photo of compost from deep litter
Garden,  Homestead Animals

Deep Litter Benefits

This is the stuff gardeners dream about.  It can be elusive and expensive, but it is so rich, and I always want more.  Black gold.  Or you may know it as…compost.  There are many ways to make or procure compost, but one of the easiest is to collect the final product of a winter’s worth of deep litter from the animals in the barn and chicken coop.

Managing animal waste is an issue to consider when adding animals to the homestead.  The small homesteader tries to minimize the amount of inputs to their farm in order to decrease cost, time and effort.  For example, each trip to the garden center or feed store to buy fertilizer takes time and money (our resources) away from another project or goal.  Using animal waste, plus low or no cost bedding materials, to make compost to fertilize the garden is a terrific way to improve sustainability and maximize the homestead’s resources.

Litter Options

There are many options for  materials to use for your deep litter system.  Choose one that is readily available and inexpensive in your area, or that you can access on your own property.  Some ideas:

  •  Pine shavings–I use this in the chicken coop.  A $5 bale purchased at the farm store is convenient and lasts about a 4-6 weeks for the quantity of birds and size of the coop here.  An added benefit is the fresh smell of the shavings.
  • Wasted hay–This is the other option used at One Hour Homestead, in the goats’ stalls.  Goats are notorious for wasting hay.  They pick through their bale, eating only what they want and dropping the rest on the ground.  Once the hay hits the ground, they will not eat it.  Through the weeks and months of late fall and winter, this wasted hay is left to accumulate on the floor of the barn, along with the goats’ droppings.  As they eat and drop their hay, fresh material is continuously added on top of the the soiled material.
  • Other options
    • Straw
    • Leaves
    • Pine needles

Deep Litter 101

  1. In late fall, spread a thick (4-6″) layer of bedding in the animal’s stall or coop.
  2. When the bedding becomes soiled, add a thin (1″) layer of additional bedding on top of the soiled bedding.
  3. Continue adding bedding as needed (approximately once per week).
  4. In spring, clean the stall/coop as follows:
    1. Rake off the top layer of non-decomposed bedding.
    2. Place this layer into a compost pile.
    3. Dig out the lower layers of composted bedding/animal waste.
    4. Put this compost directly on your spring garden and plants.
  5. Start over a new deep litter system at this time, or as I prefer, use shallow bedding and clean regularly through the warm months.

Benefits of Deep Litter Method

  • Low cost:  less bedding material is needed as compared to regular deep cleaning and replacing bedding in the stalls/coop
  • Less work:  just one big cleaning in the spring vs. cleaning every week
  • Quick compost:  with this method, a substantial amount of ready-to-use compost is generated in about six months
  • Healthy animals:  research supports that this method may help minimize some common ailments in farm animals.

Our Results

The goats’ stall cleaning started a couple of weeks ago.  Their winter residence has been a stall of approximate dimensions 24′ x 8′.  As our first kidding date rapidly approaches, I have cleaned one section and closed it off for a kidding pen.

From outside of the goats’ stall and looking in, you can see how deeply the hay has piled up through the winter…approximately 15″:

Before cleaning; 5 months of bedding

Here you can see the layers.  The top, and thickest, layer is packed hay.  This layer was removed with a hay/manure fork, loaded into a wheelbarrow, and piled up outside to start a new compost pile.  Beneath the hay, however, is rich, dark compost–about 3-4″ worth.  Beneath the compost, is a layer of limestone screenings we added to the stall to help with drainage (the lighter colored material just visible in the foreground below).

Deep litter layers

The compost layer was shoveled into the wheelbarrow (some bits of hay are ok):


And dumped into the garden.

Compost in garden

From cleaning the 12′ x 8′ area in the barn, I gleaned three large wheelbarrows of compost and about 10 or so loads of partially decomposed hay to start this year’s compost pile.

My laziness/efficiency doesn’t end here.  I did not bother to spread the compost around the garden.  Instead, our day-ranging chickens are picking and scratching through the compost, eating any seeds or bugs.  In the process, they are spreading the compost around in an even layer.  In a few more weeks, I will be planting sweet corn into the richly amended soil, with no need for expensive, commercial fertilizers.  Soon, the chicken coop with be cleaned in the same manner.

Have you used the deep litter method?  Share your results below!

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