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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Chicken Coop 101: Thirteen Lessons Learned

You can make a chicken coop from just about anything.  I've seen rabbit hutches, tool sheds, and portions of barns turned into areas for chickens.  But is the coop functional?  If you're lucky enough to start from scratch, here are a few things we've learned you might want to take into consideration.  If you have a coop but it's just not working quite as you hoped, this article may give you a few simple ideas to change.

The photo of the little red shed was the existing chicken coop and tiny outdoor run when we purchased our farmhouse.  We knew we wanted to build a new, larger coop and run, and had hoped to do so prior to bringing chickens home.  It didn't happen as planned and I am now very thankful.  We learned a lot while using this small coop that we wouldn't have thought about otherwise.  Those are the things I'd like to share with you.
As a start, regarding the size of your coop, the general number seems to be 3 feet to every chicken.  (Our coop is 8 foot by 10 foot and around 8 foot tall) Remember to also keep in mind you want a roost area, feeding area and egg laying area.  Think through the feeding area, because if it's too close to the roost area you'll end up with feeders full of manure. 
You also want to make sure that the coop is safe from predators.  Whether your chickens are in their run or free-range during the day, they need a safe haven to sleep in.  Make sure nothing can get underneath the coop or through the door or windows.  We use two types of locks on all our doors (hoping that if they can get one open they can't get the other) and every window has a barrel-lock on the inside.  We also added a strong wire to all the windows so they can remain open during the hot summer days and evenings.

Here's a few more things we learned. 

Lesson One: you want to make sure you can get in the coop to clean it.  Whether you want a portable house or a large coop as we have, make sure there is access to the indoor and outdoor areas.  You can see from the photo above we chose a shed-style coop that my husband designed and built.  We had to build an outdoor run because of loose dogs and wild animals in our area.  We have a small solar panel that runs the light, however, we also ran electricity to it to run the heated waterer and the flat panel heaters (shown further down) in the winter months.
The photo above shows the outdoor run.  It has a "people" door as well as a chicken tractor door.  The idea of the latter is so you can pull the chicken tractor up to the small door and let them in.  What I would change about this are 2 things:  The people door isn't quite tall enough, so you have to duck as you enter and the chicken tractor door opens out not in.
We built sloped roofs in preparation of the snow we get in the Northeast.  We also chose metal roofing to go with the rest of the outbuildings on the property. 
 Lesson Two:  If you have an outdoor run, you want the chickens door to open from the run.  In the original little coop we had to wade through the mob of chickens, all yelling to be let out, to open the door because it opened in.  I love the door on the new coop.  We put a latch on the door in addition to a clip to keep smart racoons and other critters out at night. 

Lesson Three:  If you have an outdoor run offer lots of roosting space.  They absolutely love it
Jay made the handy little ramp, including the wood strips so they could get traction on their way down.
Let's go inside.
You can see in the photo above, the small solar light.  Jay designed and built the nesting boxes with a small perch in the front.
Lesson Four:  Plan one nesting box for every four to five chickens.  Also, the nesting boxes don't have to be large, although Jay wanted the girls to have plenty of room so he built ours a little bigger than necessary.  Generally, 12x12x12 is plenty of room.  We fill the boxes with straw that the girls enjoy rearranging while waiting to lay their egg. 
Our nesting boxes are purposely positioned below the window, because you want a dark, quiet area for them.  We also added a slant roof to the top to deter the girls from roosting on top.  Although it hasn't stopped them completely it does make it more difficult.
You can also see, in the photos above and below, we used all available space.  We put the nesting boxes up high enough to have storage space underneath for small cans of feed.  Also, the door to the outdoor run is tucked underneath.
Although we use the deep litter method, I still rake the manure in the mornings after a night's roost.  I purchased the rake from our local hardware store and had Jay put 2 nails in the wall to hold it.  It works perfectly for letting the litter fall thru but holds the manure to throw in the compost bin.

We built lots of roosting space as well as 2 shelves.  We found from the original coop that the girls love the shelves and fight over them every night.  Jay wanted them to be happy, so he put 2 in the new coop.  Make sure you use something such as a 2x4 for the roost so they are comfortable wrapping their feet around it, and sand it, if needed to prevent small cuts on their feet.
Lesson Five:  We put four windows in our coop for plenty of ventilation.  We have 2 small windows on the North and South sides of the coop that are up high enough it won't be breezy on them as they roost.  One is kept open all the time for ventilation.  We open both when we want a breeze or cross ventilation.  All the windows are recycled windows that Jay made work.  He attached hinges to them so they could open/close, and he put cleats by each and a string on each so we can open them as little or as much as we want to.  The photos below show this in more detail. 
Also to note, if you're going to have windows open you probably want to put wire on them to keep other birds and critters out.  We used a pretty rugged square wire on ours.  We also used barrel-locks on all the windows so they can close tight in the winter.
Lesson Six:  If you live in an area with freezing temp.'s through a good portion of the winter, you may want to look at a heater for the water (in the photo above to the left).  After a few mornings of trying to thaw out the waterer you will be thankful.
Lesson Seven:  Chickens are messy and they love to scratch.  Because of this, if you don't want their feed all over the place, raise their feeders.  Jay built wooden platforms for each, but we've also used strings attached to the ceiling as in the photo above.  Just make sure it's easy to remove for filling and cleaning.  Also, try to have more than one feeder.  The girls tend to gang up on one or two chickens and prevent them from feeding.  With an additional feeder, everyone can eat.
Many people have asked me about the cold temp.'s in our area and how to keep the coop warm.  The simple truth is, if you have a small coop and enough chickens to fill it, their body heat alone will keep them warm.  They deal with the cold better than the heat. 
Our coop is large and tall for the amount of birds we have, so although it stays warmer inside than outside, it still seems chilly.  We did 2 things:  we insulated the coop (walls, ceiling, door and floor) and we purchased 2 flat panel heaters and a thermostatic outlet.  (The insulation helps in the summer as well so the coop can stay a little cooler, especially with the box fans going.)
The heaters we purchased were from Melanie at Shop The and they work great.  She also sells the thermostatic outlet, which allows the heaters to operate similar to your thermostat in the house.  We are very happy with them.  Yes, it definitely raises our electric bill, but we only turn them on during the coldest parts of the winter.

If you're going to use heaters, flat panel is the way to go because they're safe and cool to the touch.

Lesson Eight:  Do you have an area to keep chickens who need to be separated from the rest?  We realized we didn't want sick chickens in the same coop, and haven't yet built a small hutch-style coop for that purpose.  Currently, they get quarrantined in the craft room in a dog crate.
But we did realize, when Mama Claire hatched 2 eggs and again when we adopted the new chicks, we needed an area for the babies where the big girls couldn't pick at them until they could defend themselves.  Enter my handyman again to construct a temporary coop within the coop. 
The photo above to the left is the box method we started with.  With five chicks, they outgrew it quickly.  We wanted to keep them with the other chickens so there would be no need for introductions later when they were released to the rest of the flock.  So my very handy husband constructed a portable coop within the coop.  He boxed in one corner of the coop and made the walls portable so we can take them down and put them up when needed.  Brilliant!!  It has worked out great.
Lesson Nine:  Think through what you store inside the coop area.  You can also see from the photos above, we started out with a shelving area in part of the coop to keep litter, straw and extra feed.  We realized how bad an idea this was when we had a mite infestation this past summer and had to toss it all out.  I would suggest only storing tightly sealed items (such as the small trash cans of food) just in case of a lice, mite, or any other infestation.
Lesson Ten:  Electricity, to us, has been one of the most important things.  We didn't really think much about it initially, and I'm sure Jay was wishing the decision was to not power it, but in the end we are both so thankful we did.  He had to dig a trench and run the wire, while the girls and Clyde supervised, but it has allowed us to run the electric heater for the water; run the flat panel heaters; and run a box fan (we put in the windows) in the summer.  The girls get up on the roosts, spread out their wings, and take in that wonderful breeze.  Their happiness is thanks enough.
Lesson Eleven:  Where there are chickens there will be a lot of dust.  This is inevitable.  I've seen wonderful coop designs with chandeliers, curtains, painted walls, etc.  Remember, chickens poop where they want and create dust constantly.
Lesson Twelve:  If there is a 1-1/2" or larger ledge, a chicken will find it and roost on it.  When you build your coop look around and think about this.  We have a small windowsill all the way up at the top of the coop where our ventilation window is.  They found it and there was no keeping them off of it.  We are unable to get up there to clean off the manure, so we had to create obstacles to keep them off.  To read more about roosts, visit my All You Need To Know About Chicken Roosts post.
Lesson Thirteen:  If there's a wire or something sticking out, a chicken will likely injure themselves on it.  Also, if there's something to peck at (exposed insulation, etc), they will.  Again, take a look around your coop and think of it from a chicken's perspective.
Additional information is with regard to the flooring of the coop, which really depends on your preference.  Our first little coop had a dirt floor.  My concern was that something would be able to dig underneath the coop and get at them.  We now have a wood insulated floor.  Cement is a good choice as well.
Additional posts that may be of interest:
My hope is that you come away with an idea or two, or perhaps you can share an idea with us.  If so, please leave a comment, we'd love to hear from you!
**An edit to the original post. **
First, I forgot to state we do have a locking screen door on our coop (removed in winter) so the girls get plenty of ventilation in the summer.

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