For homesteaders, chickens have a lot to recommend them. They lay lots of eggs, they can provide you with nutritious meat, and compared to many other animals they are far cheaper and easier to keep. What is not to love?
Well, for one thing, they create tons of poop. Like, tons and tons of poop, seemingly out of all proportion with their diminutive size. How can these little birds poop so much?
The weekly coop cleanout is a dreaded chore for most keepers, and one thing you’ll have to put up with year in and year out. And then there is the matter of getting rid of it…
But, if you are clever, you can put your chickens to work for you while also dealing with all the poop they leave around.
It turns out that chicken poop is one of the very best things you can add to a compost pile if you want to give your garden or planting beds a shot of serious nutrition.
Sound too good to be true? It isn’t, and we will tell you how in this article.
What is Composting?
If you are new to homesteading, or even new to gardening in general, you might not know what composting is, or be familiar with the process of composting.
Simply, compost is basically naturally occurring and nutrient-rich soil, and is created in nature as microscopic life and various insects, worms and other creatures break down the detritus of both plant and animal matter.
Composting is the process of making that soil ourselves by way of controlled decomposition of various organic matter, such as leaves, food scraps, bark, grass clippings, and even – you guessed it – chicken poop.
This decomposition process is hastened by the addition of oxygen, accomplished by turning the pile routinely or keeping it contained in a container that is well-ventilated.
With the right combo of materials, plenty of air, a little moisture, and enough helpful organisms the pile of garbage, yard waste, and chicken poop you have created will soon turn into fresh, clean, and super helpful compost!
As the material in your compost pile breaks down, it becomes dark, crumbly, and earthy smelling, being indistinguishable from black, rich soil- which is what it is! It is then perfect for adding to planting beds or using as a top dressing on your lawn.
This is only the barest overview of composting as a process, and though fundamentally pretty simple there is a lot to know on the topic, and a fair bit of nuance.
This article assumes that you understand composting 101, so if you don’t make sure you brush up and then come back here so you can learn how your chickens can supercharge your efforts. All set? Let’s carry on.
Does Chicken Poop Make Good Fertilizer?
Chickens can be an integral part of your compost plan by contributing valuable resources and also by helping to create the compost, all by themselves. Yes, really. But first, the resource part.
Chickens are, as we have said, poop machines. A chicken will generate about a quarter-pound of manure every single day. That’s nearly two pounds a week, for one chicken!
If you have a modest flock of a dozen birds, you have around 23 pounds of poop to contend with. Yikes, and that is not including any bedding material you might use in their coop or run.
Getting rid of this much waste is a major chore on its own. But, there is value in those chicken pellets.
Chicken feces is very high in nitrogen and other nutrients that plants need. This is just the ticket for helping out with new plantings, restoring depleted soil, or just giving existing plants a boost with a little topsoil.
In fact, the nitrogen levels in composted chicken manure can be as much as ten times higher than in cow manure by weight. Impressive, and that isn’t even counting the phosphorous and potassium also present.
But how about the labor part? How are chickens supposed to help you maintain much less create compost, aside from contributing, ah, raw materials?
Well, as we all know, chickens are also perennial scratchers and peckers, constantly turning over the ground and any litter upon it as they search for food.
They do this to find food in the form of bugs, worms, seeds, and dropped feed, but unknown to them they are doing important work for us: turning and aerating the soil, and mixing in any bedding or other matter you might have put down!
In essence, they do in miniature what you do to your compost pile with a pitchfork or shovel.
At worst, you can recycle and dispose of your chicken manure and other waste in an environmentally friendly, easy way.
But, at best, you can get your chickens to create the compost for you in the course of their normal lives.
We’ll show you several ways that can work for any flock and any homestead, but first a few more key concepts.
Don’t Use Fresh Poop in Your Garden or Beds
Even though chicken poop contains tons of nitrogen and other soil nutrients that plants need, you don’t want to just toss their doodoo into your garden or beds. Why? Two reasons…
First, it is too potent. That much concentrated nitrogen will literally burn or scald your plants, root, and leaf if you use it that way.
Second, fresh chicken feces always contain harmful bacteria that can contaminate what you are growing, and can potentially make you and your family deathly sick if you touch it or eat it.
Seriously potent germs like salmonella and E. coli are transmissible via chicken poop, and you do not want to mess with those.
Now, this is enough to give almost anyone the heebie-jeebies, but I promise you that if you use the right, simple procedures when incorporating chicken poop into your compost, in any way, you won’t have a thing to worry about.
Always Age Chicken Poop for Safety and Best Results
So, we need to prevent the chicken poop from roasting our plants and contaminating our plants with germs, and all the while we need to get the nutrients from the poop to the soil so the plants can utilize them. How best to accomplish this?
Simple: By aging the poop before you apply it to your garden, either as part of compost (preferably) or on its own.
Aging chicken manure is really just a process of allowing time for some key things to happen.
First, the concentration of nitrogen in the manure will be reduced somewhat by evaporation as it dries out.
Second, the heat produced by decomposition will kill most of the harmful bacteria present.
Both of these changes make aged chicken manure much safer and more effective as fertilizer, part of compost or not, than the fresh stuff.
How long should you age it? That depends on your method (see below) but generally, two to six months is sufficient.
Make sure you think this through since fresh poop added to ready compost is not wondrously made safe after touching it.
You could add your good compost containing fresh poop to your garden or beds and still cause problems.
Again, the key to using chicken manure safely is to age it first, whether or not it is incorporated in compost at the time!
3 Ways to Use Chickens and Their Poop in Your Compost Plan
The following methods for getting your chickens involved in your composting efforts are all tried and true, and no matter how many chickens you have or what your homestead or garden setup looks like, one is bound to work for you. Some are more involved, some less, but all work!
1. Add Poop to Your Existing Pile, Bin, or Barrel
The most straightforward method for using chickens in your compost plan is simply to add their droppings to your existing bin, pile, or barrel.
In this way, the chickens are making just another ingredient, akin to leaves or grass clippings, albeit a very important one.
This method is simple: You don’t have to do anything special, do anything different or alter any part of your compost plan or your coop and run arrangement.
Let your chickens be chickens and keep on collecting their poop on a weekly basis before adding it to your pile, then turning and wetting as normal.
However, this method doesn’t produce as high a volume of finished compost as some of the other methods we will talk about.
Additionally, your chickens aren’t helpers in this case, only suppliers. You are still doing all of the work.
As mentioned above, you will need to give the poop at least two months to break down with the compost, and preferably longer for safety.
That being said, for those who are happy with their current setup all around this is as simple as it gets.
2. Create Compost with Deep Litter Ground Cover
The most involved method for getting your chickens and their poop into composting is the one with the most benefits, naturally, but those benefits will also extend to your chickens and to you, not just your garden.
To do this, you will use a deep litter ground cover method in your coop and potentially in your run, as this will get the poop going where it needs to go (and goes anyway!) while also employing your chickens to do most of the work of maintaining the pile.
Now, as mentioned this method is pretty involved. For those not familiar, the deep litter ground cover method is one where you set a deep (5+ inches, or 12+ centimeters) layer of litter in the coop and then you let it accumulate over time, adding to it regularly and changing or turning it infrequently.
As the chickens poop and scratch in the litter, they kickstart the composting process which will in time yield the rich, dark soil that you want.
The key element is the type and quantity of ground cover itself. So long as it is absorbent and degradable, though, it should work.
This can be wood shavings, straw, leaves, pine needles, or anything else that is safe for chickens and will decompose. Lay it deep, at least 5″.
As it is soiled you will need to regularly add fresh material to the top to keep it dry, but otherwise you let it be, for at least 3 months or so.
The chickens will scratch through it as they usually do, mixing in the fresh with the old and exposing everything to oxygen, which is key in the composting process.
When required, you can clean it out and set it aside to finish, if needed, before adding fresh and starting over.
The beauty of this method is that it not only creates finished or nearly finished compost with no real work from you, but it also employs your chickens as regular turners.
Even better, compared to other methods of ground covering your chickens will benefit from better sanitation (it’s true!), better insulation, and a nicer floor to stand on.
So, less work in the coop, compost in the bargain, and happier, healthier chickens? Do you need any more convincing?
Note that depending on the activity level of your flock and the time they spend in the coop or run you still may want to give your birds a hand and turn the litter every few weeks when you do your regular addition.
3. Add Poop Directly to Garden Soil at End of Season
For those who don’t want to deal with adding chicken poop to your compost or mix things up in the coop with the deep litter method, you have an alternative.
You can wait until the end of the season, when your garden is cleared, and then simply add chicken manure to the soil itself.
This can be really helpful as it will provide essential nutrients that may have been depleted over the course of a season, and you won’t have to worry about any extra activity to turn it into compost. That will happen on its own, over time.
To do this, you can collect and scatter the poop yourself, or allow your birds lots of time to free-range in your garden at season’s end. Either will work.
But, as mentioned the poop must be allowed lots of time to decompose, which is why waiting until the end of the season is important.
It can take up to 6 months for chicken manure to become safe for plants and for you in this way, so if you add it too late, closer to planting or prepping, it will actually harm your garden and might harm you.
If you know your planting schedule like the back of your hand and can make this another chore to do at the end of the summer or fall harvest, you can be sure of having healthy, replenished soil come spring.
Chicken Poop is Not a Magic Compost Additive
Just to clarify, chicken poop on its own is not a magic ingredient that will suddenly turn into compost overnight, bring a failing compost pile back to life, or remove the need for regular maintenance for an existing pile or bin. There is no such thing.
All in all, chicken poop (or any manure) can be of great help for your compost pile, but you have to know both what you are doing, and how best to use it.
If you don’t, you need to learn! But so long as you do, then your chickens can be a great help in your efforts.
Tom has built and remodeled homes, generated his own electricity, grown his own food and more, all in quest of remaining as independent of society as possible. Now he shares his experiences and hard-earned lessons with readers around the country.
Find out more about the team here.