One of the first things we learned out here after winter set in, was that the animal manure froze solid to the ground.  Now, you have to understand that as much as I love my animals, I hate two things–unpleasant animal odor and manure laying around.  I just feel there is no excuse in either.  Both are a sign of poor farm management.  It is unpleasant to smell, look at, walk on, and generally be around, not to mention the increased health risks to the animal (and milk in our case) due to poor hygiene in their environment.  Clean pens are one of the first things I look for when considering purchasing an animal (or animal product) from a farm, so clean pens are a big deal to me.  Now, as busy as I am, I obviously can’t clean pens on a daily basis.  However, there are still ways to deal with the issue.  By turning the animals out into the larger pasture, I quickly discovered that I could get away with cleaning pens just 1-2 times each week.  So, as you can imagine, the first time I went out to clean pens after our winter weather arrived, I was totally disheartened to discover that it was absolutely impossible to dislodge the frozen manure from the ice, and the frozen urine puddles quickly became an eyesore.  The snowy weather meant the goats never wanted to leave their shed.  I knew it was time to implement deep bedding to get by.

For those of you not familiar with deep bedding, it is an excellent tool to use for animal bedding–especially in winter weather.  When utilized properly, it prevents ammonia (urine) odors, provides heat through composting (breakdown of manure), provides regular, fresh, clean bedding for the animals, prevents the ground from growing toxic from animal waste, and provides exceptional, ready-for-the-garden compost when spring finally rolls around.  Although it can be used year round, most folks only use it in the winter since it does provide a lot of heat (something that isn’t generally needed in summer!) and because winter is more often the time that animals wind up penned together in smaller spaces.

To get started, you simply put 2-4 inches of a carbonaceous bedding material (wood shavings, straw, hay, etc.) down in a stall as normal.  Then, depending on the number of animals you are dealing with and the amount of space they are in, as the bedding begins to appear soiled, you add another 2-4 inches of carbonaceous material on top.  The nitrogen and moisture from the urine that is absorbed by the lower layer of bedding begins the process of decomposition, while the fresh layer provides clean bedding for the animals.  The decomposition prevents odor.  This process is repeated over and over for the duration of winter.

The only real problem with deep bedding is that it can get very deep very quickly.  I know of a couple of farmers who built their sheds extra tall, and then built their feeders to be adjustable in order to compensate for up to 4 feet of added height as the bedding increased over the winter.  Unfortunately, I do not have this option.  My sheds are short to begin with, and my feeders aren’t adjustable.  So, a couple weeks ago, after I had smacked my head on the rafters one too many times, I had to clean out most of my deep bedding and start the process over.   As usual, my photos don’t show great detail, so you will have to just believe what I am telling you.

This first photo shows my goat shed.  The roughly 8×8 shed has housed 3-5 does at any given time throughout this winter.  We have put roughly 7 bales of straw into this shed for bedding over the winter (not counting the bales stacked in the entry way to form a wall of sorts–you can see it to the left side, in the sun).  In addition, I have used about 3 large bales of pine shavings.  As you can see below, despite all the material, the bedding layer is only about 8 inches deep.  This is because the decomposition process is so incredibly fast.

In order to clean out the bedding, I just had to rake.  Temperatures had been in the single digits and teens at night for weeks, with day highs generally only getting into the 20’s and 30’s on rare occasion.  Everything outside was totally frozen solid, but inside the wide-open shed, nothing was frozen.  In fact, it was warm enough from the active composting going on that I quickly had to remove my coat.  In the next photo, you can see how just a few inches below the surface, it begins to look like dark, rich soil.  It is.  You are looking at pure, nitrogen and nutrient rich compost.

Notice in the above photo that most of the bedding you see is comprised of wood shavings.  Wood shavings are actually the best material to use if you have access to a good supply.  It is the most absorbent, economical (when free), and decomposes the fastest.  Unfortunately, I have to buy it by the bale at retail prices, so I only bed about half way with it.  I use straw for the other half.  Straw/hay can cause problems if you aren’t careful though.  It tends to get wet and mat down, preventing the oxygen required for rapid aerobic decomposition from getting into the bedding.  As I raked, I found about 3 sections where the straw had done just that.  I knew by the smell that I was about to uncover such an area, because rather than the rich, earthy scent of healthy aerobic compost, the anaerobic breakdown smells musty.  You can see the large chunks and mildewey appearance on the underside of this section, which was about a square foot.

Despite the issues with the mildew and mold, though, I was quite fascinated with the scents I did smell as I raked.   I would have expected at least some overpowering ammonia smell after almost 4 months of goat poop and urine collecting into that bedding, but it wasn’t there.  The entire time I raked, all I smelled was a rather pleasant, rich earth smell.  Even in the anaerobic areas, I couldn’t smell the mildew and must until just before I flipped the layer that was covered in it.

In the next photo, it is hard to see, but you may notice the center of the shed floor is much higher than the back and sides.  There is actually a rather large mound of dirt here, almost 4 inches higher than the sides, which I found interesting as well.  We just built and placed this shed last spring, so it hasn’t even been there a year.  It was placed on rather level ground.  The mound was formed by the deep bedding compost, as the center area is where the goats urinate the most.  The extra nitrogen and moisture causes much faster decomposition in that area, than on the sides, where you can still see lots of hay and straw laying on the ground, looking almost fresh.

Obviously, our winter isn’t even close to being over, so after I cleaned out most of the old bedding and compost, I started again with a couple of inches of wood shavings and straw.  I left just enough compost underneath to continue some provision of heat, as well as get the decomposition of the new material off to a faster start.

I want to mention a few other things worthy of consideration with this process, based on my limited experience and research.

  • First, the process can be used outside as well.  Shiloh, our donkey, does most of her elimination along a path on one side of her pen.  Some of the manure gets trampled into bits that can’t be picked up, while other areas just freeze solid before I can clean it out.  Her urine puddles are often in the same areas, which could easily make the soil toxic and kill all the microbes normally found in healthy soil.  As a result, I have found that I can sprinkle a couple of inches of shavings along this path, periodically covering up her poop piles, and adding a little thicker layer over the urine puddles.  Not only does it make the whole area far more pleasant and odor free, but I find the shavings prevent the manure from freezing as solid, which actually allows me to clean it out once in a while.  The heat provided also causes this area to thaw faster than the rest of her pen, which helps on cleaning days as well.
  • Use chickens to aerate the bedding.  All good compost needs to be turned once in a while to keep the oxygen at healthy levels throughout the compost.  I don’t always have time to spend turning entire sheds’ worth of compost and bedding, so I let my chickens do it for me.  All I have to do is periodically allow some goat grain to spill out and get stomped into the bedding.  The goats won’t touch it.  Then, on a nice afternoon after the hens have finished laying, I simply move a few out to the goat pen.  They spend hours happily scratching up all the bedding in order to find bugs, morsels, and old grain that has collected in the bedding over time.  They do such a thorough job that they can totally eliminate the anaerobic areas like I found in my last batch of bedding.  We use the hens a lot more now.  If there is an area they skip for some reason, a simple handful of corn or grain tossed on that area will focus their attention right where you need it.  This mixing process also helps the bedding to compost more evenly, since it helps distribute moist bedding and manure evenly throughout the shed, rather than mounding in certain areas like my first batch did.
  • If you have access to hogs, they can help as well.  We plan to use them at Red Gate.  After a winter of the deep bedding and compost being packed down, it can be quite a chore to dig it up in the spring (as I found with my center mound recently!)  By ensuring some corn is sprinkled into the bedding with every added layer, the mixture results in a fermented and highly desirable feed for the hogs.  They happily dig up all the old layers and turn the compost in search of the corn, which loosens it up for the farmer.  All you have to do is scoop it out and toss it into the garden–all ready composted and just in time for spring planting!
  • A slight variance of this process can be used for rabbits.  As with the larger livestock, we have found the rabbit manure and urine collects and freezes rapidly under the cages, which can quickly lead to intense and unpleasant smells.  We have found, however, that by adding wood shaving liberally into the manure areas (including on the “ceiling” of the bottom cages to collect urine from the top cages), we can totally prevent smells.  The decomposition heats and loosens the frozen manure, which allows us to clean it more often as well.
  • Like the rabbits, a modified version can be used in the chicken coop.  If we ever open our coop one morning and smell the unpleasant aroma of the highly potent chicken manure, I simply toss a pile of wood shavings over the base, toss in some grain to encourage them to dig it around and spread it out, and by mid-day, the smell is totally gone.  If not, I simply add more shavings.  Trust me.  It works.

Well, that’s pretty much it.  I am definitely a big believer in deep bedding.  I am greatly looking forward to being at Red Gate Farm, where S’s lumber mill will allow us to collect enough wood shavings and sawdust to create all the ideal carbonaceous material we could want!  Add a few hogs and hens along the way, and we’ll be set!