Our favorite chicken lady Beth is back with another post about backyard chicken farming! Thank you for sharing your experience, knowledge, and witty humor with us, Beth! Read her previous post on the subject right here. And check out the Chicken FAQ page she put together to answer more of your chickeny questions, too!
Chickens, they need coops. As we see it, coops serve two main purposes: protection at night and a place for your hens to lay eggs.
There are many ways to design and build your coop, so here are a few questions you can ask yourself to narrow down your choices:
Question 1: Am I going to let them out in my yard?
Chickens instinctively return to the same place to roost every night, but they will range freely over large areas if allowed. If you live in a densely populated area, letting your chickens wander around is probably not ideal unless you have tall fences. But if you have a large, secluded or otherwise enviable property, this might work well.
There are advantages:
• Free-ranging chickens are pretty fun to watch. They chase bugs, they take dirt baths, eat green weedy things and generally enjoy life in a way that’s pretty great to see every day out your window.
• They also will need less food if they’re able to find wild greens and bugs to supplement their diet, and exercise is great for them too. The flavor and nutritional profile of your eggs or meat will be improved as well.
• Chickens, as you may know, are extremely delicious. Raccoons know this. Coyotes and foxes both know this. Whatever skulks around your neighborhood knocking over trashcans at night definitely knows this. And if you have a smaller breed or are raising babies out in the open, you can add cats and birds of prey to the list.
• Chickens love to eat plants, and they’re really good at picking out the good-looking and expensive ones. Forget about letting them in your vegetable garden—five of them can make a cabbage disappear in about ten minutes, piranha-style.
• They fly. Kind of. If you’re planning on keeping them enclosed, and the fence is shorter than 6 feet or so, some will fly over unless you clip their wings. It’s not hard to do and it doesn’t hurt the chicken, but still, it’s a consideration.
At our house, we have an enclosed indoor/outdoor area for chickens that they live in most of the time, and then we sometimes let a few of them out onto the lawn for an hour or two. I keep my eye on them to make sure they don’t wander into the veggie garden, and they spend their time taking dust baths in my rose garden, scratching dirt all over my nice clean paths, chasing bugs, eating grass and just generally enjoying themselves. For us, this was a great compromise.
Question 2: Do you want a portable coop, or a fixed one?
While portable coops are more rare than fixed ones, they do have a couple of advantages. A portable coop (maybe obviously?) can be wheeled from one place to another in your yard. Check this one out—you wait until the hens are inside for the evening, lift it like the world’s least aerodynamic trailer, and move it to the next spot, caravan style. Freedom! Mobility! And the amazing ability to have chicken-y fertilizer anywhere in your yard at a moment’s notice!
There are some disadvantages too: Besides having to move it around every few days (left longer, your birds will eat down to bare dirt), portable coops are generally smaller than fixed ones, and you’ll probably be limiting the size of your flock.
Question 3: How big should your coop be?
If even part of your yard is okay for chickens to scratch around in, then a small coop is all you really need. Chickens don’t really hang out in the coop during the daylight hours, so all you’d really need is space for sleeping and egg-laying. Here’s a great example of a smaller coop, or this one if you’re the type.
For indoor space (provided they have somewhere to go outside, Tyson) you only need a few square feet per chicken. Bill’s rule of thumb: Don’t stack chickens. Just have enough perch area so they all can sleep next to each other comfortably at night. When in doubt, start small and work you way up. Better to find out you can go out and buy more adorable babies than learn you have to build them a spare bedroom.
If you don’t want your chickens out and about in your yard, build a chicken run into your coop plans. Here’s what it looks like for a flock of five or six, and here’s what it looks like at our house:
I hear 10 square feet per bird is fair, more if you’re feeling magnanimous, less if you’re going to be letting them out a lot. Our run has a roof to add extra protection from birds and dexterous beasts, and it has the added advantage of being secure enough that we don’t have to lock up the coop every night. No shutting them every evening, no letting them out every morning. It’s kind of brilliant.
Other things to think about:
Once you’ve made up your mind about the type of coop you want, there are a handful of other things you should think about when planning your coop.
Security: Whether you’re rural, suburban, or urban, it’s fair to assume something is going to try to get into your chicken coop at night. While you can’t possibly be prepared for everything, there are some precautions everyone should take. Your coop should have four strong walls and a strong roof. If you use wire, make sure it’s a safe distance from the sleeping and laying areas: raccoons can reach their creepy little hands through wire fencing and I’m not telling you what happens next. And don’t forget digging beasties: we dug trenches and filled them with rocks and gravel to be extra safe.
Protection from weather extremes: Trees, shrubs, and overhangs are great for this—they provide shade in the summer and rain, wind and snow protection in the winter.
Fresh air: Your indoor area should have good ventilation. This keeps things fresh and fights dampness in wet seasons.
Cleanability: Coops need to be swept out regularly to get rid of dirt and manure. When building yours, think about how easy it will be for you to do this. Many smaller coops have a whole wall that opens to allow for easy access.
Other supplies: Food is key, as is a clean, rodent-safe, watertight place to store it. We like mini trashcans with lids. Your local feed store will carry chicken food (organic feed is available, but you sometimes have to look for it) and corn scratch. What chickens love, however, are kitchen scraps. We’ll talk about it more later, but they kind of think you’re crazy for putting all that delicious stuff into the compost every day.
Chicken waterers, while a non-word for sure, are widely available at feed and farming supply stores. Access to fresh water is very important, so you may even plan on having more than one. A low-effort alternate is a horse waterer. My dad installed one (at ground level) in his coop, and it automatically refills any water that’s consumed by his birds. He goes in with a sponge to sweep out any debris after a day or two, but it frees him from having to be on hand to refill the water daily.
Show us your coops!
Have chickens? Tell us about where they live, what you like about it, or what you would change. If you have pictures, we totally want to see them.
Don’t have chickens? Get up and get going! Because next up is baby chicks, and stories of the men and women who can’t stop buying them by the dozen (ahem….that’s us).