Written by: Dr. Jacquie Jacob, University of Kentucky
It is inevitable that some of your chickens will die. If you only have few chickens and one dies, you may be able to simply double bag the dead chicken and place it in the trash. If you are already composting your chicken manure and/or household wastes, you can add the whole bird to the compost.
Composting involves a process by which billions of beneficial soil organisms decompose organic matter. Simply piling up your waste material is not composting and can lead to odor problems. With the right proportions of materials, the composting process has minimal offensive odor and destroys most of the pathogens present in dead birds or manure.
A properly designed and operated composter can break down bird carcasses and produce useful soil amendment for your garden. Many industrial-scale poultry operations use large composters for disposal of dead birds. Micro composters are available that make it possible to compost a few dead birds in the backyard. Composting dead birds involves the same biological processes that occur when composting other organic material. The organic material is broken down by bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms.
Composting involves providing the microorganisms with the environment that is best suited for their growth. The right balance of air, water, nitrogen, and carbon in compost will produce heat to kill any pathogens present. Dead birds supply the needed nitrogen. Carbon materials such as sawdust, straw, paper, cornstalks, and other bulky, fibrous material must also be provided. The art of composting involves managing the amount of moisture. If there is too little moisture the tissues of the dead birds dehydrate, making them difficult to break down. If there is too much moisture compost begins to smell. The moisture content should be 40-50 percent of the total content of the compost. To determine whether or not compost has the appropriate level of moisture, squeeze a handful of compost mix. The amount of moisture is correct if the compost leaves wetness on the palm of your hand but does not form drops.
Mini-composters can range from simple boxes made of wood to commercially available plastic tubs like those above. Mini-composters should be big enough to retain all the heat produced during decomposition. The minimum dimensions recommended for a box design are 36 inches high by 40 inches wide. When beginning a batch of compost in an empty composter, it is necessary to layer different composting materials so that the optimum composting temperature of 140° F is reached before the dead birds are placed in the bin. A compost thermometer is necessary to determine when the bin is ready for loading and to make sure that the proper temperature is maintained during the composting process.
A common recipe when starting compost is to use two parts poultry litter to one part chopped straw. The materials should be placed in layers until the base is six inches deep, with moisture adjusted as the layers are added. The dead birds should be placed in the center of the compost, with a minimum of six inches of insulating compost cover on all sides, as well as above and below the dead birds.
Composting should be completed in about seven days from the addition of the last dead birds. The contents of the composter can be used as a soil amendment for gardens. When a batch of compost is complete, the composter can be emptied and a new batch started (as per the instructions above), or one-third of the contents can be left in the composter for the start of a new compost cycle.