by Jenny Brown
I’ve taught chicken raising classes on our small farm and the most common misconception of newbie chicken owners is their vision of an always storybook clean coop like in the hobby-farm magazines. Contrary to the tidy Little Red Hen we grew up with, hens do not keep house well and they’ll poop on anything they can stand on.
I guarantee you, no matter how cutesie your coop may be, your hens won’t share in your appreciation.
A previous student of mine and excellent carpenter began building a chicken coop before he attended my class. It was well constructed and creatively thought out. He built nesting boxes with a flat lid on top which doubled as a bench. He envisioned sitting in the coop with his kids and watching their little flock of chickens. What he didn’t envision was the fact that his flock would perch on the bench and provide a thick layer of nitrogen cushioning! The lid was re-designed with a steep slant…the chicken watching had to be a ‘bring your own chair’ event.
So, needless to say, chicken coops periodically need a good cleaning.
When I first started raising chickens, I used to evacuate my birds from their home for 2 days every spring and do a serious bleach wash. I bleached everything…the floors, the walls, the roosts, and the nesting boxes. That’s what the books told me to do.
I got headaches from the chlorine fumes and began to wonder if this was really necessary and healthy for my birds. Wood is porous and absorbs what ever cleaners you use to wash it with, leaving chemical residue. With the delicate nature of poultry’s respiratory system, could that be harmful to them? I began to think so.
I now just use good old soap and hot water and allow plenty of sunlight in to help dry the wood and kill any surface bacteria. No more bleach headaches and risk to my birds. If your chickens are healthy and you see no sign of problems in your coop, there is no need to use harsh chemicals to clean. You may be causing more harm than good. So, unless your birds have contracted a disease, illness, or serious infestation, I would consider keeping your poultry’s environment free from chemical cleaners.
This doesn’t free you from cleaning! If your birds have pasture or a large area to free-range, I recommend thoroughly cleaning out your coop twice a year. A thorough cleaning in the fall will provide a fresh environment for your birds when the winter months set in, and an early spring cleaning after winter will be needed since winter usage is heavier. If you have a smaller yard, cleaning a couple times in between may be necessary since your coop is more trafficked than pastured birds.
Tips on cleaning the coop:
My chickens pacing while waiting for the door to re-open
1. Shoo the chickens into the yard and close the chicken door. Your birds will not be very helpful in the cleaning process.
2. Remove all straw from the coop, both on the floor and in the nests. I have a wheel barrow sitting outside the coop that I load the soiled straw into with a pitchfork. It is then hauled off to the compost pile to sit over winter for next year’s garden fertilizer. This is where a 1/2 door on your coop comes in handy. I can pitch the straw out without allowing the chickens in.
Using a floor scraper will get the ‘tough-stuff’ off.
3. Scrape and sweep out any residue on the floor and in the nests. I wear a respirator when cleaning to avoid breathing in dust.
My favorite tool for cleaning off the residue is a floor scraper which can be found at a hardware store. It is wonderful for getting the caked on manure off the floor, window sills, ramps, and perches (pretty much anything they poop on).
Work your way down the wall, cleaning the floor last.
4. Once all residue and dust is removed and you’ve swept it all out as clean as you can, scrub everything down. Start with the top of the walls and work your way down with a firm utility brush. Wipe or hose it down and allow as much sunlight in the coop as possible to dry it out.
Diatomaceous earth (which is microscopic skeletal remains of tiny fossilized water plants.)
Applied in the coop, it works as a method of natural pest control!
5. Once the coop is dry (which if you clean on a warm day, should be within a few hours), I sprinkle a fine layer of diatomaceous earth over the floor, in the nests, and under the perches. Diatomaceous Earth (or DE), when consumed by small pests, such as mites, will absorb the pests body fluids and the substance’s microscopic glass-like nature will literally shred their insides and kill them. It is natural, inexpensive pest prevention and safe for your birds. One thing you should keep in mind is that it is ineffective once it is wet. That is why it is not effective as an internal de-wormer for your livestock as many people have been led to believe. It absorbs the animals body fluids and then is not very effective, if at all, on the internal pest. When sprinkling the DE, you must evacuate all birds and wear a mask. It’s fine powdery substance can be damaging to both you and your birds respiratory tracts. Whenever you use it, wait for the dust to settle before allowing your birds back in.
6. Now for my favorite part…the fresh straw. Barley straw is my personal choice for bedding. It is soft, absorbs moisture better than wheat straw (which tends to cake easier), and is a beautiful bright yellow! I choose not to use pine shavings, except for my young chicks, since it does not compost as well as straw. I look at the whole cycle of what I use. What comes out of my coop will go into my garden later.
7. Let the hens in and watch them excitedly scratch around and fling straw all over the place. If chickens could smile, they’d all have big grins when allowed in their freshly cleaned coop. It is at that moment that I am reworded for all my hard work. I have often times let them in when spreading the straw, they seem to have a grand time tearing apart the bale which they can easily do in a matter of minutes. It all depends on if I want to use the whole bale or not.
8. Now, go take a hot shower, you’ll need it!