4 Tips for Composting Chicken Manure

The Best Fertilizer for Vegetable Gardens is as Close as the Coop

A Red Comet wanders near a compost bin with valuable nitrogen materials inside. Photo by Kenny Coogan.

A Red Comet wanders near a compost bin with valuable nitrogen materials inside. Photo by Kenny Coogan.

For those of you with vegetable and flower beds, or for those of you who just have lawns, I feel it is unnecessary, if not wasteful, to discard poultry manure every week and then also purchase fertilizer. As any poultry owner knows, in addition to companionship and fresh eggs, our birds produce manure. Manure can be one of the major benefits of keeping poultry, and utilizing it should be a priority. Everyone who has space for poultry in their backyard has a need for better the soil. I have eight layers, and now with the aid of their manure, I enrich my flower and vegetable gardens to yield even more produce by composting chicken manure.

BIOLOGY 101: Off of some chicken species’ intestines are two pouch-like tubes called caeca (also spelled c-e-c-a). These take in manure for extra absorption of nutrients. When the manure is expelled from these pouches, the fecal is usually much larger, has a different coloring — usually more tan — and has a higher water content. Due to the diet and age of the bird, the fecal could be highly variable. Caeca droppings are usually released in the early morning.

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BONUS TIP: If your chicken coop has a collection pan and you want to use it to fertilize your garden, line the pan with newspaper, and cover it with a thick layer of hay or wood shavings. By adding these carbon-heavy items, you will adjust the chemistry of your poultry litter to the appropriate levels.

Tip 1: Manage The Smell

A well-maintained coop, just like a well-maintained backyard compost bin, should have a neutral smell. Also like a compost bin when it comes to raising chickens, recycling, rain water harvesting and conserving resources, the more energy you put in the more assets you get out. Those of us lucky enough to raise backyard poultry are one step closer to living a sustainable life.

In order to achieve a pleasant indistinct smell in your poultry coop, you will have to manage your poultry poop. Putting a little effort into manure management will prevent your coop from being a smelly problem. It can quickly pile up in enclosures or coops, attract flies and produce excessive amounts of ammonia, which is not healthy for any organism’s respiratory system. It will also give your neighbors an unkind reminder that you keep poultry. If manure is not composted and left in piles, it can pollute the soil and water in the runoff.

If you are going to use poultry manure to fertilize your garden, either: 1) Mix it with other things prior to laying it on the gardens; or 2) Do what is more common and compost it.

Utilize Chicken Poop

Tip 2: Blend The Manure

Using waste collections to help fertilize your garden can be very helpful, but it’s not as simple as just dumping the waste on your plants. Many of the new coop designs — especially those designed for urban areas — include a collection pan underneath the roosting area of the night house. One great thing about having a type of collection system underneath the night house is that almost half of a bird’s manure is deposited at night or in the early morning before they are let out of the coop.

That said, it can create a problem — the concentration of chemicals in the poultry manure is too high for gardening. Do not directly apply this to your beds. Applying fresh manure to existing plants can result in ammonia burn and can be prevented by first composting chicken manure prior to its use. This will require blending the manure with a carbon source, such as chopped straw, leaves, newspaper or wood shavings, and allowing it to break down into more stable nitrogen fractions.

Once the ammonia nitrogen has been consumed by microbes in the compost or volatilized, the compost will be much more stable and ready to apply.

Tip 3: Breed For Your Garden

A vigorous garden is a result of well-maintained soil. Most of the time gardeners need to add supplements — soil amendments — to the existing landscape to get a properly balanced, thriving medium for our plants.

By composting chicken manure, we are becoming one step closer to being sustainable and benefiting from the results.

If you were curious to know which type of poultry has the richest or best manure, the answer may surprise you. All poultry have simple stomachs (unlike sheep or cows) and due to this, their digestive systems have similar form and function. They will digest feed in the same way and will therefore defecate the same as well. A “richer” manure would indicate an increase in pass-through nutrients that were not utilized by the birds for growth and reproduction. Those would be nutrients that were paid for but wasted. This would be a bad thing!

But do not fear, poultry manure is a great organic manure source and certainly higher than four-legged livestock manure in important elements such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

When purchasing fertilizers in the store, the packaging will usually include three numbers indicating the percentages of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. The first number, nitrogen, is used by plants to grow greener, abundant leaves. Phosphorus, the second number, aids in fruit and root development.

The last number, potassium, helps with flower color and size and the strength of the plants.

On the industrial side, when poultry manure is mixed with shavings or litter, those numbers average 65-55-45 per ton. That’s 65 pounds of nitrogen per ton of material and so forth. Looking at percentages it is roughly 3-3-2.

To compost in your backyard, the ideal composting conditions include 25:1 carbon to nitrogen ratio; 40 percent moisture; sufficient depth of material to help generate microbial heat (140° to 160°F); and weekly turning of the material for aeration.

Tip 4: Free Rangers Can Do It!

For those of us who have truly free-range chickens or other poultry, do not worry. For birds that have access to our gardens, their daily droppings will still be adding organic matter to our beds over a period of time. The good news is that it is in small enough dosages not to burn the plants.

You should pay attention, though, to where you step. There are pathogens present in fresh chicken manure. Fortunately, the pathogens die off as the manure dries, or is exposed to sunlight, oxygen, freezing temperatures or pH extremes. What’s left is black gold for our gardens.

Carbon & Nitrogen

Carbon (20-30 parts)
• Brown, dry materials
• Bedding
• Leaves
• Newspaper
• Sawdust
• Shredded cardboard
• Straw & spoiled hay

Nitrogen (1 part)
• Green, wet materials
• Garden waste
• Lawn clippings
• Weeds
• Poultry manure
• Coffee grounds
• Kitchen scraps

What tips would you add to this list for someone interested in composting chicken manure or manure from any other livestock or poultry?

Originally published in the October/November 2014 issue of Backyard Poultry.

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