To compost, or not to compost? Part Two
Graham R. Cooper
A forensic psychologist would get enough of a personality profile from reading my blog to be able to make an educated guess as to whether I’ll change my hen house manure management practices. Hens and humans alike – shit happens. And in our house it goes the way of a septic tank, not a composting toilet.
So am I going to stick with the same old, same old, powder dry hen house litter, or go for the composting option? I’m still undecided. In the meantime, let’s hear what the expert* on all things poultry has to say.
The secret to what Ussery (see previous post), calls “the joys of deep litter” is in the soil. Cliches aside, isn’t that the secret to so many things? That’s why his hen houses have the good earth as their floor. Given litter of the right composition combined with copious chicken shit, the soil’s beneficial microbes will work their magic: “Decompositional microbes migrate out of an earth floor into the deep litter; the slight wicking of moisture out of the earth helps them proliferate and thrive.” After a year, he says, you’ll have a rich compost ready to go straight on the garden.
Ussery uses oak leaves because a neighbour with oak trees supplies him with leaves in the autumn. Sometimes he’ll mix them with wood shavings or straw. But by far the greatest quantity of carboniferous material is provided by the oak leaves. I guess you could use leaves from other deciduous trees, so long as they were slow to break down. He aims to have litter to a depth of 12 inches.
Other materials he mentions as satisfactory are: wood chips, sawdust, and the stalks or hulls from the harvesting and processing of various agricultural crops. He advises that you use kiln-dried or well-seasoned material, because “green” sawdust, wood shavings, or wood chips, “may support the growth of molds, whose spores could be bad for the birds’ respiratory systems – and yours”.
The alchemy wrought by soil microbes on nitrogen-rich chicken shit and such a depth of carbon-rich litter has visitors to Ussery’s poultry house exclaiming, “Why doesn’t it stink in here?” It doesn’t pong and it doesn’t smell of ammonia either. All you need to do if you start losing to the atmosphere (as ammonia gas), the nitrogen you need for soil fertility, is to add more carbon-rich litter. Your hens will thank you for it – the ammonia attacks respiratory tissues.
Which brings me to the question of the health and general well-being of the flock. This is when it gets particularly fascinating. Ussery is so taken by the scientific evidence that he adds emphasis to emphasis by the use of italics! “What started as repugnant and a potential vector for disease has been transformed into a substrate for health.”
Experiments investigating bioactive deep litter where carried out at the Ohio Experiment Station in 1949. In the first, pullets, not yet full grown, were separated into two equal groups. Both were housed on aged deep litter, but one flock got “a complete ration” and the other “a severely deficient diet”. In Ussery’s words: “Mortality and weight gain in the two groups were virtually identical.” The conclusion the researchers came to after several experiments was that “old built-up litter adequately supplemented the incomplete ration”.
I leave the last word to The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, who reached similar conclusions:
Microorganisms thrive on the manure in the litter and break it down. This microflora produces growth factors, notably vitamin B12, and antibiotic substances which help control the level of pathogenic bacteria. Consequently, the growth rate and health are often superior in poultry raised on deep litter.From ‘Animal Feed Resources Information System: Manure’.
I’m barrowing out the year old hen house litter this afternoon and putting it in a pile ready to spread around the young brassica plants. The hen house has got a wooden floor, so if I do decide to try and ‘compost’ the litter this time round, I’ll have to compensate somehow for the lack of ‘good earth’ beneath.
That’s all from Little Owl Gully till next Monday’s post: ‘To compost, or not to compost: part three’. Thanks for your company. Bye for now.
*The Small-Scale Poultry Flock by Harvey Ussery