We use a deep bedding system (also called “deep litter” for poultry) for all our different livestock around here in the winter. That means that instead of a regular schedule of removing waste from barns, sheds, and loafing areas, we continually add clean bedding material on top of the old bedding. It becomes a deep pile of material, which is cleaned out all at once in the Spring. We “clean” it up by composting it and eventually spreading it on the pastures. Here’s a more detailed look at how it works.
The first time I heard about a deep bedding system was in Joel Salatin’s book You Can Farm–he was talking about his “Salad Bar Beef” and how the deep bedding system saves on labor and resources from all the cleaning, as well as offering back critical soil nutrients.
The standard nutrient cycle on a farm is that you feed hay into the front end of the cow, and she drops a pile of nitrogen and other high-quality soil nutrients out the back end. But those nutrients normally ended up wasted over the winter because they are not in a stable form. You can spread manure directly on the field, but it’s really just disposal. You’re not feeding your soil with those nutrients because most of them just evaporate into the air after being spread (or run off the field into waterways, but that’s another post someday). So you still have to add off-farm supplements to build up your soil health.
To summarize–you take nitrogen straight from your cow and throwing it away all winter, then turn around in the Spring and buy nitrogen from the ag service co-op down the road and spread it to grow your pasture.
Doesn’t make much sense.
But if you can stabilize the waste to save up the nutrients until Spring, then you don’t need to pour loads of money into chemical fertilizers and additives to build up your soil. You can use your own inputs (which you already paid for in the form of hay and feed!) to produce your own field additives! It’s more cost-effective as well as more environmentally sustainable. So how do you do it?
You stabilize the waste nutrients by composting them, then spread the compost on your fields to build your soil. Compost locks in the key nutrients and releases them slowly into your soil. It builds up your overall soil health for long-term improvement.
So how do we do it?
Salatin has a very detailed system for his farm. He feeds in one place and keeps the cows in one place so all his waste is in one place. Then he uses pigs to aerate it and break it down and basically only touches it once with his farm equipment. I call our system a “modified” version of that because we’re a little more relaxed about it.
We use each of our mobile run-in sheds and our barn as smaller bedding piles. We also do a “feed” pile in each field. So instead of one, big, well-controlled bedding pack, we have several smaller ones.
We’ll feed a bale of hay and as the animals pull hay loose some gets dropped and trampled. We’ll feed the next bale on top of the same spot. Then the next. Over the whole winter, the loose hay that’s wasted will become a type of bedding pile. In this picture (below), you can see two bales worth starting to build up.
The area won’t get any bigger than that, but it will get higher. As we go along, the waste at the bottom of the pile will start to compost naturally. That will generate decomposition heat, which the animals love! Have you ever seen a pile of mulch steaming in the cold? Same thing. The animals have a warm spot out of the mud and muck to lay around chewing their cud.
On the feed pile, we don’t have to add extra bedding material. The hay waste provides everything needed to keep the compost ratio correct.
In the barns and chicken house, we do add extra bedding regularly. We just layer clean bedding right overtop of the old. That way the animals are on clean ground and the waste is trapped in the layers, composting away. We rotate between wood chips/shavings and straw.
What do you do when winter is over?
In the Spring, we scrap all the bedding out. Our moveable huts are easy. You just pull them along to a clean spot, and scrap up the bedding with the tractor bucket. You can see a spot that was scraped clean in front of the chicken house up there.
Then we haul the bedding pile to one of our in-field compost piles and let it continue breaking down. We usually have a couple different piles, all in a different stage of decomposition. While we’re moving things around, Mr. Fix-It takes a few minutes with the tractor to “stir” the other piles to keep them cooking.
You probably can’t see from these pictures, but using this method you’re already halfway to compost when winter ends. Straight out of the barn you’re halfway to “black gold” as the gardeners like to call compost.
Once we’re down to full-blown compost, we either spread it using the tractor bucket and hand tools (for the yard and gardens) or we use the manure spreader with the tractor to cover the fields. As you can see from this picture, it’s like finely sifted dirt when it’s “done.”
Things to Keep in Mind…
- Our waste bedding has a much different ratio than horse bedding. The way they muck stalls, they are really pulling most of the manure only and very little of the bedding, so you’re ratio is MUCH higher in greens than ours in the barn. You’re going to need to add browns to your pile to keep it cooking. If you get stable waste that includes all of the stall waste, you’ll be much higher in browns because they tend to use a lot more bedding material than usual for cows or chickens.
- We use a very low-maintenance system where the pile gets most of its’ water needs from being rained on. Mr. Fix-It just turns it every time he drives by it throughout the year. If we were more diligent, we could make the breakdown much faster.
- We use the tractor a lot–that’s one reason I call our system a “modified” system from Salatin’s ideas. This works for us because we have it and Mr. Fix-It enjoys using it. There are more efficient ways to do it if you’re squeezing out every drop of gas and tractor hours–see any of the Polyface books–but that’s not where we are at right now. (But we’re working toward it!)
- Any of this could be done on a smaller scale with a wheelbarrow and a shovel. (You can get some good backyard advice from this composting post over at BestPlants.com.)
- We treat the bare spots left after clean-up by running the chickens through them. The flock stirs up the soil, fluffs the ground for hay seeds that might have slipped through, and the whole area reseeds itself without any other help. We use the same areas every year as our “sacrifice” areas for winter use so we don’t worry too much about long-term damage. However, I read a recent article about using that spot for growing potatoes which I’m looking into!
Do you use composting in your yard or garden system? We do a big, low-maintenance system for the farm waste, and we have a smaller backyard system made out of pallets for house scraps right in the corner of our garden (which you can see here).
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