Lazy Folks Work the Hardest

Can you think of a way to express this sentiment without coming off as a self-righteous jerk? I’m not sure there is one.

Unless, that is, you are saying it to yourself, which is what I was doing at about seven o’ clock this morning, after a half an hour of turning straw bedding in my chicken coop, and the realization that I was going to be at it quite a while longer if I expected to do a thorough job.

You see, I began a system of “deep litter” bedding in the coop this fall, tossing down layers of locally-grown wheat straw with the understanding that as I added more layers, the chickens would scratch and blend it all together and magically it would turn into the most gorgeous compost ever created. What could be easier? Let the birds do all the work!

Turns out, it’s not as easy as that. Turns out, if you keep adding more layers of straw and you don’t help the turning process along, you get something quite different–a fact I discovered when, after a glorious thaw this past weekend, I walked in the coop and was knocked back by the sharp odor of ammonia.

If the smell was bad for me, it was much worse for the chickens who, although granted plenty of access to the outdoors, still expect to spend the long winter nights inside their cozy, 100-year-old abode. Not only that, but the smell of ammonia equals the loss of nitrogen–nitrogen I’d prefer to lock up with the straw’s carbon and spread in the garden come spring. There wasn’t much I could do about it last night other than crack the window, but when I woke at 5:30 this morning, I figured I could get in a couple of hours of work before…well, before work.

After coffee and letting the dogs out and feeding the dogs, the cats, and then the chickens, I started to dig. If it hadn’t been such a ridiculous monster of a project to dig down through all those layers of compacted straw, I might’ve been laughing about going overboard off the extremely deep end of the deep litter system. Just keep adding straw! The chickens will do all the work! By the time I dug down to the floor of the coop and flipped and fluffed the first 3′ x 18′ strip along the back wall, the rejuvenated litter was waist-high to where I stood in my hole. We’re talking deep litter.

I’m glad I didn’t take the advice of the folks on a certain Facebook group I asked for help. The mantra about ammonia smell in a deep litter system is that either the litter is too damp, or there’s not enough of it. In fact, if the litter is too damp, it also probably means you don’t have enough of it.

I enjoy Facebook, and I follow a few different groups there. I like the West Central MN Birders, and I shadow the posts on the mushroom ID one, too. I hope to get better at identifying edible ones, and I hope the other posters do, too because I don’t know how many more Lion’s Mane mushroom pictures I can see without making a snide comment about participants either never having looked at any of the other posts, or simply showing off to those less fortunate.

I do feel absolutely confident about morels, a fact I like to advertise in case my services are needed for identification (and eating) purposes. That happened a couple of years ago, when I got a call from a friend in the southern part of the county one balmy late spring evening. I was working in the garden when he called, and he asked if it wouldn’t be too much trouble for me to come down there (about a twenty minute drive) and inspect these fungi popping up in a food plot he’d mowed the previous fall. I was about halfway there by the time we ended our five minute call.

And yes, they were.

Anyhow, I’ve been a member of this regenerative agriculture group on Facebook for a couple of weeks. There are members from all over the world, and it seemed like the kind of place where a gal could get some systems-thinking, down-to-earth advice and trouble-shooting. And indeed, I got advice.

I got advice from across the planet about magical products I might buy or prepare (from plants that are dormant under snow at the moment), the mantra about ammonia smell meaning my litter wasn’t deep enough, and also instructions to change my whole system to a different carbonaceous material that I don’t have ready access to without spending a bunch of money. I don’t mean to be ungrateful, and certainly the comments were offered in a helpful spirit, but I do understand the basic tenets of the deep litter system, and it shouldn’t require rare and expensive inputs to work correctly.

The best advice I got through the group turned out to be from a friend and former colleague who lives about an hour down the river valley from here. Julia told me my litter was compacted and anaerobic, and what I needed to do was turn and mix it to incorporate oxygen and trigger aerobic composition.

In other words, Get your fork out honey, ’cause you’ve got a big job ahead of you.

She was right. After about two hours of digging and turning (and sweating and grunting) this morning and another hour this evening, I’ve got that litter thoroughly mixed, and it smells just lovely and earthy in there. There was a nice pancake of beautiful moist humus at the floor level beneath the roost, and the rest was just dry, compacted straw. It wasn’t too wet, and there’s sure as heck enough litter.

In fact, there’s so much poofy litter that it’s seriously awkward to walk on, and it’ll be impossible (OK–an insane amount of maintenance) to keep aerated. I know now that I can’t just lazily throw more and more straw on top and let the birds do all the work (though they sure loved getting access to all those buried “treasures” today, and I found my pie plate that went missing a couple of months ago). By spring, my current system would’ve required a stepladder to climb into the coop, the hens would’ve been laying in the rafters, and I’d need about fifty more straw bales than I have stockpiled.

I decided this evening that the “easiest” thing to do would be to go out again early tomorrow morning and fork out at least a third and maybe half of the litter that’s in the coop now–moving it to the run outside where there’s only a patchy veneer of ground cover left under the snow. Aerating what’s left will be a lot easier if there isn’t three feet of it to dig through.

Even removing half of what’s there, it might be a couple of weeks before I need to break open any more bales and leisurely strew fresh straw over the top–allowing my chickens to “do all the work” of mixing it in.

In the meantime, I’ll be working a little harder on my “lazy folks” method of winter bedding in the coop!


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