When people think of manure and fertilizer they usually think of cattle, but chicken manure makes a great fertilizer too. In an average year, a typical hen will expel 50 to 60 pounds of manure teaming with beneficial micro- and macronutrients, making it a valuable resource for growing crops. Humans have known about this benefit for a long time but in the mid 20th century it often went to waste when poultry farmers were trying to raise their chickens in coops with limited space. The issue with chicken manure in limited space is that it’s potentially dangerous due to high ammonia levels and buildup of harmful microorganisms. The high amount of ammonia in the manure requires a carbon-rich partner accompanying it (straw, sawdust or wood chips) for absorption; with straw being the best due to its low density and quicker breakdown time.
In the Coop
When you start with a new coop, or have just completed an overhaul cleaning, you can start with laying down 4 inches of bedding (it is ideal to do this in Spring). Give the birds roaming space and allow the litter to build up to a minimum of at least 6 inches, raking or stirring frequently to avoid a crusted top. If you see that only the manure is piling up, add more bedding to it. If this piling up happens often, you might want to expand your coop perimeter. Bedding need not be expensive – tree leaves and lawn clippings work too. A minimum of three square feet per bird is a nice amount of space, but the more is even better. Whenever it gets packed down, add some fresh bedding and mix it. Bedding of 9-10 inches by winter is the end goal. In addition to absorption, bedding provides much needed cushioning for the birds’ feet, and insulates them in cold weather.
Once you have a good amount of bedding and manure, gather them up and place them in your composter. In large quantities by itself, chicken manure would turn into a dry, powdery, nutrient-poor substance. The carbon and nitrogen ratio of a compost pile is critical. The manure is high in nitrogen, so mixing twice as much straw, as manure, by weight, is a good rule of thumb. It is best to slightly moisten the straw as you add it to the pile. At this point you’ll want to use a long-stem thermometer and monitor the pile for heat rise. Bacteria are the main agent in decomposition which helps turn the manure into the nutrient rich soil you seek. You want the temperature to remain between 130 and 150 for three days to help prevent the harmful bacteria and parasites contaminating the pile. At the end of three days, invert the pile, exchanging the material that was on the outside of the pile to the middle and vice versa. Do this inversion process three times. At this point the temperature will drop. The compost pile will now need to “cure” for up to two months before garden application. This is done as additional protection against harmful bacteria. And there you have the process for composting chicken manure.
At the RhibaFarms ranch house, Chickentown is our main source of nitrogen for composting. The hard clay soil in our gardens, called "caliche", will sustain very little vegetative growth other than some stubborn crab grasses. During the heat of the summer even the grasses will die off, leaving no organic material on top of or in the soil to feed microbial growth. Without microbial growth in the soil, the soil is dead and therefore will not sustain life. Since we do not use chemicals to grow our food, we must produce our own natural fertilizers. Our coop boxes are filled with straw for our chickens’ bedding, which get cleaned out weekly. Then, that fertilized straw is spread on the floor of Chickentown and is eventually raked down to a compost pile down at one end. In about two months’ time we have a large pile of compost that is turned and watered weekly. This is a very active pile. Each garden area for growing our food will receive a nice cover of compost at least three times a year, we then till in the organic matter and create a very nice loamy soil for our vegetables to grow in. Each garden grows in depth of about an inch every growing season. Some of the gardens are 10" in depth before you hit the caliche. It is truly a wonderful experience to rebuild life back into the once dead soil and watch nature work its wonder, even under the extreme conditions of the desert heat.
Chicken Tunnel Man
In addition to the above-mentioned processes, there are many more ways of distributing chicken manure for fertilizer. For example, using chicken tractors has become more popular in recent years. In addition, there is also just allowing the birds out into the field, if they are few enough in number. Enjoy the video below of Bruce Morgan “Chicken Tunnel Man” - wherein he describes his creative direct-to-garden chicken tunnels. You’ll notice him using the term “Chook” which is the term for chicken in Australia and New Zealand. He is from Nambour, Queensland, Australia.