This morning, I was out giving the chickens some kitchen scraps, when a couple of neighbors stopped by to see the garden. These are folks I've not met before, and they had many questions, especially about the chicken coop. So I thought I'd also answer those questions here, in case anyone else is wondering, or new to the blog, or if my new friends (hi Linda and Katrina!) visit the blog today.
We built our coop only 2-1/2 years ago, in January of 2015. We got our plans from The Garden Coop, and we loved the design then and love it even more now, after working with it for a while, and looking at many other coops in action. We have never had a predator death or anything even close to it, so it is incredibly safe. The usability of it is terrific too - it's easy to get in and out, to clean it, to reach all corners, to retrieve eggs. We've been able to customize it the way we like. We've been able to use it for dual purposes - drying garlic and onions - and could be rigged as a rain collector too (this is something I would very much like to do - collect rain in the winter for the chickens to drink all year round). You could even figure out how to make a green roof on this thing.
As I've mentioned before, we have recently made a sort of outdoor-yard for the chickens to roam around in during the day. In hindsight, I would build this in at the same time as the coop and make it sturdy and high, with a very user-friendly gate. It's been extremely nice to give the hens more room to scratch around, and they have more shade during these hot days. They also have access to our compost piles, which helps me out tremendously, as they do a lot of the turning for me. But I wish that our fence was higher (we have daily 'escapes' and I then have areas of scratched-out seedlings), and I wish the gate in and out was easier to use. One thing is clear though: The chickens like having more space to run around, but they also still really like hanging out in the coop. And of course they still use it for egg-laying, and all their food and water is in there, and they roost in there every night. So I like having a very sturdy, well-made coop even though the chickens are free-ranging more.
Now, let's talk about flies and how pest-y they can be this time of year. There is really no question that livestock, any kind, attracts flies. The manure is really the culprit. There's a lot of wonderful decomposing food for the flies in manure, and they will lay their eggs in it so that their larvae will have everything they need upon hatching. Some flies are also attracted to water, and also the food scraps that are flung to the chickens. Many people have such a problem with flies that they stop keeping livestock altogether. Our little homestead has lots of flies, too, especially around late spring/early summer, but I do think there are ways to keep them under control. Here are a few things you can do to ease the fly problem:
1) Keep your coop clean! Folks, this will absolutely make the biggest difference. When we first got chickens, I cleaned the hen house only once a week. We used straw to catch all the nightly droppings, and it worked in that regard, but by the time Saturday (my cleaning day) rolled around, the hen house was an absolute disaster. All that sodden, feces-caked straw was a boon for the compost pile, but a huge attractant to flies. It smelled, it was gross, the chicken's feet were always caked, it was just disgusting. Plus I dreaded that cleaning chore all week. I decided to switch to sand in the hen house, and I've never looked back. It acts just like a litter box, and when I let the hens out each morning, I take my pooper scooper and bucket and just scoop the mess out, letting the dry sand sift through to stay in the hen house. I take that bucket of feces and urine to the compost bin (don't put fresh manure in your plants - it will actually damage them - compost it first). We buy a new bag of sand every two months, it costs about $5 for a 50 pound bag, and it's the best thing we ever did for the coop. It takes a few minutes of cleaning every morning, but that is so much better than the terrible weekly ordeal.
Now, I realize I'm just moving the poop from one place to another, but the poop in my compost is good for several reasons: My compost is richer, for one, and two, I want the flies to lay eggs there. Their larvae make an excellent protein source for my chickens, or if they somehow manage to escape the beaks, they are fantastic compost-processors. And in reality, the compost is getting so warm that many of the eggs don't live anyway.
Now, poop doesn't just happen at night in the hen house, of course - it also happens all day long. Which leads me to tip #2...
2) Carbon, carbon, carbon. I highly recommend a deep litter system for the floor of your coop and/or your run. Bare dirt doesn't cut it. Concrete doesn't cut it, even though it seems like it'd be easier to keep clean. You want a couple of feet of carbon. Wood chips, straw, sawdust, wood shavings, leaves. Anything you got - use it. Look into free wood chips from the tree trimming companies. Get sawdust from a local sawmill or woodworker. Leaves - don't put them in your green bin! Put them in your coop instead. Collect your neighbor's leaves too!
The benefits of all this carbon are many-fold; you provide a substance to soak up all the nitrogen (urine and manure), you improve the soil underneath, you attract all the underground critters that process the carbon (earthworms, sow bugs, nematodes, microbes, etc) to improve the soil even more, you sequester carbon for the planet, you make a living compost pile, you make something for the chickens to do (scratch, peck, eat) and a way for them to exercise, and also prevent boredom, you take all that organic matter out of the waste stream. This all breaks down into rich soil you can then add to your compost or to your garden beds. If you're really on top of it and have a lot of room, you can build something to move the chickens around in, like large organic farms do, so that they get fresh 'pasture' every week or so, and they do the work of clearing land for you. This is all about stacking functions. How can we make everything work together? How can we make everything work in several different ways? Chickens provide food and entertainment for us, but what else can they do for us? Instead of looking at the poop as a problem, look at it as the solution to another problem.
Some folks recommend diatomaceous earth in the coop to help keep down pests. I love DE, but I don't use it in the coop because DE kills microbes in the soil. And you want those microbes, because they will actively break down the deep litter. They will process the manure and urine along with the carbon. Chickens can use any dust to clean themselves, including the products of the mulch; mine do it every day. They dig down a bit in the deep litter and find a pocket of dirt or sawdust. Then they bathe. They don't need DE for dust baths.
3) Allow the predators to come! I've said it before and I'll say it again, if you continue to use toxic sprays and pesticides, you're not just killing the 'bad' bugs. You're also killing the good bugs. If you allow prey to persist, you'll also get predators. And when it comes to flies, predators are definitely your friends. You WANT spider webs festooning your coop. You WANT other flying insects that predate on flies. Let the ecosystem work, and it'll do a lot of your control for you. Another tip that goes hand in hand with this is to plant diversity in your garden. Lots of different flowers will pull in lots of different insects. This is GOOD. This is what a healthy ecosystem looks like.
4) Use herbs and herbal sprays. Chickens seem to really enjoy fresh herbs, so I often put a pile of them in their nesting boxes to repel flies there. As they dry, they make a nice-smelling hay. You can pile herb cuttings in various places around the coop. The hens will eat a little, and some will get scratched around, but as well as making the coop smell heavenly, the aromatic compounds seem to keep flies away. A lot of homesteaders rely on sprays made with essential oils to keep flies away from their larger livestock, such as cows and horses. It's basically a mix of vinegar (apple cider is particularly nice), several different essential oils like lavender or eucalyptus, and a little bit of dish soap. You can spray this around the coop in places where flies like to congregate (watch out that you don't spray it in your hens' eyes). Frankly, I think it's too much work, though if I had a large animal like a goat I would definitely put it on their legs and bodies to help them with those pesky flies.
5) Screen doors. These are essential for your house if you have livestock outside, especially if you have an urban yard like ours where the chickens are very close to the house. Now folks in South Carolina and Michigan are reading this and saying, "Why in world WOULDN'T you have screen doors?" but this is California. Don't hate us for this, but we don't usually get a lot of bugs in our houses. It's not wet enough for mosquitos, most of the time, and we don't have things like Japanese beetles winging around. The worst we usually get is a stray crane fly or bumblebee. But yes, screen doors are essential if you have backyard chickens. In our case, it doesn't help terribly much because if we are home, the screen door is propped open and the door is cracked because the cat likes to go in and out. So do as I say and not as I do and get yourselves some screen doors and train your cats properly!
I hope these tips help you with regards to flies. When all else fails, try to change your minds about flies and remember that ecosystem thing. It's here for a reason and they're here for a reason. Meanwhile, enjoy the video below, which is the song I've been singing since I started this post. Now it's your earworm, too. Cheers.