This winter while the snow was 2 feet deep and the green garden was only a dream that would come eventually, I read about hot composting chicken manure. While I’ve always composted our chicken manure, which turns into garden gold and keeps our plants super healthy, never had I used it in the same year.
Chicken manure can be extremely “hot” or nitrogen rich and, if used too soon, can burn tender leaves and even more established plants. To protect my garden plants, I’ve always waited a full year for the manure to “mature”. This spring, based on my research, I thought I might try a new technique to speed up the process and see what happened.
To begin with, my coop is layered all winter long with pine wood shavings. I try to keep the bedding fluffy and never really let the manure matte into a pile, but rather continuously add more bedding. This encourages scratching which helps reduce any matting and also allows me to occasionally go out, when temperatures are above freezing, and clean off the horizontal surfaces and nesting boxes without doing a deep clean in the middle of winter. Instead I schedule a major clean out twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall. Continually adding bedding also warms up the coop just a tiny bit as the decomposing of the bedding continues all winter long.
I learned that hot composting requires a 30:1 ratio of shavings to manure, i.e. carbon to nitrogen. This is, it turns out, also a healthy ratio for the hens, as breathing in the toxic ammonia from their waste is not good for them. If the ratio is off, the compost pile (or the coop) begins to smell of ammonia/urea. Adding more bedding is nearly always the answer.
Once the coop was cleared of all of the winter manure and bedding, I created a compost pile 4 feet by 4 feet with wooden pallets that I just tied together. Hot composting requires that the pile be big enough to build up heat in the center. Each day the pile needs to be turned and then covered with a tarp to keep the nutrients from leaching out due to any rain. Conversely, if the pile should be moist, so in the beginning it may be necessary to add water. By the 18th to 24th day of turning, the pile should be smelling like hummus. Once earth worms appear, it is ready to go into the garden. They are the indicator that the pile is now safe for plants. If it was still too hot, the worms would not find the pile hospitable.