Sometimes I’m afraid being in this online homesteading world for the past 6 years has left me with some slightly skewed perceptions.
Because I get to have so much contact with so many folks who so closely mirror my own ideals and goals, sometimes it’s easy to think that *everyone* is on the same page when it comes to natural foods and homesteading stuff.
Therefore, every so often, Prairie Husband bursts my bubble. Our conversation usually goes something like this…
Me: Raw milk (or whatever) is pretty mainstream these days, ya know. Pretty much everyone I talk to is either drinking it, or wants to drink it.
Prairie Husband: Define “everyone you know…”
Me: All my blogging friends, the majority of my blog readers, you know, everyone!
Prairie Husband: You do realize that isn’t necessarily an accurate depiction of the rest of the world, right?
OK, yeah, whatever. I guess he has a point. 😉
All that to say, sometimes I forget there are many of you who might not quite yet be sold out to this whole homesteading gig. Or maybe you’re mentally there, but have just barely started the planning processes and you really, really just want some of the basics laid out for you.
Which is why you can expect to see some good, old-fashioned homestead back-to-basics topics coming the blog over the next few months. If you’re just getting started, or want to get started, these will be posts to help you think through the process and create a solid, actionable plan. So get ready!
Today? It’s all about chicken coops, baby. Allow me to set the stage:
You’re finally considering chickens. You’re ready to add a small flock to your homestead (or your backyard) and you want to do it right. But where do you start? What’s the first step? And what the heck are you going to do about a chicken coop?
Today we’re tackling the chicken coop question, so consider this your great-big-everything-you-ever-needed-to-know-about-chicken-coops resource.
Where do I Start?
You have three main options when it comes to chicken coop creation:
Option One: Remodel an Existing Building
This is probably my favorite option, providing it’s a possibility for you. This is what we did. There was a old sheep shed on our property when we bought it (it covered in disintegrating plywood and painted the most nasty shade of yellow, I might add). We converted that shed to a coop, and it has served us well for many years. If you have a small outbuilding, garden shed, or corner of an existing barn, any of these can semi-easily be converted into a coop.
Option Two: Building a Chicken Coop from Scratch
Chicken coop plans abound online, and if you are sorta-handy with tools and have no existing buildings to work with, this might be an attractive option. A coop doesn’t have to be a mansion, as long as it is sturdy and stable (and has some of the key features we’ll talk about below).
Here are some coop plans & ideas you might find helpful:
- 34 Free Coop Plans That are Easy to Build
- Chicken Coop Plans from Backyard Chickens
- Free Coop Plan from Home Depot
- How to Build a Chicken Run
Option Three: Buy a Pre-Made Coop
This is probably my least-favorite option, as many of the pre-made coops I’ve seen are kinda flimsy (at least for our crazy winds here in Wyoming) and aren’t exactly cheap. However, if you are in a hurry and need a coop NOW, it’s worth a look. Many local farm or garden stores are carrying small chicken coop kits now, or you can even order them online or from Amazon. Here are a few I found while surfing around online:
(These are Amazon Affiliate links)
What are the Most Important Parts of a Chicken Coop?
The good news? Chicken coops are pretty flexible,and there’s a lot of room for adjustments and artistic license. However, there are a few non-negotiables you’ll definitely want to take into consideration:
WHY: By nature, chickens want to be up off the ground at night while they sleep. You will need some sort of roosting area in your coop to fulfill this need.
REQUIREMENTS: Our roosts are very simple– we drilled 2x4s around the perimeter of the coop and called it good. You can also do a variety of tiered roosts if you have a lot of birds– the style doesn’t matter, as long as they have a way to get off the ground. Shoot for about 12″ of roost space per bird– although they often crowd in much tighter than that. Also, you’ll accumulate a lot of chicken poop under your roosting areas, so consider a removable board under this area to make cleaning easier.
MATERIAL IDEAS: Boards or sturdy sticks, drilled or placed around the interior coop.
WHY: Laying hens will seek out a private space to lay their eggs. Nesting boxes keep eggs off the ground and prevent them (sometimes) from getting broken or eaten by other animals. Also– it’s much easier to collect eggs from a nesting box, versus having to hunt all over the yard for the hidden nest.
REQUIREMENTS: There are a million-and-one ways to create a nesting box. Shoot for a box that is around 12″ high by 12″ wide. “They say” you need approximately one box per four hens (we have four boxes). However I’ve found no matter how many chickens we’ve had, they almost always only use 1-2 boxes and just take turns. Place the boxes several feet off the ground.
MATERIAL IDEAS: Build nesting boxes out of scrap wood (this is what we did) or use things like milk crates, wooden crates, old bins, or 5-gallon buckets (with their bottom screwed into the wall) to create repurposed nesting boxes.
A Run or Yard of Some Sort:
WHY: Chickens are designed to forage, hunt, and scratch. Keeping them constantly confined indoors in a very small space will create unhappy chickens, and ain’t nobody wants unhappy chickens.
REQUIREMENTS: You don’t need to have 50 acres to let them roam, but make sure they have at least a small enclosure that allows them to get fresh air and scratch in the dirt a bit. If you live in the country with minimal predators, you may be able to simply open the door of the chicken coop so the flock can have free range of your barnyard. However, if you live in town or have predators, this won’t work. In those cases, I recommend building a small enclosed run or pen that is attached to your coop. Many chicken runs have coverings on top to prevent birds from flying over the top, and also to keep predators and birds of prey out of the run. We don’t have a top on ours, so we must be careful to lock our chickens inside at night. (Hawks and owls aren’t an issue for us.)
MATERIAL IDEAS: Depending on your climate and what type of predators you’re dealing with, your chicken run materials might be as simple as chicken wire or as heavy-duty as chain-link fence. We personally built our run out of chain-link. It’s super ugly, but we needed something that could withstand hardcore snow drifts and determined dogs/predators. If you live in a heavy-predator area, you may need to consider burying your fencing into the ground to prevent animals from digging underneath it. Here’s a post with detailed plans for building a chicken run of your own.
WHY: This isn’t something most people think of right off the bat, but it’s extremely important, nonetheless. Poorly ventilated coops equal sick birds, as ammonia and dust particles can build up in a stuffy coop. In very cold, damp climates, a build-up of humid air in the coop can increase your flock’s chance of getting frostbite. Even though it gets COLD here in Wyoming, I almost always leave my chicken coop open, and our flock does just fine. (I generally only close the doors when it gets below zero or there is a lot of blowing snow.) If you live in a very warm climate, you may even consider having a coop design that allows you to remove an entire section of wall to allow cool air to flow through the coop during the hottest months.
REQUIREMENTS: Ventilation can come from windows, actual vents, or holes drilled near the top of the coop. Remember drafts (cold air blowing directly on the birds) are different than ventilation, though. Very drafty coops can cause problems, so try to keep your vents up high whenever possible. This is another reason roosts are important– they keep your birds off the floor and away from the coldest air.
MATERIAL IDEAS: Install vents or drill holes high in the walls of your coop and cover them with hardware cloth. I found this tutorial very helpful.
WHY: A clean coop = healthy chickens. It doesn’t need to be hospital-grade sterile by any means, but you do need to avoid a build-up of chicken manure and ammonia. The flooring and bedding you choose will play a big role here. Not to mention, chicken manure is actually one of the perks of owning chickens, as it makes great fertilizer for gardens and beds.
REQUIREMENTS: If I had my choice, I would have a dirt floor in my coop. But alas, our shed has a wood floor, so that’s that. Why would I prefer dirt? I could use the deep-litter method and also not have to worry about rotting floor boards.
MATERIAL IDEAS: If you have a dirt floor, then I recommend checking out the deep-litter method. This method can reduce the amount of cleaning you have to do, and gives your chickens a chance to help you with composting. However, if you have a wood floor like me and deep litter isn’t an option, you’ll need to cover it with some sort of bedding. We personally use cheap pine shavings from the feed store, but you can also use straw. Plan on cleaning/replacing at least a portion of the bedding every couple weeks. (If you leave it too long, you’ll increase your chances of a rotting floor…)
WHY: Because chickens need to eat and drink. 😉
REQUIREMENTS: The biggest consideration with your feeders and waterers is waste reduction and preventing spills. Feeding your flock can be as simple as putting out a pans filled with feed and water, or as fancy as building elaborate feeders. The sky’s the limit when it comes to feeder styles.
MATERIAL IDEAS: Although PVC chicken-feeders seem to be the darling of Pinterest, we’ve personally found we prefer a simpler set-up. We took an old plastic bucket that previously contained a large shrub. (If I had to guess, I’d say it’s a 3-gallon bucket). It already had drainage holes in the bottom, but we drilled them out with a hole saw to make them a bit bigger. We attached this bucket to a shallow metal pan and then mounted it on top of 2x4s to keep it off the ground. (See above.) It holds a generous amount of feed and prevents waste.
For our waterer, we use a galvanized waterer we got at the feed store and hang it from the ceiling via a chain. In the winter, we switch over to a heated dog bowl so we don’t have to deal with breaking ice constantly. Which leads us to our next consideration:
WHY: No, electricity in your coop isn’t an absolute requirement but it’s incredibly nice to have if you:
- Have very cold winters and want to have a heated water bucket
- Often do chicken chores in the dark
- Want to add supplemental light to your coop to extend the laying season
- Want to add heat lamps to your coop
REQUIREMENTS: We have several simple lightbulbs inside our coop, along with a number of strategically-placed outlets for heat lamps and water bowls.
MATERIAL IDEAS: Unless you’re pretty handy yourself, I recommend working with a licensed electrician to make sure your chicken coop wiring is safe and installed correctly.
A Few Other Things to Think About:
Chicken tractors (mobile chicken coops) are all the rage these days, and can be a brilliant option allowing your chickens to safety free-range while fertilizing as they go. We personally haven’t done this yet (because we just turn them out in the yard, and also because we frequently have hurricane-force winds), but I’ve always loved the idea. Here are some chicken tractor plans to check out.
Like it or not, mice are a part of country living. If a mouse had to make a list of perfect mouse-habitats, I’m pretty sure a chicken coop would make the top-ten list. With all the grain laying around, and lots of places to hide, it’s pretty much mouse-heaven. An average mouse population won’t cause you too many problems (and heck, your hens will enjoy the occasional mouse-snack!). However, if you struggle with lots of rodents, you may need to consider only feeding small amounts of feed at a time (not free-choice) and definitely keep your extra feed tightly contained in air-tight containers (we use large trash cans with lids).
I know people will say you aren’t supposed to house different species of poultry together, but we always have. We’ve kept turkeys, geese, and ducks in with our chickens, and have rarely had problems. That being said, we’ve found it’s extremely handy to have a divider in your coop, or at least two separated areas, for various reasons. You might need to feed different types of feed to different birds, you might have birds that aren’t getting along with the rest of the flock, or you might have a new batch of chicks. Regardless of the reason, consider creating way to separate birds in your coop, if need be. We have two “rooms” in our coop with a gate in the middle, and we use both spaces frequently.
Designer Chicken Coops
I totally have a thing for those quaint, almost romantic little cottage chicken coops you see on Pinterest– you know, the ones with delightfully chipped paint, honeysuckles growing up the side, little benches out front, and quaint woven wood fences.
Our chain link fence and red metal siding doesn’t exactly scream “quaint cottage”… But unfortunately we have to build with tough materials out here on the prairie, and a strictly-utilitarian coop is my reality due to our heavy snows, extreme winds, and determined predators. So, I’ll just keep pinning the cute coops on Pinterest, and appreciate my sturdy metal siding when the wind howls. 😉