By Diane Lockspeiser
The pleasant little break of spring-like weather this January gave me a chance to clean up the chicken coop, a chore that is not for the squeamish. The coop gets pretty nasty in winter since the hens spend a lot more time in there, pooping almost everywhere and spreading soiled bedding as well. As I pointed out last month, I am using wood chips for bedding this year. It may be easier for me to shovel it out when cleaning (hay requires using a pitch fork), but it’s also easier for the chickens to scratch in and make a mess.
When I first set up the coop, I read that there are two ways to deal with coop mess. One is a cleared floor method which involves cleaning the floor daily. The other is the composting method which requires a thick layer of bedding on the floor, adding to it frequently to cover the poop. Besides being easier, it also adds to the warmth of the coop in winter. When cleaned out, it is great to use as a fertilizing mulch in the garden.
The coops that I was accustomed to years ago when I helped at a farm on Long Island, used a combination of the two methods. In my humble opinion, those were the best coops that I had ever seen. Since they wanted to be able to move the chickens to different parts of the fields as crops were rotated, and since they had the benefit of having worked with the skilled crews of Habitat for Humanity, their friends from Habitat built them large roomy coops on wheels—basically, Gypsy wagons for chickens. The yards were cordoned off with portable electric fencing attached to small portable solar-powered generators.
Even if I could manage to get such a set-up, it would not be practical for this area because of the lack of flat land. I could just picture a runaway coop full of squawking and screeching chickens bouncing down our steep, bumpy hill and landing in the creek at the bottom!
But I did decide to use their idea of putting bedding only underneath the roosting area and keeping the rest of the floor cleared. Since using the wood chips, I have had to lay down a piece of wood to create a border, making it harder for the hens to spread the bedding onto the cleared floor as they scratch. I used a length of 3”x 3” fence post that I just happened to have. 4”x 4” would be more effective, but free is better.
Even though it means daily clean-up, I decided to have most of the floor clear of bedding for three reasons. The first reason is simply because I like to be able to see where the poop is so I can avoid stepping on it. The second is because our coop is not properly raised—the recommended minimum of a foot off of the ground—and so any feed that drops into the bedding will attract rodents. The third is that the feed that drops onto the floor is eaten by the chickens and sometimes by my dog, and I want to minimize the amount of droppings they end up eating along with the feed.
The hens usually keep the nesting boxes pretty clean, but accidents do happen, whether it be poop or a broken egg. I try to change that bedding as soon as possible so the mess doesn’t get onto the clean eggs. If they get dirty, eggs have to be washed, which washes off the natural protective coating that allows them to last a long time without refrigeration. The bedding under the roosting area can be left for months at a time, until it gets too high or too stinky, usually both. The ammonia smell can get pretty intense. That is why a nice warm day in the middle of Winter is such a welcome chance to remove the buildup of soiled bedding and air out the coop! I am grateful.~