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Using leaves as deep litter in the chicken pen.

We get seasons up here in the Hinterland! This means that we get lots of leaves on  the ground as well. This is a resource I haven't had before as living in Brisbane, there are very few deciduous trees around to collect leaves from. It turns out that some people up here sweep the leaves into big piles and burn them or collect them up into bags and take them to the dump!?

I have a friend who has an avenue of deciduous trees and he wants all the leaves off the grass. He was keen to blower vac them into a gully, I was keen to collect them all in the trailer and bring them home. It took about ten trailer loads to get the bulk of them home (and he thinks I'm mad into the bargain) but how could I pass up all those lovely leaves?

Here's what I did with them...

The first few trailer loads went into the chook pen on the floor. I piled all the leaves onto a tarp and then dragged them into the pen and upended the tarp. It made a messy big pile that covered the stump and branches and the bread crates that were to give the chook some dry space for preening, When we got up here it rained solidly for the first few weeks and they were always in the mud. The branches gave them a place to perch, preen and get out of the wet.

It didn't take them long to decide this was an amazing thing to happen to them and even though I really don't think then leaves were full of bugs and worms, the chookies thought that they might be in there and flattened the pile across the pen in less than an afternoon.

My reason for putting the leaves in the pen was threefold.

First I hoped the leaves would soak up a bit of the water lying around in the pen while it was raining.
Secondly, it give the chooks something to do. A bored chook is fairly destructive and sooner or later they will pick on the youngest, newest or weakest for entertainment. Mine are free ranged in the backyard each afternoon so its not so much of an issue for them but like anyone, they like new things, something to do and scratching through piles of leaves is, as Joel Salatin would say, letting the chicken express it chicken-ness - or was that Michael Pollan? At any rate, I like the idea of my chickens expressing their chicken-ness and bringing me to my third reason, they have turned over every leaf a hundred times with those claws, they are making great compost and mulch for my gardens!

I think deep litter for the chook pen is a good thing on a number of levels. It uses up a free resource that would be wasted otherwise. It brings more organic matter onto my property boosting the potential fertility of my place. It amuses my chooks for hours on end (and happy chooks lay much better eggs!) it soaked up all the excess water in the pen and eventually, it was raked out and put on garden beds and they were given another trailer load to play with and start the cycle over again with.


Another thing I tried this winter was deep litter in the hen house. As it didn't get that cold in Brisbane and the girls were all born and bred in the subtropics, I put a single cardboard layer inside the coops each winter as insulation and had the usual newspaper covered in sawdust or straw to soak up the droppings. Winter up here in the mountain is much, uch colder and Even though I put a few of the packing boxes to good use as insulation, I was still worried about how cold it was for them.

So I put a pile of newspaper on the bottom of the coop, followed by the usual straw and instead of cleaning it out when the poop levels get to high, I covered it with a thick layer of leaves. After a few months there is a substantial amount of compost fermenting away in the bottom of the coop producing a bit of heat (I hope) and insulation (Im sure!)

Normally I would be keen on keeping the poop from building up inside the coop but each time I put in the layer of leaves,the smell goes away. I know its not good for any animal to be sleeping in its own poop but once a thick layer of leaves goes in, there is no visible poop for them to stand in and the ammonia smell disappears too. I have read about American Chicken keepers who do this sort of thing in the Winter when their chooks cant go outside in the snow/storms/blizzards and they just put a new layer of straw/hay/whatever on top every few weeks and clean it out in the Spring once the chooks can go outside again.

This is the principle I am trialling for this coop this winter. The coop is a temporary one (like everything at the moment) and in time we will put in a proper coop and run for the girls when we decide on a more permanent  set up for the whole yard. If this works and I end up with some great compost and there is no detrimental effects on the chooks, then I'm guessing I'll be keen to set up the "proper" coop to do this for next Winter.

Using the leaves on the inside of the coop and outside in the pen has been great so far and I'm quite pleased with the results so far. Have you used this system before? What did you think? What were your reasons? Id love to hear what you think!

Score card:
Green-ness: 5/5 for using a natural resource that would go to waste otherwise!
Frugal-ness: Only the petrol cost. If the leaves were closer I would have wheel barrowed them home but 4km was a bit far...
Time cost: About an hour to get two or three loads a day depending on how we were feeling. Most of the time was in raking them all up.
Skill level: Raking, raking, raking...
Fun-ness: Flinging leaves at each other was great fun even if it wasn't getting the job done!


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