Deep Litter System How To?

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KelleyBee

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So, I am hoping those who use the deep litter system will share with us the How To's, Whys, Dos and Don'ts all in one thread here.

I have read about deep litter system for chickens and larger animals and most of these animals are living right out on the litter. I am looking at deep litter for rabbits in a barn where the rabbits are suspended in cages above the floor, not living on the floor nor on the deep litter.

This question is born from my other thread asking for input as to whether chicken would be a good addition to my rabbit barn. I have kind of concluded that I do not want to add chickens for the various Cons people shared in that thread...the pros, at least for me, do not outweigh the cons. That brings me back to the deep litter system. I realize without the chickens I will have to play chicken every day using my garden rake to turn over the litter. I don't mind. Seems easy enough.

One of the things I am wondering about is materials to use as the litter. Currently, it's just the hay that drops from the cages that mixes as litter below. I have an opportunity to buy some old hay bales for just 50cents per bale that I am seriously considering purchasing and putting right into my barn as a good litter base below the cages as we move into winter.

Is there any reason I would not want to use old hay bales? Thank you for any experiential wisdom you would like to share!
 

KelleyBee

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I"m curious about why you want to use a deep litter method under cages. With the hay that falls in with the waste, wouldn't it naturally build up over time? Are you hoping to start vermicomposting???
Yes, it would naturally build up, but I am finding it is not enough "litter" for the decomposition process to be as rapid as it might be and I am concerned about odor control over winter, so want to be sure I am doing it correctly. I have everything falling directly onto soil...the barn is dirt floor.... but it sure is clay dirt where I am, so not absorbent. Yes, I want the worms, too. I need this "compost" for my gardens in the spring. I've read that some people will dig ditches under the cages, about 6 inches deep, even will line it with gravel and then have everything fall onto it, etc. But I didn't dig any ditches because the clay is just so hard to dig out.
 

MnCanary

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I have, besides some cages, 5 pens, about 4' x 10', where the rabbits live on the floor, in a barn. It is usually 1 doe + litter per pen. The pens have deep litter over concrete. I free-feed hay + pellets so the uneaten hay builds up on the floor as well. All that I find is necessary is a handful of wood shavings over the wet spot, each day. There are fans in this barn that create a lot of air movement, so mostly things stay dry. If there is any ammonia odor (usually their isn't) I sprinkle PDZ on the wet spot before I add the handful of shavings.

I've never understood this contradiction: many people cite disease control as one reason to raise rabbits on wire. And yet, lots of rabbits are raised in a colony or on deep litter. Are they more disease-prone? Mine seem OK. Part of the advantage of a pen or colony is that the rabbits get exercise. Could exercise overcome the 'disadvantage' of being raised on litter?
 

Preitler

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Not sure about chickens, or if what some old time farmers here do is what is considered deep litter.

Next breeder down the road doesn't use hay racks, just gives some hay to the rabbits every day. gets compressed, but the surface remains rather dry. No nestbox either, the does just make pits in a corner. Really small hutches, I really don't like that, but well, it's all more complicated than that, some social issues.

Anyway, the litter builds up, sometimes up to a foot (I helped then because that old guy wasn't able to get the muck out of the top hutches, too heavy), but the surface always was acceptable dry.

I reckon that's one way to keep rabbts in an ok environment if done right.
 

KelleyBee

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I have, besides some cages, 5 pens, about 4' x 10', where the rabbits live on the floor, in a barn. It is usually 1 doe + litter per pen. The pens have deep litter over concrete. I free-feed hay + pellets so the uneaten hay builds up on the floor as well. All that I find is necessary is a handful of wood shavings over the wet spot, each day. There are fans in this barn that create a lot of air movement, so mostly things stay dry. If there is any ammonia odor (usually their isn't) I sprinkle PDZ on the wet spot before I add the handful of shavings.

I've never understood this contradiction: many people cite disease control as one reason to raise rabbits on wire. And yet, lots of rabbits are raised in a colony or on deep litter. Are they more disease-prone? Mine seem OK. Part of the advantage of a pen or colony is that the rabbits get exercise. Could exercise overcome the 'disadvantage' of being raised on litter?
Thank you for your experiential response.
 

judymac

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We currently use deep litter under suspended cages. We feed hay daily, the main source of the litter is fallen hay. I don't worry about turning the hay, we do have chickens that do that. However, we previously used a deep litter colony system in an old chicken house, the rabbits free-ranged on the floor. There was no poultry, we fed hay in unopened bales, the spilled hay became the litter, and was spread as needed. In the spring, the litter/manure was put in the garden. There was no odor, no disease issues, just happy rabbits.

Now, if your concern is to get a high heat going to kill all the hay weed seeds and quickly break down the debris into fine compost, I don't think that's what you really want in a deep litter system. What many do is remove the litter to the compost area in the spring, and layer it with other composting ingredients such as wood chips, grass clippings, leaves, etc. Although, if the urine/manure is already mixed with the litter, it really doesn't need any additional ingredients.

If you use wood shavings/sawdust as the base litter layer instead of hay, it absorbs the urine and breaks down well right in the barn. A little occasional turning helps it break down faster, there's no weed seeds to be an issue, it's ready to go fairly fast. Problem solved.

Many just add the mixed litter/manure right to the garden, as is. We do. I make a long row of big mounds (a foot or more high) of manure/litter, and plant right into it. Right now, I have very happy celery, cucumbers & cabbage growing that way. Since I feed whole grains, not pellets, do I get spilled grains that sprout in the garden? Yes! But the chickens & rabbits enjoy the young 'weed' plants when I remove them, so it goes full circle back to the bunnies. Uncomposted hay may cause clover to grow in the garden, but that hasn't been a problem, as it provides nitrogen for the soil, and I feed the leaves back to the rabbits.
 

KelleyBee

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We currently use deep litter under suspended cages. We feed hay daily, the main source of the litter is fallen hay. I don't worry about turning the hay, we do have chickens that do that. However, we previously used a deep litter colony system in an old chicken house, the rabbits free-ranged on the floor. There was no poultry, we fed hay in unopened bales, the spilled hay became the litter, and was spread as needed. In the spring, the litter/manure was put in the garden. There was no odor, no disease issues, just happy rabbits.

Now, if your concern is to get a high heat going to kill all the hay weed seeds and quickly break down the debris into fine compost, I don't think that's what you really want in a deep litter system. What many do is remove the litter to the compost area in the spring, and layer it with other composting ingredients such as wood chips, grass clippings, leaves, etc. Although, if the urine/manure is already mixed with the litter, it really doesn't need any additional ingredients.

If you use wood shavings/sawdust as the base litter layer instead of hay, it absorbs the urine and breaks down well right in the barn. A little occasional turning helps it break down faster, there's no weed seeds to be an issue, it's ready to go fairly fast. Problem solved.

Many just add the mixed litter/manure right to the garden, as is. We do. I make a long row of big mounds (a foot or more high) of manure/litter, and plant right into it. Right now, I have very happy celery, cucumbers & cabbage growing that way. Since I feed whole grains, not pellets, do I get spilled grains that sprout in the garden? Yes! But the chickens & rabbits enjoy the young 'weed' plants when I remove them, so it goes full circle back to the bunnies. Uncomposted hay may cause clover to grow in the garden, but that hasn't been a problem, as it provides nitrogen for the soil, and I feed the leaves back to the rabbits.
Thank you for your detailed answer. I'm curious as to why you went from on the floor colonies to suspended cages.
 

ThunderHill

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Hi! I used to try to muck out beneath my suspended cages every few weeks to keep it "neat," but tried just letting it build up this year. I have liked it much better with this deep litter system. There's not really much smell at all and WAY fewer flies than we had last year. I actually just started mucking it out yesterday to add into a new garden spot we are preparing and discovered that Black Soldier Fly larvae have moved in to one area! I'm glad I knew what they were or it probably would have freaked me out! That section is all crumbly and soft where they've been breaking everything down. I'd always intended to set up vermicomposting beneath them and now I'm even more motivated to get it going.
 

LatchawBriarPatch

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I use a deep litter system over suspended cages. I find this system keeps the smell and flies down the best. If it starts smelling I add hay, straw, ect. on top and it's good to go. I have one cage that's really low to the ground, and I worried about it building up too fast. But that has not been an issue. I do have issues with ants, spiders, and earwigs being everywhere on that end of the yard. Not sure if it is related to the deep litter system or not.
 

eco2pia

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I have chickens under my cages and I left everything for about 6-8 months.

I found that the floor was too dry to really compost. So I raked it out and made a heap, it's about 1-2 cubic yards or so. So, a lot, and that was with chickens scratching.

Since then flies seem to be fewer. I've decided the trick is going to be a once a year clean out right before the fly season picks up. Then it can mulch in the rain until spring and be garden ready right when I need it.

I suspect your climate, including heat, humidity, and flies, will dictate what works best.
 

judymac

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Deep litter system is the opposite of hosing down your floor daily to remove urine/manure. Instead, you add a base, maybe 6" to start, of a compostable material, such as leftover hay/straw, wood chips, sawdust, shredded newspaper, etc. that can absorb the urine, and is suitable for making soil for the garden. The manure and urine layer into the litter, along with spilled feed and hay (a good reason to feed rabbit pellets, as they don't sprout in the garden nor do they seem to attract rodents; I feed whole grains, and have to weed out the sprouted grains in the garden, but they make good chicken/rabbit feed as greens, and it's a one-time deal, sprouted and gone.) As needed, add extra compostable material to keep the pile able to absorb the urine (which is a lot of nitrogen saved for your garden as well.) In the spring, shovel out the litter, and start again. Some keep a little of the original litter as a 'starter' for the next batch of litter, as it will contain decomposing bacteria/fungi as well as the eggs of decomposing insects like the soldier fly.

I put the litter straight onto the garden, and plant right into it. The top few inches will still be fluffy and dry, but the bottom inches will already be quite decomposed. You can put cardboard down on your old (or new) garden area, and dump the litter at least 6" deep (I prefer at least a foot, as it gives plenty of room for the pile to finish composting.) Plant right into the litter. Works especially well for those crops that get planted as seedlings, like tomatoes, cabbage, celery, peppers, etc. The fluffy dry litter I save for the top, works as mulch. Instant garden, no tilling, no digging, no fuss. And the absorbed urine adds enough nitrogen for good growth. Makes for very happy corn.

To extend the mileage of the compost, you can put the litter down in long rows, and plant the rows, leaving the exposed cardboard between the rows as your walkway. The cardboard will discourage the weeds, and by the end of the season break down into soil as well.

Others prefer to remove the litter to their composting area, and have it completely break down into humus before adding to the garden. There's a great explanation of compost theory at Compost - Using and Making There's also a link on that page for more information on the dreaded weed-killer that was used on fields intended for horse hay. The hay is purchased by unsuspecting farmers, and fed out without incident. BUT, the weedkiller persists in the manure, and in the resulting compost. The problem was uncovered when loads of tainted manure were sold to companies producing commercially-sold seed starting soil mixes, and the seeds planted in them would sprout and then shrivel. Not an issue when you make your own hay, but many rabbit raisers buy hay from the big-box store in little bags or from the feed store in cubes, not knowing how it was treated before harvesting and sale. A good reason to buy local from people you know and trust.
 

BuffBrahmaBantam

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There‘s also a link on that page for more information on the dreaded weed-killer that was used on fields intended for horse hay. The hay is purchased by unsuspecting farmers, and fed out without incident. BUT, the weedkiller persists in the manure, and in the resulting compost. The problem was uncovered when loads of tainted manure were sold to companies producing commercially-sold seed starting soil mixes, and the seeds planted in them would sprout and then shrivel. Not an issue when you make your own hay, but many rabbit raisers buy hay from the big-box store in little bags or from the feed store in cubes, not knowing how it was treated before harvesting and sale. A good reason to buy local from people you know and trust.
We had a similar problem with a big load of compost we purchased from a local supplier. They sold us tainted compost with persistent herbicides in it. While they refunded our money, it took 5 years for my garden to recover. It was crushing, to say the least. We live in a big hay producing area - eastern Washington. I have no idea how widespread this problem is but recommend asking the seller about pesticides in the hay because is easy to do and it could save you a headache in the long run if you are buying a large quantity. I now only allow inputs from people/farmers I trust and can talk to - for hay, horse manure - or things that are never sprayed, like local wood shavings.

Otherwise, hay sounds ok as a bedding other than 1 - it could be a little annoying to shovel at the end of the year due to the long stems (compared to wood shavings), and 2 - the weed seeds others have mentioned. Like others, we are fine with some garden weeds (from horse manure in our case) because the weeds go back to the bunnies eventually.

Have you thought about trying to get wood shavings at low cost or free? Maybe check with an arborist about dumping a load at your place? This may be a crazy suggestion if you are in a suburban area, but are there local sawmills or small scale lumber operations? I don’t know anything about your neck-of-the woods.
 

ThunderHill

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With all this talk about gardening with cardboard, compost and mulch, I would be remiss to not mention my absolute favorite source of cardboard - Costco! I love Costco anyway, but it would be worth it to me to buy a basic membership just for the cardboard! And I don't mean cardboard boxes that you have to break down, remove tape and labels, etc. No, I mean the "pallet slips" - nice, flat, 4x4ish plain cardboard squares that go between layers of product on a pallet. You can just walk through the store and collect them or sometimes even ask the staff in the back for some that they have picked up. I just wanted to mention this, as I shopped there for years and walked right past this awesome, FREE resource without even realizing it! The picture is from one trip, each piece folded in half and stored in the bottom of the cart while we were shopping.

That, and I definitely second reaching out to local electric utilities or tree cutting companies to ask for free wood chips (space permitting, of course)! We get truckloads for free every year!
20220823_141800.jpg
 

Cindy in SD

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I use deep litter in all my livestock housing. First, I'd be picky about buying old hay for this use... in the open air, in the garden, yes, as long as it's piled on thickly enough to exclude weeds from getting to the light before they run out of energy. In a shed, barn, etc., I wouldn't want moldy or powdery hay where animals would need to breath that air.

I have my three (so far) bunnies in cages resting on top of an unused manger in my ewe stall. I use mostly straw for litter. I've never gotten a lot of warmth from composting except from meat chicks (if it's heat you're hoping for). Certainly not enough to kill seeds (another reason people want the deep litter). I don't know why it doesn't warm up. It's a dirt floor. 🤷‍♀️ It should, but it doesn't, that I can tell. But yeah... you just keep piling the straw (or whatever) on the poo/urine.

You can mix it in if there are piles. My rabbits seem to poop wherever I put the tile for them to rest on. 🤷‍♀️ I move the tile; that's where they do it. So it's not like they've picked a spot and that's where the waste ends up. There are no piles. If there were piles, I'd rake it to mix, but I have some hens that get out-competed for feed by geese and turkeys, so every morning I exclude the bigger birds and toss their feed around in the ewe pen, especially under the rabbit cages, and they mix it in for me.
If you're hoping for it to compost, that doesn't happen for me. Watering might help, or maybe it's just too cold out.
 

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