What Is The Deep Litter Method? (The Short Version)
The Deep Litter method involves tossing carbon materials, such as straw, cardboard, hay, or wood chips onto the manure in a chicken coop or barn.
Rather than scooping the muck out, layers of carbon are added on top, making a manure and carbon ‘lasagna” of sorts (yummy).
While this practice may initially seem dirty or lazy, there are significant benefits tied to it that should not be overlooked. There are also a few setbacks too. We’ll cover all of it in this article.
The Benefits of Deep Litter Bedding
- It’s an easy, lower-effort way for people who do not have the time nor the body to fully clean a coop multiple times a week. It’s pretty accessible for all people.
- It warms coops and barns, which is helpful during those brutally cold winters. Live in a cold area? Here are seven breeds that will do well in your climate.
- The Deep Litter Method encourages a diverse population of cultures and microbes in your coop, which is extra beneficial for chickens.
- The end product is rich, nutrient-dense compost and soil that can be used to improve soil across your property, especially in the garden.
- It keeps unpleasant smells to a minimum.
- It is safe and keeps birds and other livestock healthy all year.
- It’s easy to learn about and maintain.
When Deep Litter Can Be Dangerous or Unhelpful
Even though the Deep Litter Method has a plethora of healthy perks, there are a few drawbacks.
When Improperly Managed
An improperly managed coop attempting to use the Deep Litter Method will have various issues. If it needs better management, you could see the following signs:
- Sick birds from mold, ammonia, dampness, or parasites. Once illness starts in deep litter, you need to remove it all to prevent the spread of the issue.
- A bad smell, either from too much manure and not enough carbon, or too much urine and not enough proper ventilation and added carbon elements.
- Too dusty, meaning lots of sneezing, coughing, and illness in the coop
- Not emptied on time– meaning that the coop is being additionally heated by the Deep Litter Method even in the midst of a hot summer.
- Cranky, overcrowded birds in an unclean coop. You can’t properly deep litter if you have too much flock for your coop.
- Wet ground. A wet ground breeds all kinds of issues, from respiratory problems to illness to feet issues to even death. If the ground is wet from urine or a tipped-over waterer, your animals will suffer. Make sure you either scoop out the wet area or properly cover it with enough carbon materials to absorb the moisture quickly and without issue.
When Raising Egg Layers
Fewer eggs were laid when the deep litter method was instituted in a study led by Oke.
This study observed laying hens when they were given access to deep-litter building and legumes for food; it concluded that the deep-litter method encouraged chickens to eat slightly more food while producing slightly fewer eggs.
When Administering Antibiotics
Antibiotic resistance for bacteria can be a serious issue.
So when this study was released, I was a bit nervous to see that it concluded that the deep litter method allows bacteria to develop a resistance to the antibiotics used on the meat ducks within the building.
It suggested that when the animals defecate after vaccination, some of the vaccine components fall into the ground and live in the litter, giving the bacteria a chance to build immunity against it.
However, I did feel a bit skeptical when I saw that this study did not use a control group.
Another study has not been conducted since then to confirm or deny these findings. So until then, use your own discretion.
It Can Destroy Floors
The Deep Litter Method has the power to be corrosive and damaging for the materials that it touches for prolonged periods, like the floors.
It is best suited for earthen floors.
Coops or barns with wooden floors may experience rotting of the boards, while coops or barns with concrete floors may see some damaging corrosion in the concrete.
What Should You Know About Composting?
Composting takes natural, organic matter and blends these diverse materials to make rich, healthy compost or soil.
It takes four primary ingredients to make a healthy compost; these materials are: carbon (brown materials), nitrogen (green materials), water, and oxygen.
Nitrogen (Green Materials)
Most materials that are green, have a higher moisture content, have a lot of nitrogen in them, or were at one time “alive” are considered green materials.
These materials include:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Most food waste
- Grass clippings
- Pulled weeds
Carbon (Brown Materials)
Brown materials are drier, woodier, and usually the color brown. Some of the most common brown carbon materials include
- Wood chips and sawdust
- Bark (plentiful and free if you split wood for your wood stove)
- Dried straw or day (not damp grass)
- Corn stalks
- Dried soybean stalks
- Newspaper, non-glossy magazines
- Paper shreddings
You will not need to add this aspect to your barn or coop because the manure will do this enough for you.
Also, if you’re like me and occasionally spill a bucket here and there, you’ll need to be more concerned with too much liquid, not the other way around.
If you are using the deep litter method with chickens, you may not need to help aerate the bedding because the chickens will be moving the materials around enough to aerate the bedding.
Other creatures, though, like ducks, goats, or even larger animals like cattle, will need your assistance here.
Every other day you should run a pitchfork into the bedding and turn it over to aerate it.
After turning it over, add your brown materials, like shavings, wood chips, straw, or even leftover hay chaff, to the top so your animals stay dry and clean.
I can’t recommend the Rodale Book of Composting enough; it was surprisingly interesting (and a joy to read) all the way through.
It gave me so many great tools to use in my homesteading and composting practices.
Does Deep Litter Bedding Stink?
When done correctly, no, the deep litter method will not stink.
If you do begin to notice an odor, you should turn the bedding over with a pitchfork or shovel to aerate the bedding, add in more carbon “brown” material, and consider adding more ventilation to the coop or barn, if needed.
What You Need to Deep Litter Your Coop or Barn
To effectively deep litter, you need a steady supply of brown materials, a pitchfork (or another tool to turn the mixture, if your chickens aren’t), and a little ventilation in the building.
Every day or every few days, you should aerate the compost by flipping the material “lasagna.”
After turning it, add a layer of dry brown material to the top to ensure that your chickens (or other critters) stay warm and dry with no stinky smells.
What Should Go On the Base Layer of the Deep Litter Method?
While you can use hay or stray as the base layer, it is not recommended.
Most people agree that hemp, wood shavings, or wood chips are best to start because they absorb liquid and bad smells.
Something I recently tested and liked was using the bark from my split wood (for the woodstove) to start the base of the deep litter method.
When I started splitting the wood in the dry heat of the summer, the bark just effortlessly popped off, and I set that aside for the coop.
When late fall rolled around, I cleaned the coop one last time and then added one layer of bark down to the floor.
I put it rough bark side down, slick side up.
Then I sprinkled an inch or two of wood shavings on top and left it to do its thing.
The chickens mixed the wood shavings with their manure but did not move the bark pieces.
As the manure began to accumulate, I tossed more wood chips and shavings (and small pieces of bark) from the woodshed into the coop.
I also layered on dry hay that the goats had wasted, which worked surprisingly well.
When spring thaw finally came back to us, I scooped the coop out and was shocked when I hit the ground with my shovel; the bark had completely dissipated into the compost.
When I removed the deep litter, only one small piece of bark remained, which I believe was because I had double-stacked another piece of bark atop it.
This makes me wonder if waste pieces of plywood could potentially make a good starter base beneath a healthy layer of sawdust. It also makes me shudder to think what would happen to a wood plank floor.
Cardboard, newspaper, and crunchy, dry leaves could be another good alternative, so long as they absorb liquids quickly and keep odors to a minimum.
Sand may also work under another brown material.
Can You Use the Deep Litter Method on Wooden or Concrete Floors?
You can use the deep litter method wherever you like, but there are no guarantees that it won’t rot or corrode the floors.
Deep litter may not be the best solution, but if you’re willing to give it a try, see if you can find some sort of a protectant for the floor.
A vinyl floor may work well.
So could several layers of cardboard, bark, or even a bunch of thick newspapers.
A tarp would likely decompose under the compost, but plastic sheeting might hold up.
What’s the Difference Between Ventilation and a Draft?
The first time I heard someone say, “you need ventilation but not a draft,” I thought, uhh, aren’t those kinda the same thing in a barn? It turns out, no, there is a pretty significant difference.
A draft is usually unintentional. It comes in through cracks, missing boards, beneath doors, and around window frames. Ventilation is usually more intentional, like windows and vents.
If the hole or crack where the air enters is close to the ground, it’s probably a draft. It will suck the cold air right into the coop or barn, on or next to where your animals are trying to warm back up.
If the hole or crack is up high, near the ceiling, it’s not likely going to directly hit your creatures, with the exception of roosting chickens, so it’s just a source of fresh air that’s cool but not miserably cold.
To keep your ventilation from acting like a draft, make sure that the vents are above the roosting areas so that cold air won’t blow directly onto your flock at night.
What’s unfortunate is that you can have a draft with no ventilation too.
Ammonia is lighter than oxygen and carbon dioxide, so it floats at the top of your coop or barn.
Just because fresh, cold air comes in at the bottom does not mean that the air will be safe to breathe.
Putting vents up high is a great way to eliminate the animal enclosure without making your critters cold. Vents also let excess moisture escape, which is another bonus.
Helpful Tips for the Deep Litter Method
- Use copious amounts of carbonous bedding when starting. If you are using shavings alone, add four or five inches. If you are using something like cardboard or wood bark under the shavings, you don’t need quite as thick of a wood shaving layer.
- Aerate the litter daily or every other day. If you want your chickens to do all the work for you, toss down some scratch grains on the floor. I like this think of it as a silly little chores and allowances system (where they get their allowance first).
- If you spot mold or fungus in your litter, it’s because there isn’t enough oxygen in the mixture. You need to turn the materials more often for it to work.
- Immediately throw down fresh carbon litter if there is a spill or wet spot in the coop. Dampness can cause several issues for your flock, from respiratory problems to bumblefoot, to frostbite.
- Pick up a handful of the litter bedding every now and then. Flip the bedding over, and then stick a gloved hand in to scoop some up. When you squeeze the mass, it should break up a little, but not drip any liquids. If it’s too drippy, or the litter doesn’t break up, it’s too wet. If you squeeze it and it doesn’t clump together at least a little, it’s probably too dry (this will likely not happen in a chicken coop).
- Don’t overcrowd the coop. Chicken math is real (and easy to do), so if you have more chickens than coop, you might want to sit this method out; it probably won’t work that well for you. A coop is considered overcrowded if you have more than one bird per four square feet.
- If you start to notice an ammonia smell, act fast. Turn the mixture over, mix in a lot more carbon material, and make sure the ground is dry. If your coop doesn’t have ample ventilation near the roof, add that in as soon as possible. Even if it’s cold outside, make sure you open the doors and windows for a few minutes to reduce the ammonia levels.
- Skip the diatomaceous earth in the coop during your deep litter method times. It kills all the helpful bacteria in your composting process and really dries out the litter in a harmful way. While DE is not harmful to chickens, it just isn’t a friend of the deep litter method.
- If you spot disease or illness in the coop, you should remove all litter, sanitize, and totally start over. Adding DE now could be helpful for your flock’s health too.
How To Clean a Coop From the Deep Litter Method?
Once you have made it to spring or early summer, you’re probably anxious to get your coop stripped, cleaned, sanitized, and started over fresh.
While you can absolutely do this, another option is to remove most of it sans one or two inches.
So your coop doesn’t lose the amazing colony micro bacteria that you’ve developed over the course of the winter.
Removing most of the litter will keep the coop cool through summer, especially if you add a healthy layer of brown material on top.
Even if you feel inclined totally strip, power wash and sanitize your coop, you can do that and still keep your healthy bacteria.
Remove all but one wheelbarrow load (I’ll help you figure out where to put the composted litter in just a moment), clean the coop as usual, and then dump that one wheelbarrow load back in.
Only do this if your coop did not experience any diseases or illnesses; if there was any sickness, you should not reintroduce the bacteria.
But if your chickens remained healthy all winter, use this compost material to get a great start on next fall and winter.
This restarted batch of compost will stay cool through what remains of spring, then summer, and will finally start heating up in the fall.
By the time you have your first hard cold snap, the deep litter method will be doing its job and start heating up your coop or barn.
What To Do With Litter from Deep Litter Method?
This is my absolute favorite part about using the deep litter method– finding a place for this beautiful compost to go.
Make sure you mix in the old compost (that now looks like beautiful rich black soil) in with the newer compost to take the “burn” components out of it, if you plan to use it right away. You can also water down the fresher sections with a lot of water so they aren’t as powerful.
I start by feeding my garden with the cool soil-like compost.
Next, I get my favorite shovel out and start slinging it around my flower beds, fruit trees, near my landscaping, and in the wildflower field, I started two years ago, right behind my cabin.
I go heavier near plants that love nutrients, and steer clear of the field’s sections that house wildflowers that prefer poor soil quality.
(This photo was taken during a severe drought. Good compost and native plants kept it healthy)
Finally, what’s left goes into my big “soil” pile in the garden.
This pile is my go-to space when I get a new container and need healthy soil for whatever plant or seeds I’ll be putting into it.
At my previous house, I used to toss my chicken muck into a manure spreader to fertilize the crop fields, especially fields that would grow corn next year (because it heavily relies on nitrogen in the south).
Hayfields would also get “fed” with the new compost too.
Truly, you can put your compost soil anywhere on your property. It’s good for the ground and will make most plants thrive in its wake.
When Was The Deep Litter Method First Used?
Credit for the first deep litter method goes to the Ohio Station Brooder House in 1946, which was later presented in 1959.
During World War II, it was known that people were short on time and help, so they turned to an easier management style for their backyard flocks.
Thus, the deep litter method was born.
Still, I can’t help but speculate this practice has been in use for much longer than this. World War II was not the first major war in history, and I believe that other chaotic and traumatic periods of history would have called for families to be more efficient whenever possible.
Historians say that the Ohio Station Brooder House research came about because when the men went off to war, the women were overwhelmed and exhausted by rearing the children, keeping house, tending to the farm all alone, and some even kept jobs in town.
I can’t help but believe that this 1959 paper was just the first written record of the practice.
Deep Litter Method: Final Thoughts
The Deep Litter Method is an interesting, albeit occasionally controversial chicken-keeping practice that some people religiously use, while others do not approve of.
Personally, I believe that it can be an asset if properly executed and make a positive impact on your coop, your soil, and your well-being in general.
But I would love to hear your thoughts, too, do you deep litter your chicken coops or other barns?
 Oke, O (2016). “Reproductive Performance Of Layer Chickens Reared On Deep Litter System With Or Without Access To Grass Or Legume Pasture.” Journal of Animal Physiology & Animal Nutrition 100.2 – via Academic Search Premier.