All About The Deep Litter Method For Chicken Coop Health

The thorough guide to implementing the deep litter method of chicken coop management. The easy way and better way to keep your coop clean and chickens healthy.

Whether you’re a homesteader with dozens of chickens or a backyard small flock keeper, you probably cringe at the thought of cleaning out the chicken coop.

I’m here to introduce you to the deep litter method which is a coop management system that only needs a deep cleaning TWICE each year.

No, it is not smelly, unhealthy, unsanitary, or filthy.

Quite the opposite.

The deep litter system makes for a coop with NO bad odors and it is actually BETTER for the health of your chickens — all while saving you time, money, and effort.

Oh, and you get an amazing source of compost too.

Sound too good to be true? It’s not, I promise you.

Read on to find out exactly how to start your own deep litter system. As easy as this all is, there are a few key things you need to do in order to keep everything clean, sanitary, and smelling fresh.

a deep red shed converted into a chicken coop sits out in a pasture with blue skies and fluffy white clouds behind it
one of our chicken coops, a converted woodshed, where our meat chickens live.

The deep litter method is an age-old technique that can help make chicken coop maintenance much easier, while still being a safe, healthy, and comfortable option for your chickens.

Pros & Benefits

  • Less work – time savings
  • A more sustainable method of coop management
  • Cost savings
  • Free source of compost
  • It keeps chickens warmer in winter
  • No odor (when done correctly)
  • Coccidiosis resistance (from natural immunity)
  • Natural environment that resembles a forest floor
  • Beneficial microbes and good bacteria

Cons & Risks

  • Odor
  • Disease
  • Parasites
  • Mites/Lice
  • Animals like skunks attracted to the scent
  • Ammonia odor and buildup
  • High humidity
  • Bad bacteria
a beautiful brightly colred rooster stands in profile

What is the Deep Litter Method?

The deep litter method is a way of managing chicken waste that involves allowing the chickens to deposit their droppings on top of a bed of absorbent material.

This material can be anything from straw to wood shavings, but I believe that using a specific blend of materials is best (more on that below).

With the deep litter method, chicken waste will gradually break down over time inside the bedding of the coop and become a nutrient-dense compost for your garden, while still providing your chickens with a clean, natural, and comfortable place to live.

The key to making this method work is to keep the litter dry and to regularly turn it over, adding fresh material to the top.

The top chicken litter layer will provide fresh bedding, while the turned-over soiled bedding below goes through the composting process.

By regularly turning over the waste in your coop you’ll keep it fresh and dry.

The litter is only removed twice annually but fresh material is constantly added.

What happens inside the coop is pretty incredible.

All sorts of microbes begin to develop that mimic a natural forest floor — kinda like an environment that your chicken’s wild counterparts would live in.

And this in turn makes for healthier chickens that naturally build up resistance and immunity to illnesses like coccidiosis.

Think of it as a sterile, dead environment versus a natural one for your chickens.

Do you enjoy cleaning your coop regularly?

In the winter?

No of course not.

And this method actually helps keep the chickens warmer in the winter too.

a large buff brahma rooster iin front of a smaller hen

Steps (Quick Reference)

Here are the exact steps in quick detail for your convenience.

They will be further explained in detail, alongside what options and alternatives you have.

  • Start with a clean coop in the warmer months (never winter or late fall)
  • Add a layer of pine shavings
  • Add a thick layer of chopped straw
  • Add whatever other organic composting materials are on hand (wood chips, dried weeds, old hay and regular straw, shredded paper) ensuring they are not toxic
  • Add chickens
  • A week later use a shovel or pitchfork to turn over the dirty litter/bedding
  • Add a fresh layer of bedding on top
  • Scatter some corn or seeds or scratch grains on top of the fresh layer of litter so that your chickens are further encouraged to scratch and peck
  • Repeat this weekly
  • In the spring, take all the old and dirty composted litter out
  • Start afresh, but keep back a few shovels of the old dirty deep litter and add it into the new bedding
  • In the fall, before the weather really starts to turn cold, take all the old and dirty composted litter out
  • Start afresh, but keep back a few shovels of the old dirty deep litter and add it into the new bedding

The above is then repeated over and over again.

There are also some special considerations to take into mind depending on the season which will be covered further on in this article.

a white sussex hen peers inside her coop door

Materials Needed

You don’t need much. This is not a special or elaborate technique.

You need bedding aka litter material primarily.

I guess if we want to list everything, you can add some simple cleaning ingredients, a shovel, and a mask to protect you while cleaning.

When we clean our chicken coops, we place the dirty litter into our compost pile. We refresh our coop with chopped straw only.

We do use pine shavings, but only when the coop is thoroughly cleaned out twice each year.

Pine shavings, while being the most popular choice for chicken coops, can apparently be toxic so I do not trust them outside of small amounts.

Chopped straw which is 99% dust-free is the best chicken coop litter material to use in my opinion.

It is very absorbent and composts beautifully.

Some people prefer hemp bedding too. But that is too expensive for me.

We also layer the fresh bedding with organic matter like mulch, wood chips, grass clippings, and even older hay and regular straw in our chicken coops.

The additional materials help the coop floor resemble a forest floor and also allow for the appropriate amount of moisture in the coop.

When doing this method, though, it’s important to use extra straw in the winter to combat the humidity and keep chickens warmer.

close up shot of wheat or barley straw
close up of regular straw which can be used but I prefer to mix with chopped straw.

Chopped Straw Versus Regular Straw

If you’re confused by my use of the term ‘chopped straw’ and wondering what I mean by that.

Chopped straw is regular straw that has been processed and chopped up into small pieces and had the dust extracted. It is an all-natural and biodegradable material that makes for excellent litter and bedding for chickens, sheep, pigs, and all of your livestock.

As it composts within 3 months, it makes for an excellent choice for your deep litter system.

Regular straw can also be used, and some people do. But, it is advised that you use more pine shavings if you go this route.

One of the issues with regular straw can be dust and mold which may lead to respiratory issues.

However regular straw is cheaper — but not by that much, to be honest.

Not enough to make a difference.

We pay under $10 here in Canada for vacuum-packed “bales” of chopped straw from a company called the Straw Boss. These “bales” (it’s loose straw) expand TREMENDOUSLY after you open the package and fill up the entire coop.

Compressed it is only 3 cubic feet, but then expands – to 10-12 cubic feet. It is widely available here in feed stores.

I’m sure it’s cheaper in the USA like literally everything else.

(Yes I’m bitter)

The Straw Boss (Company Website)

Where to find chopped straw online in the USA?

window covered in hardware cloth showing inside a chicken coop

The Benefits

If you’re looking to implement the deep litter method with your chickens, know that there are several benefits to using the deep litter method on your farm.

Save Time and Money

One of the biggest advantages of this method is that it significantly reduces the amount of time and effort required to clean the chicken coop.

Instead of having to clean out the entire coop on a regular basis, you will only need to turn over the top layer of wet litter and add fresh litter material as needed, usually every week, but sometimes you can even let it go longer.

This can save you hours of work each year, and significantly reduce the amount of labor needed when raising chickens.

Additionally, because you can use an assortment of natural materials (and you’ll be going through them slowly), implementing the deep litter method can save you a significant amount of money over time.

And you’ll be creating your own compost for use in your garden.

Chicken Health (Coccidioisis)

Another benefit of the deep litter method is that it can help improve the health of your chickens.

Exposure to litter (in a clean and controlled environment) is also a safe way to prevent a common intestinal disease, Coccidiosis — a potentially deadly intestinal parasite.

Your chickens will build a natural immunity to it through gradual and continuous exposure to the chicken manure and compost in the coop.

The Cocci bug LOVES wet conditions — like the ones that can be created in the deep litter system (when not properly implemented).

But all the good microbes in the coop will help keep the coccidia bacteria under control.

And yes, there is a scientific basis for this, this is not some kind of old chicken wives tale told to homesteaders:

Numerous benefits have been discovered with the use of the deep litter system, also called the “build-up method”. One is the increased ability of poultry to fight off coccidia, common bacteria responsible for an average of a 20% death rate of poultry. New studies in Ohio have shown death rates from coccidia as low as 2.9%. As many as 6 successive broods of chicks have been raised on the same litter, each brood showing better results. Chickens raised in this environment have also been less inclined to show cannibalistic traits.

Plamondon, Robert (28 September 2016). “Deep Litter in Chicken Coops”.

Your chickens develop natural immunity. This is why we don’t bother feeding medicated chick starter to our baby chicks – they don’t need it.

Creating an environment where your chickens can naturally achieve optimal health is always a win. Happy and healthy chickens live longer and produce better eggs and better quality meat.

More Natural Environment

The deep litter method can be beneficial for your chickens in general as it provides a more natural environment for them to live in.

Additionally, having a composting system in your coop is not only beneficial for the health of your chicken, but also for the state of your coop.

Allowing the droppings and old layers to turn over and be shovelled to decompose under the new layer over time can reduce unpleasant odors in your coop.

When done correctly, your coop should smell earthy and natural, not like chicken droppings or ammonia.

and all those beneficial microbes keep dangerous pathogens away and improve the health and condition of your chickens overall. Just like in people.

If you smell strong ammonia in your coop, it is definitely time to turn over the old litter and add a fresh layer of straw.

white chicken inside her coop

Step-By-Step Instructions Through The Seasons

Here is exactly what we do and when.

The deep litter system is a seasonal system. It’s another way we live with the seasons out here and you will soon see why this is necessary.

Spring

Early spring is the best time to start your new deep litter system.

Conversely, if this is the method you already use: now is the time to deep clean your coop after the winter.

  • Start first thing in the morning.
  • Remove all old litter, but retain a few shovel-fulls (unless you’re starting from scratch obviously).
  • Thoroughly clean the coop. I use plain dish soap and water.
  • The floors, walls, roosts, nesting boxes, and crevices are all thoroughly scrubbed and hosed down.
  • Using strong cleaning vinegar, the coop is completely sprayed down top to bottom.
  • Allow the coop to completely dry.
  • If you’re recovering from a mite or lice infestation issue, now is the time to treat your entire coop, roosts, and nesting boxes yet again with an insecticide treatment spray made for chicken coops.
  • Once dry, I sprinkle baking soda all over the floor. Tip: get baking soda from your feed store where it is dirt cheap and comes in HUGE bags. I use it on our property and in my house for countless cleaning applications (like soaking cloth diapers before washing or refreshing our mattress each month).
  • Do NOT use Diatomaceous Earth which will not bode well for the active microbial activity you’re attempting to encourage. If you absolutely must for some reason, sprinkle it only in the corners of the coop and in the bottom of the nesting boxes but nowhere else.
  • A product like First Saturday Lime can be used (in place of diatomaceous earth) but again, only in the corners, and in the nesting boxes. You can also mix this product with water and limewash the walls of your coop.
  • Add a layer of pine shavings (not cedar shavings) about 2-3 inches thick (or whatever amount is in the bag you’ve bought honestly).
  • Add the few shovelfuls of the old dirty litter on top of the shavings and scatter them everywhere.
  • Add a layer of chopped straw about 4 inches thick. Some people only use pine shavings or add in hemp bedding or other types of absorbent materials too. I think chopped straw as the primary litter is best.
  • If you have random weeds, grass clippings, non-toxic wood chips, twigs, leaves, old hay and regular straw etc. add them in too!
  • I like to add extra litter underneath the roosting area where excess moisture builds up as the chickens sleep.
  • The clean roosts and nesting boxes are placed back in and the chickens have a fresh new home.

TIP:

The floor of the coop matters!

We use wooden sheds that are converted into chicken coops.

Wood can rot and decay alongside the composting of the deep litter so you want to protect it with a suitable barrier like vinyl flooring or a thick plastic tarp.

(If you have a dirt floor or concrete this does not apply)

a 2 week old red ranger chick with feathered wings poses on windowsill
One of my Red Ranger (Rustic Ranger) meat birds. Deep litter is great for small flocks or more intensive operations.

Summer

Summer heat and humidity can present unique challenges. Here’s how to keep your deep litter smelling fresh and pest-free no matter what the temperatures.

  • Scattering some corn, scratch grains, or black oil sunflower seeds on the coop floor encourages them to scratch and dig and help you turn over the dirty litter. I do this every other day before their bedtime or when I remember.
  • How does your chicken coop smell? I’m not suggesting it should smell like perfume, but it should not make you sick to your stomach either.
  • The coop should have an earthy, animal smell to it that is not unbearable.
  • If it smells terrible, that is an easy fix, as it just means you need to add more litter material.
  • Each week, once a week, I turn over the old dirty litter with a shovel or pitchfork and then add a layer of chopped straw.
  • As we cut grass and weed the garden, that is added into the coop too.
  • If you’re doing this and your coop still reeks, try turning over the old and adding in new material every 3-4 days instead.
  • Highly recommend a mask for this by the way. Especially if you’re pregnant or have respitory issues. You don’t want to breathe that dust in while you shovel dirty litter.
red ranger chicken surrounded by autumn grasses and weeds

Autumn

Early autumn, when the weather is still mild and the nights are still warm is the best time to do your second deep clean.

For me, this is early to mid-September.

Follow the steps listed under Spring above.

That’s all there is to it.

The weather will start to cool and the nights may dip below zero, but you will have a strong microbial activity present in your coop.

a white rooster with a black tail walks in snow

Winter

You cannot start a new deep litter system nor can you deep clean your coop in the winter.

The cold temperatures halt the microbial activity necessary for success.

The deep litter method can actually help keep your chickens warm in winter from the composting action of the dirty materials!

No, your chickens do not need any additional heat sources or heat lamps regardless, but this system keeps them even more comfortable.

Hope you have a covered and sheltered run and an automatic chicken coop door!

And I hope your coop has good ventilation up top (above the roosting area) while being draft-free below.

Humidity is the biggest reason for frostbite, respiratory problems, and other health-related issues in the winter.

If you live in the northern states or Canada, winter can be difficult and long for you and your flock.

It is imperative that you have a properly winterized coop.

See my articles on keeping chickens in winter for more information: 10 Steps To Winterize Your Chicken Coop, How Cold Is Too Cold For Chickens?, & Feeding Free-Ranged Pastured Chickens During Winter.

Other than being grateful I don’t have to clean my coop out regularly, the only difference for this system in the wintertime was that I made sure to add extra fresh litter on top of the old bedding every time I knew the temperatures would dip considerably.

Especially under the wet areas like the roosting bars!

The dirty, wet, old litter will freeze which is perfectly fine so just keep some common sense about rising humidity inside the coop and add extra absorbent materials as required.

Every day I also make sure to scatter black oil sunflower seeds and/or scratch grains onto the coop floor to keep the chickens working and turning over the compost.

This also keeps them busy and entertained as there isn’t much to explore in the wintertime.

black orpington rooster
My black English Orpington rooster surveys his domain.

F.A.Q.s | Tips | Considerations

Answering questions and addressing concerns.

Start With a Clean Coop

It’s always best to begin this process with a clean coop. You’ll need to remove all the old bedding material, caked litter, and manure that has built up over time. Once the coop is clean, you can add a layer of absorbent materials (chopped straw, pine shavings, and other materials we recommended) and start fresh.

You cannot implement the deep litter method in an unclean coop, as this could lead to the spread of bacteria and parasites. It could also make humid conditions that result in foul smells and the risk of poor respiratory health for your chickens.

Keep Litter Dry

Keeping the litter dry is essential. If it gets too wet, it will start to break down and create an environment that is conducive to bacterial growth and disease.

Turn Over Litter Frequently

While you won’t have to completely change your coop litter more than twice a year, you’ll need to regularly turn over the litter to ensure that fresh material is always available for your chickens. This will also help aerate the material and prevent it from getting too compacted. Once every few weeks should be sufficient.

Consider the Time of Year

If you plan to start this method, you should schedule your coop deep cleans for specific times of the year. We recommend doing the bi-annual cleaning of your deep litter coop in the warmer months. Starting this in the cold winter months is not advised.

Not only is cold weather unsuitable for this type of work, but it doesn’t allow for proper, healthy microbial activity. You need this to be right from the start, otherwise, you risk the condition of your coop being poor, and your chicken’s health is at risk.

Taking on this project during colder months also means there is a risk of diatomaceous earth being incorporated into the coop, which could mean severe respiratory distress for your birds.

Final Thoughts

If you follow these tips, the deep litter method can be a great way to reduce the amount of work required to maintain your chicken coop.

So long as you use the right materials and start with a clean coop (when the weather is warm), you’ll be well on your way.

The deep litter method has many potential benefits for your chickens, and overall provides a natural, healthy environment for your birds when you do it right.

Give it a try and see how it works for you, I think you will agree with me that there is no going back once you reap the incredible rewards.

a flock of chickens on green pasture.

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