork, we’ll turn our litter once a week, especially underneath the roosts. This also allows moisture to distribute more evenly and keeps the bottom layers from compacting. You can also scatter chicken scratch to encourage your chickens to help turn the litter for you.

Step 5: Apply new layers of straw.

After turning the litter, apply another 1-2 inch layer of straw. This keeps everything fresh in the coop and adds fuel to the decomp process that makes deep litter so effective.

Step 6: Remove litter to the compost pile.

In the late spring, we’ll do another complete cleaning of the coop, removing all the litter to the compost pile. Since our summers are hot enough, we won’t start the deep litter process in the coop again until the following fall.

Mistakes with Deep Litter

Our two biggest mistakes when first experimenting with the Deep Litter Method were not applying adequate amounts of straw and not turning the litter enough. Failing to do both can encourage too much moisture in the coop, which will inhibit proper decomp and make the coop smell.

Nobody likes a smelly diaper!

Remember, the secret to keeping the coop naturally warm in the winter is plenty of straw. Feed the biology at work in the litter and it will serve you (and your chickens) well.

We have two coops. The smaller of the two is a mobile tractor that houses about ten hens and two roosters. Our bigger coop is a permanent building that houses around thirty birds. We Deep Litter both with success, although I think we get the most advantage with the additional heat in the bigger hen house.

No matter the size of your coop, Deep Litter works.

Let us know if you’ve tried using the Deep Litter Method and if it was successful!

4 thoughts on “How to Use Deep Litter in the Chicken Coop

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    1. Great question. We plant our mobile tractor for the winter to protect the flock from wind. That allows us to implement deep litter without hassle through the coldest months.

  1. I am going through my first winter with chickens and I’ve had a problem with moisture. I am planning to clean out the current litter and put fresh straw in. I read somewhere that you cannot start the deep litter in the middle of winter. Is that true and if so is there an alternative to get my chickens through the rest of winter?

    1. If you can get away with only removing the areas you had moisture in you might be able to salvage your deep litter. It really depends on how cold it is where you are. Here in Iowa, starting deep litter in the middle of winter would only result in frozen chicken manure and a stinky mess once things thawed. But if your temps are somewhat temperate then you might be able to get away with it.

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