The chicken is the easiest and most productive animal for the small garden farm, especially in terms of handling manure. Humans have known this forever, which is why in almost all so-called Third World countries — and now even in First World countries (indicating that we First-Worlders are advancing, too) — chickens are usually a part of the local scene. New regulations are now allowing hens (but not roosters) in American suburbs. I love it when I am listening to a radio news report from someplace like Afghanistan, Liberia or Somalia, and suddenly I hear a hen clucking in the background or a rooster crowing. I know that this is the real news. If only a reporter could interview the chickens, I bet we’d get a much truer picture of what’s going on in the world.
Reporter: “How do you feel about being occupied by U.N. peacekeepers, Mrs. Hen?”
Mrs. Hen, ruffling her feathers: “We are occupied enough just staying alive. I wish the foreigners would get the cluck out of here.”
Reporter: “Do you agree with that, Mr. Rooster?”
Mr. Rooster, nervously wagging his head from side to side: “Well, cock-a-doodle-doo, I hardly think so. Those of us who cooperated with the foreigners would get our bloody heads chopped off.”
The best indication that we are entering a new era (or returning to an old one) is that I am hearing about websites where gardeners offer to clean out chicken coops for free — in exchange for the manure. I am not surprised that chickens are first in this undertaking. Chicken manure is the easiest of all barn manures to handle, mostly because chickens do not urinate in the same way that, say, a horse does, flushing out enough in one session to drown a chicken or two. Nevertheless, I am often shocked at the mess I sometimes see in the coops of even very small flocks. There is not enough bedding. Little stalagmites of pure crap rise up under the roost. Or there’s a roost with an old-fashioned, screened-off catch board under it covered with gooey manure 6 inches deep and swarming with flies because the chickens can’t get to them. Invariably, the coop itself is so small a rooster would have to go outside to find enough room to crow.
None of this is necessary or practical or economical. It all comes from a mistaken notion that if something is right for a big hen factory, then it must be right for six hens in the backyard. First of all, if you have a manure catch board under the chicken roost, take it out and burn it. Then, if the manure is a problem building up on the floor, use more bedding, or, better, knock out one or two walls and double, triple or quadruple the size of your coop. A coop for 10 hens year-round with the addition of 20 broilers fattening for three months should have at least 200 square feet of space in it. That is roughly 7 square feet per chicken for the three months when the coop is occupied by broilers and layers. The rest of the year, your 10 layers have 20 square feet of living space each — about 20 times that of poor factory hens shut up in cages.
You may think that a coop of that size for so few chickens costs more money than it’s worth, but it depends on how you view the numbers. As long as you are building a coop, how much more time and money does it really cost to build a 10-foot-by-20-foot coop rather than a 5-foot-by-10-foot one? The cost of the wood may be double (unless you tear down an old building or otherwise find waste wood that you can use). But your time is about the same, whether you use your own labor or hire someone else. Furthermore, the coop should last a lifetime — or at least 80 years. Prorate the yearly cost of a 50-square-foot coop versus a 200-square-foot coop over 80 years and the difference is small — and certainly worth every cent when you’re stepping into a cleaner, pleasant coop versus a crappy one. Then add on the value of the litter in your generously bedded coop, which preserves the fertilizer value of the manure in the best possible way. Then add in the savings achieved by your hens turning table scraps into valuable fertilizer. Add on the savings from not having to build and maintain a composting bin because the hens will do it right there in the coop — present you with a nice loamy fertilizer, and not charge you a cent. You are going to be saving money and you’ll also have the best tomatoes in the neighborhood, unless the neighbors are all raising chickens, too.
But keeping a coop generously bedded costs money, say the experts in agricultural economics. Not necessarily. You can bed with dry lawn clippings all summer and with dry tree leaves all winter if you have a place to store them. You can pile leaves against the coop’s walls to use as needed, and, in the meantime, the leaf piles will keep the building warmer and cozier in winter. When we lived in the suburbs, we built a small loft under the roof of our coop to store the wheat that we grew and didn’t need for bread-making. The roof joists were already there. All I had to do was put a few boards over them to make a floor. Every day I fed a couple of bundles of wheat to the chickens. They ate out the grain and the straw added bedding to the floor.
A good way to utilize almost all of the plant nutrients in chicken manure is to keep hens in a so-called chicken tractor. Such a coop is movable and can be pulled to a new spot at will. Inside it, the chickens scratch and eat weed seeds and bugs while depositing their droppings directly on the soil. This fresh manure enriches the soil with hardly any loss of fertilizing nutrients. The wake of a chicken tractor leaves a rich, ready-to-till garden plot. Lately, the chicken tractor idea has been transformed into the chicken bus. Innovative chicken farmers are turning old buses into coops parked out in pastures. Want to move the coop to another section of pasture? Drive on. Or if it is a bus with a dead motor, hitch the tractor to it and pull it — much easier than moving a coop on skids.
Where a garden farmer has the room, manure handling is made easy by allowing the chickens to roam over pasture, woodlot or lawn in spring, summer and fall. In some instances, even commercial growers intent on raising organic or all-natural meat or eggs can divide their pastureland around a stationary coop into several lots projecting out like wagon wheel spokes from the coop. The chickens are moved from one plot to another as necessary, like rotational grazing of livestock. One or two of these plots can even be planted to grain for the chickens to eat right off of the stalks, while clover grows up under the stalks to provide more good food. In such a system, the manure, except for what collects in the coop, is fully utilized without any work on the part of the poultry farmer.
The deep litter system — putting down generous bedding regularly and cleaning out the coop only once or twice a year — was welcomed by all of us farm boys of yesteryear. Before that, we had the weekly or bimonthly job of cleaning out the chicken coop. The experts, who did not have to clean out chicken coops, harped constantly on the myth that leaving the manure in the coop was unsanitary. Actually, there are vitamins and minerals in the deep litter that are vital to the health of the chickens. Because of the notion that they were saving money by using only minimal amounts of bedding, farmers were slow to realize the fact that there was the deep litter alternative — until they ran out of sons and daughters to do the weekly job.
I didn’t much mind forking out the floor manure, which was relatively dry and loose. I pretended that the floor was the map of Europe and I was the advancing American army cleaning up the Nazis (obviously this was World War II times). The line between cleaned and uncleaned floor was the battlefront. And so, every Saturday, I liberated Europe in the chicken coop.
But cleaning off the catch boards under the roost was pure misery. I likened it to the battle of Iwo Jima rather than the liberation of Europe. My father, thankfully, had found a faster way to handle this stinking slime. The roosts were built along the back wall of the coop. The wall at that point was hinged and could be opened outward and raised high enough to get the manure spreader right up next to and under the catch boards. Then it was “simply” a matter of raking the gooey mess out into the spreader with a long-handled rake. The stuff didn’t rake very well, but you get the idea.
That coop measured 15 by 30 feet, or thereabouts, and housed 120 hens year-round — that’s about 3 square feet per hen. Had the coop been lengthened a mere 10 feet more, it would have meant 5 square feet per bird, which would have made the catch boards unnecessary, if they weren’t anyway.
Then, instead of the weekly cleaning of the floor, not to mention the twice-yearly cleaning of the catch boards, I would have just had to spread a bale of clean straw on the floor every Saturday and let the manure and bedding build up. The deep litter that the chickens would busily scratch in and turn into compost would have to be cleaned out only once a year, and it would be dry and without offensive odor.
Presently, in a 10-foot by 20-foot coop, I keep an average of a dozen hens year-round and 20 fattening broilers for three months. The coop is divided into two rooms so the broilers have their own space. Otherwise the old hens would harass the broilers — even peck them to death. (It’s a good idea to have a coop with two rooms, anyway, and a door between them, to separate new hen chicks from the old hens, who may otherwise bother them. They have to get used to each other on different sides of a screen partition, and then they can be slowly introduced by letting both generations meet outside, where the young ones can beat a hasty retreat if necessary.) For roosts, all I have is a 2-by-4 that stretches across one corner of each room, about 2 feet off the ground. In the morning there’s a line of fresh manure under the roosts. By nightfall it has disappeared under the scratching feet of the hens into the composting litter.
I just looked into my nephew’s new chicken coop. For a roost, he split lengths of tree limbs about 3 inches in diameter, nailing two of them about 6 feet long as verticals to three others about 5 feet long as horizontals. He leaned the assemblage against the wall and nailed the slanting verticals at the top to the wall. Voilà! A three-perch roost for a dozen chickens.
I sprinkle wheat or corn over the floor occasionally to encourage the hens to scratch in the deep litter, but they would do so anyway. Table scraps I just scatter on top of the litter. What little the chickens don’t eat soon disappears and eventually decomposes into the litter.
When cleaning, I always leave a small amount of the composted manure on the floor for the chickens to drop fresh manure into, because that compost has a high, developed population of all kinds of microbial life that hasten the breakdown of fresh manure. I use a silage fork to handle the composted manure because it would fall right through a regular manure fork. Sometimes the compost is dry and loose enough to scoop up with an aluminum grain shovel. I haul it to the garden in a wheelbarrow, or more often with the pickup truck.