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.
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.
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.
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.
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.