Got an email yesterday asking about how I manage my chicken pen litter. It seems that "F" is having a major problem with moisture in her chicken coop and wanted to know how I dealt with the problem.
First of all, I don't need to have an enclosed coop. The weather never gets freezing here, so my hens are outdoors year around. But they are penned for much of the day, so I have to do something about managing their poop. In an enclosed coop, moisture can be a significant problem.
Initially I tried plain dirt. Without a rainproof roof on the pen, the dirt quickly turned into foul smelling, slimy mud. Not a good solution. Even adding a tarp roof didn't solve the smelly mud problem either. I guess chickens poop out too much moisture for the pen floor to dry out in my moist climate.
Next I tried concrete with the intention of shoveling it out weekly. Bad idea. Far worse than dirt, though it was more scoopable. So I put a tarp roof up. Better but still a mucky mess that required lots of work. I added a light layer of grass clippings. It kept the birds cleaner but it was still lots of work for me. I needed a better idea.
After attending a natural farming workshop, I came home with the idea of deep litter. So I built a new pen on dirt and a rain proof roof. After mowing many trashcanfuls of clippings, I managed to create a six inch deep litter. To my surprise, by the next morning the litter was only 3" deep. They had eaten a lot and packed the remainder down. Under their roosts was solid muck. And many spots were scratched away, exposing bare earth. Geez. Now what?
I suspected that the problem was that it wasn't deep enough, plus the fact that the clippings were quite green and wet. So I spent the next several hours mowing old standing grass and weeds until I had 8 trashcans of mostly brown and dry clippings. Into the pen they went.
Next day....success. But over time I learned that I needed to do weekly maintenance. Ignoring the litter just resulted in wet, clumped, packed down gloppy mucky mess. Again, things don't dry out very well in my location, so the pen litter needed a bit of help.
I now maintain my pen litter by adding at least one trashcan of grass clippings daily. I actually aim for 2 if I have the time. If the litter looks a bit too moist or it starts to cake under the roosts, then I add a trashcan of brown drier clippings. I look to keep the litter 6"-8" deep, but of course the hens dig holes here and there down to bare dirt. But during the course of a few days, they fill in the holes themselves and start new ones. They are constantly turning the litter in their favorite digging spots.
Whenever the pen litter gets deeper than 8" or so, I can harvest the litter for fertilizer. It's a great addition to compost pile, and when used sparingly, it can be tilled right into the garden before planting a crop that is a heavy feeder. I haven't calculated the exact ratio, but it seems to me that for every 4 trashcans of grass clippings put into the pen, I can take out about one can of litter for garden use. What happens to the other 3? Some gets eaten, the rest dries out and thus reduces in volume.
Deep litter is the way to go in my situation. It feeds the hens, gives them an interesting environment to dig, hunt, and dust bathe in. It gives me fertilizer.