When someone new to chickens decides to get their own flock, it is usually images of fresh eggs and cozily clucking hens that dance before their eyes, not poop-splattered walls patterned after Jackson Pollock. The first hint that chickens produce so much more than just eggs usually hits right from the start, when the new flock-keeper brings home the box of cute little yellow flufflets. How many among us remember committing that first and terrible neophyte mistake – stashing the new brooder in a back bedroom? And who among flock owners has not wondered how something so small could smell so awful?
Never doubt the power of raw chicken poop to drive off people and make enemies of your friends – it has even been employed as a city management tool. In 2013, the city of Abbotsford BC gained some unwelcome notoriety when it spread chicken manure throughout a homeless encampment in an effort to disperse long-term homeless residents. When both citizens and the targeted homeless called foul – the city government was forced to apologize and presumably also to clean up the mess. And as any Alaskan backyard flock owner knows, after dealing with a coop through the long, long winter, raw chicken manure can be eye-wateringly strong.
Therefore, no matter the size of your flock, managing chicken manure not only makes for healthier birds, it makes for better relationships with neighbors. The proverb, “Good fences make good neighbors” might be recast for backyard fowl owners, both large and small, as “Good manure management makes good neighbors”.
For their size, chickens are awesome manure manufacturers, and like all birds, indiscriminate about where they poop. An average layer produces two cubic feet of manure/year. Some small flock owners are so conscientious that with gloved hands they remove daily droppings from litter. But let’s be frank – chicken-coop detailing is not going to be done by the vast majority of us. Another alternative is the chicken diaper, which can be found in a wide variety of prints, plaids, and holiday-themed motifs. As with poop, never underestimate the raw power of American entrepreneurs to market to emerging trends. Not a serious manure management tool, chicken diapers are for those – you know who you are – who can’t bear to leave their pet chicken outside in some tiny coop, and instead bring Henny Penny inside to lounge alongside Fido.
Diapers and hand-detailing aside, what is a flock-owner to do with all of that manure, plus the feathers, nest material and other litter mixed in with it? Chicken manure is an excellent source of nutrients and minerals for gardens and home landscapes. Compared to other animal manures, it is higher in nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus and calcium, and with proper management and application can reduce or eliminate the need for other fertilizers. However, as with any animal waste used for garden compost – there are a few important caveats to bear in mind.
It is important to compost or age chicken manure for two reasons: to reduce the number of pathogens potentially harmful to humans, and to “cool” the manure. Chicken manure, because of its high nitrogen content, is the hottest of manures; if not aged or composted before application, fresh chicken manure will burn, even kill, young or tender plants. Like all manures, safe handling includes wearing gloves, making sure the pile is not easily accessible to children, pets and other livestock, and treating it before use. Composting, when done properly, creates high enough temperatures to kill pathogens. Aging does not kill pathogens, but inhibits reproduction through unfavorable conditions, leading to an eventual die-off of pathogens over time. To that end, it is important that if using the aging method, sufficient time is given for this to occur. It also bears noting that a healthy flock will produce relatively healthier manure – so sound flock husbandry (keeping your birds clean, uncrowded, well fed and unstressed) is also part of sound, safe manure management and usage.
While the Alaska Cooperative Extension does not have a publication specifically for chicken manure, there are many excellent, accurate and free publications available digitally; for visual learners, there are even YouTube videos. People with good attention to detail can compost chicken manure as any other organic material and if done with the proper mixture of greens and browns, turned and tended conscientiously, chicken manure can be ready and safe for application within 10 to 12 weeks after composting. Aging (just letting it sit in a pile) can take at least a year in temperate climates, and probably, to be on the safe side, two years in Interior Alaska. However, this is a perfectly acceptable approach to converting poop to soil amendment – provided you have enough space such that the pile is not the first sight or smell your neighbors encounter when picking up the morning newspaper.
Some recommended resources for the process of composting/aging/applying chicken manure:
University of Idaho Extension: Composting and using backyard poultry waste in the home garden, https://www.cals.uidaho.edu/edcomm/pdf/CIS/CIS1194.pdf
University of Nevada, Cooperative Extension: Using Chicken Manure Safely in Home Gardens and Landscapes, https://www.unce.unr.edu/publications/files/ho/2013/fs1323.pdf
Seattle Tilth: Composting Chicken Manure, http://www.seattletilth.org/learn/resources-1/city-chickens/compostingchickenmanure