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deep litter method not working in my chicken coop -- odor too strong

 
Ann Maud
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Location: Canada
chicken food preservation
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I'm trying to start the deep litter method in my coop but tonight I cleaned it out because the odor is too strong.  I must be doing something wrong.  My coop has a floor area of about 18 sq. ft with 8 hens in there only for sleeping.  Half the coop is about 2 feet tall and the other half is 4 foot tall.  They free range all day.

I had about 3 weeks of old wood chips/poop in the coop but the smell was getting bad.  I've got two decent size air vents in the coop as well.  I've been adding new wood chips one a week and raking them into the old wood chips.  Also the coop door is open all day and temperatures are around freezing at night.

Any ideas on why the smell is so high?  I wanted this to work to help heat the coop at night.  The coop is partially insulated but I'm not planning on heating it, I didn't heat my previous coop and it the hens were fine, but now that I have a bigger coop I thought I could give the deep litter method a try.

Thanks.
 
Eric Bee
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Three things come to mind:

1. Insulating coops... this likely means you have reduced air flow. I'm not sure what "decent size air vents" translates to but it could be not enough. Chickens are WAY hardier than many people think. Like -20C is ok.
2. So along with air flow, you may have a moisture problem. Or rather, low air flow means too much moisture.
3. You may not be using enough chips. What happens if you put in 3-4 times the amount of wood chips? I use leaves myself, or a combination of small wood chips from brushing + leaves. Never had a problem at all. If it smells, I add more and usually the smell is gone within an hour. I try to keep it 6-8" deep at a minimum.

Finally, I think there is this misconception about what deep litter is. You are not composting in the deep litter per se, that's not the point. That poop and litter, if it is heating up enough to compost actively, is going to smell and cause problems. In that case it's likely too wet, which means too little air flow.

I'm pretty sure your problem is just air flow. Dry is good. Not completely dry, you want biological activity just not composting.
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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What's the smell? Ammonia? Putrification? Urea? Mildew? Fungi?
 
Ann Maud
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More info: There are two air vents about 4" square located at either end of the coop on the side walls near the ceiling.  I only have the litter about 4" deep.  The smell is ammonia like.  Doesn't smell like pee or poo.

I wonder if I do still need more air.  I can definitely add more wood chips.  And I've got lots of leaves I can add.  What do you think?
 
Tyler Ludens
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In my opinion, you need a LOT more ventilation and more chips.  Chickens should not be in a wind, in a cold climate, but should have a lot of ventilation.  If they are kept dry and out of a wind, they can stand a lot of cold, and may even be more comfortable.   Start by adding more bedding, and if things don't improve, add more ventilation.
 
C. Hunter
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Yeah, that sounds like it needs a lot more ventilation for that many birds in that small a square footage- it's the moisture in their breath that I suspect is causing your problem.
 
Nicole Alderman
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You might also just need to turn the bedding yourself every day or two, if you aren't already. I think people assume that the chickens will turn it, but if they're only in there at night, I don't think they end up doing that much turning. Without some good, deep turning, it will turn anaerobic (thus the stench). Maybe after a while of turning it yourself (pitchforks work great for this, but a normal rake will do if you have no pitchfork), the good bacteria might become numerous enough that you don't need to do it so often.
 
Eric Bee
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I was looking for the book where I first read about deep litter. It was published in the 1940s and was excellent, but had a very generic name. I gave the actual book away some time ago.

But I found this, which does mention an article from the late 40s... not the same but close:

http://www.plamondon.com/wp/deep-litter-chicken-coops/

Including this: "It’s labor-saving. If you’re spending a significant amount of time messing with the litter, you’re doing it wrong."

To me that's pretty much the key of any permaculture practice. It's up to you to decide what constitutes a "significant amount of time" but for me that was limited to putting in new material. I've never turned it. Anaerobic decay produces a very different smell and it doesn't sound like that's what is happening here. Worth considering of course, but in theory that shouldn't happen in deep litter, even without turning.
 
Ann Maud
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Thanks so much for the link.  After reading what has been learned from so much experience, I feel more confident now continuing on with trying the deep litter method.

I added a lot more wood chips and I'm leaving the nesting area lid open a crack during the day and that seems to have solved the ammonia problem.  I think I'll add even more wood chips. 

I could probably use more ventilation too, but I'm hesitant to cut another hole in the coop.  I understand that the chickens can withstand cold temperatures, but it can get really cold here some nights in the dead of winter, down to say -30F overnight.
 
Tyler Ludens
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My coop has large openings which can be closed on the coldest nights.  In warm years I might leave both windows open, in cold years I may close only the one on the windward side.  For my approximately 36 square foot coop I have approximately 12 square feet of open window.  This is for a warm climate, but might be fine for a cold climate if the openings can be covered during the coldest times.

If you'd like I can take photos tomorrow and post them to show the design.

 
I agree. Here's the link: https://richsoil.com/wood-heat.jsp
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