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Doo Diligence

January 28, 2012

The other day I was reading a thread on a site my friend’s husband calls Cow Talker, and the title of the thread was something like, “FINALLY BESSIE WILL START CONTRIBUTING.”  The topic was about the cow owners finally getting some milk from their heifer… .  Before that they figured all they had were figures in the expense column.  Purchase price, housing, feed, bedding etc.  Unfortunately so typical.  One of the most important things missing from agricultural these days, whether it be urban or rural, is animal manure and a reverence for that precious material. IMHO.  Jane has been contributing for some time now, and I haven’t got a drop of milk yet.

I started this blog to write about family cows.  And it has turned out I write mostly about manure.  No Shit!  Still working on the smooth family cow thing.  New readers will have to go back to the beginning and see how that has turned out the last 4 years.  Jane will write that next chapter.

I have a hard time defining what I think is more important about my baker’s dozen flock of chickens.  The eggs or the manure?  If it’s breakfast time, I would say the eggs, but if I am in the garden, I would say the manure.

Night soil from the flock.

My chickens are housed in a small greenhouse.  A morphed approach to having fresh eggs and ratcheting down from a large pastured egg operation.  We always wintered our hens in hoophouses to keep them off the pasture during the winter months, for predator protection and to gather more bedding for fertilizing purposes.

Daily chores with my hens consist of feeding, checking water, gathering eggs, and building up the deep bedding pack.

The bedding really builds up over time.  What a resource at all our finger tips, if we would just not be so tight with bedding.  And with chickens, they do the work of turning it and breaking it down for us.  No machinery, no stinky chicken houses to clean because we have added carbon and lots of it.

Every day I at least cover up the night soil area where the flock sleeps.  Weekly I bed the whole she-bang, replenish the nest boxes with new straw, and sit back and watch the chickens dig through the straw for tidbits of grain that escaped the combine.

Closed up for the night.

The greenhouse floor is soil, the  ground is damp around the edges, and earth worms migrate in from the outside to the rich manure pack, and provide treats for hens.  It’s a great system, the hens are safe, warm and dry, and I get copious amounts of light, easy-to-move deep bedding for my gardens.

Hen pecked deep bedding.

Can’t beat that!

45 Comments leave one →
  1. January 28, 2012 12:50 am

    i have always enjoyed how honest you are in your posts. you have taught me and my hubby much about the journey that is “becoming a homesteader/farmer”. thank you for always taking the time to share your thoughts, ideas, recommendations, suggestions and advice. i have been coming here for years and learning…and you have shared it all so willingly. thank you, Teacher.

    in a former life i was a Korean linguist. in Korea, teachers hold the highest honour of being called Sun Sang Nim. thank you MOH Sun Sang Nim.

    your friend,

    • January 29, 2012 11:43 am

      Kymber, what a compliment! Thank you! I told everyone yesterday that they need to revere me…;) I got a few funny looks 🙂 MOHSSN

  2. January 28, 2012 3:50 am

    Good post Matron. It is true that animals make an incredible ecological contribution with their manure, provided that we understand how to not mismanage it.

  3. A.A. permalink
    January 28, 2012 4:47 am

    Well, all I’m worried about is how long you can keep up with the witty titles if you keep posting so much about manure! 😉 It’s nice to see the girls in the sunlight.

    • January 29, 2012 11:45 am

      AA, well that’s not a problem, since I have two sharp witted family members to keep me on my toes!

      Even on gray days (our usual here) the light is pretty good, except snow days that is.

  4. January 28, 2012 5:07 am

    Great read and great pictures! We hope to get a few chickens eventually. Right now we’re just in the learning stages, but one day!

    • January 29, 2012 11:46 am

      Scott, gotta start somewhere right? Once you get your own chickens, you will wonder how you got by without them. 🙂

  5. Steve Paul permalink
    January 28, 2012 5:10 am

    Hi there – I love to learn about poop!!! That is one of the main reasons I will be getting my first flock of chickens this spring. Well that an eggs of course!!

    But i am curious – I have read many a place where chicken manure is very hot, and it takes several years for it to break down properly. I definitely love the idea of using the deep litter method because it makes sense they would scratch around in it, and the deep litter would attract worms, bugs etc from below.

    So my question for you is what do you do with your deep litter in the spring? Is it “composted” and broken down enough because of all the carbon to go directly onto/into your garden? I have multiple composting bins made out of skids, and I was thinking of starting with hot on the left and eventually turn it over, break it down, and move it down the line until it is “compost”. But I have no idea how long that will take. Or I could just go for a pile and hot compost in the summer time. I also wanted to give my chickens access to the compost bins when they are free ranging because they could continue to work it and also get plenty of bugs, worms etc.

    Your advice is appreciated. I am relatively new to your blog and haven’t read yet from the beginning to hear your story. I wanted to ask this question first – I do plan on digging in sometime when I have more time.

    Thanks in advance,

    Steve 🙂

    • January 29, 2012 11:54 am

      Steve, straight chicken manure is hot, but if your deep bedding is of the proper carbon to nitrogen ration (no offensive smell) it should not need composting, but it should be as broken down as the last photo in this post, otherwise composting may be in order. Because it is light I usually use it as a side dressing on crops that need an additional boost, or as fertilizer in planting holes for tomatoes, etc.

      We’re pretty lax about our compost piles, meaning we don’t turn them, we stack them high and let them do their thing. Of course, if you’re in a hurry you can do the work of turning, each person has to decide where to distribute their labor, time and you also have to take into account how much physical work you want to take on. For instance, on our farmstead the compost will take care of itself over time, the weeds in the garden will not. So I spend my time tending gardens instead of compost.

      Congrats on getting chickens!

  6. epeavey1 permalink
    January 28, 2012 5:16 am

    I really like the pictures of the chickens, I spend lots of my time collecting Golden Nuggets from Buford our donkey and the guardian of the goats. I have a few chickens also and even one that was hatched during the summer, which unfortunately turned out to be another rooster. We are going to trade him for a hen or two this spring and get some more chicks for the grand daughters to raise. Thanks Ellen from Georgia

    • January 29, 2012 11:56 am

      epeavey1, it seems sometimes too, we spend more time gathering all the manure around here, and a neighbor delivers theirs (well actually their animal’s manure).

      Your grand daughters will have a great time this summer I bet!

  7. January 28, 2012 5:17 am

    I have read that the ‘deep litter’ method is excellent for fertilizer.
    And I’m very interested in it.
    So if I understand what I read, you add straw daily to the floor? Do you change the straw in the nest boxes daily? Or do you change nest boxes and floor straw weekly?

    I am curious about the greenhouse floor. How do you keep varmints out?
    Your chickens look great. I really enjoyed your post!

    • January 29, 2012 12:03 pm

      LindaG, I add straw daily to the area where the chickens bed down at night. And around the waterer, and in front of the nest box so they keep their tootsies clean. A lot of dirty eggs comes from dirt on the hens feet. I take out the bedding once a year. The nest boxes get straw as needed, they have removable bottoms for easy cleaning, but as a general rule I pull out the straw every couple of weeks and put in new until it gets too thick. I always spot check as I gather eggs, and look for poops or broken eggs. Moisture is not a friend to eggs since eggshells are porous, so keeping the nest box clean and dry is very important.

      As for varmints, we have chicken wire inside the plastic, but there are a few bobcat claw marks in the plastic. The dogs are about the best pest deterrent, they patrol at night so it seems to work pretty well.

  8. January 28, 2012 5:49 am

    Pow’ful stuff. We’re about to muck out the henhouse today, I think about nine wheelbarrow loads …

    • January 29, 2012 12:08 pm

      Risa, and gorgeous weather for that too!

      We finally measured ours last year, and at 18″ deep we generated about 15 yards of material! Just from a small flock of chickens. We were amazed, and that is with lax bedding.

  9. January 28, 2012 6:33 am

    Compost is such an important aspect in farming and I find it fascinating how animals contribute so much to our needs and sometimes we forget about those things that they do. I’ve noticed that we as individuals often take things we have regularly for granted until we sit down and think about it and there’s the “aha” moment! You seem to have the “Aha” moment frequently while some other people don’t ever.

    • January 29, 2012 12:09 pm

      Mary, thanks, I have lots of time to think when I am outside with the animals, they keep me grounded in so many ways. 🙂

  10. Chris permalink
    January 28, 2012 8:00 am

    You’ve got some beautiful looking birds there…nice shiny feathers…bright, clear eyes…gorgeous eggs…No, you can’t beat that! No shit! 🙂

    • January 29, 2012 12:11 pm

      Chris, I know they are so pretty, green and purple – gorgeous birds. Even ol’ Russell (Crow) who is goober hybrid like his ladies is a pretty smart looking fellow! His predecessor Gregory Peck wasn’t quite so showy 😉

  11. January 28, 2012 8:53 am

    I’ve always admired your system of indoor chicken keeping. Would you mind sharing the dimensions of your coop in that hoophouse?

    • January 29, 2012 12:15 pm

      Amy, the hoophouse is 20′ x 20′. The chickens have 15′ x 20′ and the foyer is 5′ x 20′. We have two and we built these specifically for brooding our chicks, so the foyer area is for supplies, and really cuts down on the labor of moving feed etc. When I use these for growing vegetables, I use the chicken part only. We didn’t buy a kit, since hubby was getting so adept at building greenhouses…we just bought the bows etc, and framed the rest because we knew we wanted wide doors and different ventilation for the chickens than is what usually is recommended for plants.

      Oh, and I should add this design stood up to the 2008 snowstorms, whereas our semi-gable hoop houses did not.

      ETA: I don’t recommend hens and vegetables simultaneously in the same space, since hens scratch and dust and you’ll find a fine dust on everything, and the fine dust includes fecal dust. I do however start seedlings and chicks in the same space. Both are babies, and a long way to fruition.

  12. January 28, 2012 9:28 am

    The big difference between industrial agriculture — the part mainstream media, banks, and the government know about — is that a farm is evaluated by performance on the balance sheet that the IRS uses for taxes. If it doesn’t bring in cash from a corporate customer, it isn’t ‘produce’.

    On the other hand, “Ten Acres Enough” from the 19th Century starts with “No man needs to farm more land than he can adequately manure”, linking animal husbandry to agriculture, something else that industrial agriculture abandoned as not “cost effective”.

    OMG. I was just thinking that putting my 6 chickens (two layers, one over three years old, two Bantam roosters, one over three years old, and two bantam hens) in a greenhouse would guarantee the neighbor’s dogs would tear the thing up in no time. So I would need fencing around the bottom, or a steel sided bottom and wire up to about six feet — and now I wonder, why I cannot turn my covered chicken run into a greenhouse. . . The wire and enclosure is already there, and a door, and controlled access to the chickens. But the chickens would miss having a run. .. Maybe an extension to the run ,. I better sleep on this one.

  13. January 28, 2012 9:45 am

    As an organic gardener, chicken poo is like garden gold. I am not a farmer, but I keep a small flock of urban chickens. Manure was my #1 reason for initially wanting my own chickens, not the eggs. Don’t get me wrong, eggs are wonderful. But even if my hens didn’t lay eggs, I would still keep chickens for the great fertilizer they help make.

    I love your post!

    • January 29, 2012 12:23 pm

      Leanne, I couldn’t agree more. I want the eggs too, but you can do so much when you make a system to gather the manure. I eat more vegetables each than eggs, and vegetables are heavy feeders. The veggie food needs to come from somewhere.

      If a person didn’t want eggs I think a flock of cockerels would make sense to raise for 5 or 6 months. They taste better than the meat birds and the price is right!

      • Hayden permalink
        January 30, 2012 5:50 am

        Nita, if you raise cockerels alone, w/o the hens, will they fight? I got a straight run (half Buff Orpingtons and half Silver Laced Wyandottes), and at 5 months needed to separate them to stop the bloodshed. It seems to work, but I’m not sure how much is the separation and how much is the weather (mostly cold and snow). 9 roos are now in the barn, in an 8X7 stall, with 16′ of roost space. I had them open to an outdoor pen, but between them breaking out and the hens breaking in, it was a constant uproar. Now roos are dining on raw milk and oats, both soaked and dry (their choice) for another couple of weeks before they leave for freezer camp. (This is the diet of the famous French blue-footed Bresse chickens – 5 months on pasture and short protein to encourage insect eating, anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 months in the barn on oats and milk.) I just wanted them bigger with more flavor. Everyone around here said I “must” slaughter them immediately (that advice from 3 months on) and so no help learning how long I might keep them. I’m going for maximum flavor, understand that they may be a bit tough – but the quiet time and oats are supposed to correct that.

        Am I on track? Any thoughts on roos and fighting?

        • January 30, 2012 7:48 am

          Hayden, also sounds like a good plan. We would butcher ours when they started to crow. But we never had them separate from the pullets, and everything worked out OK, just a little chest bumping when the crowing started, there was always a few jocks but for the most part they got along. I think they might be fine, just like a bunch of bulls, and feeding generously could get you to a weight that you liked a little sooner.

        • January 30, 2012 8:16 am

          I think that is the point, at about the point of maturity that the bloodshed or fighting would become a real issue is the time to harvest.

  14. Jeanne permalink
    January 28, 2012 2:49 pm

    Our chicken house has a dirt floor and after cleaning the chicken house in late fall, I cover the floor with new straw. As the fall and winter progress, I layer more straw under the roosts. It can get to 6 or 7 inches deep by the time I clean the chicken house again in spring. This has always worked for us in several different situations. Our current hen house is an enclosed loafing barn with very old timbers. My neighbor tells me that I have created a fire danger and that the straw should never get more than one inch deep. Could this be true? Do I need to clean out every week? Thanks for your advice. I appreciate all the information you pass on to us.

    • January 28, 2012 9:04 pm

      Certainly straw will burn. Lamp oil spilled from a lantern, electrical shorts, cigarette matches and lighters.

      Since the neighbor raises the question, i would ask the electrical inspector for your electric provider to do an inspection. This is risky, because I can almost guarantee there will be some “defects” noted. One that comes to mind is anytime there is bedding, hay/straw, or livestock they want the light bulbs protected, wiring run to where it is used (extension cords only for projects lasting less than 60 days, usually), appropriate breakers or fuses, and wiring according to “code”. It is possible an inspection can also turn up a safety concern, in addition to the ‘letter of the code’ types of things that *might* happen on a strange day if the wind blew the cheese smell from the moon.

      My biggest concerns about straw bedding and fire would be three things: spontaneous combustion of the straw while in place; sparks from something setting it afire; and a dust explosion/fire. Dust from grains and harvesting can be explosive — that is what happens to grain elevators when they go up in a blaze. Aside from dust, some peculiar combination of moisture and matter can get a heat-regenerating cycle going, that ends up hotter than ignition temperature of the straw. This rarely happens, unless oils are involved. Things such as rags used to apply linseed oil can be a problem if not stored and ventilated right, and I saw a sleeping bag that a couple had added olive oil to, while frolicking, start to smoulder in the car.

      Bedding is pretty safe from all of these concerns, if you are fire-aware and keep the building fire-safe. I would think that one inch deep would be more likely to be a problem, from dust, than deeper straw accumulated over a period of time.

      Actually, I might challenge your neighbor. Offer to call the electrical code department and request an inspection of your barn, if the neighbor also requests an inspection of his/her home.

      It hasn’t been inspected in ages, but I do have a fire extinguisher in the barn, about 40 feet from the chicken house. Both are steel buildings, though the chicken house has a 3/4 inch plywood floor and a steel framework.

    • January 29, 2012 12:27 pm

      Jeanne, I wouldn’t worry about it, even compost with horse manure doesn’t really combust. They probably are thinking of green hay that been put up too damp and will spontaneously combust or can. Of course, there is always someone who knows a story that will refute everything anyone says. But really I don’t think it is a concern.

  15. Hayden permalink
    January 28, 2012 5:58 pm

    Trying to think how long I’ve been following your blog, and how much you’ve influenced me. I’ve read copiously – Andy Lee is a favorite – but you’re the regular dose of reality. Last fall I did my first 2 flocks – 50 each, guineas and chickens. Kept half the chicken flock for the manure, and am planning for 400 each next summer. I’ve found I really enjoy them, but that’s not why I’m doing it – for me, it’s all about improving the soil. I never thought I’d be planning to do so many poultry, but I can’t think of more economic way to make the improvements needed here. Much of that conviction is due to my regular reading here… Your chickens are really beautiful, what are they? Those combs don’t look like they’d be completely safe in my cold climate, but the birds are gorgeous!

    • January 29, 2012 12:40 pm

      Hayden, thank you! Wow congrats on the chickens! I’m glad you get it…I was talking to someone the other day, and they were railing against Salatin for keeping his meat birds confined, and I patiently listened while I heard all about free range, and chicken exercise etc., and thought to myself, how come people don’t get it? You have to build the soil, and our livestock are tools to that end. If broilers are moved daily they always have fresh range, they are not free, but free-range really does defeat the purpose. It is a single-minded thought – free the chicken and maybe get an egg or feed the wildlife. In the end you may have nothing or you may just get an incredible egg. I am snot, but have learned to keep my mouth shut most of the time. I cringe sometimes when I think of all the chickens going around eating worms to beat the band, I wonder who does more for the soil? The worm and beneficial insects or hen who will lay the golden egg? Reminds of cats as pesticide…they eat a lot good birds along with the starlings… I’ll take my good eggs, and great compost and not worry about having the most excellent eggs 🙂 There is a huge difference between FRESH range and stale Free Range.

      The chickens are just your run-of-the-mill Black Sex-Links, they are great chickens and beautiful to boot. But it’s pretty hard to find an ugly chicken!

      • Hayden permalink
        January 30, 2012 6:17 am

        Thanks, Nita, for the encouragement! My layers are out half days now (when there’s no snow, no pending storm), but that’ll end with their new pen setup next spring. (Six foot wide run, surrounding the garden. Double rows of fence to help keep the deer out, and the hens will provide a gauntlet for slugs and bugs to cross before they reach the garden.) One of my biggest concerns with “real” free range is the freshness – hard to be sure they’re fresh when your hens are laying all over the place! And it usually seems that when I find an egg they put somewhere other than their nests, it’s dirty. Dirty eggs go to Pike and Jake, but there’s a limit to how many they can eat!

        • January 30, 2012 7:44 am

          Hayden, sounds like a great plan. I think free-range chickens really need a nest box set-up so the bulk of the eggs get laid in a clean area. Yeah, no floor eggs here either, not worth the risk.

  16. Kelly Johnson permalink
    January 28, 2012 9:25 pm

    I also layer straw, hay, and wood chips in my chicken house. I dont think I have ever heard of a composte bin spontaniously catching on fire which is what this is. As long as you turn it every now and then it should be fine. I get a little lazy every now and then. I will turn it up a little and then throw scratch feed down and let the chickens do the rest. Its also good to rake the top crest off under the roost poles. Sunlight also helps a lot in the process. I have been thinking about adding a few windows to the back half of my chicken house where the roosts poles are. In the spring Im going to try throwing corn in there and locking a feeder pig in that part of the house. FYI. Hay does not work well unless you run it through a wood chipper first. Its cheaper but its just not absorbent enough.

    I think the folks with the cow forgot the #1 rule on a farm. EVERYTHING has a use if you study it long enough.

    • Hayden permalink
      January 29, 2012 5:28 am

      Kelly, I’ve seen compost smolder – but it was a HUGE outdoor pile assembled by the city, smoldered for 2 months (monitored by the fire department who figured it wasn’t going to flame in fire-conscious California, and it left ash as proof of activity.) That said, I can’t imagine the straw under chickens igniting (and that’s what I use too, wood shavings, hay and straw.)

      • Kelly Johnson permalink
        January 29, 2012 8:41 am

        Your right Hayden. Piles will smolder because the internal temp gets very high. I would also say that a compost bin that is covered and never turned would run the risk of catching on fire. I think what her neighbor may have in the back of his mind is barns catching on fire because hay was put up green or a roof leak soaked down into the hay. The problem there is that the outside of the hay gets lots of air circulation and it dries out the hay which makes it a good combustion source. The inside of the hay pile stays wet and starts to composte creating heat. In a composte bin that is turned regularly the moisture content should be equal through out. If its outside rain soaks in, the sun dries the outer layer, the internal temp evaporates the moisture outward where the outer layer soaks some of it up before its gone. As long as the moisture content is equal throgh out there should never be a problem. Piles of mulch will smolder as well. If fire was a major hazard there would be a lot more regulations on the housing of that kind of stuff.

        • Hayden permalink
          January 30, 2012 6:19 am

          Great detailed explanation, Kelly, thank you!

  17. PeterPansDad permalink
    January 30, 2012 6:32 am


    Nevermind that she should be mowing for you. Why do people with postage stamp lawns need riding lawn mowers? And why do people with riding lawn mowers need treadmills? Just let Bessie do her job. The milk is just the…erm…cream.

  18. January 30, 2012 6:50 pm

    I love manure 😉 Nothing makes a garden grow better! I can’t get enough! I was ecstatic Saturday when a fellow brought me 3 truck loads 😉 When I had lots of animals at my last place I was busy raising babies of my own and cleaning the barns wouldn’t have happened except I needed compost for the garden!

  19. August 21, 2012 4:11 pm

    Thanks for the infomative and entertaining posts! I’m in the process of building a small chicken coop and hope to have a 3-4 hen flock by next summer. I’ve read a lot about the deep litter method and the general concensus seems to be that it should be used on bare ground (so the docomposers can work their way in.) I plan to use this method in the chicken run, but do you think it would work in a coop with a non-dirt floor, if it were deep enough? The chicken house I’m building is off the ground, insulated, and will have a light (Alaska’s winters are dark and cold!) primarily for heat but also to help keep the eggs coming in winter. I’ve read that adding leaves and grass clippings to straw can help keep the decomposition rolling…any advice?

    • August 22, 2012 5:04 am

      Mo, I think it would work splendidly, and you probably need that floor for predator protection anyway. Leaves, grass clippings or soil mixed in with the deep bedding will work to the decomp going. If you garden you will delighted with the material your chickens provide for you in addition to their eggs!

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