The Annual Poop-Out

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When we lived in Manhattan, there were all kinds of things we simply got used to. Street noise. Walls shared with neighbors. Nosy doormen. They come with city living, and your choice is to either make peace with them or be perpetually unhappy. We chose A.

Out here in the sticks, we’ve got a new set of things to get used to. Insects. Heating bills. Having to drive absolutely everywhere. And chicken poop.

Oh please -- not in the car!

If you’re going to have chickens, there’s no way around having chicken poop. Chickens poop, wherever, whenever. They poop on our front stoop, on all the outdoor furniture, in the driveway, in the garage. They don’t poop where we don’t let them go – inside the house – but we end up with chicken poop there anyway because we step in it and track it all over.

If you’re unfamiliar with chicken poop, and picture a small, dainty product, let me disabuse you of that notion. Maybe it’s because their mostly-plant diet is high in undigestibles, or maybe it’s a function of a gizzard-driven digestive system, or maybe there’s some kind of contest going on that we don’t know about, but chicken poop can be prodigious.

If there is a contest, first place goes to Henzilla (a.k.a. Queenie), our broody hen. Because she’s reluctant to leave the nest, she just holds it in. When we remove her bodily from the coop, she generally takes some food, drinks some water, and then excretes something a pony would be proud of.

I’ve read that a laying chicken, confined, will produce about a quarter-pound of manure each day. My theory is that our unconfined birds, since they burn more calories, eat more and excrete more. A conservative estimate is that our flock will poop about a thousand pounds a year. Once the moisture content, which is around 70%, evaporates, we’re down to a mere 300 pounds.

It seems like a good half of that ends up on my shoes, but I realize that’s a perception problem. I suspect about a third of it ends up scattered across the property, a third in the run, and a third in the coop, where our birds roost for the night.

Our deep litter

The scattered poop takes care of itself, one way or another. It either exits the property on boot soles or car tires, or it gradually decomposes in situ. The poop in the run, astonishingly, disappears. The run’s floor is coated with a thick layer of wood chips, and the poop seems to sink in and break down as the chickens scratch and peck. The coop poop, though, is enclosed, which means we have to deal with it.

There are many ways to manage chicken poop (and you can read about all of them at www.backyardchickens.com, the go-to site for amateur chicken keepers), but we chose the “deep litter” method, which calls for putting a thick layer of bedding (pine shavings, in our case) on the coop floor, and periodically mixing in the poop.

This method is supposed to have all sorts of advantages. The process by which chicken poop becomes fertilizer begins in the litter layer as the manure breaks down. In winter, the litter acts as an insulating layer in the coop, and it may even generate some heat as the mixture breaks down. Robert Plamondon, an Oregon farmer who dispenses chicken advice, says that deep litter is probiotic and fights coccidiosis, a common chicken disease.

The biggest advantage, as far as I’m concerned, is that you only have to clean out the coop once a year. Once a year! I’m in.

Kevin and I decided to do the Annual Poop-Out last week.

Of course, when you only clean something once a year, the event can take on mythic significance. When I was a kid, the garage was the thing we cleaned once a year. The date was never set in advance, and my father would spring it on my brothers and me over breakfast on a Saturday in May. “Time for the Annual Miracle,” he’d say, and we’d groan and gripe. The Annual Miracle consisted of taking everything out of the garage, scattering sweeping compound, sweeping, and then putting everything back in, in some semblance of order. Naturally, my father always chose a nice day for this – why would you clean out the garage in the rain? – and I remember hating having to participate.

Raking it out

Kevin and I decided to do the Annual Poop-Out last week. We started our deep litter last summer, when we first put the chickens in the coop, but we wanted to get it cleaned a few months ahead of schedule so we could compost the litter in time to use it on this year’s garden.

I was steeled for it. I expected that cleaning out a chicken coop in which chickens had been pooping for nigh-on a year would be a smelly, dirty, icky job. If I let the cat box go that long, there’d be hell to pay. But it turned out to be a breeze. The litter was completely dry and absolutely inoffensive. Other than an occasional whiff of ammonia, we didn’t smell a thing.

We raked the litter into a wheelbarrow, wheeled it down to the composter, and shoveled it in. Then we made a second trip. Then we opened the bag of compressed pine shavings we’d bought at Cape Cod Feed & Supply, and spread them in the coop. The whole job took about half an hour.

Halfway to fertilizer

Not only is chicken poop something I’ve gotten used to, it’s something I value. Once we compost it, we’ll have enough to fertilize our garden, and plenty left over to share with friends. Since chicken-manure fertilizer is expensive (a six-pound container of Cockadoodle Doo goes for about $12), I’ve found that gardeners we know really appreciate it.

We’ve promised some to our friend Christl, who has the best vegetable garden I’ve ever seen. In return, she’s raising some tomato seedlings for us. I think it’s an excellent trade. I get her beautiful Sungold tomato plants, lovingly raised and tended by a skilled and experienced hand, and she gets my chicken shit.

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Comments

  1. Ah, the “Annual Miracle.” Always on a nice day, of course, but in the fall, not the spring. The cars sat outside in the driveway all summer and the garage absolutely filled up with junk. When the coming winter made garage storage mandatory it was time to make room for the cars. The cleaning was incidental, the real objective was to reduce the floor space taken up by junk by 95%. The “miracle” was that my kids–under my expert supervision, of course–actually did it every year.

  2. That makes all my spring cleaning jobs seem pleasant. I’m glad it wasn’t as bad as expected!!

  3. Yes! What a great post! So far, I’ve been giving all my squirrel-bitten vegetables to my friends’ chickens with the hope of some poop in my future. By the way, do you have any advice for keeping a marauding squirrel away from the garden?

  4. I’m going to lower the tone of this post considerably by telling you that:

    a) chicken poop is also chicken wee, it comes as a 2 for 1 package with chickens, and

    b) chicken poop is a delicacy amongst dogs, second only to calf scouring (..don’t even ask). Our yard is tidier because of my 8 strong canine cleaning crew. If you ever come and visit and the dogs try to kiss you, you have been warned.

  5. Dad — I stand corrected. Of course it makes much more sense that we did it in the fall. All I remember clearly is the indignity and blue-green color of the sweeping compound.

    Fiona — It wasn’t nearly as bad as washing windows, and I bet that’s on your spring-cleaning list. (When you’re done with yours, if you want to tackle mine …)

    Jocelyn — I hope you don’t toss the whole veg just because a squirrel took a little bite! I’ve learned to share all over again since we moved out here. As for keeping squirrels out of a garden — that’s beyond my pay grade. They’re persistent and agile, an unfortunate combination. Good luck!

    Jen — Chickens are like those European appliances that are both washer and dryer. They do both things with one apparatus. And I do thank you for sharing that nice tidbit about dog snacks. Fortunately, I’m not easily put off a friendly dog. One last note — although I think I lower the tone of my posts quite proficiently on my own, you know I’m always glad to have your help.

  6. I had heard that chicken droppings were potent enough to burn a plant if applied “raw”, so composting is necessary. What I wondered: if you switched to a late-fall clean-out and spread the chicken cleanings directly onto fallow garden areas, would it burn weed seeds thus preventing their spring germination? Would winter snows mellow the droppings enough to make the garden spring-ready for planting? You might get double benefits without having to wait through a composting phase.

  7. Sign us up for some of that miracle poop and we promise you access to Big Bertha and the deep-fried morsels therein.

  8. Well, it’s only been radishes and sour oranges so far, and the blasted squirrel has the gall to dig up/pick off the produce before it’s ripe and ready, take a bite, then toss the rest in disdain. Total jerk!

  9. Jocelyn, Hot Pepper oil might help with the pesky squirrels. You can pick it up at your garden shop or online. Good luck. Hi Tamar.

  10. Basia — I like the way you think! I don’t have the foggiest idea whether that would work. My concern would be that, if it were spread thin in relatively cold weather, the poop wouldn’t break down properly. I don’t completely understand the chemistry behind composting, but it seems to require a certain critical mass that you might not get in your scenario. Still, though, worth pursuing with people who know more than I do (who aren’t hard to find!).

    Dianne — Absolutely! I’ll earmark some for you.

    Jocelyn — There’s a special place in hell for squirrels like that. I’d try Rick’s idea and stock up on hot pepper oil.

    Rick — Thanks for the tip! I’m keeping it in reserve for when the squirrels discover our garden.

  11. While I totally appreciate the benefits of the rich droppings it is the added benefit of their tillage and weed seed collection I have grown to love. IT is much easier to get the chickens to clean up the garden at the end of the season than to negotiate that chore with the kids.

  12. Got a bit boring in this last hour at The Wine List. Thought, “wonder what Tamar is up to?” You just encouraged me to man up and do what the girls here insist is exclusively my job due to the high gross factor–Clean the grease trap. I’ve been away from here for 2 months. Should get interesting. Thanks for the inspiration…I’m goin’ in!

  13. Tommy — Some day, I hope to inspire you to poetry. In the meantime, I’ll settle for the grease trap. Break a leg.