Arts & Leisure

Ask a master gardener: What to do with all that poo?

Chickens provide a good source of fertilizer for gardens and lawns as poultry litter, when properly composted, is a beneficial soil amendment, improving overall soil health and water-holding capacity. Photo / Joyce Amsden

If you raise chickens, then you know that while they are laying baskets of farm fresh eggs and amusing you with their antics, they are also generating a lot of manure.

Coop litter contains manure, feathers, undigested food and bedding material. A single chicken can produce as much as 130 pounds of litter per year.

Fortunately, poultry litter is a beneficial soil amendment for vegetable gardens, flowerbeds and lawns. It improves soil structure, water-holding capacity, nutrient availability, biological activity and overall soil nutrition.

However, raw chicken manure contains levels of nitrogen and salts that can be damaging to plants. It also can contain harmful Salmonella and E. coli bacteria. It takes approximately 120 days for the pathogens to die and organic matter to break down.

You can apply and incorporate litter in the fall after you have harvested everything in your garden.  Avoid direct application to plants that are to remain.

The most effective way is to compost the litter and work the composted matter into your garden in the fall. If you want to apply composted litter in spring, you must begin a second container or pile around the first of the year, so all the compost you apply has composted for the required 120 days.

Proper composting begins in the coop with 2-3 inches of bedding. Remove the litter when the proportion of litter to manure reaches about 50-50, roughly in 2-4 weeks. This nitrogen in the manure and carbon in the litter is ideal for composting.

In winter, you can switch to the deep-litter method by adding about an inch of bedding weekly, maintaining the 50-50 proportion. This provides tidy footing for your chickens and maintains a healthy composting environment right under their feet.

Smelly coop? It’s time to add more bedding. Remove it when the weather warms to above freezing daytime temperatures or if the buildup becomes inconvenient.

To compost your litter, construct a three-sided container with wood pallets or other untreated materials, allowing spaces for air flow. The ideal size is 3 feet x 3 feet x 3 feet). The open front makes for easy turning with a shovel or fork.

Turn the pile every 1-2 weeks. If it gets smelly, add carbon (i.e., brown matter such as dry grass, hay or pine shavings). Add water as needed to maintain the approximate moisture of a squeezed-out sponge.

Finished compost has a rich brown color and an earthy odor. The components are no longer visible in their original form. Use only fully finished compost during the growing season.

As a starting point, you can apply 14 pounds raw or 44 pounds composted litter to a 100-square-foot. garden. A five-gallon gallon bucket holds about 25 pounds of litter.

Over time, you will need to reduce amounts applied to prevent buildup of excessive nutrients. For best results, get a soil test done every year or two. You can get your soil tested through the University of Vermont Agricultural and Environmental Testing Lab (pss.uvm.edu/ag_testing).

To learn more about composting and using chicken manure in your garden, visit go.uvm.edu/chicken-manure.

Joyce Amsden is a UVM Extension Master Gardener Intern from Sharon.

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