Chickens in the Greenhouse

Belgianpup(Wa/Zone 7b)May 5, 2006

I know people use chickens &/or rabbits as a source of heat in their greenhouses in winter. The biggest problem seems to be ammonia, esp in relation to ammonia-sensitive plants like tomatoes, which can start showing damage at just 12 ppm.

I've heard of using Zeolite (?), which tends to be expensive. Has anyone run across any other kind of simple, low-cost solution to this problem?


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you could put the chickens in a coop inside the greenhouse

    Bookmark   May 8, 2006 at 2:44AM
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brendan_of_bonsai(4b AK)

Keep most of the chickens in a coop and let one or two run around perhaps. A better option than chickens I would think would be game hens, they are smaller and smarter and as a result of there intelegence they do not poop were they eat, the Game hen we had when I was younger would always poop from its roost, never in the food or water, this might work.

Or, even better, you could just lay down a thick layer of straw over the base of the plants, to keep droppings from the soil.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2006 at 6:47PM
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adirondackgardener(Western Maine)

You are correct, Sue, that ammonia build-up can be a problem for plants in a greenhouse also occupied by animals. The Solviva greenhouse had chickens inhabiting it (and rabbits also I believe) and it incorporated a filtering system to remove ammonia from the air. I do not have details of the system.

But I think you are somewhat incorrect in saying the biggest problem is the ammonia effects. The biggest problem, in my opinion is providing adequate ventilation. Heat build up in a greenhouse can be rapid and fatal to small animals and high humidity can have detrimental health effects.

Still, it is an idea worth pursuing.


    Bookmark   June 29, 2006 at 12:06AM
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Belgianpup(Wa/Zone 7b)

Actually, the Solviva greenhouse had the excessive heat problem covered. The greenhouse was deliberately designed to take advantage of the thermosiphon effect: openings low in the wall of the shady/cooler side of the greenhouse allowed cool air to enter, and vents in the roof allowed the heated air to escape. Even if it got too warm in winter, a few vents at top and bottom could be opened to adjust the temperature.

But if the temp in the greenhouse in winter was adequate, there was a build-up of ammonia. I know she had a relative that designed a filter to eliminate this (and it apparently worked well), but my question is, what would the rest of us do?


    Bookmark   June 29, 2006 at 1:12AM
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adirondackgardener(Western Maine)

Well, the Solviva greenhouse (and property) is up for sale, though it is in poor condition. I assume she wrote about the filter in the book though and referencing that would probably be a cheaper option. Maybe someone with a copy can refer to it and find out the mechanics of the filter. I expect I'll be addressing this same issue this fall but only with a half dozen birds. (Or maybe not, as I likely won't be growing tomatoes over the winter in my cold climate. The greenhouse in winter will be primarily to heat the chickens, not vice versa.)


    Bookmark   June 29, 2006 at 2:27AM
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I'm in the process of designing a small chicken-heated greenhouse here in Wisconsin. I bought the Solviva book a while ago, and while it is a little folksy and whimsical for my taste, it does have some usefull information. Here is the relevant section on filtering the air found on pages 103 and 104:

Solution: The Earthlung Biocarbon Air-Purification Filter

Bruce Fulford had learned in Holland about ways to use compost to heat a greenhouse, and at New Alchemy Institute he designed and built a small greenhouse that incorporated these techniques. Tons of bedding from stables and dairies were loaded into a long chamber built against the whole north wall. The composting process generated heat for a few weeks, and then the old batch had to be replaced with a new one. Fans circulated the warm air from within the compost bank through ducts that ran through the growing beds within the plant room. The warmth and CO2 benefited the plants, while the harmful ammoni9a was trapped in the soil and transformed into beneficial nitrate. Together we adapted the Dutch deign for the Solviva greenhouse and constructed a filter system to scrub the ammonia out of the air coming from the animal quarters before it enters the plant area.

We dug the topsoil out of the bed next to the chicken room and lined the sideds of the bed with airtight plastic fabric. Then we put in course gravel, and on top of this laid down perforated pipes, capped at the ends. This was topped with more coarse gravel. We covered the gravel with pourous nonrotting landscape fabric, and then topped this off with a 12-inch layer of leaf mold mixed with sandy soil. We hung four branches of flexible ducts within the chicken room, and joined them into one duct containing a small DC fan powered by the sun through the photovoltaic panels and batteries. Then we connected that duct with the perforated pipes laid in the gravel. Finally we seeded this bed so plants could absorb the nitrate.

Thus, the air from within the chicken room, containing ammonia (harmful) and CO2 )beneficial), is blown through the gravel layer and then rises to the only place it can go, up through the leaf mold/sand layer. This layer is permeated with tunnels created by earthworms, pill bugs, centipedes, millipedes and earwigs, as well as myriads of microscopic root hairs of the plants that grow in the filter bed and then propelled up the stem to perform miracles in every part of the plants' bodies.

The CO2 molecules from the breath of the chickens and the compost pass through the tunnels and passages in the EArthlung filter in the only direction they can go, up through the surface of the Earthlung bed, and then waft through the air among the plants. There the CO2 molecules are inhaled by the plants through the stomata on their leaves, and tehn they flow through the veins of the plants, providing the essential building blocks that enable the plants to grow profusely.

In a conventional greenhouse CO2 can be so depleted by 11 a.m that the plants' ability to grow is greatly reduced. No matter how well other requirements are fulfilled, such as temperature, light, water, and fertility, if there is not sufficient CO2, growth stops, Conversely, if CO2 increases above normal, growth also increases.

Thus, in one simple, elegant, economical, low-maintenance design this Earthlung filter turns harmful ammonia into beneficial nitrate to feed plants through their roots and at the same time distributes the CO2 in the air to feed the plants through the stomata on their leaves.

    Bookmark   July 14, 2006 at 10:57AM
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adirondackgardener(Western Maine)

Well, thanks for posting that, colfax. Using the growing bed soil as the filter makes good sense. I'm not sure if it will be built this winter, but my small (9x12) semi-pit greenhouse will have a coop attached but the goal is more to draw heat from the greenhouse (and from composting manure) to warm the chickens rather than using the heat from the birds to warm the greenhouse. (6 birds wouldn't throw off that much heat when the temps dip to minus 30 or minus 40.)

But the concept as outlined would work to heat the greenhouse with the composting manure in the early spring.


    Bookmark   July 20, 2006 at 9:36PM
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brendan_of_bonsai(4b AK)

The problem I see with that is that the chickens would be in high CO2 high NH3 environment, which tends to not make them happy. When I was little we had 2 hens in a 4X6X4 structure with 2 inches of foam in the walls, it was heated with a 60watt light bulb and they were just fine.

    Bookmark   August 7, 2006 at 5:51PM
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I have been thinking about this for a couple of years and think that a natural filter of duckweed might be affective in keeping the ammonia down while simultaneously providing a food source for the birds. A rainwater catchment system could be used to provided drinking water and the run off could go into a type of ground pool with duckweed growing in it. Waste would drop through a grate into the water where the duckweed would process it.

It is a similar system to the greenhouse aquaculture plans and could probably be incorporated into an existing system.

I welcome any input on the possibility of this idea. : )

    Bookmark   June 14, 2010 at 5:34PM
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Belgianpup(Wa/Zone 7b)

I was not aware that duckweed was useful in that regard, but I googled and found that it is true.

But the site I first found said "If the duckweed is to be fed to animals, a retention period in clean water will be necessary to ensure that the biomass is free of water-borne pathogens." This would add at least one step in between creation and feeding. (see more below)

I have the feeling that there would still be an ammonia problem in a small building if you were going to grow ammonia-sensitive plants, but I have no info to back up what is just a gut feeling.

But your idea made my mind jump to Aquaponics... At the Backyard Aquaponics website they use fish waste in water to feed hydroponically-grown plants: the fish water is pumped into the plant beds, the plants remove the nutrients, and the cleansed water is returned to the fish tank. I don't know if this would work for chickens or not.

Thank you for more food for thought!


Here is a link that might be useful: Practical Duckweed: Application Areas...

    Bookmark   June 14, 2010 at 10:06PM
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Just out of curiosity, how much can a couple of chickens possibly help?

I mean, is there a way to calculate, given a greenhouse of a certain volume, and a given number of chickens, and a given ambient temperature, how much of a temperature increase the chickens would actually confer?

I'm skeptical that it would account for much, but you guys are the experts.

    Bookmark   December 15, 2010 at 1:30AM
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"Never raise rabbits in a greenhouse, it is too hot for them. Even on a sunny day in the dead of winter." Pg 11-12.
Growing Food In Solar Greenhouses by Delores Wolfe.
It is a good book, but "solar greenhouse" is a silly name if you ask me. But in the 1970-1980's people preached "solar" the same way they do "permaculture" now.
Wonder what the new big word will be in 10-20 years?
Maybe Bio-char?
Most of these people just want to sale books.
People have used most of this for hundreds of year with out a book ,web or big words. We should laugh at ourselves once in a while it is good for the soul.

    Bookmark   February 8, 2011 at 11:07PM
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Belgianpup(Wa/Zone 7b)


Chickens give off a certain number of BTUs of heat (I want to say about 65, but I can't find the info). In a more controlled environment (solid walls or controlled ventilation) this can be used to their advantage, and yours.

The problem in a greenhouse is that if you're not very careful, the extreme temperature fluctuations can cause problems.

It would probably take a lot of chickens to heat an uninsulated greenhouse at night (if they were the only heat source), but having that many chickens in there during the day when the sun was shining, the combined body heat plus radiant heat from the sun would probably cause them to overheat and possibly die.

Attention to insulation and ventilation would be crucial.


    Bookmark   February 8, 2011 at 11:33PM
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Why not dig down 24 to 48 inches, so you can use the earth to hold the heat in. Get white or black plastic 30/55 gallon drums fill of water to put in the corners & use them as tables. Put down about 3-6 inches of gravel on the floor. this & a few lights should keep plants alive all winter.
This is green house 101.

    Bookmark   February 11, 2011 at 7:52PM
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jeanwedding(6 ky)

do you have any pics of this????? Oh how big could the greenhouse be???
sounds great....

    Bookmark   September 30, 2011 at 6:44PM
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