By Tammy Churchill
If you want an all-natural, free fertilizer for your garden, look no further than chicken manure compost. Composting with chicken manure is a win-win.
Anyone who has kept chickens for any length of time knows one thing: Trying to keep on top of the waste can be daunting. What do you do with it?
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Compost Chicken Manure
Chicken manure, with its possible e coli and salmonella contamination, can threaten groundwater if allowed to wash away, and if sent to the landfill, it will produce methane as it breaks down in that anaerobic environment.
Using fresh chicken manure as fertilizer in the garden is also out: It is so high in nitrogen that it will literally burn plants. What is an owner to do?
Nature has the answer: Compost! All material that comes from living things will break down. It’s the circle of life. Nothing is wasted.
What our compost piles do is mimic, and hopefully speed up, the decomposition process. In doing so, the end result is a soil amendment that will feed plants and allow the soil to hold onto more water.
And the best part about composting your chicken manure? It is a composting accelerant! Following a few simple guidelines you can get your pile heating up and breaking down the materials quite quickly … well, for compost.
When I first started my first flock, I was equally as excited about their waste products as their eggs. As a Master Composter, I’d heard about rapidly heating compost piles when adding in chicken manure, and the stories were not wrong.
Not only did the chickens consume much of the food waste that would have ended up in the pile, they turned it into composting gold. Before chickens, I would struggle to keep my pile at 130 degrees long enough to kill all the seeds from my yard waste.
When I added in my first coop clean out to a pile, within days it soared to 160 degrees and stayed above the magical 130 degree mark for weeks. If I hadn’t already been in love with my ladies, I would have fallen in love with their poop at that point.
How to Compost with Chicken Manure
Now that you’re sold on composting your manure, here’s a primer. Background information first. Compost has four ingredients: carbon, nitrogen, air, and water.
Nitrogen and carbon are often described as greens and browns, but it can be deceiving – Chicken poop is definitely brown, but it’s a nitrogen source so technically “green,” just like kitchen scraps. The litter used in the coop, whether it be leaves, straw, or wood shavings, are your “brown” carbon sources.
A quick Google search can provide you with an exact formula of how much of each to add, involving math and a scale. Nature doesn’t need that, and neither do you.
If you want to totally geek out on getting the perfect balance and stoking a super hot compost pile, feel free. Your household, your rules. Whatever works best for you. Simply know it isn’t necessary.
Once the coop floor materials are harvested, you will have your carbon and nitrogen sources. All that will be left is adding air and water.
Building a Compost Pile
All the building blocks of compost are sitting on your coop floor. If you simply want the waste to go away and the flies to stop, you could create your pile composting only the coop clean out. The end result will not have as many trace minerals in it as it would if you added the additional materials like food scraps and a variety of yard clippings, but it will still be an excellent soil amendment, and best of all, the poop will be gone.
One important note: The size of your pile matters. If you are looking to have the materials break down quickly, you will need at least a cubic yard of volume. Any less than that, the fabulous chemical reactions that make the pile heat up and decompose quickly will not go into full swing.
That doesn’t mean that the materials won’t decompose if you don’t have that volume, since nature doesn’t waste anything. It will simply take a longer time. You always have the option of adding in other materials to bulk out your pile.
The act of building your pile adds the needed air. The last ingredient is water. You’re looking for the contents of the bin to feel as damp as a wrung out sponge. This can be accomplished by spraying down the materials as you build in small layers, and then mixing everything up as you go to keep clumps from forming, which can steal the pile of its needed oxygen.
If your coop contents were very dry, it might be easier to moisten the materials before putting them in the pile, putting about half the material in a trashcan or wheelbarrow with just enough water to cover and then soaking it for 12-24 hours prior to the build and then pouring them over an equal sized layer that is already at the bottom of your pile. That way the same water will be used to moisten the amount of material, wasting none of it. A quick stir to mix the ingredients (a pitch or gardening fork is helpful for this) and you are done.
Should you decide to help fill out the pile by adding other items to your compost, such as food scraps and yard waste, it is strongly recommended that you keep the food scraps towards the center of your pile, with at least a couple inches of carbon-rich items on top. This could be yard clippings, soaked and torn up cardboard (all those Amazon boxes can come in handy), or even newspaper or junk mail. This will help keep the critters away. The last thing you want when disposing of the waste from your coop is to attract predators to your yard.
Once your pile is built, your initial efforts are done. If you have enough volume, within a few days, the center of the pile should start to heat up. Within a week, you will be able to feel the heat when placing your hand over the pile. The fabulous decomposers are at work, transforming your chickens’ manure into a valuable substance your garden (or that of your neighbors) will thank you for.
Tammy Churchill is a Master Composter and enjoys sharing the joys of sustainable living as an Eco Team Docent at the Solana Center for Environmental Innovation. She spends her time spoiling her hens, wrangling worms, and creating gardening gold out of food scraps, yard trimmings, and chicken poop.
More on composting
If you love listening to podcasts, check out these composting episodes on our podcast.