Why The Deep Litter Method Works Best For Chicken Coops During Canadian Winters
When you live in the deep cold of the Canadian prairies, you quickly learn what does and doesn’t work for keeping chickens. And let me tell you — the deep litter method WORKS! You might be wondering, what is the deep litter concept? Well, this post is going to tell you exactly that and why the deep litter method works best for chicken coops during Canadian winters…or any place with frigidly cold Winters.
If you’re completely brand-new to chicken keeping OR thinking about adding some chickens to your homestead in the Spring, be sure to first read my post Keeping Chickens In A Cold Climate — Everything You Need To Know.
This post covers:
- What Is The Deep Litter Method
- What Are The Benefits Of The Deep Litter Method For Chickens
- Why The Deep Litter Method Works Best For Canadian Winters
- How To Do Deep Litter In The Chicken Coop
- What To Do With Deep Litter In The Spring
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What Is The Deep Litter Method
The deep litter method is an old-school concept that has been used by homesteaders for hundreds of years. It is the method of adding more and more bedding to your coop during the winter months without removing or cleaning any out.
The concept is that the bedding builds up and begins to compost on the bottom layer over time. In the Spring, you clean out all the bedding and have rich compost to add to your pile.
Some folks refer to deep litter as “built up litter” or “compost litter.” So if you hear those terms used, know they are interchangeable and all mean the same thing.
Homesteaders use the deep litter method for all types of animals, including goats, cows and other laying birds.
What Are The Benefits Of The Deep Litter Method For Chickens
My experience with the deep litter method is specific to chickens, so let me speak to that!
When I first heard of this concept I thought, “Ew…you don’t clean the coop all Winter long?” It kinda grossed me out and I was worried it would be unsanitary.
But it’s quite the opposite, especially for chicken keeping in a cold Canadian climate where the bedding stays frozen anyway.
Key benefits of the deep litter method during Canadian Winters:
- Keeps the coop warm by acting as a thick layer of insulation along the flooring and lower walls of the chicken coop. As Winter goes on and you add more bedding, you generate more heat.
- Reduces work for you! There’s lots to do in the Winter to take care of your chickens, including ensuring their water doesn’t freeze and keeping their food full. The deep litter method takes away the need to clean the coop for a few months.
- Saves you money on your electricity bill as you likely won’t need to heat your chicken coop. Though I strongly advise against having a long-term heat lamp in the chicken coop during the Winter, there are those extra cold days when it is sometimes required. But the deep litter method reduces the need by creating heat and protection from drafts in the floor and corners.
- Creates rich organic matter of “browns” for you to add to your compost pile in the Spring. We have never had more balanced compost piles than when we’ve added in our chicken bedding/droppings. And our garden loves it too!
Here’s the deep litter from our coop dumped into the compost pile in the Spring with our sneaky hens checking it out…they love exploring the compost for “treats” when we’re not looking.
There was also an interesting study done on the deep litter method by the Ohio Station in 1946 that found the deep litter method to actually be more sanitary than cleaning the coop, resulting in lower mortality rates in chickens. Wild, right?
Well-known homesteading author, Robert Plamondon explains it in further detail on his blog.
Why The Deep Litter Method Works Best For Canadian Winters
I’m a true believer the deep litter method is the best approach to Winter chicken keeping in Canada.
Why? Because our weather is so unpredictable, it is impossible to predict how often you will be able to clean out your chicken coop and/or what the temperature will be inside.
The deep litter method helps keep your coop warm and insulated during the extremely cold Winter days.
For my fellow Prairie chicken keepers living in the middle provinces, the deep litter method also works well with our dry, cold winters. The bedding stays frozen and dry for the majority of the season, making it relatively mess-free until it’s time to clean in Spring.
I could potentially see Canadians living on the coasts have more issues with moisture and damp bedding with the deep litter method. But it is completely based on the micro-climate on your property.
How To Do Deep Litter In The Chicken Coop
The best part about the deep litter method is that it’s easy. So easy!
I’ll walk you through step-by-step instructions for how to do deep litter in the chicken coop. But it’s really quite simple. After one winter of using the method, we were hooked and have followed it ever since.
Step 1: Choose your bedding.
Typically, chicken keepers use either straw or wood shavings for bedding. I have tried both and much prefer using wood shavings for chicken bedding.
From my experience keeping chickens in a cold Canadian climate, I find straw bedding gets dirty much quicker, tends to hold an odour and gets clumpy and cold in the Winter months.
On the other hand, wood shavings are fluffy and light, which provides our hens something to nest and play in while they’re stuck inside during the Winter. I also find wood shavings manage odour better. Plus, they tend to break down more quickly when added to the compost pile.
I use pine shavings as they are the most reasonably priced (approx. $9.99 for 85L), but you can also source hemp and cedar shavings. Both of which are almost double the price but offer the same benefits.
So first things first, pick which type of bedding you’re going to use for the deep litter method.
Step 2: Add a fresh layer of bedding to the bottom of the coop.
For our 100 square foot chicken coop, I add one 85L bag of shavings to start my deep litter in the Fall. When spread out evenly, this is enough to add about 2-3 inches of bedding to the flooring of the coop.
At this point you can also mix in 3-4 cups of a granular pet-safe deodorizer. I find this really helps with lowering humidity in the coop during the Winter.
My preferred brand is Stall Dry. A large bag will last you a few seasons.
Step 3: Add more bedding every 4-6 weeks.
As the Winter begins, add more bedding on top of the initial layer. I typically add between half a bag (40L) to a full bag every month or so. I base how often I add more bedding on the weather and the amount of droppings in the coop.
If it’s a mild Canadian winter, you’ll find the deep litter will get more damp and dirty quicker because it won’t be frozen solid. If this is the case, add smaller amounts of bedding more regularly — say add 1 inch of bedding every other week.
If you’re experiencing a Canadian deep freeze of a Winter (like we often do here in the Prairies), you can probably get away with adding bedding every 6-8 weeks since the bottom layer will be completely frozen.
Remember, the benefit of the deep litter method is to insulate your coop and reduce odour. So add more bedding as needed based on your weather and those two requirements.
Step 4: Spot clean the top layer of droppings if it starts to build up.
Though the idea of the deep litter method is to build on top of the dirty bedding, I do think it’s important to keep your chicken’s living space clean.
Every few weeks, if needed, I’ll simply take a shovel and remove any droppings that have really started to build up. It’s usually the worst for us under our chicken’s roost as they sit there for most of the day during the Winter.
You certainly don’t need to do this step if your bedding is staying clean. It’s completely optional based on your coop and flock size.
Step 5: When night time temperatures are consistently above 0°C/32°F, clean out all the deep litter.
As soon as Spring arrives and night time temperatures are above freezing, you’ll want to act quick to deep clean the coop! Trust me, the deep litter can quickly start to get gross if it begins to thaw.
Be prepared to do a major clean up!
Keep the hens out of the coop as you remove all the deep litter. My method is to shovel the deep litter into our wheelbarrow and bring it to the compost pile to dump. After 6 months of Winter, it usually equates to a good six wheelbarrows full of deep litter.
PRO TIP: Wear a mask to protect yourself from the smell of ammonia! It can be very strong and possibly harmful if inhaled for a prolonged period of time.
And those are the 5 key steps to doing the deep litter method for chickens.
If you only take away one thing from my step-by-step instructions, I hope it is this — adjust the deep litter method based on your exact climate and coop. There’s no exact formula that fits all with the deep litter method.
So customize it based on your flock, your weather and your own needs.
What To Do With Deep Litter In The Spring
Come Spring, you’ll want to move all the deep litter from your chicken coop to your compost pile.
You’ll notice the bottom layer of the deep litter (the very first layer you would have laid in the Fall), will already have decomposed quite a bit. It will likely be a brown, dirt-like colour. This is completely fine! Add it to the compost pile too.
Chicken droppings and bedding are basically gold for the compost pile. It’s filled with carbon, nitrogen and potassium — nutrients that help gardens thrive.
I like to let the deep litter break down in the compost for another 3-6 weeks before adding it to the garden.
I choose to wait to ensure any traces of bacteria or salmonella have broken down completely. This is the risk you run with using manure-based compost in the garden. You need to be especially careful if using manure-based compost on food gardens.
So play it safe and let your deep litter decompose longer. I turn the pile weekly to provide my compost more oxygen to break down the organic matter quicker.
When you think about it — it’s pretty amazing that your chickens can provide you incredible compost to feed your garden for FREE. All the more reason to add chickens to your homestead.
And there you have it!
Now you know why the deep litter method works best for chicken coops during Canadian Winters.
Any other chicken keeping questions, don’t hesitate to ask in the comments! I love chatting with you there.
Happy chicken keeping!