On “Deep Litter” and mucking out

Last fall I read about a method of animal bedding called “Deep Litter”. The basic principle is simple: you don’t muck out the barn for months. Instead, as needed, you add new layers of bedding to the existing used bedding creating a nice deep pad of insulation under the animals, in my case specifically goats and chickens.

I loved the idea of this method. After having mucked out the chicken barn in winter the year before, I liked the idea of not mucking out for the entire winter. Besides, this was supposed to add warmth to my barn and maybe the water-er wouldn’t freeze this year and with the goats and chickens sharing the same air space (separated by pallets and chicken wire) perhaps I wouldn’t need heat lamps.

Deep litter lived up to it’s claims. Admittedly it wasn’t as cold this year with the super-charged El Nino, but we still had a few nights of -23 to -28 C and for most of December to February the temperature was below freezing. I noticed in November that the water did freeze up overnight but by the time February came, with the depth of litter I had on the floor of the barn (about a foot) the waters were fine. The barn was always reasonably warm for milking, and I had no problems milking with bare hands.

The floor of my barn is wood so I try to keep a reasonable layer of bedding down anyway, as I don’t want the floor to rot away before I can afford a new barn. For the chicken portion of the barn I use wood shavings, I added 2 bales of shavings every month and a half, so it is good and caked full in there. The last time Ivan shoveled shavings away from the door so it would close (improvements need to made to the design) he said the bottom layers looked like dirt, so I would guess that it actually is composting in there. In the goat stalls I use straw for bedding. Between the goat stalls and the chicken nests I went through 6 small square bales for the winter.

But there is one thing the books about deep litter failed to talk about in detail: The spring muck-out!! So far I have only mucked out one goat stall. Spring is really only beginning here so the bedding is only just starting to stink (it really didn’t stink at all during the winter months). So I mucked out the milk-goat’s stall last week and will do the other goat stall next week and the chicken pen the week after. Why the week spacing between them? My back needs the rest.

Here are my notes and thoughts if you are considering doing deep litter:

  1. Have the right tools ready. Mucking out manure soaked straw with a spade really doesn’t work. Get that really nice manure fork from Peavey Mart or UFA. It will be worth the few dollars.
  2. Wear a mask. As you work down the layers of bedding it really stinks. Partially rotted manure and urine is seriously disgusting. I use safety glasses and a full filtered breathing mask.  For the rest of the day, the smell of manure hung over the acreage. Thankfully it dissipates as the pile sits.
  3. Make sure the design of your barn allows for easy mucking out. I did not do this. I was trying to maximize the space in my barn, getting 2 goat stalls and one chicken pen out of a 12×16 barn. My aisle runs parallel to the wall with the door in it, and is only 2.5′ wide. Trying to maneuver a full wheelbarrow out of that is not an easy task. I do intend to do a design overhaul to the barn before next winter to make the mucking out easier.

I will do deep litter again, but I will be better prepared with easier access, better pile location and I do have a nice manure fork now.