Using the Deep Litter Method in the Coop

Plus Other Ways to Prepare your Backyard Chickens for Winter

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By Harvey Ussery – Using the deep litter method during the cold winter months works the best for me and my flock. Here in the mid-Atlantic, Zone 6b, winter means that water routinely freezes, plants are dormant, and days are considerably shorter—and nights commensurately longer—than in summer. Winter storms bring driving snow or high winds combined with brutally cold temperatures. Such conditions pose challenges to keeping the flock happy, healthy, and naturally fed. Fortunately, domestic fowl are pretty tough critters and can sail through winter with a little help from us. Let me share with you what I do to prepare the flock for a season that can be lean, mean, and cold.

Housing

I like to allow my birds outside as much as I can, even in winter. However, they inevitably spend more time inside during winter, if only because the nights are so much longer, though drifted snow as well may keep them inside full-time for a week or two. Housing choices must ensure that, despite the greatest confinement they experience all year, they remain healthy, comfortable, and free from stress.

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Deep Litter Method

Since chickens do much of their pooping at night, long nights mean a heavier deposition of droppings. The best way to deal with manure in the coop is deep high-carbon litter over an earth floor. Not only is the deep litter method more wholesome for the birds, it is more pleasant for me — and best of all, the busily scratching chickens do most of the work of manure management.

Note that, contra advice to thoroughly clean out old litter in the coop, I never clean out all the litter. A major value of using the deep litter method and establishing deep litter is that it is a biological circus—trillions of microorganisms breaking down carbon, using nitrogen in the poop as fuel. Why inhibit all that action? When I remove well-broken down litter, I leave at least half of it in place to inoculate new litter.When preparing for winter, I stockpile great mounds of oak leaves, my favorite litter material for the deep litter method. I get them free from a neighbor; they are tough and high in carbon, so they break down slowly while absorbing the nitrogen from large quantities of droppings; they produce a compost for the garden and elsewhere on the landscape that creates a lot of residual humus.

I monitor the litter closely and frequently add fresh leaves from my stockpile to prevent the nitrogen from getting out of balance with the carbon in the mix. Should that happen, generation of ammonia would not only waste nitrogen in the final compost (ammonia is a gas of nitrogen, NH3), but would harm the birds’ delicate respiratory tissues. Using the deep litter method has taught me to “read” its condition and to add fresh leaves before getting that first whiff of ammonia.

Ventilation

I am often asked, “How do you heat the henhouse in winter?” or “Do you insulate the coop?” Emphatically, I do neither. In earlier winters I shut up the henhouse as tightly as I could at night, but changed that practice after reading Fresh-Air Poultry Houses: The Classic Guide to Open-Front Chicken Coops for Healthier Poultry (a republication by Norton Creek Press of Prince T. Woods’s Modern Fresh-Air Poultry Houses, originally published in 1924, available from www.nortoncreekpress.com). Remember that our poultry’s marvelous plumage makes them supremely resistant to low temperatures, so long as they stay dry, especially when harsh winds kick up. Consider as well that both the increased manure dropped in the winter house, and the exhalations of the birds, generate a lot of humidity. Trapping that moisture inside a tight coop creates damp conditions that increase the likelihood of molds and such respiratory diseases as coryza, Newcastle disease, and infectious bronchitis. Abundant, constant air exchange keeps the flock much healthier than heating the henhouse or trying to seal out cold temperatures.

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The Chicken Hilton, Harvey’s 13 x 24-foot main poultry house. In winter he blocks all windows with plywood (as shown at the extreme right), but the solid front doors remain open except in the nastiest weather. Inner wire-on-frame doors can be latched closed (as in the far left doorway) to confine the birds while allowing maximum airflow and sunlight, or latched open to give the flock access to winter yards protected by electronet fencing. Photos by Harvey Ussery

When cold winds start to bite—around the end of November—I block all five windows with tightly fitted plywood. The solid front doors, however, I leave latched open all winter, except when there is driving snow or temperatures in the teens that coincide with heavy winds. (During the entire last winter, I shut the outer doors only half a dozen nights.) The result is a pocket of still air in the roosting area which protects the sleeping birds from the direct blast of cold winds and from getting wet—combined with maximum ventilation that keeps the air fresh and the litter dry.My solution for balancing maximum airflow and minimum wind and wet has a lot to do with the design of the “Chicken Hilton,” our 13 x 24-foot henhouse. It is divided by wire partitions into three main sections, each with a doorway in front fitted with a solid door that can be latched open and an inner door, wire mesh on light wooden framing, that can either be latched open, giving the birds access to the outside, or latched shut, confining them inside while protecting from predators and allowing air and sunlight into the interior. Each section has a small window in the rear, and the ends have an additional two large windows. All windows have wire mesh permanently installed to deter predators. A ridge vent runs along the entire peak of the roof. That’s my version of lots of ventilation.

See Don Schrider’s, “Want Healthy Birds? Give Them Fresh Air!” on page 32 for a real-world example of an even more radical approach to fresh-air winter housing.

Keeping Them Happy

The key to health and productivity is keeping the birds happy. First and foremost, that requires giving them plenty of space. Even before my fall culling, the five dozen birds in my current flock enjoy an average of five square feet each when confined to the henhouse. After culling, that will increase to nine square feet.

Flexibility in the Winter Housing

Busy birds are happy birds. A deep litter method to scratch in provides “occupational therapy” to prevent the stress of boredom. In winter I also hang up special treats—mangels (fodder beets), nets of alfalfa hay, cabbages, and ripened seed heads of small grains, sunflowers, or sorghum—to offer rewards for staying busy.

Note how the division of the Hilton using interior partitions, each with its own access to the outside, allows maximum flexibility for management. It’s a simple matter to hang wire-on-frame doors between the sections to separate subflocks, or to take the doors off their hinges and hang them on a wall. For example, management of the waterfowl is different enough from management of the chickens that it makes sense to keep them in separate sections, with access to separate electro-netted enclosures outside. In late winter, it is easy to set up a separate section as a brooder for chicks that arrive in the mail.

Watering

The flock must never be without fresh, clean water. But if the waterer freezes, my birds will be as deprived of their needed drink as if I had forgotten to set it out. As overnight temperatures dip below freezing, I move the waterer to the basement at night. In my climate, it is rare that the waterer freezes during the day, but when daytime temperatures do get low enough to freeze it, I keep one waterer in the basement and switch it with another in the henhouse as needed.

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A frost-free hydrant is convenient for watering in winter. When the handle is in the off position, linkage through the supply pipe opens a bleed valve at its bottom, well below frost level. Water drains through the valve into the subsoil, leaving the pipe empty and in no danger of bursting in freezing temperatures.

Since anaerobic wet litter is more likely to support the growth of pathogens, the waterer I use inside the poultry house is a five-gallon vacuum-seal waterer over a base with a narrow lip to minimize splashing. I monitor daily for wet spots and scatter wet litter with a pitchfork when necessary.

My waterfowl present special challenges for winter watering. When sharing water with the chickens from the narrow-lipped waterers, they do not wet the litter excessively. However, I like my geese and ducks to be able to bathe, even in winter. But waterfowl are so exuberantly messy with their water, it is almost impossible to provide even a small container for bathing without soaking the litter for yards around. Thus, just as in the warm months, I restrict watering and bathing of waterfowl to the outdoors. Though I set up waterfowl baths of various sizes in summer, when preparing for winter I use the biggest stock watering tank I have—about 125 gallons. Because of its size, on even the coldest nights it takes a long time for ice to form, and it accumulates to only an inch or so by morning. The molded black rubber absorbs radiant heat as soon as it catches the morning sun, and it is easy to break the ice loose and throw it out of the tank in sheets. Unlike in summer, there is little algal growth in the cold temperatures and it is necessary to clean the tank only infrequently. Though in summer I keep the duck bath filled automatically, using a float-operated shutoff valve, I take the valve off in winter to prevent damage from freezing. Occasionally I replace the water lost in the discarded ice, drawing from a frost-free hydrant outside the poultry house.

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Harvey’s ducks and geese bathe year-round in stock watering tubs and tanks of various sizes, fitted with hoses approved for drinking water and float-operated shutoff valves. In winter he uses this one—at 125 gallons or so—the largest he owns—to minimize ice accumulation. He removes the valve to prevent damage from freezing.

Managing Winter Laying

There are a couple of things I do not do in preparation for winter. I know there will be a natural decline in egg production, brought on in part by the annual molt in fall or early winter, and in part by decreasing day length. In the poultry industry, cruel and inhumane measures (complete withholding of food or feeding of nutritionally deficient feeds for periods ranging from 5 – 21 days, briefer periods of withholding water, light manipulation, feeding of drugs, hormones, and metals such as dietary aluminum and zinc) are used to force laying chickens to molt in a hurry and get back to the business of egg laying. Though somewhat less extreme methods of force-molting are sometimes proposed for home flocks, there will never be any such “shock and awe” in my winter layer house.

Since the decline in production is tied to reduced day length, a common practice is to fool the hens into thinking that longer days have returned by using supplemental lighting. Though I do not manipulate apparent day length in this way, I think it’s okay to do so in a well-managed, well-fed, and healthy flock. Supplemental lighting — a 25-watt bulb is sufficient — should be on a timer, set for a minimum of 14 hours of total apparent daylight, and set to come on in the wee hours of the morning rather than to turn off after dark (which would catch the hens unaware and prevent their finding their way to the roosts).

My preferred means for dealing with the decline in production is, first of all, to plan ahead on breed choice — breeds such as Rhode Island RedDelawareFaverollePlymouth Rock, and Sussex have a reputation for maintaining their egg production better in winter. A major reason I chose New Hampshires early this year to become my foundation layer flock is that New Hampshires were bred to be good winter layers. I also do all I can to ensure adequate protein in the winter diet. Feathers are almost pure protein, so replacing them all requires a lot of dietary protein. Planning ahead to ensure sources of extra live animal foods (as discussed below) is my way of helping the birds reduce molting time.

Fat hens do not lay well. Though they need plenty of dietary energy to meet the challenges of winter, too much energy, especially in the form of excessive feeding of corn, will result in putting on too much fat. Lots of exercise and access to natural foods will help keep fat deposition at healthy levels.

Dollars and Cents

As much as possible, I feed my flocks natural foods which I either grow for them or they forage for themselves. But in winter, green plants are dormant and there’s not an insect in sight. Consequently my strategies for keeping costs down revolve around the questions: What natural foods are available to feed in winter? How many birds am I going to feed?

Culling for Winter

My final fall culling is the most critical of the year — it doesn’t make sense to carry birds through winter who are not essential for immediate production needs and plans for next year. As always, flock composition is a balancing act—it can be especially tricky minimizing flock size for the lean season while ensuring sufficient egg supply — so let me review the coming fall culling to illustrate how I think through its complexities.

I slaughter all my waterfowl except for the few I’ve selected as breeders, usually in the week before Thanksgiving. I currently have 15 Silver Appleyard ducks and will slaughter all of them except five breeders for next spring, two drakes, and three ducks.

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All poultry, including Harvey’s chickens and Appleyard ducks, enjoy the benefits of fresh sprouts in cold weather when other greens aren’t as abundant.

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Fall is the time to cull both cocks not needed for the next breeding season and less productive hens, as this year’s pullets start taking over the job of providing our egg supply. I presently have 17 old hens and one Old English Game cock, most of whom I will dedicate to Ellen’s stockpot. (See “Ellen’s Fabulous Chicken Broth.”) Note, however, that four of those 17 hens have distinguished themselves as broodies, and I will retain them for mothering duties next spring. (For more on using natural mothers, see “Working with Broody Hens.”)

In early spring I started a group of 75 New Hampshires. Selection of “keepers” so far has brought that number down to 18 pullets and 10 cockerels. I will retain all 18 of the pullets, both as the foundation of the laying flock and to ensure sufficient genetic diversity for spring breeding. I will cull four more of the cockerels, to end with six for use in an improvement breeding project.

I’ll retain as well a couple of guineas, for squash bug control next summer. In all, I’ll reduce my current mixed flock of 63 to a mission-capable minimum of 34 to carry through the winter.

Winter Feeding

I avoid free-choice feeding in the winter coop — that’s an open invitation to my rodent friends to “be fruitful and multiply” while gobbling up expensive feed. If I feed inside, I feed only in amounts the birds will thoroughly clean up before nightfall. I prefer to feed outside, in the winter yard described below.

Giving the flock maximum access to green plants of all sorts, wild seeds, insects, slugs, and earthworms is just good sense, both for the savings on feed costs and because live natural foods are nutritionally superior to anything we can offer from a bag. Though such foods are more abundant and more readily available in the growing season than in the iron grip of winter, by planning ahead I ensure that my flock continues to enjoy live foods.

Dandelion and yellow dock make especially useful green forage since in my climate they stay green deeper into winter than any other wild plant. I dig them by the roots and throw them to the flock by the bucketful.

I reserve space in my two gardens for crops for the flock: amaranth, sunflowers, field corn, and sorghum. As they ripen, I feed them as a partial substitute for the feed grains I buy and tie some of the seed heads from the rafters of the henhouse for feeding deeper into the winter. I grow more cover crops every year and those that mature seeds at the end of the growing season — cowpeas, buckwheat, various millets — I also cut and feed.

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In the late summer and fall, Harvey plants cover crops on every garden bed, usually the same day he takes off the harvest crop. Cold hardy covers such as these mixed crucifers, small grains, and peas provide fresh cut greens for his flock daily, some of them through the entire winter.

I don’t bother sprouting for the flock during the green season, but with the coming of cold weather I set up my sprouting buckets (see “Sprouting to Enhance Poultry Feeds“) and sprouting trays to generate fresh fare that is high in enzymes and vitamins.

As soon as I harvest crops in the late summer and early fall, I immediately plant cover crops to feed and protect my soil over winter. The result is an abundance of standing green forage in almost all my garden beds which I can cut to feed the flock — winter peas, small grains such as rye, wheat, and oats, and crucifers such as mustards, rape, kale, and forage radish. All of these are cold hardy enough to last deep into late fall and winter. When the ground freezes into the root zone, the oats and most of the crucifers die. Rye and wheat go dormant, but my fall cover cropping ends with so much of them “in the bank,” I can continue making daily cuttings from them through the winter.

In late summer I sow the same sort of mix in an area beside the henhouse to become winter grazing for my waterfowl. Though this cover will be dormant in the heart of winter, it will be alive and green. Given the plot’s size, close to 3,000 square feet, and the low numbers of waterfowl I graze on it, I can give them continuous access without destroying the planting. I even release the chickens on it once a week or so, but only in the late afternoon, to limit the time in which they could wear the sod.

Flocksters interested in experimenting with cover cropping strategies should see “The Joys of Cover Cropping.”

During the growing season, I cultivate earthworms and soldier grubs for live feed. When the fly season ends, soldier grubs are no longer available, but I feed earthworms from my greenhouse vermicomposting bins through the winter. The worms, together with the fresh green foods referred to above, reduce our feed costs to half what they used to be in winter. And both egg production and quality remain higher than in earlier winters. (For more on cultivating soldier grubs and earthworms as poultry feed, see “Black Soldier Fly, White Magic” and “The Boxwood Vermicomposting System.”)

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A well-managed vermicomposting project is great fun—and generates some of the highest quality fare we can offer our birds. Cultivated earthworms are especially valuable in winter, when fewer natural foods are available.

A Winter Yard

Furnishing the flock access to the outdoors is my most important preparation for winter. I’m always trying to pull poultry husbandry and the whole homesteading effort into a single integrated whole, and there could be no better example than the exercise yard I provide my flock in winter.

With the end of the pasture season, I set up an electric net fence around an area to which the flock has access through the winter. (I am especially careful to protect the flock during the lean months, remembering that predators are looking more avidly for something to eat.) If I’m keeping the winter flock in the main poultry house, the yard is between its rear and our bit of woodlot. If they’re in the far end of my 20 x 48-foot greenhouse, the yard is actually one of my two garden plots. (See “Chooks in the Winter Greenhouse.”)

In either case, preparation of the winter yard essentially means bringing the deep litter method outside, and involves assembling as thick a layer as I can manage of organic residues—corn stalks, sweet potato vines, and other spent crop plants; autumn leaves; a final cutting of grass off the pasture; and any other compostable plant debris I get my hands on. I give the flock full-time access to this giant compost heap. Even if daytime temperatures are quite low, as long as the sun is shining and the wind is not sharp, the birds prefer being outside. If it turns nasty, they retreat inside.

These are some of the many ways a mulched yard provides for the special needs of the winter flock, boosts garden fertility, and protects water systems:

The birds are not tightly confined and stressed by boredom, but instead spend the day exercising, exploring, and engaging in natural social behaviors—there is no better antidote to going stir-crazy in the winter. The fresh air and sunshine support their naturally robust good health.

As the birds work the debris field and incorporate their droppings, it becomes more and more biologically active. As in the deep litter method inside, microbial activity produces metabolites such as vitamins B12 and K, which the birds ingest as they pick through it. If the mulch is deep enough to prevent freezing at the soil line, they scratch through and find such high-potency live feeds as earthworms and slugs, which help make up the winter deficit of other natural foods.

In contrast to the too-typical bare winter yard with its frozen slick of chicken poop ready to run for the sea in the next rain, the deep litter method absorbs the droppings, preventing runoff pollution. In the process, the manure’s fertility remains in the organic pile, which by spring is something like a cross between mulch and finished compost—great stuff for kicking off a champion gardening season.

Have you tried using the deep litter method with your flock? What type of organic material did you use?

Harvey Ussery is the author of  The Small-Scale Poultry Flock (Chelsea Green, 2011), which contains a chapter on “Managing the Winter Flock” and lots more information on other topics touched on in this article—watering, breeding for breed improvement, and providing more natural home feeds for the flock.

Originally published October/November 2011 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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Comments
  • Article way too long! To find what I wanted to know..in Texas we sometimes have rainy season, other time dry…is the deep litter method just for indoor dry coops? As I tried with a section of my outdoor coop that was staying wet…pilled the straw about 6 inches thick..then I noticed mold, & had to rake it all out & put in new?

    Reply

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