Dirty Jobs

I know there’s a TV series out there about dirty jobs. I think the host ought to come out to the farm and clean a chicken coop with me.

It’s not like it was the worst cleaning of the season—that comes with the spring thaw, when the bedding pack is near three feet deep in places, wet and heavy, frozen in the corners, and matted down with straw and wood shavings. That would be a really messy job. Sometimes it takes days to work through the winter pack and haul it away.

So this cleanup after the ladies had moved out should be a breeze in comparison, right?

Well…while moving that winter pack is wet and sticky, the spring coop cleaning to prepare for the baby chick arrival is dry and dusty. Very dusty.

First, like with any coop cleaning, we have to scoop out the soiled bedding. Mom backs up the tractor and the manure spreader as close to the door as possible, and we prop open all the doors and windows for ventilation.

The hens have been out of the coop for a week, while I kept the fan running, so the messy muck from the ducks has dried to a firm, hard pack. Steve scoops while I chip away with the ice scraper, releasing the brown poultry concrete (we joked that it should be called “chickcreet”) from the actual cement floor. Chip, chip, chip…about half an inch at a stroke.

Steve had just bought himself a long-handled scoop shovel. The shovels that have been on the farm as long as I can remember have short handles, which work well for us short ladies, but poor Steve gets all doubled over with an aching back. But now, equipped with his Steve-sized shiny new tool, he was ready for action!

And there was action to be had—a manure spreader full of it. Scoop scrape, scoop scrape, until finally the floor of the 12 x 24 foot coop is cleared. But that is not the end of the story. Oh no, now it’s time for the dust!

Chickens do make a lot of dust. This comes in large part from the growth of feathers. When just developing (pin feathers), these modified scales are covered in a protective sheath made of carrageen. The same material as your fingernails, this sheath then shatters as the feather emerges into full form.

The shattered feather sheaths are very fine and end up collecting bedding dust from the hens dust bathing (a ritual that helps keep their skin pest free) and sticks to the walls, the ceiling, the chicken wire, the fan, the screens, the windows, etc. It sticks like a mat on the top of boards and dangles in odd strings from cobwebs.

Steve and I attack the dust with our best weapons—a broom and a shop vac. I know it might sound kind of crazy, but yes, I use a shop vac to help clean my chicken coop! Steve is up on a ladder with all the extensions on the end of the pipe, sucking up the dusty froth and knocking down the matted strips. I’m attacking the screens with the broom, clouds of dust fuming out the window.

The fan can be one of the worst parts to clean. On the inside, the dust has collected near a half an inch thick on the grating, and I carefully brush it off, letting it suck out through the fan outside. But on the outside, the dust has caked on the louvers and the hood. I attack with the broom the run behind the door for cover as a plume of gray dust spews out. Holding my breath, I dash back for another swat.

Inside, Steve is up by the chicken wire that separates the different sections of the coop. Some of the dust is being stubborn, not wanting to come off the rafters.

“Oh no you don’t!” Steve taunts. “Come down here where I can breathe you!”

There’s dust everywhere. It’s hard to see. Now and then we have to step outside to catch a breather. Our clothes are a light brown mottle—forget the blue or green that we originally put on that morning.

My glasses are coated in dust. I periodically pull them off and blow on them or wipe them with my finger like a windshield. This process is intense! I’m glad I’m wearing a wide-brimmed hat!

Steve has made his way from the back almost to the front door, and I come behind sweeping up the floor in preparation for spreading the barn lime. Darkness is settling, and there’s another freeze warning, so there won’t be time to spread fresh bedding and heat the space for the chicks tonight. But then, I’ll leave the fan running, and by morning the air will be clear.

What started as a dried-on poopy mess is now cleared to the wood and cement. I’ve repaired any damage to the chicken wire with zip ties, and the floor is snowy with a coat of fresh lime. You can actually see light through the windows, and the screens allow free air movement.

It’s a real makeover for the coop, but there’s no question that this is one of those dirty jobs on the farm. I sure hope those little chicks will appreciate the effort. But for now it’s time to hit the shower. Whew, glad that one’s off the list! See you down on the farm sometime.