Embracing Change

Animals are creatures of habit. We can see this in our dogs and their expected routines. Cats enjoy their favorite spots and expected feedings. Farm animals are no exception. Cows expect milking at certain times, pigs make a big ruckus if breakfast is running late, and sheep vocally express their disdain at being locked in or locked out of shelter when they expect otherwise.

The birds on the farm are also quite interested in their routines. Breakfast arrives by a certain time, they get to roam outside, and this time of year I ought to arrive in the morning with a block of pork suet or a frozen lamb liver for extra energy during the cold of winter. If I forget the suet, arrive a little late, or the water or feed have run empty, I hear about it! Squawking, flapping, general disdain. Some of the hens even come and pull on my chore pants and peck my boots, crying, “Where are my goodies! I deserve more!”

But of course, their routine changes throughout the year. In the summer, they learn to anticipate the days when their hay-wagon shelter is pulled to a new location by the ATV or truck. They await inside, crammed up to the chicken wire on the front, watching us put up the electric mesh fence. “Let me at it, let me out NOW!” But once the winter routine becomes entrenched, they are eager to stick to the plan.

Part of the winter routine for the poultry means spending more time inside the coop. It gets dark earlier, and the birds enjoy the lit interior instead of the early night outside. The humidity from their breathing condenses on the walls and ceiling of the uninsulated coop during the cold nights and chilly days, piling up in icy crystals. More time inside means more poop in the coop, and when that breathy condensation melts during a warm, sunny day, the coop can quickly become a wet, soggy, poopy mess. Yuck!

Most winters, when faced with this situation, I would haul in more fresh wood shavings and pile them on top. This creates a “deep bedding pack,” which is insulative against the cold coming up from the ground as the deeper layers slowly decompose, creating heat. This is a recognized method for keeping poultry in cold winter climates. But the method has its problems as well.

First, as the bedding deepens, opening doors can become a problem, especially if the doors open into the coop. Sometimes a serious body slam is needed just to get in through the door in the morning! Feeders have to be hung higher, and dust holes become so deep that the hens almost disappear in their luxury. But the worst part of all is the spring cleaning!

The spring thaw coop cleaning with a deep bedding pack is total torture. Some parts of the coop have bedding piled up higher than my knee! It’s back breaking to get it all out, so this winter I decided to take a different approach. Each month, when that warmup happens and the bedding gets soggy and poopy and smelly, before the next cold spell, I’m out cleaning the whole thing and bringing in fresh bedding. I was willing to change the winter bird routine to avoid such a horrible spring clean experience!

The birds, however, were not interested in my idea of changing the routine.

You would think that the idea of having a clean, dry, sweet-smelling coop would be appealing to turkeys, ducks, and chickens. It would be for me! But here is what happened during my Monday coop cleaning.

First, Kara used the Bobcat to scoop a path in the snow for me to back the golf cart with the dump bed up to the door, so I could shovel out the bedding right into the bed, drive off to our winter pile, dump, and return. I used to do winter cleanings with a wheelbarrow, but this method is much better for the shoulders. Scoop, scoop, scoop. I prop the front door open for easy access, opening up all the other doors in the coop so it’s easy for the birds to get out of my way as I traipse back and forth.

The coop is split into three sections, and I’ve cleaned it more than enough times to know that if I take all the bedding out and then put all new bedding in while it is still occupied by adult birds they have a way of getting underfoot, cramming into corners, and slip-sliding around. So I clean a segment, put down fresh bedding and straw in the nesting boxes, then tackle the next chunk. To me, this would seem much more ideal for the birds. While I’m hacking away at a nasty part, they have a nice, cozy, clean part to hang out in. And a few birds do get the idea and move over to the freshened patch.

Most of the birds, however, don’t get the invitation to a better coop—outside of the ducks, who just stay outside for the whole cleaning process, waiting for the fuss to settle down. The hens claw and scratch at the leading edge of the scooped-out bedding, right where the shovel needs to go. Others determinedly stand on the old bedding, like leaving the pile will result in a brush with mortality or something equally horrible. Moving hens in the nesting box in order to clean out the old pans and place fresh straw inside results in horrified squawking, flapping, and chicken tantrums.

Eventually, I’m down to the last patch of dirty bedding in the far corner, under the roosts. I have to go down on my knees, crawl underneath with the shovel ahead of me, carefully extract the next shove-full of bedding, crawl backwards, then stand up and haul it out to the dump bed. On that little patch of dirty bedding are crammed as many hens as possible, almost standing on top of each other. All around them are comfy, dry, cozy places to go with fresh bedding, but they’re not willing to leave the last vestiges of dirty, sticky, wet bedding.

Why? If they took a moment to assess the situation, surely they would embrace the change in their coop. And once it’s all done and the tools put away and the waters refilled and I’m no longer traipsing in and out, they’re quite happy with their new digs, scratching in the new bedding to their heart’s content.

I think the problem for the birds (which might also be the problem most of us face when trying to embrace change) is the disturbance in their routine that is required for the change to happen. Yes, they do like the freshly-cleaned coop. Their mood improves, the eggs are cleaner, and there is less fighting. But they would much rather have the dirty coop than deal with the disturbance to their entire day to have it cleaned. They’ll stand on that last island of icky bedding until there is no other option but to get off, even though it’s a land of happy toes all around them. They still have to decide to get off that island.

So on this New Year, if you’re encouraging yourself to make a positive change—whatever that might be—and you find yourself resisting or falling into old habits (which we all do because we’re creatures of habit too), just bring back to mind the image of those chickens crammed on the island of dirty, stinky bedding, surrounded by a clean coop, and gently, humorously remind yourself to jump off that island! Happy New Year and we’ll see you down on the farm sometime.