Chicken poop nincompoop June 13, 2012
Our personal flock recently had its very first illness, and I am 100% to blame. In seven years, we’ve had to worm our flock ONCE. That’s the single solitary health problem we’ve ever had.
Then, I had to go and get dumb.
Although I’m smacking my forehead and slightly embarrassed about my lapse in judgment, I’m going to share it with you so you don’t make the same mistake I did. Here’s how it started…
At a recent stint on Connecticut Public radio to discuss the backyard chicken trend (The Colin McEnroe show–what an incredibly bright guy and excellent radio host, by the way), the “chicken” guest sitting next to me was a lovely, small-scale organic farmer, who proudly gifted Colin a baggie of beautiful, deep brown, finely composted chicken poo before the show. I was shocked–my chicken compost looks nothing like that. The conversation went something like this:
Me: How long does it take your bedding to compost down like that?
Her: Shrugs. A few months.
Me: Mine takes FOREVER to break down that well. What’s your trick? Do you use that compost starter stuff?
Her: I bed my chickens on hay because pine shavings take too long to decompose.
Sure, I know that hay is not a good bedding material. I’ve been telling you all that for years. But, I never tried it. Could it really hurt all that much? Hay is cheap, I figured–no harm in giving it a try just to see what happens. Maybe it’ll be awesome!
Of course, you all know what happened. The hay didn’t absorb the poo and moisture very well. I didn’t change it often enough, thinking I could treat it like pine shavings. My coop got too damp. My chickens got sick. First came the sneezing, then the side-to-side head shaking, then the chest-rattling. Some of my hens became listless. I was worried and feeling like a total moron–which, of course, I kind of was.
Enter the coolest vet, Dr. Kimberly McClure Brinton, a backyard, free-range, pet chicken keeper herself. She came out to our coop, checked the chooks’ mouths for phlegm, eased a thermometer up their you-know-where to check for fever, and listened to their breathing with a stethoscope. She checked for mites and gathered stool samples for the lab, to check for intestinal parasites, which weaken the immune system (we didn’t, even though we free-range our birds!). After extensive examination, Dr. Kim determined that our respiratory problem was pretty mild, and limited to the upper respiratory tract. It would be very expensive and time-consuming to figure out the exact cause–bacterial or viral–and we couldn’t wait to find out before we started treating them, for fear they’d worsen. She advised us to treat them with the antibiotic Oxytetracycline. If they weren’t improving after 3-4 days, she’d move us on to Tylan.
But it worked. Within a few days they were obviously feeling better. We administered the antibiotics for 10 days, and continued to withdraw (throw out) the eggs for another 5 days after that, as she recommended. (The antibiotics do pass through to the eggs, so you really shouldn’t eat them.)
And, at some point during the antibiotic treatment, I remembered: that lovely small farmer said she changed her bedding once a week. She looked at me like I was an alien when I told her I change mine every month or more–and it’s no wonder. SHE was smart. SHE moved their poop on out before it got too damp in her coop. I probably let it go 3-4 weeks.
Bottom line: I knew better than that. And I’m slightly embarrassed, but not too ashamed to tell you about it, because I hope to prevent you from making the same mistake.
Since then, I’ve been researching ways to kick-start the composting process on my spent bedding. We already turn it occasionally; we add all sorts of kitchen compost including egg shells; we add water when we feel it’s too dry. The Seattle Tilth website has some good general rules of thumb for composting chicken poo, which we loosely follow. What interests me is this issue of whether to add a compost starter–the beneficial micro-organisms that start the breakdown process–or whether simply adding some dirt on top of the old, poopy shavings you’ve removed will suffice. What do you do, readers? How do you compost your chicken bedding? How’s it working out for you?
Finally, I’ve learned two things about pine shavings that make them more attractive. First, I can change them less frequently if I take a shovel and turn the bedding every so often, to keep them from getting compacted or too wet in any one area. Second, many plants including blueberries love both shavings and chicken manure–and we love blueberries–so we’re now “prepping” a 30′ x 30′ patch for an autumn blueberry bush planting by dumping our spent shavings on it. Easy peasy. I guess pine shavings aren’t so bad, after all.