Watch a chicken for a few minutes, and you’ll soon deduce what seems to be its purpose in life: to scratch. Chickens are smart, adorable, cuddly (in my opinion) creatures, but they have obsessively one-track minds. And their obsession with scratching and picking at the earth is a blessing to any gardener or backyard composter.
Composting with chickens can sustainably eliminate all of your kitchen waste and some of your yard waste, create rich soil additive for your garden, and provide you with fresh eggs without buying grain to feed the chickens.
Soil with added chicken manure is incredibly beneficial for your garden. In fact, stores sell soil and soil amendments with chicken “essence” for a lot of money!
The nitrogen and nutrients in chicken manure make it great for your plants. But if it’s not composted fully, it can be too high in nitrogen, and harm your plants.
Don’t worry though, you can skip the expensive garden store stuff, and make chicken manure compost it in your backyard. Using chickens to compost is also the most sustainable way to raise poultry.
The Facts (and an example)
Composting guru Karl Hammer, founder of legendary Vermont Compost company, famously developed a system to successfully feed his 100-chicken flock with only compost materials—no grain. While you probably don’t have room in your yard (or desire in your heart) to host 100 chickens for a backyard dinner party, it just goes to show that reducing waste and getting fresh eggs for free can be simple, cheap, and scalable.
Adding chickens takes a bit of forethought and investment. Read on to gain the knowledge you need to create a backyard composting habitat for happy chickens and healthy compost.
But first, a warning: we’re going to be saying “poo” and “excrement” a lot in this article. If that makes you uncomfortable, you may not be ready to compost with chickens.
How does it work?
As chickens toss and nibble at your decomposing scraps, they also deposit their own protein- and nitrogen-rich excrement. Worms wriggle up from the soil, further aerating the mix and dropping their own valuable castings (a.k.a. worm poop). And the yummy worms encourage hungry birds to keep picking.
Sound gross? It isn’t! Or, it won’t be, if you set it up correctly.
Just like any successful compost system, your chicken composting set-up won’t smell, even though you’ve got decomposing vegetables and chicken poo all in one spot.
Why does composting with chickens work?
Like most other composting systems, chicken composting creates what’s called an “active decay cycle.” Organic waste (in this case, chicken poop) is actively broken down by microorganisms, instead of just sitting out in the open, attracting flies and not breaking down. These microorganisms will thrive when you create a balance compost base of nitrogen- and carbon-rich materials for your chickens.
Composting with the help of these amazing birds is even more beneficial to the planet than just keeping free-range chickens. Roaming chickens eat up all the natural plants and bugs on their range, then depositing their waste to sit untouched, all of which deteriorates the land and native species, and is just plain gross. Unless they’re on a big farm, this isn’t ideal.
When you set your happy feathered friends up in a composting situation, you’re creating a closed range and choosing the food they eat and making sure their manure is worked productively back into the planet’s ecosystem. No waste! Not only are your chickens happier, but the earth is also a lot happier, too.
Starting out composting with chickens
So, you think you’re ready to start composting with chickens? Well, hold your chickens because there’s more for you to learn before diving in.
To help you get composting on the right foot, we’ll discuss:
- Laws and Zoning
- Should you try starting with the chicken or the egg?
- How to make your chicken(s) at home
- Essential gear for chicken care
- How do I get eggs from my chicken?
- Making the compost base
- Chicken compost upkeep
Laws and zoning
This may be the least fun but most important part of starting your backyard chicken community, but the first thing you need to think about.
Most municipalities have some sort of law around keeping livestock or poultry on your property. (Some places even disagree about if chickens are “livestock” or “poultry.”) This might include how many birds you can keep, the size of your coop or distance from other property lines, that sort of thing. You might need to secure a permit and/or pay a fee.
Just search your town or county’s government website for animal-keeping rules, or call your local government’s office to inquire. If you live in a private development or HOA, you’ll have even more regulations to follow (but you’re used to that).
For obvious reasons, there are sometimes additional laws on keeping roosters. If you plan to get some fellas as well, be sure to do your research. And make sure your neighbors are happy to wake up early (though there’s really no need to get roosters unless you need a fail-proof alarm clock.)
The Chicken or The Egg?
So, you’re ready to get started! Just one more thing. Where to get those chickens?
Starting with eggs or chicks is a whole different animal…well, not literally, but you get it. We won’t cover hatching eggs and brooding chicks here because it can be quite an in-depth—if adorable—endeavor.
CraigsList is where most people find their grown-up chickens. People who are moving often have to get rid of their backyard friends, sadly, and sometimes people acquire many chickens without realizing that the birds do actually need to be cared for, just like any other member of your household.
Some farm and feed stores carry baby chickens in the springtime. Bigger companies hatch and sell mail-order chickens, like Belt Hatchery in California, Bergs Hatchery in Canada. Check out the Backyard Chickens Breeders Directory for a multitude of options all around the world.
If you’re wondering how many hens should you get, it’s normal to keep two hens per square meter. You should make your chicken coop related decisions according to this rule.
Make Your Chickens at Home
How does one make their chickens feel at home? Well, by building or buying them shelter and providing them with all of their needs that’s how!
We’ll go into what exactly your birds will need in a home and provide you with three options for purchase as well.
There seem to be endless options for chicken houses to buy online, from luxurious chicken villas to simple, wireframe cages. But it’s easy enough to build a home for your hens out of good wood and chicken wire (or the apparently more high-class term, “poultry netting”).
Make sure your wire is galvanized! Otherwise, it can deteriorate over time which leads to problems like:
- Grow gaping holes
- Developing a jagged-edge
Remember when we learned about the “active decay cycle”? The chickens need to poop right into the compost-based floor so it gets worked into the compost. What do you think happens when they poo on a wall, shelf, or other flat surfaces? Nothing good, that’s for sure.
Therefore, you likely don’t want just an average chicken coop for this job. If you do buy your chickens a house, try to minimize solid shelves or walls, and keep in mind that you might end up needing to brush their poop onto the compost floor every day. Yuck.
Here are our top three recommendations available on Amazon.
Recommended Flock Size: 11 chickens (18 ft sq)
Product Weight: > 50 pounds
Product Dimensions: 65.52 in x 29.25 in x 40.17 in
- Wooden Chicken Cage
- Comes with Egg Box
- For both Indoor and Outdoor Use
- Waterproof Roof
Recommended Flock Size: 7 chickens (12.1 sq ft)
Product Weight: > 42 pounds
Product Dimensions: 62.4 in x 20.1 in x 28.2 in
- Hutch Wire Fence
- Ventilation Door
- Removable Tray
- Non-toxic and waterproof paint
- Protection from water penetration (a result of sloping green asphalt)
- The easy-open top is great for cleaning and routine coop maintenance
Recommended Flock Size: 16 chickens (26.39 sp ft)
Product Weight: 141 pounds
Product Dimensions: 76 in x 50 in x 50 in
- Asphalt Roof
- Traditional Red Barn Color
- Nesting box, ramp, and roosting bars included
- Pull out tray is seriously easy to clean
- Combination of galvanized wire and wood construction
Chicken Home Essentials
Be sure to provide your birds with water, also above ground—you don’t want compost or waste falling into the water.
Take precautions against predators like raccoons, coyotes, and even domesticated dogs. Besides a fence, automatic lights can be a huge deterrent to drive away nocturnal pests. Build a wall or a fence that extends down into the earth. Predators can dig and crawl up to six or eight inches to get at your chickens and their eggs.
You might need to protect your hens against extreme weather if you are in a very cold climate. You can keep your chickens warm by throwing a tarp (perhaps even with a wool blanket underneath) over their habitat in the rainy or snowy season.
Chickens like to sleep up high. Who doesn’t like bunk beds? It keeps them warm and feeling safe. Provide your hens with a “bottomless” roost (fancy farmer for word sleeping perch) by building or buying them a shelf with a wire base, rather than a full wooden shelf, so they don’t poop on their own perch.
Chickens like to stay above the ground sometimes during the day, too. Consider installing a cute perch-pole for them that still allows their poop to drop to the compost-pile floor.
What About Those Eggs?
There are no stupid questions, but let’s get this one out of the way: no, a hen does not need a rooster to lay an egg. Without giving you a biology lesson, let’s just say: the eggs you fry up in your morning omelet are unfertilized (well, if there’s no a rooster around). So your chickens will also want a safe, warm place to lay eggs, above ground-level. Stuff it with hay and they’ll be happy!
An average hen can lay up to five eggs a week, so get ready for a lot more protein in your breakfast.
Making The Compost Base
Start with several inches of high-carbon material, such as dry hay, straw, leaves, etc. Then simply throw your food scraps on top, and let the chickens do their work. Eventually, worms and other bugs will burrow in, moving microbes throughout the compost and helping to keep the compost fluffy.
Starting out, you can even transfer your existing compost pile into the chicken yard. They’ll eat the worms (sorry, worms!) and aerate your compost for you. Frankly, they’ll do a much better job at turning your compost than you were doing. Remember: it’s their sole purpose.
Just like your compost bin or pile, keep a good mix of carbon material or brown compost—like straw, hay, dry leaves—and green, nitrogen material—vegetables and other “wet” scraps.”
If the pile starts to get really compacted or the chickens show little interest in digging in it, throw some scratch grains on it. Even if they didn’t initially show interest in their new compostable food, they soon will. You can even buy some earthworms at the garden store to give them an extra-yummy treat (sorry again, worms!).
Why should you choose to compost with chickens? You mean apart from the fact that their very nature is conducive to helping you produce the best compost both for nature and your garden.
Well, if you aren’t convinced, we’ll discuss a few more reasons why to compost with chickens below.
One of the best perks of composting with chickens: these scratch-machines are turning and mixing your compost for you!
As your chickens root around and pick at their yard, they’ll naturally spread the in-process compost across their habitat. No big, tall pile of compost to turn. Chickens will keep scratching through the materials until they’ve made a thick, dark, rich compost.
Make sure it’s not too wet or too dry. If it’s too wet, add more dry brown material on top, like dry leaves or paper shreddings. If you find that things are getting stagnant, you can turn the compost for the chickens. Then they can pick at deeper layers and find new treats to eat!
Feeding Your Chickens
A chicken will eat just about anything, though not as much as goats. Even if your chickens don’t want to eat it, the microbial composters will “digest” it! That’s the beauty of a chicken compost system. Everything returns to the earth.
Finely shredded materials will decompose faster, so chop up pieces of kitchen waste, and tear up brown compost materials. Bring in a carbon (brown) source a few times a week, like hay, leaves, shredded paper, layering that loosely on top of the richer compost.
Be caring with what you feed your chickens so they stay healthy and your compost is well-mixed. They love to pick through veggie scraps, grass clippings, even garden weeds, coffee grounds, and even eggshells—that last one is a little awkward, but they don’t seem to mind.
You can feed your chickens animal scraps (meat, eggs), but I find this a little disturbing for obvious reasons, so I avoid that practice. It’s up to you.
Harvesting & Using Your Compost
Collecting compost is easy! Rake the top layer aside to access compost that’s about six-inches deep. That top section will still be in-process (and unready chicken manure), but underneath lies a goldmine of soil-enriching goodness.
Keep in mind that it’s incredibly important that the chicken manure is fully “aged” before you use it on your garden or even touch it with bare hands. It can take six months for chicken waste to compost fully, so you won’t get your first batch for a little while.
You’ll know the compost is ready because it will be that rich, fluffy, beautiful deep-brown material you’re used to getting from your compost pile. If it’s stinky, there are large chunks of material in it, or it smells of ammonia, it’s not ready. If the compost smells like healthy earth and is dark brown-black, t’s ready to spread on your garden!
Remember, you’ll also be harvesting your own breakfast…fresh eggs. Enjoy!