When you’re a gardener, a nice benefit of raising a flock of backyard chickens—in addition to the delicious fresh eggs they lay—is all the wonderfully nitrogen-rich manure they produce, which can lead to great compost. Believe it or not, the average hen expels almost 2 pounds of manure a week. Because chickens eat a diet high in calcium to ensure strong eggshells, their manure contains higher amounts of calcium than manure from other livestock species.
Using chicken manure as compost or mulch for your garden is simple and effective. (See “Standard Composting” below.) However, there’s another way to incorporate the composted manure into your garden all season long: Brew up a batch of chicken poop tea. This simple method of making homemade liquid fertilizer adds nutrients to your garden soil just like compost does, but the liquid form makes it convenient to give a targeted boost to specific plants during the growing season. Seedlings and new transplants in particular benefit from a dose of the nutrient-dense tea.
Make Your Own
You’ll never buy commercial fertilizer again once you start making your own, which is more economical and much better for your chickens, your family and the environment.
Because raw poultry manure has high concentrations of bacteria, you should never apply it directly to your edible garden, as it could make the consumer of the produce sick. The excessive available nitrogen in the raw manure can also burn the plants and cause them to die. So when you clean out your coop, especially when you’re scraping the poop off the roosting bars, set some aside to use for your tea. You’ll need a good-size bucket filled with composted chicken manure, so start collecting. It’s fine if a bit of bedding material is mixed into the manure, but try to scrape just the manure into your pail as much as possible.
To properly compost your collected chicken manure for the garden, see the Poultry Science column “Compost Chicken Manure the Right Way.” Once your supply of composted chicken manure has cured for a minimum of 80 days, you’re ready to start making your compost tea.
First, you will need a large plastic container: A trash can, large bucket, pail or plastic tote all work great. Next you’ll need to make a “tea bag” for the composted chicken manure. I use old cotton pillowcases. Pick one up at your local thrift store if you don’t have any on hand.
Add your composted chicken manure to the pillowcase until it’s 1/3 of the way full. Tie a piece of string, baling twine or clothesline around the neck of the pillowcase near the top, leaving long ends loose that you’ll be able to grab later, and then set it in the large plastic pail or trash can that leaves some room for water.
Speaking of water, add about twice as much in volume as the pillowcase contents, ensuring that you cover the pillowcase and its contents completely.
Leave the top of the pillow case or the ends of the twine or clothesline hanging over the side of the pail so you can grab them easily, set the pail uncovered in a sunny location outside. You will need to keep introducing oxygen to the solution so pathogens and bad bacteria won’t grow. You can easily do this by dunking the pillowcase up and down a few times a day to agitate the water and pillowcase contents. Make sure the pillowcase is always left fully submerged.
In about two weeks, the liquid should have taken on a deep, rich, tawny brown color resembling iced tea. Carefully remove the pillowcase from the pail, discard the solid contents from the pillowcase into your regular compost pile, and toss the pillowcase in the trash. (You can also wash it for reuse, although I prefer to just go buy another one at the thrift shop.) At this point, your compost tea is done.
You can leave it in the plastic pail, but before you use it, you will need to dilute the liquid, one part tea to four parts water, so if you have room in the container, go ahead and add enough water to dilute the tea.
If you need a larger container, a plastic trash can works great. You can loosely cover it once it’s diluted or just store it in a covered area. If you don’t get much rain, simply leave it out in the yard.
Serving Your Compost Tea
To use the chicken poop tea, pour some into a watering can, or use a sprayer attachment on your hose, then apply it to your plants. Because of the potential for pathogens and the risk of burning tender leaves, water around the plant roots only, not directly on the flowers or fruit of the plants themselves, especially avoiding leaves you will be consuming, such as spinach, kale, lettuce and other greens. It’s also recommended that you don’t apply the chicken poop tea to root crops—beets, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, parsnips—to reduce chance of contamination. As always, wash your hands well after each use.
I like to give my seedlings a good watering right after I transplant them, and then give them another nutrition boost each week for the first several weeks. The nitrogen-rich natural fertilizer is especially beneficial to plants as they’re growing their leaves: It assists in photosynthesis and prevents yellow, sickly plants. You can also water your established plants once a week with this liquid fertilizer.
I hope you’ll try your hand at brewing some chicken poop tea for your garden this spring. Your plants will love it, and you’ll begin to appreciate your chickens’ poop instead of looking at cleaning out your chicken coop as a dreaded chore. There’s a reason why gardeners call livestock manure “black gold,” and chicken poop tea is most definitely liquid gold!
Plants, such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, benefit from having calcium added to the soil in which they’re growing, so if you’re planning on planting any of those crops, incorporating a bit of chicken manure into your soil will be extremely beneficial, as will adding some crushed eggshell into the holes you dig for your seedlings. In fact, adding calcium can help prevent blossom end rot, a common affliction of calcium-loving plants. Chicken manure is also extremely high in nitrogen, and all plants need nitrogen to grow nice green leaves and stems, so get that chicken manure working in your garden!
When you clean out your chicken coop in the late summer and fall, rake the soiled bedding—straw or shavings plus all the chicken poop and feathers—onto your garden plot and use it as mulch over the winter to retard the growth of weeds, help retain soil moisture and provide nutrients and structure to the soil. The timing of the application will allow the bedding disintegrate and work its way into the garden soil by spring.
Even more importantly, because the nitrogen in the chicken manure is “hot” and can burn plants if you apply it too soon, waiting several months before planting it will allow the nitrogen levels to decline, while also giving the various pathogens and bacteria present in the manure time to dissipate. When you clean out your coop during the growing season, it’s best to start a compost pile or add the coop bedding to your existing compost pile and not apply it directly to your garden while plants are growing in it.
This article appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Chickens.