It's that time of year again - when the weather finally gets above 40 degrees and we're tricked once again into thinking that we'll be able to get out and sow some spring seeds. Unfortunately, what usually happens is that we open up the seed packets, only to get another foot of snow (as happened back in 2011).
But whether we get another big snowfall or not, what we will get is a lot of melting snow, which invariably means mud. The higher temperatures also mean that all of the clucker muck that was frozen onto the floor of the coop (no matter how hard I tried to clean it out earlier) is finally melted. And that means trouble for chickens.
So what's a chicken keeper to do? I've learned that strict coop cleaning is a must. Not super-sanitation, mind you (I've never used bleach or other chemical cleaners in my coop), but clearing out the leaves whenever the weather warms up. I usually aim for cleaning out the coop once a week, unless the weather is really cold (think sub-zero for over a week), in which case I'll wait until the forecast calls for warmer temps. No need to freeze myself and the chickens when the nasties are dormant anyway.
Now, I should make a confession here - I like cleaning my chicken coop. When you change the bedding regularly, the smell isn't overwhelming (which is half the point! Ammonia is just as irritating to your chickens' lungs as it is to yours!) It's also still pretty light and easy to handle. My coop is an old 10x12 garden shed, and I add about two fresh 55-gallon sized bags of leaves each time I clean it out (leaves gathered from friends' yards in the fall - which they're more than happy to give me if the kids and I will come and gather them!) So that's not a huge job. Plus, the thought of all of the health and vitality I'm getting from the job keeps me going - not only am I getting those pathogens away from my chickens (I'd rather be taking out dirty leaves than dead chickens any day), but I'm also getting the ammonia out of the air for the chickens and rabbits (we have my son's meat rabbit cages above the chickens, an idea we gleaned from Daniel Salatin's "Racken House"), I'm spreading valuable fertilizer on my garden beds (I take the clucker muck directly from the coop to the garden - no need to move it twice!), and I'm getting myself some much needed exercise, sunshine, and fresh air instead of huddling in the house trying to stay warm. Multi-tasking at its best! What's not to like?
One more thing I'd like to note is that it's very important to have a place for your chickens to dust bathe. When everything is so wet outside, they need a dry place to dust themselves to minimize mites and other nasty little critters. I have an old wooden box under the nest boxes (where they won't poop in it while they're roosting) which I fill with ashes from our pellet stove. I'll often find two or three birds in there at a time - they seem glad for the chance to get "clean"!
Before I start getting comments, I should note that I have tried the Deep Litter Method (in which you leave the bedding in all winter, and just keep adding more as needed - making less work for you, and a healthier mix of probiotic organisms in the bedding). In fact, I've tried it multiple times, with disastrous results. I don't know if my coop was overcrowded, or if my extra-cold winters are too hard on the "good" bacteria, or if I didn't add enough bedding, but every time I tried it I ended up with dead chickens in the spring (as you can see, I've obsessed over everything I could possibly have done wrong! I wanted it to work!) So - been there, done that, didn't work for me, feel free to try it for yourself and I'm so glad if it works for you!