It’s time to clean out the chicken coop. All summer my little flock has been happily picking weed and grass seeds out of the straw I spread in their coop last spring. At the same time, they’ve broken down the big pieces of grass stem into finer shreds. And, best of all, they’re balanced all that carbon with some nice, hot chicken manure.
Now that the weather has cooled a bit, I’m willing to venture out to the coop with a rake, scoop, and wheelbarrow. All that compostable material is heading for my veggie garden.
This is a job I really don’t relish. For one, I’m allergic to chickens. The coop is coated with fine dust, a product of hens plus feed plus droppings, and the moment I start to rake, it all soars into the air. Then add in the molted feathers. I wear a mask, but I still end up coughing and sneezing for the week afterward.
For another, it’s a lot of bending over, and my back is complaining loudly by the time I’m done. I think if I were to redesign the coop, I would have some sort of low doorway that opens at the bottom of the wall directly behind the roosts. That way I could just rake all the bedding directly outside, where the dust would waft away in the breeze.
In the meantime, I’m stuck with what we have, and cutting another hole in the coop isn’t really an option. I’m not much of a carpenter, and I don’t want the whole thing collapsing on my hard working ladies.
Once I get the coop cleaned out, I spread nice, clean straw all over the floor and in the nest box. In a fit of extravagance, I use the whole bale. It’s like an early Christmas for the chickens. They have a terrific time scratching through all the new bedding, looking for seeds and other tasty tidbits. One or two hop into the nest box and rearrange everything to suit their egg-laying preferences. It’s worth the hassle just to see how happy they all are.
In the meantime, I’ve hauled load after load of straw-plus-nitrogen into the garden. There’s too much to fit into my compost bin, so I spread it thickly on the beds that are already harvested. (I try to rotate my crops so the same beds don’t get the chicken litter every year.) By spring, the six to eight inch layer of bedding will have turned into a couple inches of compost.
The nice thing about doing this in the fall is that the raw materials have all winter to turn into compost. Most years, the snow provides enough moisture to keep things relatively damp. (If things have dried out by March, I turn on the hose.) When temperatures begin to climb again, composting occurs pretty rapidly. Making compost in layers like this is called “sheet composting.”
Composting the chicken manure in the fall gives the high nitrogen content plenty of time to mellow. Fresh manure would burn my plants, but this will be just right by the time I plant. Any harmful bacteria will also have time to die off, so I don’t have to worry about using the aged manure on food crops.
Have you ever noticed that the healthiest plants (usually weeds) grow right at the base of the compost pile? That’s because nutrients leach from the pile as it decomposes. Since I’m making my compost in my boxed raised beds, those nutrients just percolate into the ground that I’m about to plant.
The best part about sheet composting is that I don’t have to move the finished compost. I just dig it into the soil right where it rotted.
Any straw that survives the winter becomes mulch for the following growing season. Remember, there are very few weed or grass seeds in it because the hens have eaten them all. I think veggies, composting, and hens form the perfect partnership.