If you’ve been working your way through The Chicken Quiz with us, I hope you have figured out if chickens are for you, what breed of chicken fits your needs best, and how many chickens you need. Today we make our biggest decision – where these chickens are going to live. Hopefully you saw my post last week and have been scoping out possible existing structures and inexpensive building materials. So here are some requirements to consider.
You need 2-4 square feet of coop space for each chicken. Your run area should have 4-10 square feet per chicken. Those numbers can be on the smaller end if you plan to free range, but should be on the larger end if you plan to keep your chickens confined to the coop and run. Even if you plan to free range, it’s a good idea to have at least a small enclosed run. You need a good place to put feeders and waterers, and it is best if these can be outside the coop, but sheltered from rain (although people do put them inside coops too. I just don’t want wet bedding or food spilled inside the coop). You need one nest box for every 3-4 chickens (they don’t mind sharing, and even enjoy it). Most people insist on a roost – and the chickens definitely prefer to roost up off the ground, but they will also sleep on the floor if none is provided. A 2×4 makes a good roost and you need about 10″ for each chicken. Put it higher than the nest boxes or the chickens may prefer to sleep there (making dirty nests, yuck). Most of the litter in the coop will land below the roosts, so make it an easy area to clean if possible. You will want to plan LOTS of ventilation for your coop. This can be simple holes placed near the top of the coop and covered with hardware cloth. Ventilation is important in the summer to help with cooling the coop. But it is also important in the winter to allow moisture to escape. If the air in the coop is too humid in the winter, your chickens might get frostbite on their toes and combs.
You may be concerned about the time investment involved in keeping chickens. I just encourage you to think about your coop plans. Will it be easy to get in and out to clean? If not, plan some extra access near the roosts to make that chore easier. Will it be easy to get to the food and water to refill? Is your coop going to be near an outdoor water faucet? Can you store feed near the coop? These are the things that will make your life with chickens easier. If I am busy and don’t have time to spend with my chickens – my “bare necessity” chicken chores take me only about 5 minutes every morning and 2 minutes every evening. Morning chores include rinsing and filling waterers and making sure feeders are full enough. Evening chores are simply gathering eggs (if I haven’t been out to do this earlier) and shutting the door after the chickens have gone inside. They will put themselves to bed about sunset every night and only need you to shut the door behind them. Once a week I clean out their sleeping areas (scoop out the poo under the roosts and add fresh shavings) and that takes about 10-15 minutes. When the rest of the coop is getting messy (depends on how crowded the coop is, maybe every 3 months or so) I do a more serious cleaning. And once a year I sweep out all the shavings, power wash the floors and roosts, let it all dry and touch up the paint. Chickens really take very little time compared to other farm animals and pets, and they give so much in return!
A good option for many people who plan to keep just a few chickens is a coop called a Chicken Tractor. It is a small coop that can be moved around so that chickens frequently have fresh grass and new bugs to chase. It gives some of the benefits of free ranging without the predator dangers. Often these tractors have two levels with the upper level being the enclosed coop area and the lower level being a run. The only thing I can think of that would make a tractor like this a bad choice is if you plan to let your chickens hatch and raise their own chicks. With the sleeping and nesting areas so high off the ground, you risk the chicks falling and being injured during the first week or two. After that they will be able to fly well enough to get in and out easily.
Many people with just a few chickens even use an old dog house as a chicken coop. The main thing to consider there is adding some sort of access so that you can get in easily to clean, and also a nest box. You’ll probably want to put this kind of coop inside a secure run to deter predators.
If you want a really secure coop you need to understand one thing. Chicken wire is great for keeping chickens in. It is pretty useless for keeping predators out. A much better choice is 1/2″ hardware cloth. Hardware cloth sounds like some strange fabric to me, but it is actually just wire mesh fencing with a 1/2″ grid. The only down side is that it is much more expensive. Another option might be a larger opening welded wire fencing. In my large coop, I covered every opening with hardware cloth. At night when most predators are hunting, my chickens are locked up nice and tight in this very secure coop. But my run is old fencing (2″x3″ I think) that has been used on a few other things. We added some old chicken wire that we already had to the bottom 2 feet to deter small critters and large snakes, and we are stretching more chicken wire over the top to keep hawks away. It isn’t as secure as the coop, but it doesn’t need to be.
If you are thinking about building a coop from scratch, here are some places you can get ideas. Backyard Chickens has a great page of coops built by their members. Here is an A-Frame tractor with pretty good plans included. These plans for a coop with a PVC run look interesting.
If you aren’t up to that challenge, there are lots of coops commercially available. A couple I looked at before we decided to build were Okie Critters and Ranch-Coop. Be sure to check square footage on ANY coop you buy. They often overestimate how many chickens can be housed.
Over the next few weeks I’m going to give you a little tour of my two coops. I’ll show you the features that I like best, and the things that I would build differently or plan to change later. And I’d love to see your coops. Tell me the things you love and the things you definitely DON’T. Let’s us all learn from one another’s mistakes!