Backyard chicken keeping has many benefits aside from farm-fresh eggs. If you garden, chicken manure is black gold when composted and applied appropriately, returning nutrients to the soil and helping produce better plants, fruits and vegetables for you and your family.
Aside from macronutrients nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, which are essential for plant growth, chicken manure also contains calcium, magnesium and sulfur, which are not found in synthetic fertilizers. In its raw form, however, poultry manure also has high concentrations of bacteria, including pathogenic salmonella, meaning that you should never apply raw poultry manure to your edible garden. The bacteria can come into contact with your growing produce and either stick to the surface or move inside the plant’s cells, making cleaning impossible.
In addition, if you apply raw, noncomposted manure to your plants, they may very well die due to excessive available nitrogen and salts. The best way to dispose of the manure is to first compost it and then use it correctly and safely.
Below are some of the most important tips to take into mind when applying poultry or chicken manure into your garden:
1. Never use fresh manure near vegetables, fruit or other edibles.
Manure is a prime source of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. It’s also rich in bacteria. For us home gardeners, applying fresh manure to an edible garden is not the wisest choice. The high probability that it will burn and dehydrate your plants becomes second fiddle to a bigger concern – nasty illnesses caused by pathogens like E. coli and salmonella.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published an article in 2005 that estimated the total number of E. coli illnesses in the United States annually. Can you guess the number? 5,000? 10,000? How about 73,000! And that is what is reported by medical facilities. There could be hundreds or even thousands more cases that were never treated officially. The same study broke down the causes of the outbreaks, and produce contamination was reported to be on the rise – more than 30% of all E. coli cases. Half of that was from cross contamination in restaurants. The other half was from produce already contaminated with E. coli. Lettuce, cabbage and sprouts are the most common carriers. It can happen at home too. Sadly, I read about a 2 year old boy in Maine who died from E. coli as a result of fresh manure added to the garden improperly.
2. Are pesticides, antibiotics and medications in the manure?
Pesticides and Herbicides. Fly larvae are a big problem at some farms and so they spray pesticides on manure piles to kill the larvae. Another worry is that grass sprayed with herbicides can survive inside the animal’s body and eventually its manure. Chemicals can stick around in the manure and kill beneficial microbes.
3. Manage The Smell
A well-maintained coop, just like a well-maintained backyard compost bin, should have a neutral smell. Also like a compost bin when it comes to raising chickens, recycling, rain water harvesting and conserving resources, the more energy you put in the more assets you get out. Those of us lucky enough to raise backyard poultry are one step closer to living a sustainable life.
In order to achieve a pleasant indistinct smell in your poultry coop, you will have to manage your poultry poop. Putting a little effort into manure management will prevent your coop from being a smelly problem. It can quickly pile up in enclosures or coops, attract flies and produce excessive amounts of ammonia, which is not healthy for any organism’s respiratory system. It will also give your neighbors an unkind reminder that you keep poultry. If manure is not composted and left in piles, it can pollute the soil and water in the runoff.
If you are going to use poultry manure to fertilize your garden, either: 1) Mix it with other things prior to laying it on the gardens; or 2) Do what is more common and compost it.
4. Blend The Manure
Using waste collections to help fertilize your garden can be very helpful, but it’s not as simple as just dumping the waste on your plants. Many of the new coop designs — especially those designed for urban areas — include a collection pan underneath the roosting area of the night house. One great thing about having a type of collection system underneath the night house is that almost half of a bird’s manure is deposited at night or in the early morning before they are let out of the coop.
That said, it can create a problem — the concentration of chemicals in the poultry manure is too high for gardening. Do not directly apply this to your beds. Applying fresh manure to existing plants can result in ammonia burn and can be prevented by first composting chicken manure prior to its use. This will require blending the manure with a carbon source, such as chopped straw, leaves, newspaper or wood shavings, and allowing it to break down into more stable nitrogen fractions.
Once the ammonia nitrogen has been consumed by microbes in the compost or volatilized, the compost will be much more stable and ready to apply.
5. Breed For Your Garden
A vigorous garden is a result of well-maintained soil. Most of the time gardeners need to add supplements — soil amendments — to the existing landscape to get a properly balanced, thriving medium for our plants.
By composting chicken manure, we are becoming one step closer to being sustainable and benefiting from the results.
If you were curious to know which type of poultry has the richest or best manure, the answer may surprise you. All poultry have simple stomachs (unlike sheep or cows) and due to this, their digestive systems have similar form and function. They will digest feed in the same way and will therefore defecate the same as well. A “richer” manure would indicate an increase in pass-through nutrients that were not utilized by the birds for growth and reproduction. Those would be nutrients that were paid for but wasted. This would be a bad thing!
But do not fear, poultry manure is a great organic manure source and certainly higher than four-legged livestock manure in important elements such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.
When purchasing fertilizers in the store, the packaging will usually include three numbers indicating the percentages of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. The first number, nitrogen, is used by plants to grow greener, abundant leaves. Phosphorus, the second number, aids in fruit and root development.
The last number, potassium, helps with flower color and size and the strength of the plants.
On the industrial side, when poultry manure is mixed with shavings or litter, those numbers average 65-55-45 per ton. That’s 65 pounds of nitrogen per ton of material and so forth. Looking at percentages it is roughly 3-3-2.
To compost in your backyard, the ideal composting conditions include 25:1 carbon to nitrogen ratio; 40 percent moisture; sufficient depth of material to help generate microbial heat (140° to 160°F); and weekly turning of the material for aeration.
6. Free Rangers Can Do It!
For those of us who have truly free-range chickens or other poultry, do not worry. For birds that have access to our gardens, their daily droppings will still be adding organic matter to our beds over a period of time. The good news is that it is in small enough dosages not to burn the plants.
You should pay attention, though, to where you step. There are pathogens present in fresh chicken manure. Fortunately, the pathogens die off as the manure dries, or is exposed to sunlight, oxygen, freezing temperatures or pH extremes. What’s left is black gold for our gardens.
7. Compost in a pile and go the extra mile.
Fresh manure breaks down well in a compost heap. If you want a good amount of composted manure and don’t have the land for a compost heap, you can purchase aged and composted manure. If you compost it yourself, once the compost is finished, let it cure for 2-4 months before using it in your garden – the longer the better (6 months or more).
Can I add manure to my compost tumbler? Compost experts give the “o.k.” that adding a little bit of manure to your well-balanced compost tumbler will help heat up the material and speed the composting process. But the best method for composting manure is in a outdoor pile. In other words, unless you know your composter or tumbler can turn poop over properly, don’t add more than a cup of it to a small, enclosed space.
5 TIPS TO A GOOD LITTER SYSTEM
1. The mixture needs to be turned frequently to prevent the surface from forming a caked layer that stops the composting process. You can encourage your flock to do this by scattering a grain feed around it each day so they scratch at it.
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2. You will get a build-up of droppings under perches. This needs to be raked out over the entire floor. A few seconds of raking each morning is the easiest way to manage it.
3. You need to keep the floor dry. Prevent rain from blowing into the coop, with a porch over the door, or by hanging strips of cloth or plastic. Ensure drinkers are spill-proof or placed away from the litter area.
4. Keep a deeper layer of at least 15cm around any entry point to help absorb higher moisture levels. You may need to put in a 15cm-high ‘lip’ at the bottom of a door (lay a piece of wood across it) to stop litter from falling out or being spread around too thinly.
5. Add, fresh, dry litter regularly; when you clean out nest boxes, add the nest material to the floor litter.
A well-managed deep litter floor can stay in place for up to a year with no smell. When dug out, litter can be added directly to the top of garden soil, spread over pasture or used around orchard trees.