The chicken’s coop & run are by far the biggest investment you will make as a backyard chicken keeper so you will want to give it some thought before purchasing or building one. Chicken coops can come in all shapes & sizes and all budgets. Hundreds of coop plans and ideas can be found online, so let me share with you what I have learned from building ours.
1) Chickens are addictive – Go bigger if possible. Originally, we bought 4 baby chicks. We figured that was plenty. We had read online about chicken math, that you should get a coop bigger than what you think you will need because you will buy more chickens. We didn’t listen. We just went to the feed store, picked out four different chicks, and went home happy with our purchase. We built our coop – perfect for 4 birds with a little extra room. Two months later, on another trip to the feed store, we saw they had Easter Egg chicks. Chickens that lay blue eggs? Yes please! So we thought just one more couldn’t hurt. For the first year, we were happy with our flock of 5. Then the hatchery catalog comes in the mail (who put us on that mailing list??). There are hundreds of breeds of chickens – some of them so amazing and unique you just want to collect them all! So for year two we ordered some fancy breeds from the hatchery – two Silkies, a Polish and another Easter Egger. Shortly after the new chicks arrived, we had our very first broody hen. She looked so sad there, wanting to be a mom. Who was I to deny her? Since we don’t have a rooster, we went to Ebay and ordered some fertilized eggs. She hatched out four adorable fuzzy babies. We were good and only kept one – but still that was 10 chickens. One year in, and we had gone from 4 birds to 10 and we were already adding on to our coop. Now we are up to 17! So do yourself a favor and go bigger. You won’t regret it.
2) Chick coops need a lot of ventilation. Chickens produce a lot of moisture, ammonia and body heat and if your coop isn’t properly vented your chickens could get very sick or even die. When chickens breath they expel a lot of moisture, they also do not urinate, so all of the liquid they would pass is contained in their poop. All that moisture can make the coop very humid. If that humidity can’t escape through vents, you leave your flock open to respiratory disease & frostbite in the winter. Their poop also contains a large amount of ammonia. As it builds up, it can really irritate their lungs. In the summertime your chickens are stuck sweating it out in their warm downy coats. Imagine being stuck sleeping in a tiny room with several of your friends, all dressed in winter jackets, in the middle of August. All that body heat can cause the temperature to rise to dangerous levels, and your chickens could die from heat stroke. How much ventilation is enough? It will vary in different climates and seasons. In hot summer weather a good rule of thumb is about 1 square foot of ventilation per 10 square feet of floor space. If it is really hot, you might want to consider a barn fan. Even during the winter, even in the north, even when its 20 degrees below zero, they still need ventilation. Too much moisture coupled with cold temperatures is a recipe for frostbite. You can close up some of the summer vents, and partially close others. You need to provide air exchange without allowing wind & drafts in, so a panel with a hinge that can close part way is perfect. Be sure all vents are covered in wire so predators can’t access the coop. A good investment for the coop is a humidity & temperature gauge. Try to keep the humidity between 40%-70% and the temperature below 90 degrees. Having a reliable gauge will help you determine if you have enough ventilation.
3) Think about roost placement. Chickens poop a lot while they sleep, so a lot of the mess in the coop is going to be located under the roosts. Some very smart chicken coop owners have “poop boards” under their roosts. The chicken poop falls on the board while the chickens sleep, and can be easily dumped or scooped off, leaving the coop floor much cleaner. This is my biggest regret with my coop, I just don’t have the right set up for it and I need to fix that. Before you begin construction, I highly recommend you finding the room for poop boards! The other thing to consider is that you want to locate the roosts away from drafts so the chickens are not shivering all night long. You should plan on about 1 foot of roost space per chicken.
4) Think about cleaning when designing your set up. Having a coop & run you can walk into will make cleaning time much easier, but a large set up isn’t practical for everyone. If you don’t have space or money for this, be sure you have large access doors to make cleaning time quick & easy. My coop is 4 ft x 8 ft and not tall enough for me to walk into, but both 4 ft ends open almost completely so I can just push the shavings from one end out the other.
5) Food & Water – Be sure you have easy access to their food & water so you can easily fill them. Having them raised off the floor will keep shavings and poop out of the water. If you live in a climate where the weather regularly drops below freezing you need to have a plan for keeping your chickens in fresh water. You can either purchase a chicken water heater (a base that you put your water on and it will keep it just above freezing), or you can change out the water a few times a day to keep it from freezing.
6) Nest boxes – You don’t need to have a nest box for every chicken. You should plan on 1 box for every 4-5 hens, they don’t mind sharing. A nest box should be a quiet, safe place where the hens can retreat to. Some people even hang curtains over the boxes to give the hens some peace. We have two large nest boxes, but my girls have also decided that the far corner of the coop is a fine place for laying eggs. Luckily there is an access door right there so we can still easily reach the eggs! Having convenient access from the outside of the coop to the nest boxes makes collecting eggs quick & easy.
7) Don’t rely on chicken wire for keeping out predators. Use hardware cloth on at least the bottom portion of your run and to cover the windows/vents in your coop. The wire is stronger and the holes smaller, so predators can not bend it to gain access. It is also a lot more expensive than chicken wire. My run is 6 feet tall, the bottom 2 feet is hardware cloth, and the upper 4 feet is chicken wire. We also dug a trench 2 feet down all the way around the run and buried hardware cloth. This will prevent animals from digging in, or chickens from digging out.