Chicken Run Composting for Garden questions

gtaus

Crowing
Mar 29, 2019
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Although I am still 2 months away from actually working in my chicken run which is covered with about 2 feet of snow, I have a number of questions on how to process the compost I hope to make.

Last summer, after the chickens ate all the grass and scratched everything down to the dirt, I started dumping bins of grass clippings from my riding mower into the run. The chickens would scratch through the grass clippings and eat a lot, but there was always more grass clippings then they could eat. So I had a nice layer of grass clippings in the run. After a number of days, I would add a layer of wood chips on top of the now dried grass clippings. Then, after a few days and another mowing, I would dump more bins of grass clippings into the run. I repeated that idea a number of times and had about 6 inches of built up layers by fall. Then, in the fall, I dumped in bins and bins full of leaves into the chicken run, and it was about 18 inches deep. This winter, the leaves have reduced to about 12 inches deep, and I suspect they will go down more by spring.

Having said that, the leaves that I can see on top, are not very decomposed or broken down very much. So I am wondering how to accelerate this process. Can I use a mini tiller to turn over the leaves and break them up into smaller bits, or will the leaves just clog up my mini tiller? If a mini tiller does not work, is there some other machine that would break up the leaves? I have pitchforks with 5 tine to 12 tine, but really I am trying to save my back by using machinery if I can.

Is composting in the chicken run this way very efficient? I know in the past I have always piled stuff up in a pallet compost bin, which heats up due to the concentrated mass. But if the compost material is spread out all over the chicken run in layers like I have made, will it compost in less than 1 year? Would I be better off just taking everything out of the run and dumping it into pallet compost bins?

I am using the (dry) deep litter method with wood chips in my chicken coop, and plan on cleaning out the coop this spring, dumping all the coop litter into the chicken run for composting. The wood chips are not really breaking down or composting in the coop, but there is a lot of frozen chicken poo accumulating on top of the wood chips this winter. I have turned the frozen poo into the litter once this winter, and will probably give it another turning in a few weeks. Then I also add fresh wood chips on top of the old litter. There is no smell right now, but when we get that spring thaw......

Finally, how long does chicken poo need to age in compost before I can add it to my garden? And should I till it into my raised beds or use the chicken run compost as a mulch once the plants have started to grow?

Any feedback appreciated.

Here is a picture of my chicken run when I first started dumping in bins of leaves. Eventually, it was about 18 inches deep.

20190916_183252.jpg
 

Acre4Me

Free Ranging
Nov 12, 2017
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We started out dumping everything into the run, but realized the sand as you...very spread out and maybe not so efficient. We now use separate composting area, outside if the run. We still toss in some grass bc the girls love it.

we’ve used the lawn mower to chop up the leaves before we add on top of the garden bed in the fall.

I’m going to wait until the poop-laden wood shavings are much more decomposed before adding to the garden beds since they will rob the soil of nitrogen while they decompose.
 

gtaus

Crowing
Mar 29, 2019
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Northern Minnesota
My Coop
My Coop
We started out dumping everything into the run, but realized the sand as you...very spread out and maybe not so efficient. We now use separate composting area, outside if the run. We still toss in some grass bc the girls love it.

we’ve used the lawn mower to chop up the leaves before we add on top of the garden bed in the fall.

I’m going to wait until the poop-laden wood shavings are much more decomposed before adding to the garden beds since they will rob the soil of nitrogen while they decompose.
This is my first year with laying hens, and I have been learning a lot. I thought maybe the leaves would break up and decompose fast because I mow them up with my riding lawn mower and collect them in the grass bins. However, the leaves are not very mulched up that way. They are not shredded into bits like they might be coming out of a real leaf shredder. The riding mower acts more like a giant vacuum cleaner. So, not being shredder as much as I wanted, and then spread out all over the chicken run, I'm not sure I'll be seeing any fast composting of the material.

The wood chips in the chicken coop don't show much sign of composting, but I keep the deep wood chip litter dry, not wet. The chicken poo, until this winter, was constantly disappearing into the litter as fast as the chickens made it. To encourage even more turning of the bedding, I would throw their chicken scratch on the coop bedding. When winter came and the temps dropped, and stayed, at about 10F, then the chicken poo started freezing on top of the wood chips directly under the roosts. Because it is frozen, it does not smell at this time. But I have been warned that will change when we get our spring thaw.

I am aware that tilling wood shavings into the soil will rob the soil of nitrogen, but would I be able to use the wood chips with chicken poo as a top mulch in the raised beds, or would the chicken poo still be too hot this spring?

And yes, I am thinking that if the grass, wood chips, and leaves spread out in the chicken run don't show much signs of composting this spring, I will probably rake every thing out and put it into pallet compost bins. Then maybe just use a layer of wood chips in the chicken run over the dirt.

But I am wondering if anyone uses something like a mini tiller to till up the litter (grass, wood chips, leaves) on top of the dirt soil and if that helps with the composting in the chicken run. I would not go down into the soil itself, just the top layers of litter.
 

RUNuts

Hatching Malted Milk Balls
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May 19, 2017
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I have a slightly different approach. Same as you, I put wood chips, leaves, yard trimmings and kitchen scraps in the run and let the hens pick through them. I also have 6-12" of wood chips in the coop collecting all that goodness.

2-4 times a year, I will make a pallet compost bin (4 pallets wired together). I rake the run and use this as a base layer to start the compost pile. Add the coop clean out and more wood chips/yard collections. Wet this down or it will wait for a soaking rain. Usually heats up pretty quick once 4' tall. The hens hop on top and pick through the top. After 6 months, I pull a pallet off and then hens pick through the compost and eat all the yummies. I use 6 months since I add offal and feathers to mine. The heating is normally done in less than 4 months. I shovel this finished compost into a 1/2" hardware cloth screen to get the chunks out over a wheel barrow. Throw the chunks back to the run or compost and use the sifted goodness.

To answer your question, you won't get 100% ready to use compost in the run. The stuff on top will not break down, even in a compost bin unless you turn it a lot. Others on here will rake the unfinished top layer to one side, sifting the goodness underneath and return the unfinished for another year, but they are adding feet of material into the run.

My suggestion, rake the large stuff to one side and scrap the dirt to get the compost. Afraid sifting is needed if you want the large pieces out. It will not look like store bought. Start adding your lawn trimmings, your neighbor's lawn trimming, leaves and find a source of wood chips. I wouldn't bother trying to till it in if you want to use compost this spring.

Yes, uncomposted chicken manure will burn your plants. If you desire, spread the coop manure on the garden beds in the fall and let it mellow over winter. I've been told this is a good alternative.

Best wishes and happy gardening!
 

gtaus

Crowing
Mar 29, 2019
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To answer your question, you won't get 100% ready to use compost in the run. The stuff on top will not break down, even in a compost bin unless you turn it a lot. Others on here will rake the unfinished top layer to one side, sifting the goodness underneath and return the unfinished for another year, but they are adding feet of material into the run.
That confirms what I am seeing in that top layer(s) are not really breaking down in the chicken run. I was suggesting using a mini tiller to turn those top layers in the chicken run. My litter is about 12 inches deep in the run, and the mini tiller I have only goes down about 6 inches. So I was thinking maybe I could just use my mini tiller to turn/mix those top layers instead of using a pitchfork. Or maybe rake off the top layer(s) to the side and sift the lower layers for compost - assuming the lower layers are ready.

I have 1/4 inch and 1/2 inch mesh sifters built for my garden dump cart. After sifting, my compost looks better than bagged compost from the big box stores. With the added chicken poo, I suspect my compost will be better than bagged compost. Just need to give it time to cool off, I guess.

but they are adding feet of material into the run.
I could do that. I have 3 acres of lawn/wooded area. So no shortage of grass clippings in the growing season and more than enough leaves in the fall. Last year I dumped about 18 inches of leaves into the chicken run, but I used less than half my leaves in the run. I bagged up lots of leaves for winter use and also dumped lots of leaves directly onto the garden beds last fall. I also have unlimited wood chips I can get from our local landfill.

Yes, uncomposted chicken manure will burn your plants. If you desire, spread the coop manure on the garden beds in the fall and let it mellow over winter. I've been told this is a good alternative.
That is my plan for the fall coop clean out. I was just wondering if I could use the spring coop clean out of wood chips and chicken poo as a mulch in the garden in the spring. Sounds like it would still be too hot.

Thanks for the response. Still trying to figure out how to maximize all this future compost I hope to have thanks to my chickens.
 

RUNuts

Hatching Malted Milk Balls
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@gtaus - it sounds like you have a wonderful plan and set up.

I don't use a tiller, so take this for what it is worth. I've read comments that the tiller will disturb the ground too much and be detrimental to soil life. Try it, if you like the results let us know. Mixing the top layer in will help break it down, but would you sift most of it out or would most break down? Good question. I'd rake it to the side for more time with the chickens.

I checked my pallet bin that I made Sunday. It is steaming today. 4'x4' and almost 3' tall. I raked the run partially for the large chunks, wood chips from the county dump, quail coop cleanings, offal and topped with more chips. Will be ready for the fall planting.

A suggestion for you similar to my compost bin. Pile or mound the compost over a pile of the leaves in the run. The chickens will scratch it apart in short order, but will mix and aerate the material. Rake the leaves into another pile and repeat. Similar to turning a pile, but the chickens will assist. At the end of it, you should have light, fluffy compost instead of compacted chicken run material. Easier to sift if nothing else. If it heats up, consider putting a pallet bin or a circle of fencing material to hold it for 2 weeks for composting before the hens get it. Mine started digging the last pile out before I was ready. They kicked 2 feet of a 4 foot tall pile over the top and between the pallet rungs. I opened it and let them finish it before adding to the garden last month. So helpful
 

gtaus

Crowing
Mar 29, 2019
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Northern Minnesota
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My Coop
I don't use a tiller, so take this for what it is worth. I've read comments that the tiller will disturb the ground too much and be detrimental to soil life.
Yes, I am aware of the studies done on tilling up the soil and how that can both disturb the soil ecology and also results in a harder, more compacted, mixture in the end. What I am talking about here, is using a mini tiller that digs down about 6 inches in my chicken run litter that is currently 12 inches deep. I am only trying to mix up those top layers of the litter and would not get anywhere near the actual soil.

A suggestion for you similar to my compost bin. Pile or mound the compost over a pile of the leaves in the run. The chickens will scratch it apart in short order, but will mix and aerate the material. Rake the leaves into another pile and repeat. Similar to turning a pile, but the chickens will assist. At the end of it, you should have light, fluffy compost instead of compacted chicken run material.
:lau That is exactly what I was doing last summer. I would use my pitchfork and pile up a huge mound for the chickens. After about 30 minutes of raking, and mounding the litter, I would let the chickens at it. It would literally take them only about 5 minutes to tear it apart and level it all out. I was working a lot harder than my chickens! But yes, that process ensured the chicken run material was indeed light and fluffy.

:old I am just thinking that a mini tiller will fluff up the material better, and faster, without the need for me to use the pitchfork which is harder on the back. The chickens will still have the advantage of finding new food that has been turned to the top by the mini tiller. At least, that is what I am thinking.
 

gtaus

Crowing
Mar 29, 2019
1,783
5,840
387
Northern Minnesota
My Coop
My Coop
I don't use a tiller, so take this for what it is worth. I've read comments that the tiller will disturb the ground too much and be detrimental to soil life.
Yes, I am aware of the studies done on tilling up the soil and how that can both disturb the soil ecology and also results in a harder, more compacted, mixture in the end. What I am talking about here, is using a mini tiller that digs down about 6 inches in my chicken run litter that is currently 12 inches deep. I am only trying to mix up those top layers of the litter and would not get anywhere near the actual soil.

A suggestion for you similar to my compost bin. Pile or mound the compost over a pile of the leaves in the run. The chickens will scratch it apart in short order, but will mix and aerate the material. Rake the leaves into another pile and repeat. Similar to turning a pile, but the chickens will assist. At the end of it, you should have light, fluffy compost instead of compacted chicken run material.
:lau That is exactly what I was doing last summer. I would use my pitchfork and pile up a huge mound for the chickens. After about 30 minutes of raking, and mounding the litter, I would let the chickens at it. It would literally take them only about 5 minutes to tear it apart and level it all out. I was working a lot harder than my chickens! But yes, that process ensured the chicken run material was indeed light and fluffy.

:old I am just thinking that a mini tiller will fluff up the material better, and faster, without the need for me to use the pitchfork which is harder on the back. The chickens will still have the advantage of finding new food that has been turned to the top by the mini tiller. At least, that is what I am thinking.
 
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