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.