While allowing livestock of all types to enjoy the freedom and nutrition of pasture is ideal, there are times when animals may need to be temporarily confined. For instance, you might be raising chicks in a brooder, or you might need to isolate an injured animal in a stall.
So how do you keep livestock healthy under these conditions? One common solution proposed is the deep-litter bedding method. Basically, this method keeps animals off the ground by using at least eight inches of carbon-rich bedding, such as straw or wood shavings. More bedding is added regularly to keep things fresh and clean. The bedding is only dug out on occasion, ranging from every couple of weeks for horse stalls to perhaps only once a year for a winter-use-only chicken coop.
Is deep-litter bedding right for your animals? Let’s take a look.
- Reduced odor. Odor occurs in animal housing when nitrogen-rich manure gives off ammonia gas. Having large quantities of carbon present in the bedding locks up the nitrogen. This creates a composting process that is low in odor. Of course, this benefit is dependent on providing enough fresh, dry bedding regularly.
- Cheap entertainment for chickens and pigs. If for any reason you need to house your chickens or pigs for a time, put down a good, thick layer of bedding, and then toss some dry corn around. Searching for the grain will satisfy the natural foraging instincts of these animals. Plus, their rummaging around will keep the bedding supplied with oxygen.
- Added warmth. Deep-litter bedding encourages composting, which in turn produces warmth. Animals housed away from drafts on deep-litter bedding will stay cozy in winter. (Note that deep-litter bedding may become excessively warm in summer.)
- Beneficial bacteria. Aerobic decomposition promotes the flourishing of beneficial bacteria. These in turn produce vitamins B12 and K, as well as antibiotic substances that control the growth of the bad bacteria. Chickens that have the opportunity to scratch around in the slowly decomposing, oxygen-rich environment of a layer of good-quality bedding can benefit tremendously from the experience.
- Reduced nutrient loading. Too much nitrogen in one place is harmful to the pasture. Containing it with bedding can keep your land in good health. This practice also reduces nutrient loading in surrounding waterways by cutting down on manure-contaminated runoff.
- Quality compost. Used bedding makes an excellent, well-balanced compost due to the fact that it already contains both carbon and nitrogen. In fact, due to the nature of deep-litter bedding, it probably has already started the composting process by the time you are ready to dig it out! One more bonus? If you keep the chickens in a coop over the winter, when you move them out to pasture in the spring, you can put that empty coop to work as a composter.
- Expense. If you do not have ready access to carbon bedding in abundance, deep-litter bedding can be remarkably expensive. You will want to find a way to source leaves, straw, wood chips, and the like cheaply.
- Poor suitability for some structures. Some animal housing is not built to handle layers of bedding eight inches or deeper without creating logistical issues. Inspect your animal housing before trying to implement a deep-litter bedding system. You may need to build your own housing.
- Dead grass. Deep bedding is very much like mulch. If you pile it on the ground in a movable field structure and leave it there for more than a day or two, you will end up with dead grass and subsequently mud and weeds. Deep-litter bedding is more ideally suited for permanent structures.
- Need for good-quality bedding. No matter how expertly you handle and maintain your deep-litter bedding system, if you start with poor-quality materials, you will end up with poor-quality results. Dusty or moldy bedding is not acceptable here.
- Potential for anaerobic decomposition. Deep-litter bedding works best in well-ventilated buildings that are good at keeping water out. If the litter gets waterlogged, or if it does not receive enough air circulation, it will begin to decompose anaerobically. Not only does this cause a smelly mess, the ammonia released into the air can cause serious eye and respiratory problems in livestock.
- Labor requirements. Maintaining deep-litter bedding requires regular inputs of fresh bedding to keep your animals’ living quarters clean, dry, and odor-free. Also, caked bedding needs to be broken up with a fork to reintroduce air. And, finally, digging out the whole building at the end of the year can be backbreaking work!
Letting animals enjoy fresh pasture is always preferable, but for those times when housing is a must, deep-litter bedding has much to offer. Basically, by using the science behind composting, deep-litter bedding promotes a healthy environment and prevents manure from damaging the surrounding area.
However, deep-litter bedding does require regular monitoring. Odor is not acceptable—if you smell ammonia, your system has devolved into anaerobic decomposition. Your animals will suffer for it, so be sure to keep this from happening at any point in time. Be proactive in adding fresh, dry bedding of good quality, and fluff it any time it shows an inclination to pack down or cake up.
Once your animals are finished with the bedding, enjoy its benefits in your compost pile, garden, or field!