Chickens are capable of producing a prodigious amount of manure. When concentrated into a confined area and trampled, this manure requires frequent removal. Additionally, chicken feet and plumage often carry remnants of manure. It is likely that the hobbyist and homesteader alike have lamented the smells, smears, and soiled conditions that can be common to poultry. Chicken keeping does not have to be dirty or odiferous. The deep-litter method using fallen leaves is a hygienic, cost effective, and environmentally friendly option for small-scale chicken keeping.
The Monetary and Environmental Costs of Purchased Bedding
To keep chicken coops and runs hygienic, bedding like manufactured pellets or wood shavings can be added to the floors, nesting boxes, and roosts. The bedding can take up excessive moisture, clump around manure, and limit the amount of manure that sticks to the floors and flat surfaces. Manufactured bedding is convenient, although, it is possible to simultaneously reduce our carbon footprint and limit the amount of nonreusable packaging we purchase by substituting fallen leaves as a readily available substrate.
Consider the following example. Setting up a 10-×-10-ft run with 6 in of deep litter would require about ten bags of common commercial pine shavings ($50 assuming $5 per bag). As the year progresses, litter breaks down, and additional bags have to be added. The initial bedding, plus additional bags for maintenance represent avoidable costs, fuel use, and packaging. The average property owner predictably clears, rakes, and removes leaves in autumn. Repurposing leaves that are frequently discarded and hauled away allow the small-scale chicken keeper to reduce their operating budget and environmental impact by implementing the deep-litter method.
The Simplicity of Using Leaves for Chicken Bedding
Using leaves for bedding and the deep-litter method is quite simple. All that is required is periodic bedding turning and the addition of leaves as the base layer converts to compost. The action of turning the leaves at least once a week covers manure and keeps chicken feet clean and dry. Having feet dry is important during winter as moisture increases the risk of frostbite. As an aside, composting generates heat which keeps the leaf litter warmer than ambient temperatures. Last winter the floor of the pictured chicken run was 43°F on a 20°F day.
Another welcome byproduct of the composting action is leaf litter bedding tends to have an earthy smell instead of the pungent ammonia odor typical to confined chicken enclosures. If the improvements in cleanliness, health, or odor were not enough, after five to six months the composted litter can be removed and used during the growing season. The author’s 12-×-8-ft run produces about 4 yd³ of compost a year.
What You Will Need to Begin
As leaves begin to fall, a tarp, rake, pitchfork, and some type of bags for storage are all that are needed. Old feed bags can be retained to hold compacted leaves. The author uses two-ply paper lawn bags, which last for multiple years if handled with some care. The container itself is not important as long as it is sturdy. Collect and bag leaves on a dry day to limit the amount of moisture that contributes to mold or composting during storage.
For the initial covering, rake leaves onto a tarp and drag them to your chicken coop and run. In confined areas, like small roosting spaces or nesting boxes, a covering of leaves for spot cleaning is sufficient. On the floors and runs, it is advisable to add leaves until there is six or eight inches built up. Once there is sufficient coverage in the coop and run, start bagging additional leaves.
Basic calculations should allow interested readers to accurately estimate the amount of leaves required. The volume of the floor in the featured run is 12 ft ×8 ft × 6 in (L × W × D), which equates to 48 ft². In practice, a paper lawn and garden bag that holds about 4 ft² can hold roughly twice that amount when leaves are well compacted. Therefore assume: Four to six chickens in the featured 8-×-12-ft run will require at least one bag each month for spot cleaning and maintenance. It will take six bags to re-cover the floor after the composted bedding is removed after six months. Minimally, 18 bags of leaves are required to last until the next fall. Based on this estimate, 22 bags of compacted leaves were put in storage in the event additional bedding was required.
Best Practices for Deep Litter with Leaves
Manure around the roost is removed from the run several times a week and leaves are added. The deep-litter leaves are fluffed and turned with a pitchfork weekly or as needed. When thin spots in the litter develop, add more leaves. If the deep-litter bedding smells off or like ammonia, something needs to be immediately corrected. Add more leaves, turn the leaves more frequently, or assess your stocking rate.
Leaves are readily available, however, storage space may be a challenge. It would be possible to store leaf litter outside with some form of protection from rain and snow, but storing open bags that allow leaves to continue drying in storage results in longer lasting bedding. If interior storage space is limited, consider making a simple rack out of repurposed pallets or some other form of shelving to store leaves vertically.
A run with a roof is ideal, because dry bedding requires fewer supplemental leaves. In the absence of a roof, a tarp to block prevailing winds and blowing precipitation will suffice. If the leaves are somewhat exposed to the weather, a dirt floor or ample drainage is recommended. When leaf litter gets wet and is not able to dry, it breaks down quickly.
Bedding material that was once purchased is easily replaced with leaves that fall in abundance each year. This simple transition to leaves from manufactured bedding offers the small-scale chicken keeper a viable method of reducing costs, odors, and carbon footprint when keeping poultry in a confined area. If cleanliness and lessened environmental impact were not incentive enough, the deep-litter method produces usable waste in the form of rich compost, which can be used for additional backyard sustainability projects.