Once the weather turns cold, your chickens are going to be spending a lot more time inside their coop and may not go outside for days at a time. The longer your chickens are cooped up, the greater the opportunity for their liquid and solid waste to pile up, creating a smelly and unsanitary situation.
Poultry hygiene is important. So is keeping your coop clean, which helps prevent illnesses for both birds and people.
“Practicing consistent and good coop hygiene is important for healthy chickens,” according to Dr. Anne Lichtenwalner, director of the University of Maine veterinary diagnostic laboratory. “Plus birds may shed bacteria that make us ill but don’t make them ill, like salmonella.”
Salmonella is a bacterial disease found in fresh chicken poop and that causes diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever in people.
“This is why it is so important to always wash your hands and practice good personal hygiene around chickens,” Lichtenwalner said. “Keeping things clean in the coop is also important.”
Left unchecked, buildup of poop, especially in nesting boxes, can create the perfect conditions for coliform salpingitis, an inflammation of a hen’s oviducts and uterus caused by bacteria.
To keep things from getting to that point, you may want to consider using the deep litter method of chicken bedding.
Deep litter bedding basically turns the floor of your chicken coop into a composter over the winter. Just like with other composting, you want to alternate layers of brown and green organics and mix them together on a regular basis.
Here’s how it works. Start by spreading a six-inch layer of pine shavings on the coop’s floor. You can also add a layer of fresh straw. The shavings and straw are the composting brown materials. The chickens will take care of adding the nitrogen-rich green materials whenever they poop.
Exposing the materials to oxygen is crucial to the composting process. Luckily the chickens are going to help as they naturally scratch at and turn over whatever materials are on the floor of their coop. You can further encourage them by tossing in some “scratch” — cracked corn, barley, oats, sunflower seeds or millet — at bedtime. In the morning they will happily scratch through the shavings and straw to find the treats.
The materials can also be turned over on a regular basis with a shovel, or you can simply poke holes into them using the tines of a rake. The important thing is to make sure your coop compost is getting aerated.
Keep adding new straw every day until you have built up a 12-inch thick layer of compost. You don’t have to shovel out or remove anything until the spring. The deep litter method also maintains a healthy environment for your chickens.
“This time of year it’s especially important to clean your nest boxes and put in fresh shavings,” Lichtenwalner said. “As soon as you take out the eggs for the day, flick out any manure in the box and out in a handful of the fresh shavings.”
The colder it gets, Lichtenwalner said, the more chickens like to perch together or just sit in the nesting boxes and poop can easily build up in a short time.
But by paying attention to the nesting boxes and remaining consistent with deep litter practices you will have a clean coop and in the spring you will have compost that can go directly on your flower garden — though you should avoid putting it on growing vegetables as salmonella can remain active in composted chicken manure. As a bonus, the process of composting generates heat that will help keep your chickens warm over the winter.