Some of us keep our beloved birds in precarious situations. I don’t mean we necessarily put them in direct danger, but the very idea of us keeping backyard chickens in an otherwise urban environment can be a precarious peace-keeping mission. Specifically speaking, many of us rely on the good nature of our neighbors to either keep a lid on it or otherwise not complain to the local zoning commission. Keeping the peace between your neighbors and chickens can be a challenge. After all, Henrietta loves nesting in the neighbor’s flower bed and Big Red always crows at the crack of dawn, but the one thing that is sure to break the peace accord is malodorous poultry litter.
Ammonia can pose a direct health issue to your backyard chickens, but when it gets out of hand, it can offend even the most tolerant of human olfactory senses, especially your neighbor’s. Fear not, for as usual, science has an explanation and a solution to mitigating ammonia through your poultry litter treatment.
When chickens excrete, the resulting manure is rich in nitrogen, especially the uric acid which is the chicken’s equivalent of urine. When manure becomes wet, the nitrogen within decomposes (known as volatilization), and produces a gas called ammonia, which gives off a pungent smell. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration, or OSHA, says that humans start to smell ammonia between 5 and 50 parts per million (ppm) depending on the individual. If you open the door to your chicken coop and smell ammonia, it’s safe to say the ammonia level is way beyond 10 ppm, which is when ammonia starts to negatively affect the health of your birds according to the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (Alabama A&M, Auburn University). At 25 ppm and above your chickens experience respiratory damage, so this is no small concern.
How To Prevent Ammonia Release
Maintaining a dry litter base will stop ammonia volatilization before it even starts. Especially with backyard chickens that range during the day, consider moving your water dispenser outside the chicken coop to prevent water spillage. If you can’t move your water outside, consider upgrading your dispenser from a trough type to a nipple valve system like an inexpensive do-it-yourself nipple bucket since standard layer chicken nipple valves don’t drip much and greatly reduce the amount of water that hits the bedding. If you’re stuck using a trough style water dispenser, make sure the lip sits as tall as the back of your shortest bird in the flock, that way they won’t play in it or splash it around. Also verify that rainwater hasn’t been coming in any vents, windows or leaking through the roof. If you do have water intrusion, take care of it quickly.
What does a chicken coop need? Plenty of ventilation! Especially if you use pine shavings in a deep litter setup, which is the best bedding for chickens. You need to have ventilation near the ceiling of your coop so that when moisture is released, it can rise and exit the coop along with the hot air that carries it. Speaking of bedding, please don’t use straw or hay since they don’t absorb moisture, but they do promote bad bacterial growth. If you do use pine shavings but you find it’s being saturated, remember that deep bedding means just that; deep. You should have a good 12 inches of pine shavings at a minimum so that the bedding pack has the capacity to absorb and hold the moisture so it can release it later. If your roof leaked or something spilled in the coop, read up on how to clean a chicken coop and put down a fresh bedding pack.
How to Make Ammonia Go Away
If you’ve already attempted to reduce the level of moisture in your litter to no avail, you have two more treatment options, one of which is Lime. Quicklime, which is calcium oxide, and hydrated lime, which is calcium hydroxide, are the two common forms of lime you will find in garden or home improvement retail stores. Adding a dry alkali such as lime accelerates the volatilization of the nitrogen in chicken manure, which releases the ammonia faster. Once the ammonia has gassed off, conditions inside the coop will improve as long as there is adequate ventilation.
Using lime as a poultry litter treatment has been done on farms for generations, but it can have some detrimental effects. For one, the gassing off period will result in temporarily elevated ammonia levels, which are harmful to your backyard chickens, yourself and the relationship between you and your neighbor. Lime is also a caustic material, albeit dry, which should be used with caution and proper personal protective equipment such as masks, goggles, and gloves. Overusing lime in your chicken run and coop can cause skin irritation and chemical burns on the feet of chickens, so use it sparingly. In a nutshell, using lime is a less-favorable approach to controlling ammonia in your coop. If you cleaned out your coop however and now want to make the smell disappear quickly, a little lime on the bottom of the coop before adding new shavings will dry the floor out and an application of lime on the old bedding you just tossed on the compost pile will accelerate the release of ammonia. I suggest doing that shortly after your neighbor goes to work, and hopefully it will be done gassing off by the time they get home.
How to Trap the Ammonia
Your other poultry litter treatment option for controlling ammonia odors is to convert the ammonia into ammonium. In the commercial poultry industry, there is a product called Poultry Litter Treatment, or PLT for short (I know, real original eh?) which is based on granulated sodium bisulfate. PLT is not readily available on the consumer market, however similarly acting products such as Litter Life by Southland Organics can be purchased online. The basic theory of PLT and other treatments is that ammonia is converted into ammonium, which is a great food source for plants and is a stable substance that won’t emit any noxious gasses.
Diplomacy from the Coop
Offending people is never a good tact when trying to win them to your way of thinking, but offending their sense of smell with an odoriferous coop most definitely won’t win them over. Good fences may make good neighbors, but unless those fences are upwind of your coop, they won’t likely help your situation much. Be vigilant with your poultry litter treatment; keep your coop watertight, have your water dispensers set to the correct heights to avoid spillage (or put them outside), use a deep litter bed of pine shavings and make sure there is adequate ventilation in your coop. Preventing the stench of a spoiled litter bed is far easier than fixing it, so keep a look out for things that may cause unnecessary moisture to enter your coop so you can keep your birds, your neighborly relations and your own sense of smell happy and healthy.