Deep Bedding for Chickens

We’ve got about 5-6″ of loose stuff on the floor of our chicken run. Underneath that, it’s black gold.

Around this time of year, folks are getting chickens. Some for the first time. So I figured it was time to talk about deep bedding again. I know we’ve written about it before, in our book, or on this blog, but this advice bears repeating:

Nature abhors bare ground. 
Line your chicken coop and run with a thick layer of mulch.

Doing this is called “deep bedding.”

Deep bedding solves a whole lot of chicken-related problems in one easy step:

  • It goes a long way toward controlling odor. 
  • It reduces flies (it not only absorbs poop, it actually fosters parasites that kill fly eggs)
  • It makes the coop area much more attractive to look at. 
  • It gives the chickens more to do (ie scratch) which keeps them happy, which keeps them from developing bad behaviors
  • It saves you work, because you don’t have to clean it out very often. Maybe not at all. Depending on your set up.

(This is a little off topic, but in a similar way we also advocate thick mulch over any bare ground in your yard. It will improve the soil, encourage worms, discourage weeds, conserve water, etc. If we had lots of spare time, money and a big truck, we’d drive around LA dumping mulch on the many, many parched landscapes that desperately need it.)

    How deep? What do I use?

    The deeper the better. Say 4 or 5 inches to start, and you will add more to that as it breaks down. As to what to use, you can use any dry organic matter–leaves, husks, straw, dry grass clippings, pine needles. We use straw, and a lot of dead leaves fall into the run, too.

    If you want to use straw, try this: just toss a few flakes* of straw into the center of the coop, and the ladies will do all the work of distributing it for you. Scouts honor. Go away, come back in an hour, and it will be so level and even, it will look like you spread it yourself.

    Start to think about your chicken coop/run as a compost pile rather than as an animal enclosure. That is what it will become. The chickens break down the bedding material, all the veg scraps you give them, and their own manure, through their constant scratching. Over time, the floor of the coop and/or run becomes a deep soft deposit of compost. Ours is sort of like quicksand. We throw all sorts of stuff in there–kitchen scraps, huge stalks of bolted lettuce, armloads of nasturtium, squash rinds–whatever goes in vanishes within a day or two. The hens peck at it until all the good stuff is gone. Then they trample it. Then they bury it. It all becomes one.

    Wear and weather break down the bedding, so you will need to add fresh material every so often. You may also choose to harvest the compost that accumulates in the run. When you do so is up to you. We don’t harvest more than once a year, but your mileage may vary. When you do clean it out, replace what you took with lots of new bedding.

    You will probably want to transfer what you harvest into a compost pile to finish up before it goes into your garden.

    Note: The hen house is different

    Our hens don’t spend any of their waking hours in the hen house, except to visit in the laying box. This means they never scratch around in there, which means this whole “living compost” system just doesn’t work in the house. The poop remains where it falls beneath the roost, untouched. Because of this, we have to clean the house out regularly. To make clean up faster, we don’t use straw or leaves inside–though we could–instead we use wood shavings, because those scoop out fast and easy, like a cat box. The soiled litter goes into our compost pile.

    Hens so hot, they had to be put behind bars!

    *Flake, a vocab word: Straw bales are compressed in such a way that when they are unbound, they come apart in sections about 4 or 5 inches thick. These are called “flakes.”

    Obligatory Cute Chick Post

    Look, it’s just that time of year. We have to live with it.

    We have no chicks this year. Our ladies are not maternal, they have no male companionship, and we’ve made no chick missions to the feedstore. These pics are from our neighbors’ house. Anne and Bill have a menagerie of ridiculously cute small animals. You recall the pea eating Chihuahua?

    Among their collection are a pair broody little Silkies, who are old-timers on their micro farm, and a new bantam hen–the tiniest chicken I’ve ever seen, hands down–who ended up in their yard somehow or another a couple of months ago. She’s not in these pictures because she’s not a very involved mother (not that I’m judging). After her arrival, this new hen received several brief but scandalous visits (not that I’m judging) from a very small rooster who breached the fence, coming and going like the gigolo he is as he pleased, leaving the World’s Tiniest Hen with a pile of tiny, potentially fertilized eggs.

    She just sort of left the eggs under some leaves and went about her business, so Neighbor Anne decided to give the eggs to her Silkies, because she knows those gals are rabid incubators. They’ve incubated kittens. Seriously.

    The shock-headed Silkies, who remind me of spinster sisters in Victorian novels, took to their new charges with gusto, bickered over the eggs, scratching them to and fro in the nest, both eager to incubate them to term.

    In the end, 3 eggs hatched and I went over there the next day to check out the scene. If you want to see pics from the first night, check out Neighbor Bill’s blog.

    See, what we’ve got here is an extreme cuteness overload. What’s missing in these pics is scale. Those hens are not full sized hens, and the chick is smaller than regular chicks. Also, Silkies don’t have feathers so much as they have downy fluff. Imagine, if you will, the world’s tiniest chicks surfing in a sea of marabou feathers, coming up to surface, and then diving deep again.

     

    You can fit all three chicks in one hand. I think two will look like their mom, and one like the Mysterious Stranger.

    I became a little obsessed with the idea that the stripey ones look like chipmunks. Then I found a cat toy on the floor which was a chipmunk. Imagine my delight: CHICKMUNK!


    Why My Poultry Waterer Kept Breaking

    This is not a handle! How not to carry a poultry waterer.

    After breaking two poultry waterers I finally figured out what I was doing wrong. Thanks to instructions that came with my third waterer I learned not to carry it by the outer handle. After filling the waterer you carry it with the inner handle as seen below:

    The inner handle.

    Using the outer handle with the waterer full puts stress on the metal and ultimately breaks the vacuum.

    Our backyard “egganomics” took a hit–gotta account for those three waterers now!

    Your Questions Answered

    Patching into our Google voice number.

    Got behind in answering our questions by phone–sorry! Here’s our belated reply:

    Question from Liz: Do we have bees?

    A: Yes, but not on our property. We keep bees the “backwards” way, i.e. naturally, without the many treatments and gadgets most beekeepers use. Bees are probably the easiest of all our crazy home ec projects. They don’t really take much tending. For more information on backwards beekeeping see www.backwardsbeekeepers.com. If you’re in the Los Angeles area, the Backwards Beekeepers hold a monthly meeting and maintain a Yahoo group. See the website for details. If you’re not in the LA area the Backwards website has lots of how-to videos starring the always entertaining Kirk Anderson.

    Question from Katie: How do you keep chickens on a small lot? In a run or with a chicken tractor? How do you keep the smells down?

    A: From our limited experience with our first flock of four hens, they definitely are happier when they have space to run around. I guess it depends on the disposition of the flock.  I had to enlarge their run when I found them pecking at each other. Our backyard landscaping is not open enough to use a chicken tractor, but that might be an option, though I’d worry about predator proofing it. We have a wicked raccoon problem here. As for keeping smells down, we use a “deep bedding” method–we throw down a very thick layer of straw or leaves, 6 to 12 inches, that we get at the feed store. I keep throwing straw in the run as needed. It kind of composts in place. I rake it out once a year and throw it on the compost pile. It does a good job of keeping smells and fly populations down. The thick bedding also keeps them busy–they like to scratch around in it.

    Ask Mr. and Mrs. Homegrown

    The yodeling around here is non-stop. Photo by Elon Shoenholz

    Hey Kids!

    We thought it would be fun to find out what’s on your mind.

    If you’ve got a question you’d like some advice on, this the place to ask. We’re best at answering questions about things like chickens, gardening, pickling and fixing bicycles. We’re not so great with questions regarding physics, Sanskrit translations or intellectual property law, but you’re welcome to ask nonetheless. If you have questions about us, our house, our garden, etc., we’d be happy to answer those, too.

    Mr. Homegrown likes the widgets, so he’s putting one below that allows you to leave a voice message on the blog instead of a comment. I’m not really sure what the point of that is, but if you do it, you’ll make his day.

    Chickens in the House!

    Mrs. Homestead here:

    I’d planned to give you all a progress report on the backyard redesign, which features such wonders as the Germinator ™, the Trough of Garlic ™, the Fan of Pharmacy ™ and the Screens of Discretion (also tm).

    But the camera crapped out on me. So, until I figure it out (Which means until Erik gets home and I can shove the darn thing at him and say, “Fix your camera!”),  I’m offering up this picture of a home invasion, poultry style.

    Don’t know about you other chicken keepers, but our ladies are obsessed with the house. If they’re loose, they sit on by the back door and watch us through the glass. And if we leave the door open, they try to venture inside–though they don’t seem to much like the texture of kitchen floor. We don’t let them stay, but it’s funny to watch them try to creep in.

    I was cracking up when I took this picture. You probably can’t see it, but our Red there, Stewpot, is pecking at a jar of popcorn–and encountering the phenomenon of glass for the first time. She thought she’d hit the mother lode.

    There are these moments

    You sorta had to be there

    There are these moments, they’re hard to explain, but perhaps you’ve experienced them too. Like the other day I was in the yard, taking out an old lavender bush and one of our hens, Handsome, was under my feet the whole time, waiting for spiders to fall.

    At one point I stopped my hacking and looked at her–really looked at her. She was dappled with late afternoon sun, her fresh molted feathers glistening and speckled with bright gold patches of light. Sensing my attention, she stopped scratching and just looked at me. The sun caught her amber eye and made it beautiful and deep and somehow profound. And we just sat there, regarding each other for a long half moment. And in that small space of time, I realized how blessed I was to have this moment, outdoors, in the golden light, surrounded by the scent of dying lavender, with this strange and amazing creature by my side.

    Organic Egg Scorecard

    Chino Valley hen houses, identified by the Cornucopia Institute as “ethically deficient.”

    The Cornucopia Institute has released an “Organic Egg Scorecard” to assist in the ethical minefield that is shopping for a dozen eggs. The scorecard identifies 29 “exemplary” and, not surprisingly given recent news, a whole bunch of “ethically deficient” organic egg producers. The study used a 0 to 2200 point scoring system, rating farmers on hen’s access to outdoor spaces, pasture and the quality of housing among other factors.

    And, a memo to Trader Joe’s–take a look at that scorecard–you guys get a big “0.”

    Via the Official Poultry Bookstore Blog.

    Hens Busy Dust Bathing

    It’s difficult to capture the cuteness of this chicken behavior with a still camera–we really should try to make a  video.  Anyway, this is called “dusting” or “dust bathing.” The ladies have dug a hole in our yard and are gleefully rolling around in it, flicking loose dirt under their wings and driving it between their feathers. This is an innate behavior and an important part of chicken hygiene. Dusting suffocates skin parasites that prey on chickens, and it also seems to be pleasurable for the hens, judging by their blissful expressions.

    After dusting they puff up and shake off, and settle in to do fine cleaning by preening. When they’re done, they’re all pretty and shiny.

    It’s really important that chickens have constant access to dirt–loose, dry, sandy dirt–so they can dust at will. If for whatever reason your chickens don’t have this access, whether that’s because they’re being raised in a concrete floor, or are trapped inside because of bad weather, or your chicken run is swamped with mud, or whatever, it’s a smart thing to provide them with a tray of dirt so they can bathe. Dusting is nature’s favored method of insect control.

    ETA: To give you some indication of size, a kitty litter tray would be a good size for a few hens to share, a cement mixing tray for a bigger flock.

    Warning: Rant Ahead

    We first got our own hens because we disagreed with the industrial style of raising chickens and farming eggs.  But at the time that disagreement was purely theoretical–now it’s stronger than ever, because it’s based on practice. The more we know, and experience the fundamentals of chicken life, the more appalling the industrial practices become.  One fundamental is that chickens are designed to live on dirt. They love to scratch, peck, dig and bathe in it. Take dirt away from them and you have to scramble to make up for that deficit in unnatural ways. Being unable to scratch, chickens get bored and peck at each other–so their beaks have to be cut off. Deprived of the ability to dust, they get mites and lice, and have to be treated with pesticides. It’s just sad.

    Mad Hen

    One of our hens will be featured in the new Coco’s Variety ad campaign. What’s Coco’s Variety you ask?

    “Coco’s Variety’s primary business is bicycles. Additionally, we sell Japanese figural pencil erasers, used bike parts, old toolboxes, books worth owning, bike pumps, balsa wood gliders, pocket knives, Lodge cast iron frying pans, glass water bottles, Park bicycle tools, wicker bike baskets and Dutch bicycle cargo bags for the carting of fresh produce, the transportation of books of French poetry and the rescuing of kittens.”

    If you’re not in Los Angeles, you can get a virtual Coco’s experience on their awesome blog at: http://www.cocosvariety.com/.

    Via the magic of the interwebs we offer you an exclusive behind the scenes look at Coco’s proprietor Mr. Jalopy making advertising history: