One of the downsides of having chickens is cleaning up after them: they toss shavings in their food and water and poop just about anywhere. Poop not only carries waste out of the body but often contains a variety of internal parasites like coccidia and worms. Given that reason alone it’s important to clean your coop and disinfect your feeders and waterers on a regular basis.
There’s also another reason and that is the build up of poop can affect your flock’s health. Unlike mammals, birds don’t have a bladder. The by-product of protein metabolism in mammals is urea, which is water soluble and excreted as urine. In birds, it’s uric acid which is not water soluble and is expelled with their poop.
The nitrogen in their urine and feces is excreted as 80% uric acid, 10% ammonia and 5% urea. Once the uric acid and urea are excreted, they are converted to ammonia by bacteria and enzymes in their poop.
When ammonia is exposed to moisture, it reacts and forms a corrosive solution called ammonium. After this process, it is readily released into the air as an alkaline gas that affects both chickens and their keepers. Up to 50% – 80% of the nitrogen in manure may be converted to ammonia.
We all know that smell associated with urine, whether we’re changing our cat’s litter box, pet rodent’s bedding or a baby’s diapers. If it’s particularly pungent it can catch in our throats or make our eyes water. If your coop is stinky you might experience the same response. The good thing for you is that your time spent there is minimal and probably the odour won’t adversely affect you.
Unfortunately chickens that spend many hours a day in those conditions do suffer from their exposure to ammonia. You might also be familiar with ammonia as an ingredient in household and industrial cleaners. I, for one, hate the smell and avoid using those products.
When chickens are housed in confined, indoor spaces with accumulated manure, they are often exposed to high concentrations of ammonia, especially when their coop isn’t cleaned properly on a regular basis.
Exposure to the fumes can lead to toxicity resulting in a number of conditions.
- Conjunctivitis: inflammation of the cornea and conjunctiva of both eyes
- Corneal ulcers and tears
- Eye infection
- Sensitivity to light
- Difficulty breathing
- Irritation and corrosion of the trachea and respiratory system
- Inflammation of lungs and air sacs
- Increased vulnerability to viral or bacterial illnesses
- Decreased feed efficiency
- Skin lesions
- Keel bone ulcers
- Contact burns on hocks and foot pads (bumblefoot)
Factors Affecting Ammonia Toxicity
- Number of birds housed in a coop
- Type of bedding used (sand and straw are not recommended)
- Frequency of cleaning
- Humidity level
- Surface area of the stored manure
- pH levels of poop
- Time of year
- Ensure your coop is well ventilated with roofline venting and opening windows
- Avoid moisture and condensation in the coop
- Keep waterers outside
- Provide moisture absorbent bedding (i.e. shavings, peat moss)
- Use commercial products that reduce pH levels in the bedding to reduce the amount of gas released by decomposing manure
- Feed well balanced diet, avoiding high protein which can increase nitrogen content in poop
- Remove droppings regularly and don’t allow them to accumulate
- Chicks are more vulnerable than adults, so clean their brooder often
- Ammonia buildup is more common in the winter when birds spend more time in the coop with closed windows and increased amount of poop
Credits: Canadian Poultry; DSM Animal Nutrition & Health; Poultry DVM. Featured photo: Cornwall Reports