When raising chickens, there are several things you must deal with, and one of those is chicken poop. If you use a non-movable coop, I recommend an earth floor covered with up to 12 inches of organic matter. This deep litter arrangement is the best for safe and less labor-intensive manure management when coops cannot be moved to fresh ground. Chickens who constantly scratch quickly work their droppings into the litter, where decomposition is similar to that in a compost heap.
Materials used for litter should be high in carbon and include leaves and wood shavings. If sawdust and wood chips are used, they should be aged first. Avoid straw as it supports the growth of harmful molds.
During decomposition, microbes use nitrogen from the droppings as an energy source while they break down the litter into more basic elements. As the carbon in the litter is depleted, the nitrogen cannot be used efficiently by the microbes and outgasses as ammonia. Ammonia is not good for your birds' respiratory tissues, so a whiff of ammonia alerts you to add fresh material or clean out the litter. Materials such as hay and soybean vines are higher in nitrogen and don't work as well for litter, as they decompose too quickly.
Deep litter will save you from extra labor. You might want to shovel out the equivalent of finished compost annually. You can add it to the garden without further processing.
It's OK to use an existing building with a wood or concrete floor. A deep layer of organic material can still be used as the foundation for manure management. Even straw can be used, as it stays drier. In this case, the litter won't break down as completely and will need to be composted before you add it to your garden.
There is one potential dilemma with deep litter over an earth floor digging predators. It's an arduous initial chore, but it's important to dig a metal roof flashing or half-inch hardware cloth barrier 18 inches deep around the perimeter of your chicken house. You won't be sorry, as it can keep your poultry safe.
Harvey Ussery is committed to helping revive small-scale backyard poultry production. Visit his Web site: www.TheModernHomestead.us.
For more information on raising chickens, read "Incredible Homestead Chickens" at Mother Earth News.