Do you feel like the soil in your backyard isn’t conducive to growing a garden? Is the ground hard and lacking nutrients? Well, there’s an unusual solution to help improve your soil quality – chickens!
Chickens help improve soil quality by fertilizing, aerating, and weeding the ground. As they forage for insects in the soil, they turn it over, pull out unnecessary weeds, and drop manure along the way, which improves soil quality while controlling the insect and weed populations.
In the rest of this article, I’ll explain how chickens help improve the soil. I’ll also talk about the responsible management of chicken manure and proper composting for the best results. So, if you’re interested in this information, keep reading!
The Benefits of Chickens for Soil Health
Keeping chickens in your garden may seem like a bit of a bother. Chickens have a bad reputation for being noisy and smelly, which puts people off. However, it has actually been proven that keeping poultry in your garden can help improve soil quality.
Chickens tend to produce a lot of manure, which can help fertilize the ground. They also forage insects and worms in the soil, which keeps the harmful insect populations down and aerates the soil by turning it over and loosening it. This process prevents the soil from becoming hard and compact.
Overall, there are three main ways in which chickens help improve the soil.
Let’s look at them in detail:
Natural Fertilization with Chicken Manure
Most people assume that cow manure or horse manure are the only types that actually help the soil. However, chicken manure can also be extremely beneficial to the soil.
Chickens poop pretty regularly while foraging. So if you pen them in a certain area and leave them to forage, you’ll probably come back to a lot of manure on the ground.
Then, it’s just a matter of collecting it for composting so you can use it to fertilize the soil. You can also save money this way because you won’t need to buy fertilizer.
However, you need to remember that chicken manure, if used fresh, can scorch plant roots. So it’s best to age it over a few weeks or compost it before using it, as I’ll discuss below.
Aeration and Tilling of Soil
If you’ve seen chickens in action, you’ll know that they begin foraging the moment they’re let out of the coop. Chickens will scratch at and turn over the soil while looking for insects to eat. This foraging effectively tills the ground as well as, or perhaps better than, a modern tilling machine.
Tilling the soil is incredibly important for several reasons.
If left alone, soil hardens at the top and becomes compact. This dry crust prevents air, water, and sunlight from reaching the roots. Over time, the soil will lose its nutrients and become unviable for growing plants.
Tilling allows the dry upper crust of the soil to break up, which then allows nutrients, water, and sunlight to reach deeper into the ground. This lets plant roots access more nutrients, allowing them to grow to their full potential.
Another reason why tilling is important is to prevent erosion through weather conditions. It may sound surprising, but proper tilling can actually reduce the amount of erosion from water or air.
You may have seen farms tilled in straight lines by a tractor while the seeds are laid in the tilled ground. Of course, chickens aren’t as organized, but they are effective at tilling the soil. In fact, for small home gardens, this rough, disorganized tilling may even be better.
Pest and Weed Control by Foraging
The main purpose for which chickens forage is to find insects, worms, and slugs to eat. Thus, their eating habits are incredibly effective at keeping the insect population down. As any garden owner will tell you, slugs and harmful insects like caterpillars and certain beetles can completely ruin your garden.
These insects chew through leaves, fruits, and vegetables, often causing damage even to the roots of the plant. Having chickens in your garden can keep these insects under a manageable number.
Another unintended side effect of chickens foraging is weed control. Weeds are plants that tend to grow unintended and overtake the garden, often destroying wanted plants in the process. Since weeds are often particularly resilient, it can be a real pain to keep removing them.
While foraging, chickens often end up destroying weeds. They trample over and pull them out by the roots in their search for food, so they’re very effective at keeping the weed population under control. All you need to do is set them loose in any area of your garden that has a weed problem.
How to Compost Chicken Manure
As discussed, chicken poop can’t be used fresh to fertilize the soil. Fresh chicken poop tends to burn plant roots because of its high ammonia content.
To reduce the ammonia content, you need to age the chicken manure or compost it first. This process reduces the ammonia content in the poop, making it safer for your plants.
Composting refers to the process of collecting and storing organic plant and animal material so that it can decay and be added to the soil. Compost is added to soil to improve soil quality and provide the necessary nutrients for plants to grow.
One of the main ingredients in compost is animal manure. Typically, most people use cow or horse manure, but chicken manure is also rich in the nutrients needed for composting.
Let’s look at how to properly compost chicken manure so it can be used for your garden:
1. Collect the Manure and Bedding
The first step in effective composting is to collect the manure and bedding used in your chicken coop. Most chicken owners use sawdust or wood shavings as bedding in the coop, with a layer of newspaper at the bottom. This bedding can also be used in your compost pile.
Generally, composting requires a proper balance of carbon and nitrogen to get the necessary breakdown of organic material. Your bedding (sawdust, wood shavings, newspaper) will provide the carbon, while the chicken manure provides the nitrogen.
You can either collect the soiled manure and bedding every day or line the soiled bedding with a new layer of newspaper and bedding. This then allows you to collect it less frequently.
Normally, chicken bedding can last as long as 6 months before it needs to be changed. If you have many chickens, I recommend changing it around the 5-month mark.
Chickens can produce as much as 8-11 pounds (3.6-5 kg) of manure every month. This can be collected at the end of a few months and piled up or put into a compost bin.
2. Use “Hot Composting” Methods
Hot composting is a term used to describe the process of heating the compost pit to speed up the decay of organic material. This is usually done by piling the manure and bedding into a fairly large pile and then adding moisture. Then, you turn it over every few days to build and trap heat in the center.
To build up the heat further, leave your compost bin in the sun. Your compost pile should be at least one cubic yard to heat up properly. The internal temperature of the pile should be around 130-150 °F (55-65 °C) for hot composting to work properly.
However, ensure it doesn’t get hotter than 160 °F (70 °C) because that might also kill the useful bacteria.
If necessary, repeat the process.
3. Cure the Compost
Once you’ve heated the compost pile, you need to leave it to cure for approximately 45-60 days. Cover the pile and leave it until it becomes crumbly and has a pleasant, earthy smell.
Once it’s cured, your compost is ready, and you can add it to your soil.
Chickens can be incredibly useful in taking care of your soil. They help by regularly tilling the soil and reducing the number of insects and weeds in the garden. Apart from that, you can also use their manure as a fertilizer. However, you’ll need to compost it properly before using it.