Of all the ingredients I could add to my garden to make it grow and thrive, without a doubt the single most important input is compost. It’s the key to the health of my vegetable garden, landscape plants, thriving lawn, and anything growing under my watch. And the benefits of keeping backyard chickens to your compost could be your most valuable addition from the steady supply of chicken manure they produce.
Compost includes essential nutrients, minerals and organic matter – all the materials necessary for plants to grow and thrive. In addition, compost improves the physical, chemical and biological properties of any soil. It improves the water-holding capacity of sandy soil and improves the drainage and aeration of dense soil.
While the science behind composting can get quite heady, home composters just don’t need to get bogged down in those details. For example, information abounds about the optimal carbon-to-nitrogen ratio (a.k.a., the brown-to-green ratio) to accelerate the composting process. That stops many would-be composters dead in their tracks. I believe it’s one of the biggest impediments to getting started with home composting.
That said, having a good balance of browns to greens is indeed important for producing good compost. It’s a lot like the need for a balanced diet of nutrients in our body. Too much of one type, while not enough of the other, can have an impact on how our bodies function and how healthy we are overall. Fortunately, it’s not necessary to know anything about science to figure out how to get a reasonable balance of the carbon (browns) and nitrogen (greens) into the mix.
I’m all about keeping it simple. As an admitted compost fanatic and backyard chicken keeper, I have a not-so-secret weapon for getting great results from my compost and into my garden. The chicken manure and accompanying bedding material I collect from the coop is one of my primary go-to ingredients for making great compost. Even better, the combination of manure and bedding is a great ratio blend of greens to browns – without having to get bogged down in any percentages.
Plus, chicken manure is an abundant source of nutrients to make your compost even richer. Along with high levels of nitrogen, it also includes a good amount of phosphorus and potassium – the three primary nutrients all plants need to thrive. Moreover, chicken manure contains more calcium than any other livestock manure, as well as magnesium and sulfur – essential minerals plants need for optimal health.
And speaking of the abundant nutrients of chicken manure, I also like knowing that companies which produce a lot of this byproduct utilize it on-site whenever possible, rather than simply disposing of it and opting for alternative synthetic sources. Organic farmers, like Pete and Gerry’s network of small family farmers, use materials such as manure and compost in place of synthetic fertilizers – which, in turn, increase the soil’s ability to retain moisture, rather than leach sediment and nutrients into rivers, lakes, and streams.
As good as chicken manure ultimately is for plants, it’s important to let it mellow over several months before using it in the garden. The manure’s high nitrogen content can be too much for plants to utilize when it’s fresh, so using it too soon can actually burn plants. The typically high salt and ammonia content common in fresh manure can have adverse consequences if applied directly around plants, but their potency dissipates over time to safe levels.
Another reason it is important to allow time before using manure of any kind directly in your garden soil is that, just as with any livestock manure, certain pathogens can be present in fresh manure. Fortunately, the high temperatures (between 130-150 degrees F) typically generated and sustained over several days in a properly balanced composting environment kills these pathogens
In a typical backyard composting system, raw material – including poultry manure – takes about six months on average to break down to a finished state. At that point, the ingredients are unrecognizable and can be safely used in your garden with all the benefits that compost enhanced with chicken manure has to offer.