If you have done any research into keeping poultry and other animals, the use of deep bedding as made popular by Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms is sure to come up. Although he has a plethora of articles, books and videos discussing the use of deep bedding, there is also other content creators and influencers who are mimicking his methods. Although I can not disagree with the principles of the method, I find that they are forgetting one key component for cold climate dwellers, extreme cold air temperature and its influence on the success of the method.
What is Deep Bedding and Deep Litter Method
As explained in the article Deep Bedding Alternative for Cramped Spaces by Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm published on the Murray McMurray Hatchery website, “The concept is quite simple. You need enough mass to support microbes, and that is minimally 8 inches, but preferably more than 12 inches deep.”.
He further goes on to explain in the article that “You’ll start with an 8 inch base of carbon: sawdust, leaves, wood chips, peanut hulls, bark mulch. Put the chickens in the little structure and watch them begin aggressively scratching and churning the carbon. This aerates it. You can add kitchen scraps in a pan and whatever they don’t eat, like banana peels or orange peels, will be scratched into the bedding. From time to time, add some more carbon. Gradually life will come into the bedding and you’ll see worms, rolly pollies and all sorts of critters.”.
It is further suggested to offer 5 square foot per bird in designing a coop using deep bedding and that with this intensity, “As the bedding takes on life, it builds slower and slower. You will be amazed at how slowly the bedding builds once it passes 12 inches in depth. The decomposition consumes bulky material. Clean out may be as seldom as once every two years compared to routine clean out if you’re using the typical skiff of fresh shavings.”.
Although Joel Salatin and his followers utilize deep bedding for more than just chickens, a number of content creators and influencers have chosen to start referring to the principle as the deep litter method or the chicken deep litter method. But whether you use deep bedding in a regenerative agriculture methodology as Joel Salatin does or the deep litter method is used for managing a poultry flock, the premise is all the same. As The Poultry Site article How to keep your chickens warm in winter states “The Deep Litter Method is not only a sustainable way of managing the litter in your chicken coop, but it can also help to insulate your flock during cold weather. To start off with, simply layer pine shavings or similar organic matter over the floor. Instead of cleaning or replacing the waste your chickens accumulate, all you need to do is stir up the bedding with a light rake, and allow the natural movement of your flock to do the rest.”. The article goes on to further state that “If it’s made properly, and regularly topped up with pine shavings, the litter will begin to form a compost layer that welcomes good microbes in, and allows them to consume the unhealthy bacteria in the chickens’ waste. Not only does this help to insulate your coop in the winter months, but it can also help prevent infestations of lice and mites – as well as being a far easier way to manage waste.”.
Although these methods are primarily applied to keeping poultry, chickens more specifically, the methodology is also being applied to bedding large animals working in conjunction with smaller animals like pigs and chickens to stir the bedding and therefore promote composting. As explained in the Mid-Atlantic Gardening article Polyface Farms: Salad Bar Beef and Deep Bedding, “Polyface Farms practices a method known as deep bedding. In case you don’t know what this is, it’s basically a method that as the bedding is soiled, it’s not removed. Fresh bedding is added on top of the soiled bedding. Polyface can’t settle for just adding a fresh layer of bedding….they’ve made it work even better. Before they add the fresh bedding, they put down a layer of corn. Why you ask? This is where Polyface Farms knocks it out the park. They do this over and over through the winter and then they release the pigs into the bedding in the spring. The pigs then root through the deep bedding in search of the corn that is now fermented. By doing this, the pigs are aerating the bedding and turning it into beautiful compost that is later applied to the fields.”.
In theory, it all sounds like it would all work wonderfully and it does in most cases, but will it work for cold climate dwellers such as myself who live on the Canadian prairies.
Will deep bedding and deep litter method work in cold climates
Although I can agree with the principle and methodologies of deep bedding, I find that most teachings are lacking in that it is not subjected to extreme sub zero temperatures. Most of the influencers that are talking about using deep bedding are from parts of the world where air temperatures do not drop well into the negatives and their winters are short lived. Their definition of “cold weather” is quite different from mine living on the Canadian prairies. As an example, in the state of Virginia where Joel Salatin lives, the average January high was 8C (46 F) and the average low was -3C (27 F) with paddock feeding only being necessary from January to March.
For those of us who live in areas of the world where feeding of hay bales is necessary from around October or November till May or June and winter temperatures see January bringing average highs of -12 C (10 F) and average lows of -24 C (-11 F), the application of techniques employed by our southern neighbors will not have the same end result. Namely, a paddock filled with “beautiful compost that is later applied to the fields.”; or a coop filled with “rich compost” as identified in an interview with Harvey Ussery and Homesteading Family in Deep Litter Method for Backyard Chickens (With or Without a Coop) where he asserts that “Because with the deep litter method, the manure gets turned into compost, there is never a period where you need to “muck out” the stall. You’re simply removing the rich, garden-ready compost and spreading it where needed throughout your yard and garden.”.
It is true that compost will generate heat during the winter months if conditions are good. But when subjected to extreme cold, the process will slow down considerably and may even stop. If the microbial activity is non existent, the compost pile will freeze solid. As identified in the article Composting In Winter: Ultimate Guide To Hot Compost, “You can compost all year round, even in the winter. However, decomposition will be noticeably slower in the winter and might even stop altogether if you don’t take steps such as insulating your compost to protect it from the cold.”. And further goes on to say that “The key to winter composting is keeping your pile warm enough to keep the microbial networks active.” and that “Winter composting is all about insulation and keeping your pile as hot as possible.” because “With the temperature working against you, things like the brown:green ratio of your pile and the moisture levels need extra attention.”.
In a paddock, maintaining the perfect brown:green ratio within paddocks or pastures when coupled with the fact that manure freezes in minutes after deposit at our northern prairie temperatures and that snow, lots of it, is added regularly, no decomposition will occur. Rather, the paddock or pasture turns into a frozen layered mound of straw, hay, manure and snow that will not decrease until the heat of summer, which in my experience is July, weather dependent. The straw and hay insulate the pile so that it remains frozen for a good long time. Once the pile is thawed, and only then, can I pile this mound and interject some air to feed the microbes necessary to kick start the composting action.
Granted, a roofed in shelter to enable control of moisture would be of asset, but it will not help with the negative temperatures that we experience throughout the winter months while being cast into darkness for about 15 ½ hours a day.
In the chicken coop where maintaining a brown:green ratio is perhaps a little easier, the challenge in an unheated coop then becomes maintaining enough birds to generate the heat necessary to prevent frozen waterers and ensure that decomposition can occur to generate the finished compost. Decomposition slows down considerably when the material drops below 32 C (90 F) and so even with my 15 X 20 foot (4.8 X 6.1 metre) insulated coop containing 200 - 250 birds, on nights where the outside air temperature is -30 C (-22 F) the inside temperature with no additional heat is only just above freezing. Little to no decomposition is occurring. And if I were to have fewer birds, the incidence of the frozen bedding and zero decomposition occurring would be imminent.
By adding supplemental heat to my coop, I can increase the temperature to about a 6 C (42 F) ambient air temperature which is high enough to prevent frozen combs and waterers, but not sufficient enough to promote active decomposition. On days when it is warmer outside, the increased temperatures and south facing windows will help increase the temperature inside the coop to upwards of 13 C (56 F) and the straw pack will heat a bit, but mostly it gets moist and is subject to freezing when the outside temperature drops.
Similar to Joel Salatin, Seven Sons Farms, Simeon & Alex and other influencers who use a greenhouse to house their laying flocks during the winter months, my chicken coop has a large south facing window with two west facing windows. However, although during the sunny days where sun enters the windows of my coop for a mere 7 ½ hours during the winter months, it is not sufficient to heat the entire coop floor as would be the case with a greenhouse. It will raise the air temperature within the coop high enough to activate some decomposition in certain areas of the coop and will release passive heat into nightfall. However, in turn it also increases the moisture levels within the coop. In my coop, on a 0 C (32 F) day, the coop raises to about 13 C (56 F) room temperature and although you can feel the heat being generated in the bedding, indicating decomposition startup, the humidity level noticeably increases as well. Although chickens can handle a certain amount of cold, moisture and cold combined is a problem. To deal with the moisture, Joel Salatin recommends in the article Deep Bedding Alternative For Cramped Spaces that “During warmer temperatures, be sure to provide lots of ventilation in the coop. A removable wall would be great.”. Essentially add more fresh air.
Although fresh air in the coop is important, it is a fine balance of too much and too little if I am wanting to manage for thawed waterers, non frozen combs, feet and eggs, decomposition and egg production. It is really a Holistic Management approach. There are a number of articles that would support the thought that opening up the coop to the outside air by having a large section of removable walls or windows is the only appropriate action to deal with moisture as Joel Salatin suggests in Deep Bedding Alternative for Cramped Spaces , or in Modern Fresh-air Poultry Houses by Prince T Woods, M.D., published 1924. And although I would agree that the increased air movement in an open air coop may help control the moisture, opening the coop totally to the cold winter air is problematic. The fact that in an open air fresh-air poultry house the ambient air temperature is only a couple degrees warmer than the outside temperature, in my climate this results in frozen waterers, combs and feet. It certainly does not allow for any type of decomposition as the manure freezes in minutes of deposit and the bedding freezes into a layered block. I experienced this first hand this past winter when I experimented with keeping some birds in an open air coop, albeit bigger than the 5 square feet per bird that Joel Salatin suggested. My observations and thoughts to not do a fresh-air poultry house again were confirmed by long time fresh-air poultry house user, Simple Living Alaska, in their video Generators, Winter Chicken Feed & Sprouts | Alaska's Winter Wonderland.
For me, and other's who raise livestock in this type of climate, bedding the livestock deep with straw and dealing with it the following summer or fall when the paddocks have thawed is the preferred, somewhat forced, method. When thawed, the paddocks are cleaned out and the possibly minimally composted material is either spread directly onto a field or it is piled elsewhere to further compost over the fall, winter and following summer. Some will stir the piles to add air and stimulate the piles to speed up the decomposition. However, sometimes that is not possible and the piles are left alone for anaerobic decomposition to occur over a number of years as was the case with this pile from cleaning my paddocks back in 2015.
In the coops, as more straw is added and manure is deposited, some stirring by the chickens does occur but for the most part the coop fills with layers of straw and manure. Although these layers are subjected to freeze thaw cycles as the ambient air temperature fluctuates, some anaerobic decomposition does occur, but is slowed because the decomposition starts and stops. Little to no aerobic decomposition occurs. And so, unless the coop is cleaned out periodically in the winter, you will certainly end up with a lot of bedding that is deep, but it will need to be cleaned out in the spring. You can leave it a few years but it will build up to the point where you are climbing into the coop. I know this to be true.
Whether I clean out the coop each year or once every other year, the coop material that is removed, like the paddocks, will require further composting to turn it into the black, nutrient rich compost that can be directly applied on the gardens and fields. If applied in the fall, it can be applied in limited amounts to the garden as I did in the fall of 2022 to my garlic beds as I explored in Growing Garlic In Raised Bed Garden For Culinary and Medicinal Use but topdressing of garden beds in the spring will require a more well rotted material.
As Harvey Ussery and Homesteading Family in Deep Litter Method for Backyard Chickens (With or Without a Coop) outlined in their interview, almost anything can be used for bedding materials such as wood shavings, wood chips, cardboard and leaves. However, when bedding in paddocks or coops, the weather is going to play a part in what material is used. Although Joel Salatin and his followers lean towards the use of wood chips, the cost and/or availability associated with this material can present a problem. Additionally, when mixed with snow or manure and subjected to freezing temperatures, it can not be as easily “fluffed” by the birds or animals. It will likely freeze into a solid mat.
I have tried using dry wood shavings in the chicken coops in the past and have found that they only last a short time before they are trampled into the manure pack. When the coop is cleaned out in the spring, the shavings are difficult to remove from the coop. They have not broken down at all, they are just a different color. Perhaps larger chips would work better than shavings but I have not tried them to this point and would expect them to not have decomposed any more than the shavings and would be as difficult to remove as the shavings.
Although bedding deep with oat and barley straw works well for the paddocks, I have not been happy with how they work in the chicken coops. Their finer straw structure causes them to get damp very quickly and become part of the manure pack in short order. But this material does work well for bedding the larger animals in the paddocks. In discussions with my Dad, a long time chicken farmer who raised birds in unheated coops, he always recommended the use of wheat straw in the coops with periodic freshening and occasional complete removal as needed. The wheat straw structure has good moisture absorption but does not break down as quickly as oat and barley straw which therefore allows the birds to “fluff” it more. I have found the same thing and therefore use wheat straw when I can get it. And when the conditions are warm enough, the “fluffing” will help to maintain the minimal decomposition action that may occur.
Deep bedding and deep litter vs bedding deeply
I can not disagree with the theories or methods behind the deep bedding and deep litter methods. However, for those of us living in an extremely cold environment, creating an environment in the paddocks or chicken coops that supports proper decomposition to supply garden ready finished compost in the spring will be all but impossible. Further composting, in some form, will always be required.
And so, the goal in colder environments where balancing cold temperatures and moisture causes another level of difficulty, bedding deeply with dry bedding is the main focus to ensure animals and poultry can stay dry, and therefore warmer. But the material will need to be removed in the spring and further composting will be required. Any decomposition that does happen to occur prior to removal only serves to shorten the amount of time the material needs to spend in the compost pile.
My purpose in discussing deep bedding, deep litter, chicken deep litter and fresh-air poultry housing is not to dissuade anyone from giving it a try. But rather, my hope is to provide folks with additional information from my perspective and personal experiences about the influences of extreme cold weather on these methods. And that with this information, a more educated decision can be made so that perhaps fewer surprises arise.
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Thank you for joining me on the front porch of My Boreal Homestead Life as we explore this Homegrown, Homestead life, In a Modern World.
- Simple Living Alaska - Building a Coop | Chickens in Alaska (Part Two)
- Simple Living Alaska - Generators, Winter Chicken Feed & Sprouts | Alaska's Winter Wonderland
- Backyard Chickens - Deep Litter in COLD Climates
- From Soil to Soul - Why The Deep Litter Method Works Best For Chicken Coops During Canadian Winters
- Open-air Poultry Houses For All Climates by Prince T Woods, M.D., published 1912
- Modern Fresh-air Poultry Houses by Prince T Woods, M.D., published 1924
- Regenerative Agriculture - Daniel Baertschi - Joel Salatin - Polyface farm.
- Simeon & Alex - formerly The Swedish Homestead - Winterizing Chicken & Rabbits In Greenhouse | Joel Salatin | Polyface Farm