Monday, March 31, 2014

Lesson learned: Don't use hay as bedding in a chicken coop

It's amateur hour over here at Simple Life Ain't Easy.

I'm pretty sure I was warned specifically about using hay for bedding in a chicken coop, but we all learn our lessons better if the mistakes are our own.

During the harshest part of this '13-'14 winter here in Michigan I thought I would start offering my chickens a special treat. I found a bale of alfalfa hay with grass mixed it. A nice soft green colored bale tied and wrapped in a neat plastic bag. "A forage for horses" is how it was described.

My chickens free range most days of the week even during winter. I clear a few walking paths so they can get out and hopefully find some snow soaked grass to tear up.

This winter that didn't happen. Months passed without my ladies getting out. The snow was just too high to shovel. When I saw the hay bale I imagined this would brighten their currently dim existence.

I added a layer of the hay/grass mix to the bottom of their coop. They loved it. Scratched at it all day until it was mixed into their pine shavings that I keep layered on the bottom in a deep litter method.

The next week I layered in more hay and even filled their nest boxes with it. For several weeks I did this. They certainly seemed to enjoy it and it made the coop smell lovely.

What I actually do know, but failed to apply to this situation for unknown mental reasons, is that hay and grass are both "green" in compost terms. Chicken manure is also a "green" meaning it contains a high amount of nitrogen. For a deep litter method to work, you need proper ratios of browns, which has a lot of carbon, and greens to balance the amount of ammonia that can build up.  What I was essentially building were layers of mud bricks in the coop, trapping moisture and ammonia below. The coop smelled fine and the top layer was mostly dry, and while the bottom layer stayed frozen I did not realize I even had a problem.

This week we finally started to completely unthaw in Michigan.

I bared my bright white arms in the warm sun for the first time in months yesterday. The day was just lovely until...

I started turning over the unthawed bedding in the chicken coop.

My god it smelled so bad I thought I was going to die from ammonia poisoning. The bottom layers of the deep litter were so wet and the top layer was working just like a dry mud brick trapping all the moisture in.

It was the worst my chicken coop has even been.

I scraped everything out. I Left the doors open to air out for at least an hour. I Filled the coop back in with pine shavings and left the big doors open for the rest of the day.

Even as I spread the removed bedding along the paths in my garden, the smell was just overwhelming. Thankfully I have two coops attached to each other, so my chickens were not forced to live in this one alone. They have plenty of space and lots of options. And thankfully I only put the hay in the one coop.

The hay does seem to work ok in the nest boxes and is much softer than straw, I may continue to use it there. But I will stick with fine flake pine shavings for the bottom of the coop from here on out. Lesson learned.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Treating a chicken with sour crop

Chicken is throwing up, not eating, and crop feels swollen. Your chicken may have a sour crop.

Tail feathers pointed down or a chicken who does not want to roost are sure signs of an illness.

Tail feathers pointed down
is a sign of a sick chicken

This is the second time in last two months this happened to our favorite hen. I go out to the coop to check on my girls and there is 'Bella' (my two year old named her) sitting in the corner. At first I thought she was choking, she had a brown liquid bubbling up in her beak and she was sort of tossing her head trying to get it out. I went to pick her up and the pressure of my hands on her crop cause her to spit out a bubble of brown stew. 

I massaged her crop for a minute - it felt swollen and full of liquid. She continued to spit out the brown stuff. As usual I ran in to google the problem. The diagnosis: Sour crop. 

I brought her inside and set her up in our entrance way in the big blue bin we always use to transfer chickens or to keep sick ones inside. 

It's cold here right now. Damn cold. The entrance way is freezing still, so I put a heater in the room to get the temperature up to at least 60F for her. 

Whenever I have a sick chicken for any reason at all, I put a healthy dose of real apple cider vinegar in their water. Not enough to deter them from drinking, but at least a few tablespoons per liter. Apple cider vinegar contains live cultures that help alkalize the body and help replenish the good bacteria that crowd out too much yeast. This is actually a true fact, not just some hippie herbal medicine talk. 

Because sour crop is actually a yeast infection in the crop, apple cider vinegar is good for preventing and helping to cure sour crop. It's a good idea to add a few tablespoons of vinegar to their water year round, but sometimes I don't always have it together and I forget.

Do not give a bird with sour crop any food. They need time to pass through what is already in there. Some sites say not to give water, but I think the water/vinegar mixture is important to help neutralize the yeast. 

The thing that I think helped my chicken get better both times she had this was to gently pick her up, step outside (this is important), flip her over onto her back and massage her crop. Watch your feet cause a lot of nasty brown liquid comes out very quickly as soon as you turn her over!

Gently turn the chicken on her back,
use your other hand to massage her crop
and encourage the liquid to come out

Watch out, this nasty brown stuff comes out pretty quick!
I did this maneuver at least once every hour for the first 3 or 4 hours after I brought her inside. The first 3 times a lot of liquid gurgled out. The 4th and 5th times just a little trickled out. Bella was clearly feeling better and was walking around the entrance way after about 4 hours. I kept her inside for one more day just to keep her warm and did the flipping maneuver a few more times to make sure all the liquid was out. 

I encouraged her to drink the vinegar water after she was feeling better. 

She was ready to go outside the next day and join the other ladies back in the coop.

I can see that if I had not noticed Bella acting sick that this could have killed her very quickly. With sour crop it is important that you take action right away and try to get the liquid out and a dose of vinegar in to neutralize the yeast. 

Adding some probiotics to the water, or giving your chicken some plain yogurt after she is feeling better will help boost the immune system and attempt to clear up any infection. 

Lastly, if you feed your chickens kitchen scraps you should keep a supply of grit available especially during the winter months. This helps them digest their food properly and may prevent sour crop.