As the mother of three, I have dealt with my share of poop. The Bearded One’s nose is less sensitive although his poop credentials are just as impressive from caring for 150 Iditarod sled dogs years ago in the wilds of Alaska. He says the chicken coop smell isn’t that bad, yet. But for me, she of the delicate olfactory, the fall rains heightening all the farm smells are the last straw. Something must be done.
We have just 8 chickens — Kimber the banty hen and her Seven Chicks rescued from a defunct farm five weeks ago. They live in an 8×8 foot coop inside a large 30×30 foot covered chicken aviary. We’ll let them out into the pasture when the chicks are 2 months old. In the meantime, the poultry palace is their environment and they are thriving, even as it gets stinkier.
Kimber is a good mom, and the chicks are growing as fast as the potholes on the road, gorging on sweet, homegrown corn. They flock to it and us, but we still haven’t picked one up. Kimber is very leery and apparently psychic; she calls the chicks to her when I even think about picking one up.
So this year I’m drying the kernels and grinding it into cornmeal, which smells so deeply and wonderfully corny I wonder what they do to the store-bought cornmeal to make it so cardboardy.
Through the open kitchen window, as I process the corn, I can smell the sawdust from the two hemlock trees we had cut down this week.
Hemlock’s not as pungent as cedar, but the moisture in the air swells the wood smell to the point that I want to snort it.
The Bearded One comes in from cutting up the branches and I snuffle his shirt and hair. He spots the pile of freshly cut basil in the fridge and is happy to hear I’m making pesto later. One of the richest parts of our lives is the food we get to eat.
What I like about farm people, including our neighbor Momma Goose who gave us the chickens, is that no one acts like they know it all. Instead they smile and say I do this, I used to do that, try this or, like at the farm store this week, “I read in Mother Earth magazine over there (points to book stand) to use peat moss. Straw doesn’t absorb. It’s great for warmth in the nests, but you need something absorbent on the ground. Use wood shavings or pellets in the bottom of the nests.”
Peat moss is the Deep Litter Method of chicken poop management in an earthen floor coop. You spread a very thick layer of “browns” like in a compost pile — pine shavings or peat moss — and then the high-nitrogen chicken poop is the “green.” The chickens do the aeration with their scratching, and theoretically, there is way less smell. You clean the coop out once or twice a year, end up with compost, and the lucky chickens get to scratch through the beneficial microbes. It’s good for them.
We come home and I open the poultry palace gate and push the wheelbarrow into the chamber. Kimber cackles and eyeballs me. I rake the smelly old straw into piles. “It doesn’t absorb worth a hoot,” I explain to her. This is the last straw we’ll need around here except for the nests, where it will get changed frequently.
She isn’t interested. She herds the chicks to the waterer, which is gone because we’re cleaning it. Instead she finds the Bearded One shoveling gravel into a low plateau to help keep the water area cleaner. “Brr -kk!” She swoops onto the straw piled in the wheelbarrow and the chicks follow. “Brr-k! Where in the hell are we supposed to be?” she complains to me.
I rake the old straw from the corner of the coop and the chicks all flutter over to peck at a teeny little bit of exposed styrofoam, which they lovelovelove. Kimber calls them back — Brrrr–kkk! — and they all respond, except Marilyn, whose head is deep in the hole. I don’t even think, bend over and with both hands pick her up. She freezes, lets me nestle her light little body against my palms. I call for the Bearded One. “I’m holding Marilyn!” But he has gone back down the tractor trail and can’t hear me.
“Brrrr –KK!” Kimber rushes in, ruffled and flapping. “Enough excitement for one day!” she caws. “This is the last straw! Put her down!”
I open my hands to let Marilyn fly. I’m sure she hesitates leaving my own maternal embrace, just for a moment. Pretty sweet.