Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Cleaning the Chicken Coop 101 or.......What I Learned While Shoveling Poo

It took me 4 hours on Tuesday, but I got the chicken coop cleaned out. Whew. What a job. And really on the farm animal "yuck" scale of 1-10 (1 being "not too bad" like cleaning out a guinea pig's cage to 10 which might be checking to see if a cow was pregnant.....not that I've done this, but I've heard it includes a plastic glove that goes up to your shoulder and a cow's fanny) this job was only about a "3". I tried to keep the coop floor covered with a pretty thick layer of wood chips all winter. I have read that the slow decomposition of the chips combined with the animal manure actually helps keep the coop a little warmer in the cold weather. Plus, the chickens scratching through the deep litter was supposed to keep a hard pan from forming.

And actually all that worked pretty well. The chip/ manure combination (which from now on will be referred to "compost") was relatively light and easy to shovel up and out. There was just a lot of it. In some places it was 8 inches deep. And it really smelled VERY strongly of ammonia. I'm not sure why the odor was so strong. I didn't notice any ammonia smell until my middle son and I shoveled most of the "compost" into a big pile in the back of the coop. We started cleaning the coop on Saturday but we didn't get to spread it out on the garden spot because it was so windy. By the time I broke back into the pile today, it had an odor strong enough to make my nose hairs tingle and my eyes bubble. I shooed the chickens out the door to forage and moved the rabbit cages (with each of our pregnant girls!) out into the open air. Then tackled that mountain of poo with my trusty spade.
I had to remove the manure in portions (please excuse the reference to manure like it was a pile of mashed potatoes. I usually think in terms of food) because our coop is long and narrow. My plan was to shovel the compost out the coop door onto a plastic blue tarp and drag it over to the garden spot dumping it in exactly the right area so I would have limited spreading to do with a hand rake. So, I shoveled a mighty pile onto the blue tarp thinking.....this shouldn't take long! I even made a mental list of things I was going to do after I was done. But, alas, though the pile was but a fraction of what still lay in the coop, it was too heavy and I couldn't drag the tarp to the garden. So I had to shovel the "compost" off the tarp into a 5 gallon bucket then carry the bucket over to the exact place I wanted it in the garden and dump the contents. I had to do this about 4 times before the tarp's load was lightened enough that I could drag the rest to the garden. After a little trial and error, I got the proportions right enough to be able to drag a pile on the tarp every time.

The entire contents of the coop seemed very insignificant when it was all out on the garden spot. Very insignificant for 4 hours of labor. I think the job was completed just in time, however. With every shovel full of compost I noticed big puffs of dust emanating from the pile as I moved it from the back of the coop to the front. It was only when I picked a wayward hammer that was unearthed deep from the pile (how did that get there?) that I realized the compost was hot. Really hot! And the "puffs of smoke" I was seeing was steam (if you use your imagination, you can see steam in these pictures).

I have seen barns burn down from baled hay that was thought to be dry but in reality was still wet enough to become a smoldering bon fire. So I'm glad we got the chore completed when we did. Also, it's supposed to begin raining tonight and it is great to have the compost on the garden instead of in the coop.

The chickens seemed slightly grouchy to be moved from their digs during the clean out.  They were foraging outside most of the time during the shovelingbut meandered back in to lay eggs in the nesting boxes. Some of them took turns and others just pushed and shoved themselves into position.

It was pretty funny to watch.

The best part of all is that after the piles were placed out in the garden spot, the chickens jumped into one of their other jobs......scattering the mound all around. Just what I like to see: girls and boys hard at work!

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