We recently cleaned out the chicken coop again so I thought it would be a good time to talk about composting poultry litter. The University of Idaho Extension has a ton of great info on this topic.
Composting Poultry Litter in Summary:
Reasons to compost:
- Increased self-reliance.
- Little effort.
- Improves the health of your soil = better crops and higher yield = more income.
- Way to reuse waste = less expense to grow your garden.
- Composting reduces flies, odor, and bacteria in poultry litter lying around.
- Potential exposure to E. coli and Salmonella when working with poultry.
- Always wash hands and clothing thoroughly (mask is recommended to prevent histoplasmosis infection in the lungs).
- Always wait at least 120 days between the time the litter is collected to the time the litter is used (either after 120 days of composting, or if raw litter is applied to the garden one should wait 120 days from the time it is applied to the time the vegetables are harvested and eaten).
Two basic ways to utilize the poultry litter:
- Active pile composting (preferred method with more benefits).
- Sheet composting (uses raw/uncomposted poultry litter - it is not the preferred method).
Proper composition ratios (manure to bedding):
- Manure contains a lot of nitrogen and the bedding (straw, hay, pine shavings) contains a lot of carbon. The correct mixture is necessary to create a compost pile that has ample bacterial activity to do the composting (to release the nitrogen to make it available for plants to use) and to create enough heat to kill harmful pathogens and to kill weed seeds.
- Best to aim for a ratio of 25% manure to 75% bedding.
- Acceptable range of ratios for composting: 20% manure and 80% bedding or up to 40% manure and 60% bedding or a ratio somewhere between.
How much compost to use on the garden:
- The ratio of nutrients varies from batch to batch of compost (different ratios of manure to bedding every batch).
- Approximate application rates:
More Details about Composting
Reasons to compost your poultry litter.
Proper waste management of chicken coop litter into compost for the garden has essentially no downsides and it helps us to become more self-reliant and use our resources wisely. It can also cut down on overall costs and improve the health of your plants and the overall yield of your garden which in turn results in more income. Lastly, adding compost to your garden can improve the nutrient availability and water-holding capacity of the soil.
Always take safety precautions.
Any time you deal with poultry (the birds or the litter) make sure you wash your hands and clothing thoroughly to prevent possible infection with E. coli and Salmonella. When cleaning out the chicken coop it is imperative to wear some sort of mask or face covering to limit your lung exposure to bacteria and fungi in the area. The most common bird dropping pathogen is Histoplasma capsulatum. It causes a severe disease called histoplasmosis and it can be fatal and can cause long term lung disease. It isn't worth it to risk it. Mask up people!
Ways to utilize your poultry litter.
There are two basic ways to compost your poultry litter: active pile composting and sheet composting. Active pile composting is probably the most well known and it has more benefits than sheet composting. You start with a large pile of litter, add water as necessary, and turn the pile regularly to allow oxygen into the pile (to allow bacteria to do their composting magic). There are a few different ways you can set up this process. Some examples include: a regular old pile, using a tumbler composter, and using an enclosed static bin.
Sheet composting is a process that involves adding uncomposted/raw poultry litter to the soil and either lightly tilling the soil or just leaving it on top. This requires less effort than tending a compost pile, but the results are worse than what you get from a traditional active compost pile. The raw poultry litter could contain harmful bacteria and there may also be unwanted weed seeds in the litter. Poultry litter applied by this method should always be added in the fall (if possible) and allowed to rest at least 120 days before harvesting crops. This time is necessary for the nitrogen to break down and be converted into a form that is usable by your crops.
The 120 day application to harvest rule should always be followed regardless of which method you choose from above.
Proper composition ratios of your poultry litter compost pile.
You will be most successful composting your poultry litter if you start your compost pile with the proper ratios of manure to bedding. Ideally, a ratio of 25% manure to 75% bedding (for example wheat or barley straw, grass or alfalfa hay, or pine shavings). An acceptable range is 20-40% manure to 80-60% bedding. If the starter pile has too much bedding (high carbon content) and not enough manure (high nitrogen content) there won't be enough nitrogen to facilitate bacterial activity and it will slow your composting process down. If the starter pile has too much manure, it may result in a compost that has higher than desirable amounts of nitrogen and potentially harmful salts which could burn the plants. If the pile has a strong ammonia odor, it is likely your pile needs some carbon added to it. You could add: straw, dried leaves, dried grass clippings, pine shavings, or shredded paper to boost the amount of carbon in the pile to offset the nitrogen in the manure.
These photos from the University of Idaho may be helpful in determining the amount of manure to poultry ratios of your litter. Your amount of manure to bedding should be somewhere between these photos below.
Determining when the compost pile is ready for use is subject to each person's own opinion, but at a minimum it should have met the 120 day cure period (120 days from collection to application) to avoid any harmful bacteria. Signs it may be ready include: no offensive odor and no recognizable particles.
How much compost to use on the garden.
Properly composted poultry litter naturally releases nutrients at a slow rate and feeds your plants throughout the entire growing season. There is no perfect amount of compost to add to your soil. Everything depends on the nutrient content, which is difficult to calculate and it varies from batch to batch of compost. To figure out exact nutrient content of your compost you can send samples off to be tested, but if you'd rather just wing it you should be fine following the guidelines below.
More Detailed Info About How to Compost:
The University of Idaho Extension has a fantastic publication all about the specifics of composting. You can download it for free. Find it here or down below in the resources.
We hope you have found this article helpful and we hope it has inspired you to get composting at your home!
"Composting At Home"
"Composting and Using Backyard Poultry Waste in the Home Garden"