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!! Ammonia smell in my quail pen

 
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Hi all,
I partially fulfilled a life-long dream and got some livestock this summer: quail!  I live in a tiny apartment in the city, but because of the virus and the fact that she can't climb the stairs anymore, my landlady moved to a warmer town.  So, I took the opportunity and set up a pen in the tiny back yard and hatched some quail.  I love them!  I had always wanted chickens, but then I found out about quail, which are tiny, and don't make nearly as much noise as chicken roosters do.  That means I can breed my own, instead of having to buy new birds.  I really like hatching them and raising the babies.  I couldn't be happier.

Except.

Sigh... I'm getting ammonia smell.  I have 7 birds in 17.5 sq. ft.  Each bird weighs about half a pound.  The pen I bought has a covered coop area, with a raised floor.  It stays nice and dry in there.  I use pine shavings, and there's no smell at all.

However, the outside part, the pen, keeps getting ammonia smell.  When I first started, in August 2021, I dug down about a foot, removed the soil, and put in over 300# of sand.  Everything was great.  I raked it every day with a piece of 1/4" hardware cloth, and picked out most of the poop.  No smell.

Then the rains came in November.  We had a terrible storm, and rain blew in thru the front, and also seeped in from above, thru the tiny holes made by the staples I used to affix a plastic tarp.  That's when the ammonia smell started.  I couldn't get the sand to dry out.  I ended up removing all of it, and getting a new tarp.

I replaced the sand with wood chips mixed with pine shavings and leaves.  It worked well.  Then, more rain.  Again, it blew in, only along the front and back.  But that was enough.  Ammonia smell again.  I added a LOT more shavings.  Now, I don't smell the ammonia until I stir up the shavings with a rake.  Then it billows up.  

The litter is not wet.  The drainage is good, but it's a bit damp.  It feels like the forest floor.  I pick up the big poops I see when I go down there every day to clean and rake.  The water container doesn't leak.  

It's driving me crazy.  I don't want to put them on wire.  I hate that.  But how do I keep the litter from smelling?  I've tried lime.  I've tried sweet PDZ.  I've tried ashes.  I've tried dirt.  I still get this ammonia smell when I stir the litter (quail are too small to do much of that themselves.)

I really wanted to do some kind of deep litter.  I don't want to have to clean it out all the time.  HELP!

Here are some pix of my setup:




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Hi Lori - I use biochar in my chicken coop and a friend of mine uses it in her quail pen. It stops ammonia formation almost instantly in a deep litter system. If you can get your hands on biochar, or just some good quality charcoal, give that a go and see what you think. I'd recommend a wood chip mulch with about 5-10% biochar by volume, stirred around every few days to keep it aerated.
 
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In a deep litter system, ammonia tends to mean that the nitrogen from their poop is overwhelming the carbon in the litter. You probably need a substantially deeper litter layer.

What type of chips are you using?

In our system we have a couple of damp spots where rain blows in. Those areas tend to get water logged and turn anaerobic when they do. They need extra attention from me, turning quickly with a fork every few days.

It looks from your photos like your coop arrangement is very low. How do you get inside the area to turn the chips over?

Deep litter methods require some regular disturbance to move the chips around and incorporate the fresh poop into the layer. Are your birds doing that? You said they were small, so perhaps they are simply not big and strong enough to do the job. If so you need to be regularly turning the chips over to incorporate the poop and disturb any areas that might be turning damp and anaerobic.
 
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Even with "deep" litter you still need to change it. The smaller the system the harder it is to get a balance, each of your birds has 1.6sqr foot of bedding? Think of that as cat litter, I would expect to be changing that amount of bedding every week. I think I would be inclined to go the other way, put in a hard floor and give it a light covering in chips which you then sweep out twice a week.
 
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I use deep litter, and I don't change it.  Ever.  I do take part of it out as I need it.

Phil's idea about biochar is right on. It works really well.  Make sure it is at least a tiny bit damp, or turn it into the litter when the birds aren't out so they don't breath the dust.

I think the main problem is that the run area is far too small.  Even a couple birds may overrun an area that small.
 
Lori Ziemba
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Michael Cox wrote:In a deep litter system, ammonia tends to mean that the nitrogen from their poop is overwhelming the carbon in the litter. You probably need a substantially deeper litter layer.



Hi Michael,
It's about 12 inches deep.

What type of chips are you using?



I'm not sure, as it's a mix from the arborist who dumps them outside the community garden.  I think it was mostly some kind of pine or Monterey Cypress.  A range of sizes from 1" to 2", mixed with lots of softwood shavings and some leaves.  

It looks from your photos like your coop arrangement is very low. How do you get inside the area to turn the chips over?



It's 2 feet high.  I crawl in thru the door and turn using a trowel and a hand rake.  The pen is 60" across the front, by 41" deep.

Deep litter methods require some regular disturbance to move the chips around and incorporate the fresh poop into the layer. Are your birds doing that? You said they were small, so perhaps they are simply not big and strong enough to do the job. If so you need to be regularly turning the chips over to incorporate the poop and disturb any areas that might be turning damp and anaerobic.



They can do some surface mixing, but they're not as vigorous as chickens.  I have been going in and mixing with a trowel and/or a hand rake.  It's over a foot thick, and I'm not sure how far down I need to go.  I know I usually get down at least 6".  I crawl in, grab the sandbox, and pull it out and sift it.  When I'm in there, I take a good sniff.  If I detect any ammonia, I start raking, and usually find a spot or two.  I add more softwood shavings and turn.   Sometimes I add in wood ash/charcoal, or garden dirt.  
 
Lori Ziemba
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Phil Stevens wrote:Hi Lori - I use biochar in my chicken coop and a friend of mine uses it in her quail pen. It stops ammonia formation almost instantly in a deep litter system. If you can get your hands on biochar, or just some good quality charcoal, give that a go and see what you think. I'd recommend a wood chip mulch with about 5-10% biochar by volume, stirred around every few days to keep it aerated.



Hi Phil'
I did/do add wood ash and charcoal, especially when I smell the ammonia.  But I doubt if it's at 10%.  I use biochar in my garden; wonderful stuff!
 
Lori Ziemba
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Skandi Rogers wrote:Even with "deep" litter you still need to change it. The smaller the system the harder it is to get a balance, each of your birds has 1.6sqr foot of bedding? Think of that as cat litter, I would expect to be changing that amount of bedding every week. I think I would be inclined to go the other way, put in a hard floor and give it a light covering in chips which you then sweep out twice a week.



I have 7 birds in 17.5 sq. ft.  So that works out to 2.5 sq. ft/bird.  Each bird weighs about half a pound (8 oz.)
 
Lori Ziemba
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Trace Oswald wrote:I use deep litter, and I don't change it.  Ever.  I do take part of it out as I need it.



Yes!  That's why I did it---I don't want to be constantly changing the bedding.  I use straight shavings in the house part, about 4" deep, and I never get an smell in there because it stays dry.  I rotate those shavings out into the pen part, and add fresh shavings as needed.

Phil's idea about biochar is right on. It works really well.  Make sure it is at least a tiny bit damp, or turn it into the litter when the birds aren't out so they don't breath the dust.



I have incorporated quite a bit of woodash/charcoal into the litter, and I add to it.  But it's not biochar, and probably no where near 5-10%.  I'm having trouble figuring out how much I would need, as I am not very good at math!  The outside pen part is roughly 11 sq. ft.  I dug down over a foot into the native soil, (which I removed) and dumped in the litter back in late November.  The litter comes about 6" above the old soil line.  So, what is that, about 15 cubic feet?  10% of that is 1.5 cu. ft.  By 10% is that by volume?  I can't imagine it's by weight, as biochar is so light.

I think the main problem is that the run area is far too small.  Even a couple birds may overrun an area that small.



the whole thing is 60" x 41".  The pen part is 40x40.  That's 2.5 sq, ft. per 8oz. bird.  Do you think that's not enough?  I was wondering about that.  I have been trying to figure out a way to expand the pen over to the right side, without it costing a fortune or looking bad.  It has to look decent, since I'm sort of squatting in the yard without real permission.  I can put together a kit like this pen, but actually building stuff is a little beyond me.
 
Lori Ziemba
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Phil Stevens wrote:Hi Lori - I use biochar in my chicken coop and a friend of mine uses it in her quail pen. It stops ammonia formation almost instantly in a deep litter system. If you can get your hands on biochar, or just some good quality charcoal, give that a go and see what you think. I'd recommend a wood chip mulch with about 5-10% biochar by volume, stirred around every few days to keep it aerated.



I did use a lot of woodash/charcoal when I set it up, and I add to that.  But probably no where near 10%.  I'm having a little problem figuring out how much I would need.  The pen part is 40"x40".  I dug out 12" of the native soil.  The bedding comes above the old soil line by almost 6", which actually makes it almost 18" deep.  So that would be about 15 cubic feet?  10% 0f that is 1.5 cu. ft., right?  I'm guessing you mean 10% by volume, not weight?  
 
Trace Oswald
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Lori Ziemba wrote:
the whole thing is 60" x 41".  The pen part is 40x40.  That's 2.5 sq, ft. per 8oz. bird.  Do you think that's not enough?  I was wondering about that.  I have been trying to figure out a way to expand the pen over to the right side, without it costing a fortune or looking bad.  It has to look decent, since I'm sort of squatting in the yard without real permission.  I can put together a kit like this pen, but actually building stuff is a little beyond me.



Obviously chickens are much larger, but I have a covered area attached to my chicken coop that gives them more than 16 sq ft per bird.  It is open-ended, so they can go leave it and go out into the yard any time they like, but they don't like to walk in snow, so when we have snow, they stay inside the covered area.  16 sq ft per bird isn't really enough and gets stinky sometimes when it is wet outside.  The more area you can give them, the better.

It's very easy to extend a run that is built like that.  I promise, you can do it :)  Say you wanted to make the run part 8 feet longer.  All you would need to do is take off that end wall on the far right, extend those 1"x2" pieces of wood (at least, that's what they look like in the picture) that form the bottom and top frame by adding some 8' pieces, and nail the wall back on.    You would probably want to put some pieces to connect between the bottom wall and top wall along the sides so the long board won't sag.  That's really all there is to it.  Paint the parts you added to match the old pieces and staple some type of screen to it.
 
Phil Stevens
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Hi Lori. Plain charcoal will help, but biochar really is better because it's produced at higher temperatures which yield a higher porosity.

A 10% by volume mixture is more or less what I would aim for. 1.5 cu ft would be about right, and there would be no harm in adding extra. You could add it in portions on a daily basis for a few days, mixing it a little deeper each time. Note Trace's advice about it being ever so slightly damp...you and the birds don't want to breathe the dust. But don't start off with saturated material, because the absorption of high-nitrogen moisture is how the ammonia inhibition works.

After the biochar and litter has done its dash, compost it and use in the garden.
 
Lori Ziemba
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[quote=Trace Oswald


Obviously chickens are much larger, but I have a covered area attached to my chicken coop that gives them more than 16 sq ft per bird.  

Wow!  Full sized chickens?  What do they weigh, about 5 lbs?  Hmmm.  That makes roughly 10 quail.  10 quail in 16 sq, ft is 1.6 sq. ft. per bird, which is less than what I have.  I can't let them out.  Quail don't free range, plus, my landlady would find out and blow a fit.

It's very easy to extend a run that is built like that.  I promise, you can do it :)  Say you wanted to make the run part 8 feet longer.  All you would need to do is take off that end wall on the far right, extend those 1"x2" pieces of wood (at least, that's what they look like in the picture) that form the bottom and top frame by adding some 8' pieces, and nail the wall back on.



I was thinking of that.  But what about the top?  It would need some kind of roof, preferably something that allows light in.  Wire would need a square frame.  The most I could extend it to the right is 45".
 
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Lori Ziemba wrote:
Wow!  Full sized chickens?  What do they weigh, about 5 lbs?  Hmmm.  That makes roughly 10 quail.  10 quail in 16 sq, ft is 1.6 sq. ft. per bird, which is less than what I have.  I can't let them out.  Quail don't free range, plus, my landlady would find out and blow a fit.

It's very easy to extend a run that is built like that.  I promise, you can do it :)  Say you wanted to make the run part 8 feet longer.  All you would need to do is take off that end wall on the far right, extend those 1"x2" pieces of wood (at least, that's what they look like in the picture) that form the bottom and top frame by adding some 8' pieces, and nail the wall back on.



I was thinking of that.  But what about the top?  It would need some kind of roof, preferably something that allows light in.  Wire would need a square frame.  The most I could extend it to the right is 45".



They are probably more like 3-4lbs, but yes, I understand what you are saying.  My point was that the 16 ft is too small.  I don't really know if a simple bodyweight conversion equates to the amount they poop, but maybe it does.  I would think 10 quail would leave more manure than one chicken, but I don't really know.  

I understand you can't let them free range.

If you want a top on the extension, I would just use 6 mil plastic and staple it to the boards that extend the coop.  If you extend all the boards, you'll have your square frame.  If you can only extend it 45", that will add a mot more room than they have now and will be very cheap to do.
 
Lori Ziemba
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Trace Oswald wrote:
I don't really know if a simple bodyweight conversion equates to the amount they poop, but maybe it does.  I would think 10 quail would leave more manure than one chicken, but I don't really know.



No, you're right. They poop an enormous  amount.  I have never seen an animal that poops that much, that often.  My friend who has both quail and Serama chickens, says the quail poop way more, and that it's gooier, too.  

If you want a top on the extension, I would just use 6 mil plastic and staple it to the boards that extend the coop.  



But what about predators?  Won't they just rip or chew thru that?  And how would I get in there to clean?
 
Lori Ziemba
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Phil Stevens wrote:But don't start off with saturated material, because the absorption of high-nitrogen moisture is how the ammonia inhibition works.



What do you mean by saturated material?  Do you mean soaking the biochar?  How do you moisten it?  Mist it with a sprayer?
 
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Lori Ziemba wrote:

But what about predators?  Won't they just rip or chew thru that?  And how would I get in there to clean?



If your current setup is working, I would just mimic that.  It looks like plastic over wire, so I would do the same thing over the extension.  If you need to get in there to clean, I would do it exactly as you do now, just make a simple door.  If it were me doing it, I wouldn't want to have to crawl in, so I would make the extension 6' tall and 3' or so wide so I could just walk in, but the simplest way is to just extend your existing run and add a door if need be.
 
Lori Ziemba
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Thanks, everyone!

I just ordered a cubic foot of biochar, and I also ordered this pen .  I know, I know, I should make it myself.  But I'm an old lady with no tools and poor building skills and arthritic hands.  And besides, I priced out all the materials, and it would only come to about $20 less to do it myself.  That $20 is more than worth it to me in saved aggravation and pain and torn up hands from the hardware cloth.  

I'm pretty sure I'll be able to just remove the end panel from my setup and one panel from this new pen, and attach them together.  That will more than double the outside area for my funny little borbs (bird+orb=borb).

I'll take a pic when I get it done.  With the way the mail is these day, I won't get the stuff for almost 2 weeks.

In the meantime, I'd like suggestions on any better way to set up the addition.  I had originally dug down 12", removed the native soil, and replaced it with a mix of wood chips, shavings, leaves, charcoal, lime, and some of the soil.  Is there anything I should do differently, besides adding the biochar?
 
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I tried different deep litters in my quail setup and the best was the following:

I had big planters I grew tomatoes in during the summer. In the winter, I'd let them dry out, then sieve out the bits larger than 1 cm or so. This used soil I put in the quail pen. They love the dry soil. They don't scratch as much as chickens do. I'd take out the "pooped" soil when it got too full, back into the tomato planters for next year!

During the summer, I used sawdust and ashes with a bit of compost.

Using a LAB-spray (check out Korean Natural Farming Forum) instantly cut the smell.

Fermenting the feed also helps.

If I get quail again though, I'd make a quail tractor that I can move around the lawn. They eat a lot of grass when they get the chance. I'd make a dry space part of the pen, with deep litter of compost.
 
Lori Ziemba
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Susan Wakeman wrote:I tried different deep litters in my quail setup and the best was the following:

I had big planters I grew tomatoes in during the summer. In the winter, I'd let them dry out, then sieve out the bits larger than 1 cm or so. This used soil I put in the quail pen. I'd take out the "pooped" soil when it got too full, back into the tomato planters for next year!



That's brilliant!  Did you remove the pieces bigger than 1cm, or is that the part you gave to the quail?

Fermenting the feed also helps.



I've heard of this.  I use crumbles, along with greens, sprouts and mealworms.  Do you ferment the crumble?  How?

If I get quail again though, I'd make a quail tractor that I can move around the lawn. They eat a lot of grass when they get the chance. I'd make a dry space part of the pen, with deep litter of compost.



I don't have a lawn, just a small back yard.  I did have a small, A-fram tractor for daytime use only (not predator proof) but I never saw them eat any grass.  Maybe they only eat new grass?
 
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Lori Ziemba wrote:
Do you ferment the crumble?  How?




This is very simple.  Take a bucket of any size you like (I use a 5 gal bucket, but you can make any amount you want) and fill it about 1/2 way with crumbles.  Add water until it's a couple inches above the feed.  It will soak up water for a couple days, so just add a little water as you need to in order to keep the water an inch or so above the feed.  Take some apple cider vinegar that has mother in it, I usually use Bragg's, and put a couple glugs of it in.  Stir is once a day or so.  Then wait a few days.  You'll know from the smell when it's ready.  It gets soft and smells really good.  It doesn't matter if you use it after one day or after two weeks, it doesn't get bad.  If you use it before it is all the way fermented, it doesn't hurt anything.  When you want to use it, just give it a stir and scoop some out.  You can just keep adding feed and water to keep it going.  It may take them a day or two to get used to it, but when they do, the birds (at least chickens) love it.
 
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Trace Oswald wrote:

Lori Ziemba wrote:
Do you ferment the crumble?  How?




This is very simple.  Take a bucket of any size you like (I use a 5 gal bucket, but you can make any amount you want) and fill it about 1/2 way with crumbles.  Add water until it's a couple inches above the feed.  It will soak up water for a couple days, so just add a little water as you need to in order to keep the water an inch or so above the feed.  Take some apple cider vinegar that has mother in it, I usually use Bragg's, and put a couple glugs of it in.  Stir is once a day or so.  Then wait a few days.  You'll know from the smell when it's ready.  It gets soft and smells really good.  It doesn't matter if you use it after one day or after two weeks, it doesn't get bad.  If you use it before it is all the way fermented, it doesn't hurt anything.  When you want to use it, just give it a stir and scoop some out.  You can just keep adding feed and water to keep it going.  It may take them a day or two to get used to it, but when they do, the birds (at least chickens) love it.



Thanks!  Do you put it on a plate?  Or in their regular feeders?  I use chick feeders.
 
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Those chick feeders that are long red rectangles with a lot of holes in them with really well for it. If it's too runny, you can scoop the fed out with a slotted spoon to get some of the liquid out, but it still tends to spread out all over if it isn't contained in something. Those chick feeders work well to stop that too.
 
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Trace Oswald wrote:Those chick feeders that are long red rectangles with a lot of holes in them with really well for it. If it's too runny, you can scoop the fed out with a slotted spoon to get some of the liquid out, but it still tends to spread out all over if it isn't contained in something. Those chick feeders work well to stop that too.



Yes, those are the kind I use!  Everyone complains that quail throw their food around and waste it, but I don't see that with these feeders.
 
Lori Ziemba
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So, I've been offered 200 pounds of pea gravel.  I'm wondering if I should take it and use it in the extension of the pen?  I could build a simple wood box under the extension to hold it.  The extension is roughly 12 sq. ft.  Does anyone know how deep 200# of pea gravel would cover that?
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