Deep Litter Method


To see all posts on Deep Litter, click here

There is plenty of information about keeping a chicken coop clean, but what if the healthiest way to keep chickens didn't involve the daily or even weekly... or even monthly... shoveling and replacing of bedding?

The "Old Timers" will tell you that the "Deep Litter" method is one of the easiest and healthiest ways to keep a coop.


Dirt floors are great for the deep litter method, but "DL" can be done on almost any solid surface at all. It starts with a good layer of pine shavings. Instead of cleaning it all out and replacing it when the poop accumulates, one simply stirs up the bedding a bit with a light rake and tosses another layer of bedding on top once a week or so. 

Think of it like a lasagna. stir up the bottom a bit and add more on the top.

Ewwww! Doesn't that stink?

Nope - not if it's done properly (and not if your chickens are healthy).

You see, by not removing the waste, good microbes come and make their homes in the litter. These microbes actually eat and break down the feces and consume unhealthy bacteria, leaving good bacteria behind! The microbes also help prevent infestations of lice and mites in your flock. (They won't clean off a bird already infested - use wood ash on infested birds - but can help prevent new infestations from occurring.)

Most folks will clean out their deep litter coops once a year... being careful to leave a 1 - 2 inch layer of the "old stuff" behind. Leaving a bit of the stuff that is already composting helps the new stuff begin to break down and compost too - and that's what you want.
And what do you get when you clean that year's worth of chicken stuff and bedding out in the early Spring? You get the perfect compost and mulch to start your garden. 
Surprisingly your coop will smell more earthy and natural. If done properly in a well-ventilated coop, there should be no ammonia or "fowl" smell.
Important points:
  • Stir up the bedding to break up any clumps every few days.
  • Don't ever use diatomaceous earth (DE) or any other chemical insecticide in the coop bedding! This will kill off the beneficial microbes and nematodes.
  • The beneficial microbes can help prevent infestations of mites and lice in your flock.
  • Keep layering clean bedding on top of the old bedding.
  • Clean out most (but not all) of the bedding once a year - most do this in early Spring and use the compost in their gardens.
Nematodes & Deep Litter:

Fortunately, most species of nematodes have no effect, or have a beneficial effect, on humans and their endeavors. Many species of nematodes are ‘free-living’, living in soil, sea and freshwater. These feed on bacteria, fungi, protozoans and even other nematodes, and play a very important role in nutrient cycling and release of nutrients for plant growth. Other nematodes attack insects, and help to control insect pests. In fact, some nematodes which attack insect pests are reared commercially and released for the control of certain insect pests as a biological insecticide. A nematode released to control the Sirex wood wasp has been credited with saving the forestry industry up to 80 million US dollars per year in Australia.


You can see that creating a good environment in the coop can promote the growth of nematodes that can actually feed on the things that often harm our livestock/chickens.  A good, decomposing deep litter system is like having a great little micro-mini compost heap in your coop.  Good ventilation is key and monitoring the moisture and smell, making adjustments accordingly and letting nature take its course will help tremendously to grow good things in the coop instead of bad things that can cause constant and recurring health problems in a flock.  Straw does not compost very well and tends to get moldy before doing so... not the good kind of mold.  Wood shavings take longer to break down but they tend to stay drier while doing so... good fluffing and turning in a humid climate can also keep them from forming a "cap" of moist pockets on the surface that will grow mold beneath the cap.

53 comments:

  1. Another site with good info on deep litter
    http://themodernhomestead.us/article/Deep-Litter-1.html
    In the early part of the 20th century even the USDA advocated deep litter & NOT cleaning out the brooder house between batches of chicks, studies showing that each successive batch on the old composting litter was healthier and had less mortality than ones put into disinfected houses on clean litter where the litter was cleaned out regularly/

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    1. Then, the USDA got "smarter". No, really, I've read recently that some of the commercial growers are noticing that they have a higher mortality rate (if that's possible) when they put new chicks in disinfected houses. Sorry I don't have a referenc.

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    2. I've read this as well. They have found that chicks thrive better when starting out on some of the old litter and many die from coccidiosis if put on just fresh litter.

      This is the reason that all my chicks are placed in an outside brooder area~with a foster broody when possible or just hatched by a broody~and that brooder has litter from the last batch still in it.

      They are also out on the soils in 2 wks time, free ranging with the big birds.

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    3. I live in North Florida and it rains hard everyday almost and the humidity is on average 95 percent, and temp. is 98-101 right now. I use sand during the summer because the pine litter or hay remains wet, moldy,attracts insects and in my opinion is unsanitary (with the high humidity it takes a long time for things to dry). In climates like this it may be better to use sand as your litter and a light coat of bedding that can be raked around and it will eventually break down as long as you don't use too much. (During the fall and winter months when the weather is pleasant and the humidity is not that high, deep litter method works wonderfully and you have mulch in the spring. Just some advice for those living in tropical conditions where your biggest task is keeping your chickens dry.

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  2. Question...I live in south LA. Very wet, humid. My property accumulates a lot of water during the rainy season (which is now). I was planning on putting sand in my coop for this reason. I have been reading over all of the great info on this site and was curious about the deep litter method. I am concerned that with all the rain we get here it may be a problem with deep liter, moisture & mold growth. Does anyone have experience with this?

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    1. Moisture is actually good when it comes to deep litter. It helps your materials compost. In fact, people in very dry climates often have to mist down their litter to keep dust down and to add enough moisture for it to compost.

      That said, you will have to be careful and watch for mold - a bigger risk in humid areas. Turn your bedding over and stir it up well in the morning so it can air out during the day. Most folks find that works well enough.

      If you do start to develop a mold issue, you can try pelleted pine bedding (Equine Pine or TSC has its own brand too). The bedding is meant to be misted with water before use, but in a area of high humidity, DON'T mist it. Just put it in there dry and it *should* prevent things from getting too moist.

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  3. Hi I live in England where it is predominantly wet would this dlm work here?

    thanks

    lorraine

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    1. Lorraine,
      DL should work just fine there. I know of folks in the Pacific Northwest USA who use DL with great success. It is very, very wet in those parts, but the DL does just fine. :)

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  4. I live in the high desert of AZ. My coop is currently raised with a welded wire mesh floor and hay bedding that is changed weekly. Should I stop changing out the hay and raking the fenced in free range area? Any poop I see over a couple hours old is dried and crumbly. Will that affect any attempt at DL?

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    1. Jamie -
      It is solely up to you and what will work best for you. Super-dry climates like yours can be much less conducive to the Deep Litter Method since moisture is necessary for the breakdown of the litter and the nematodes that live within it. It is probably not sensible to spray your litter down with water every few days to make the DLM work, so in your case it may just be best to continue doing what you are doing.

      Leigh

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  5. I am just starting out with a few mail order chicks...what is the best bedding for my new chicks?

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  6. Ive read on Backyard Chickens of people who use DE in the DL method in their coops but you mention in your article that it will kill off the good bacteria. Wouldn't it also kill off the bad bacteria, too? I'm not planning on using it for compost so would I be able to use it just to keep everything dry and pests away? I'm really only interested in the DL method because I don't want to have to clean my coop every week. One day when we have a garden I will be more interested in the compost aspect.

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    1. It's not really a matter of compost, but a matter of health for your chickens. (Composting litter can be a secondary benefit!)

      Take a look at this - might help clarify why you'd want to use the DL

      http://www.plamondon.com/faq_deep_litter.html

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  7. I am also wondering about using DL for Chicks. Can I just use the method in my brooder and then move add that litter to the litter in the new coop? I am about to hatch my first chicks.

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  8. I have half of the coop floor with Pine shavings and the other half with sand mixed with food grade diomateous (SP) earth...that way they can sand bath which they seem to enjoy daily.Does this sound like a good plan??? My chicks are 5 weeks old

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    1. For now this should work. There are two camps on DE and it's use. Some swear by putting it in the coop. Personally I am of the other camp - I believe that the DE in the coop bedding could kill off the nematodes that feed on the larvae of lice and mites.

      DE works because it acts like a sponge. It sucks all the moisture out of bugs and their surroundings, and kills them. If enough is used, it can also dry out the bedding which would render the Deep Litter unable to decompose. Lisa of Fresh Eggs Daily uses it in her coop and has nothing but good things to say about it. I don't use it in my coop, and have nothing but good things to say about my method. LOL! In the end, the choice is yours.

      Congrats on your chicks!
      Leigh

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    2. I've started using the deep litter method and have been spraying the old litter with Lactic Acid Bacteria then I add my new wood chips. So far it works very well, no smell and benificial bacteria growing in the coop. Also been putting LAB in the girls water to get the process started right away. Great info on this site!! Thank you!!

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    3. Welcome to the site, Anonymous! Yes - there are so many advantages to using LABs (for a multitude of things). The microorganisms in LABs help break down the litter while at the same time keeping smells at bay. Your girls will certainly benefit from the LABs in their water too.
      Leigh

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  9. I am new to the whole chicken thing. We are doing a ton of research before we take the plunge. I understand most of your acronyms but not LABs. Please advise. Thanks

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    1. Hi Amy! I know you'll love your chickens!

      LAB is just short for Lactic Acid Bacteria. This is the same type of bacteria that you find in "pro-biotics", yogurt, etc., that are so good for helping build our immune system. LABs are wonderful in our (and our chicken's) digestive system.

      The way they work is to digest sugars/carbs and they excrete Lactic Acid. In a situation like deep litter, the lactic acid helps lower pH (raise acid levels) and keeps other "bad" bacteria under control by lowering their population in the acidic environment that's created. This happens in your compost as well. The LABs, along with other "decomposers", digest and break down the items into a very healthy soil.

      LABs are also the bacteria that create fermented pickles, sauerkraut, and the like. As they do their work, the lactic acid increases which gives those pickles and sauerkraut that tangy, sour flavor. The lactic acid is the preservative that keeps the fermented items healthy and safe to eat. In fact, fermented items are considered more safe than heat canned items because of this process.

      Hope that helps and that it wasn't TMI!

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    2. I'm in the same boat you were in back in 2013--researching to decide if we invest and build a coop or not. Did you go for it? If so, pros or cons you found?

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  10. Not sure how to sign in on this blog, I keep having trouble. I posted above about the LAB. My name is Joel and I am new to chickens this year but I'm loving it. Anyhow, I've made biochar and am wondering if I can spread it in my coop to "charge" it. The coop is full of nutrients and benificials, which I'd like to populate my biochar. This would also allow the benificials to remain in the litter for basically ever. I'm just wondering if the char in the coop would be safe for the girls?

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    1. Joel, I know a couple of folks that are doing just that with great success. Stop over to the forum (there's a link at the top of the page in the tabs) and start a topic on using it there. I think you'll get several people who have used it to chime in!

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  11. Hi! We are just finishing our coop and run and I am wondering about using the deep litter method. We have a coop that's 4x4 ft attached to a run that's 9 long 4 wide and 6 feet high. The chickens will always be in the coop since we live in the city with a landscaped yard they would destroy. We will only have 3 girls. We are getting them for the eggs and for our granddaughters to learn food doesn't only come from Safeway! So, we have read we should have two nesting boxes with pine shavings in them and to use a plastic wash tub so we can take them out easily to clean. We learned we should have a roost area and put wire floor beneath but then put trays underneath to make removing and cleaning easier. That's all ok in the coop. But should I put 4" or so of pine shaving in the run to do the deep litter method out there? They won't have any dirt to clean off in then...is that a problem? Is this the best way to go? I'd appreciate any advice. We're getting the chickens next week so want to be ready! Thanks...love this blog!

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    1. I'm not a huge fan of wire floors and you may find your girls like hay in the nest boxes better than they like shavings, but play with it and see what works for you. If your run is covered, then shavings and dried grass clippings from your yard will work nicely. You can create a dust bath area for them in a baby pool or another shallow container. Fill it with a mix of sand, soil and wood ash - they'll appreciate having a place to dust themselves. It will work best if the dust bath area is covered. If not, you'll need to just have an area on the ground so that rain can drain away.
      I hope this helps -
      Leigh

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    2. Thanks! We'll try that! The coop floor is mostly wood with just a small area of hardware cloth right under the roosting branch. I didn't think wire all over would be comfortable for them...we are covering the run in winter so the dust bath will work! I'm waiting fr our farm support store to get a barred rock pullets and a sex link and one other...I wanted a Wyandotte but they never get them Any advice for layers that are docile/friendly for children?

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    3. I understand about the placement of the hardware cloth. You may want to put a "lip" around the edge of that area - about 4" or more high. This way when you put bedding in your coop, it won't all fall out (or block) the hardware cloth. Chickens dig a lot and will throw the bedding all over the place.

      As for docile layers, each chicken has her own personality. You can get a docile breed and end up with Attila the Hen, but you can also get a not-so-docile breed and end up with the friendliest hen ever. Many of the notoriously calm and docile breeds also tend toward broodiness, so if you don't want to hatch eggs a few times a year, you don't want a broody breed (Orpington, Silkie, Cochin... ) Perhaps try a Delaware, a White Rock or a Rhode Island Red. All are good egg layers but not notoriously and perpetually broody - though as with anything, there are always exceptions. Be sure your kids handle the chicks from day one - pick them up and hold them a few times a day. This will help keep them friendlier. As they near sexual maturity, they will start to dislike being held, but will still follow you about the run and look to you for treats.
      Good luck! Join our forum so you can get faster answers to all your questions as they come up - and with new chicks coming, they will come up - LOL! It's a great (and growing) group of people who prefer a more natural approach - so nobody will tell you to use chemicals and drugs... which is nice!
      Join Here

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  12. over and over I read DE is like a sponge and sucks moisture out. This is not so, though it could easily be thought of that way. DE works by cutting the soft tissue between the joints of a bug's legs and other joints causing them to basically bleed out. It is almost completely harmless to beneficial organisms living in the soil

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  13. Is it fine to use this in the run, too? I have the run covered with plastic for the winter, with plenty of ventilation. Currently it has a dirt/sand floor. Sounds like this might keep them warmer, but curious if it is ok "outside" the coop.

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    1. Yes - it is absolutely wonderful to use in runs!
      Leigh

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  14. There's more to DL than just turning the litter and adding more. Lime is an important component too: it helps the litter stay crumbly, less prone to caking up, absorbs moisture (hello Florida!), and provides some nutritional value (calcium).

    This link was posted before and has a lot of info on the lime aspect: http://www.plamondon.com/faq_deep_litter.html

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  15. So, you recommend doing this all year? I have heard that you should only do this in the winter...which we are currently doing and I love this method! SO much easier than replacing bedding weekly. We read on www.fresheggsdaily.com that you keep a 6 inch layer....would you do that through the summer? Maybe not as deep since it creates so much heat? Thoughts?

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    1. Cherylene - I keep my deep litter going year round. I do a big cleaning in the Spring and use what I take out in the garden, but I leave a few inches of the old litter to help keep all the wonderful microorganisms going. These microorganisms can help keep mites and lice at bay as they feed on the larvae. While deep litter does give off a bit of heat, it hasn't been a problem - even in the hottest months of Summer.

      Give it a try! You can always go back to the weekly method if you don't like it. :-) (But I bet you will like keeping your deep litter going year-round!)

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  16. Thanks for maintaining this blog on natural chicken keeping methods. Greatly appreciated.

    I am using DLM in the coop, but am planning on sprinkling the diatomaceous earth all over coop. I really don't understand how the DLM itself can keep mites/lice out of the coop by itself. Maybe on the floor, but what about the perches and corners in the house where there is no DLM?

    Also, the DE may kill some of the good microbes, but surely it's better than having lice/mites imo, and food grade DE is one of the best methods for naturally keeping lice/mites out.

    If I was to raise new chicks on bedding from the deep litter which was treated with DE, will it still be as beneficial for the chicks as bedding from deep litter which was not treated with DE i.e help prevent cocci etc?

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    1. The good nematodes thriving in a healthy deep litter will actually feed on the larvae of lice and mites, thereby helping to control them.

      Remember that DE is hazardous if inhaled, so use caution if you really want to put it in your chicks bedding. Chicks sleep on the ground and could inhale DE that is in their bedding.

      I won't tell you not to use DE - if it makes you feel more comfortable to use it than please do so. I am just not a personal fan of DE. :-)
      Leigh

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  17. I will be getting my first coop with an attached walk-in covered pen/run soon. I've done a lot of reading on deep litter and plan to do that in the pen - without diatomaceous earth. I was planning to do this with a thick layer of sand over dirt though - I've heard it's great for their feet, nails, beaks, and allows liquids to seep in. However, (and pardon my cluelessness), but are you referring to DL in the area in the coop building too - not just the pen/run? Below where they roost? In that case, I'd use pine shavings, and I'd be delighted if this could work within the coop! I've heard of lots of people using a removable shelf below the perches which they pull out and scrape of once or twice a week, but if I could go without a shelf stir things up, that'd be great.

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    1. Lauren - yes - just use pine shavings in the coop and allow the droppings to fall right in. Then just stir it up once or twice a week, and add more fresh bedding on top each week. This will encourage the nematodes to thrive in your litter, and this will naturally keep the number of unwanted bugs (mites and lice) down. :-)

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  18. Hi, my name is Sandy and I just started my small farm business this year. I've ordered 130 chickens and guineas. 75 layers, 25 meat and 30 guineas (for pest control); they are all peeps and will arrive 14July14. I want to do the DLM but I also want to use DE in a dust bath. I welcome all advice on how to train and take very good care of my birds. Please help!

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    1. Congratulations on starting your chicken business. I know you will enjoy them.

      You can certainly use DE in the dust bath - just remember that it looses effectiveness when it gets wet, so you will need to put fresh DE in regularly.

      Join us on our Forum so that all your questions can be answered by our group of natural-minded chicken lovers: Join Our Free Forum HERE.
      We look forward to seeing you there!
      Leigh

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  19. Thanks you so much for all of the great information! I'm a newbie to the backyard chicken hobby.

    At the beginning of the year, I read everything I could get my hands on and I really like the DL method, both for the health of the chickens and also for the compost. However, I was just cleaning up a spot in my coop (because the waterer tipped and spilled out). The deeper shavings are full of little white worms - they almost look like maggots. Should I be worried???? Because, I am.......

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    1. The little white worms are probably fly larvae (maggots) but I wouldn't worry. They were likely just there because of the wetness - you said something spilled there? As long as the bedding is turned over regularly and kept fairly dry, this will be a rare thing to see. Don't worry. :-)
      Leigh

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    2. The chickens will gobble up the maggots. Extra protein!

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  20. To Tayyab Mehmood -
    I had to delete your comment because of the link you posted in it. If you would like to advertise with us, please contact me and we'll work something out.

    As for your question, you wrote, "Is it fine to use this in the run, too? I have the run covered with plastic for the winter, with plenty of ventilation. Currently it has a dirt/sand floor. Sounds like this might keep them warmer, but curious if it is ok "outside" the coop."

    The short answer is "Yes." The deep litter method will work best if you have a covered run, but that said, tossing piles of leaves, grass and bedding into any run will keep the earth from turning in to a hard packed brick in the summer and a muddy mess in the wet seasons. In fact we have an article on that very thing: How Do I Recondition My Chicken Run?

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  21. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  22. I live in Florida and my coop/pen is only about 1/3 under roof. It has a concrete floor and caged with chain link with chicken wire over that. I want to use the deep litter method but am concerned about the high humidity here as well as the rainy summer we have had. I'm afraid it might get very slippery and I am just an accident waiting to happen. Thanks for any advice and input!!

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    1. Here's a response I left a while back for someone who lives in LA. My sister also lives in Louisiana and has very similar issues to what you are talking about.

      "Moisture is actually good when it comes to deep litter. It helps your materials compost. In fact, people in very dry climates often have to mist down their litter to keep dust down and to add enough moisture for it to compost.

      That said, you will have to be careful and watch for mold - a bigger risk in humid areas. Turn your bedding over and stir it up well in the morning so it can air out during the day. Most folks find that works well enough.

      If you do start to develop a mold issue, you can try pelleted pine bedding (Equine Pine or TSC has its own brand too). The bedding is meant to be misted with water before use, but in a area of high humidity, DON'T mist it. Just put it in there dry and it *should* prevent things from getting too moist."

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  23. I noticed there is no mention of hemp chicken bedding. The Urban Chicken in Raleigh, NC is currently testing the deep litter method with hemp bedding in a Carolina Coop behind their shop. I noticed there was a drastic reduction in odor and no dust in there. The owner also said they do not add as much material as pine (wood) shavings or straw, so there is less maintenance. She said she did not have to add anything for over 1 month! I am curious to see you all's thoughts on this material. I know they received it from American Hemp in Winston Salem, NC.

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    1. Hemp... very interesting! I am all for new ideas and natural bedding materials. If I can find any locally, hopefully I can test it out sometime soon. Thank you for bringing it up!
      =)
      Leigh

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  24. Hi, I am interested in the DL method now after reading all this! Except, i was planning to use wire flooring. I know people don't like it for their chickens, BUT I found a polycarbonate poultry flooring that claims to be safe for poultry feet, it will not rust, and it inhibits bacteria growth since it is nonporous. I ordered it today before i read this. So, is it possible to use the poultry mesh flooring AND do the DL method under it where the poop falls? If so, how ventilated does the underside need to be? on all four sides? (some background information: Our coop is already built, but we are modifying it by changing the floor and raising it off the ground 24". Also, the coop is already ventilated, but i like to board up the windows of the coop in the winter to keep them warmer, but i leave some space open for ventilation. The 'under area" of the coop is 4' x 7'. We live in North Texas, so we have 'not too harsh' winters, but it does get below freezing several days, and in the summer we can have several days above 100 degrees) OR, is it ok to have the 'under area' of the coop enclosed on 3 sides and open in the back? This area would then be open to the run. Is that ok?

    I also read today, that 'lime' should be added to the DL?

    I also am wondering about building a dusting box in the open run. Can i build a box and let the dirt be the bottom and then add sand and mulch? How high should the sides be so they don't scratch out all the stuff?

    Thanks!!

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    1. The deep litter method works best when chickens have access to the litter to scratch about in it... but if the place where the poop drops down is part of the run, it can still work. Be sure you turn the bedding every few days to get a good compost going.

      Your chickens will love a dust bath area! Be sure that it is either covered or that it has really good drainage so it doesn't turn into a swimming pool. Covered is best because they can use it no matter the weather and the dusting materials will stay dry.

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    2. Thank you!! After reading your reply, I think I will not use the poultry mesh floor after all! I will just leave the coop floor open to the ground (so basically no floor, just the ground, and then have roosting bars in the coop so they can get as high as they want to roost) and do the DL method on the dirt under their coop. The coop will be enclosed on four sides, but not on the lower 24"- I think I will have just one side open on the lower 24" and they can get in and out of their coop this way, and they will definitely have to scratch in the DL. I am still in shock that this is 'healthier'. Does this make sense and do you think this will work out ok?

      I will make sure to have a cover over the dust bath so they can enjoy!! Thanks!!

      Two more questions:
      1. the dust bath - build a box and add sand and mulch (any kind of wood mulch?)
      2. The DL - add pine shavings to the floor and stir every few days, add more pine maybe once week or so, and add 'hydrated lime'? Do you know anything about this or how much/how often to add?

      You are sooooo helpful! Thanks again! I am enjoying reading your other posts. Never heard of a cup waterer! May have to try this too!

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