Easy, Unsightly and Healthy Chicken Coop Management

There are those that recommend scraping up chicken droppings daily. Yes, daily.  Others weekly (and I’m certain this results in a stinky coop five days a week).  There are those that use the deep litter method where the litter is never changed, but involve mixing in so much other matter (wood chips, hay, leaves, etc) and water on a regular basis that the bottom of the coop becomes a  compost heap — that’s a lot of hauling and mixing.  I don’t do any of those things, and the coop typically looks dreadful, but it doesn’t smell, I only clean it once a year, and the chickens are healthy except for a some leg mites on some of the older chickens.  Stopping all leg mites would require a continuous chemical onslaught, and I prefer to cull the birds with a weakness for leg-mites.

Be aware, my rebellious ways will only work with a flock that does not have endemic disease, and that is free range.  My chickens are only in the coop during the night (except during the coldest days of winter when they choose to spend most of their time in the coop) and my coop has wall-to-wall perches that are clean of droppings.  This happens naturally as chickens don’t foul their roosts.  I do not feed them in the coop so they spend minimal time on the floor.  All droppings will off-gas ammonia and other noxious gases so any coop must have good ventilation.  Whatever management technique you choose to use must result in a coop that does not smell rank.  Fowl droppings aren’t of the smelliest kind, like human, for instance, but they will smell nasty if left in wet heaps under perches.

What I do is to simply put a layer of hay, maybe an inch thick when lightly pressed down (but it’s hard to say since it clumps), down after I clean the coop.  When the coop starts to smell ripe, I throw down a similar amount of hay — this happens every few months.  The chickens will kick and scratch the new hay about looking for bugs, and they might find some — they don’t do this much, but regardless, this keeps the hay and droppings mixed. I water the inside a few times a year on the rare occasions the hose is strung out that far.  That is all.  Last year I didn’t spread the hay down and within two days the coop stank; I threw in some hay and the next day the smell was gone.  Obviously it’s the action of micro-organisms, and evidently the dropping-to-hay ratio can be quite high to keep the micro-organisms active.  I expect the action would be quicker if I used more hay and regular watering, but moisture is the enemy of healthy chickens respiratory tracts and would be more work.  I don’t need it to compost quickly; I need it to not smell and harm my birds.

Yesterday I cleaned the coop, as I always do on a bright, sunny day.  The bottom of coop is lined with heavy plastic that I haul out slowly, removing most of the manure in shovel fulls as I go.  There were four five-gallon buckets of manure, that did not smell.  I saw only one bug, lucky thing.  This manure does a good job of fixing hot spots in the yard and over the years we are down to one about two-by-three feet (we live on a “reclaimed” strip mine), but most of this year’s manure was thrown into the garden.  Then I hosed off the plastic and left it spread in the sunshine to dry, and hosed out the coop and the nesting boxes.  I use large storage containers for the nesting boxes so they can be pulled out in the sun, dumped clean, disassembled and thoroughly hosed.  The ceramic fake eggs are put in a bucket of bleach-water to soak.  Then I left everything alone for a few hours to dry, followed by reassembly.

The pictures below show the south-facing side of the coop.  The screen windows are covered with rigid plastic in the winter with channels to allow moist air to escape.  They are facing south to allow for solar heating in the winter, but the generous eave keeps sunlight out of the coop in the summer.  The sunlight showing from the west is via an open man-door in the western wall.  The solar lights help maintain enough light for egg production through the winter; they worked great last year.  Griz, shown in the 2nd picture, and all the other dogs, enjoyed all this work with manure, and one of them found and ate a rotten egg — I know this because it came out the other end last around mid-night in the kitchen.

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Below, is a view of the inside of the main coop, insulated with reflective insulation on the roof to help with light in the winter, and feed sacks on the walls.  With the metal shell on the outside, and feed-sacks on the inside of the 2 x 4’s it’s actually the dead air-space between the two that insulates.

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The floor boards of the coop can be removed, but they’re heavy so I simply pulled them out a bit so when the coop was hosed the remnant manure went out the end of the coop to the bottom.

The coop is two stories, with the top being the main coop and the bottom being overflow and shade.  I left all of the manure in the bottom from the past year, and yesterday added more hay and perches.  As I was positioning the cinder blocks to hold the perch-ends I had to stick my head in there.  I knew it didn’t smell bad (that’s why I decided not to scrape it clean), but was surprised to be reminded of a horse barn.  Seriously (I like the smell of horse barn’s).  The upstairs coop can hold 20 birds and while that’s tighter than ideal, it helps to keep them warm — that’s good since no electricity runs to the coop.  The coop is insulated and designed for passive ventilation to reduce the poop-fumes and moisture from bird respiration.  Because the chickens can leave whenever they want during the day, they are happy birds and I’ve had no problem with the chickens pecking each other.  On the other hand, I currently have 40 chickens and even though many are not yet adult size there is no way that many will fit in the main coop.  By winter I’ll have that number down to 20.

Below is a view of the coop from the east, showing the chicken yard and coop’s lower level.  The lower level provides shade in the heat of summer, and overflow roosting.  The cinder-blocks are cocked to bind the perches and hold them tight.  The 55 gallon drums cut in half are giant planters designed to grow morning glories up the wiring to provide more shade.  That plan failed miserably — chickens evidently will eat morning glories, and even weeds.  We use wood chips in the yard.

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Thanks!