Dec 03 , 2019
Chicken coops come in all different shapes, sizes, and colors. Some are simple and basic, others are wildly extravagant, and most are somewhere in between. A quick search on Pinterest is exciting, but might prove more overwhelming than helpful.
Here are 11 questions to ask yourself when you are designing your first (or new and improved) chicken coop.
- Are you zoned for chickens? Do you have any HOA or city restrictions?
- How many chickens do you have or want? How many do you plan on getting in the future?
- How much space do you have in your yard to build a coop?
- Will you free-range your chickens full time, or will they need an enclosed run?
- What is your budget like? The coop is usually the most expensive part of getting into chicken keeping, but the costs can be cut by repurposing materials. We think recycling is best, when possible!
- What is your skill level in carpentry? Will you build your coop yourself, or will you need to hire someone?
- Do you want a permanent structure, or would you prefer a movable chicken tractor? Do you have flat, level land for it to sit on? Can you provide adequate shade?
- How sturdy do you need to build your coop? Do you live in an area prone to gusty winds?
- How will you manage the bedding in your coop? Will you change it frequently, or use the deep litter method?
- Where will your food storage area be? Keep in mind that rodents are drawn to chicken food!
- Will you need electricity in your coop? Read more for the pros and cons!
Before you think about building a coop, first think about where it will go! Above all, make sure it is easy to access from your house. As many trips as you'll be making to and from the coop, you'll appreciate some efficiency and ease of access. Take a close look at the ground in your preferred location during a rainstorm. Does it stay soggy for a while, or does it drain? Standing on moist ground for long periods of time is not good for the health of your chickens. Is there enough shade? If not, you'll have to provide some, but natural shade is best. Before you get started, don't forget to "Call Before You Dig!" Your coop design may require some digging, whether it be sinking posts in the ground, burying fencing to help with keeping predators out, or grading the spot to improve drainage.
Arguably the most important factor with coop design is size. The overwhelming majority of people who are not happy with their coop size wish they had built it bigger. Few people wish they had gone smaller! Most people wind up adding more birds to their flock, so make sure to plan for that eventuality! It is best to build it tall enough for you to walk inside. If you want something smaller, consider building it on stilts with 2-3 feet of outdoor run space underneath to maximize your space.
Generally speaking, 4-5 square feet per bird is the rule of thumb for indoor floor space. Your girls won't need as much space inside as they will outside. However, one thing to consider is that they will not like to be outside on days with inclement weather. If the ground is snowy and icy, or if it is pouring down rain, they are likely to crowd inside. Be sure there is enough room for them to do that comfortably. This can be alleviated somewhat by putting a roof over all or most of the outdoor run. Doing so allows them to go outside without getting rained on, and it keeps the snow and ice out of their area. Consider this option if you are in a particularly rainy or snowy climate.
Just as with indoor space, outdoor space is also a big factor. Around the internet, you'll see that the recommended outdoor area is 10 square feet per bird. We disagree, and think that number should be at least doubled, if not tripled. Crowded chickens get bored and start bad habits like egg eating, feather plucking, fighting, and so on. We don't think that's any way for a chicken to live. So please, don't overcrowd your girls! And please don't make your girls live indoors all the time. Chickens need fresh air and sunlight to be happy, just like us!
In short, whatever space you have, maximize it!
It is important to consider some structural elements before you get started. If your area is prone to high winds, sustained or gusts, it will be worthwhile to build a sturdier coop. A hoop house with a tarp for shade may not be the best choice in such an environment. Similarly, if your area is prone to high snowfall, a strong roof is an a must. Pitched metal roofs are often used in high snowfall areas because the snow slides off when it begins to melt.
Many people repurpose sheds, outbuildings, and sometimes children's playhouses as chicken coops. We think this is a great idea! However, you'll want to make sure the ventilation is appropriate for your weather, particularly with plastic and all-metal coops.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure here. When scouting your location, make sure you pay close attention to the water runoff in the spot you are eyeing. If your spot is naturally muddy, you can take a few measures to alleviate the problem. The first is grading. If you can find where the runoff typically comes from, you can do some creative landscaping to redirect it on its way. Another option is frequent layers of bedding such as straw, pine needles, wood chips, or pine shavings (though those tend to disappear into the muddy ground quickly). Some chicken keepers use wooden pallets to elevate the surface. This allows the chickens to have something dry to walk on, and it gives the ground time to dry and recover.
Coops have been built with 100% new materials, 100% recycled materials, and all across the spectrum in between. We believe in recycling whatever you can, and we love seeing creative coops! (Hint - tag us on social media so we can "ooh" and "aah" over your coop!) Check your area for thrift stores like the Habitat for Humanity Restore. You may find scrap lumber, rusted tin, FRP panels, pallets, and even windows at very low prices. There are lots of opportunities to be creative!
Whether you build new or old, make sure you avoid cedar! The natural oils it contains are not good for chickens to breathe.
Generally speaking, you'll want to offer about 10-12" of roost space per adult chicken for standard breeds, and about half that for bantams. The roosts should be wide enough that your chickens can cover their toes up with their bellies in the cold weather. For this reason, we recommend 2x4s with the flat side up and edges sanded down to a nice curve. The roosts should be stair-stepped in the coop with enough horizontal space between each one that birds don't poop on the ones below while they sleep. The bottom roost should be about two feet off the ground for heavy birds, and the top roost should be the highest accessible point in the coop. Your chickens feel safest when they can get higher off the ground. For easy cleaning, build the roosts to drop into a slot instead of permanently mounting them to the walls.
Keep them from sleeping in the nest boxes by building them lower than the roosts. If your chickens can get on top of the roof of your coop, they are likely to sleep on top of it (and poop on it) rather than inside it.
Your nest boxes should number one for every three hens. The nest boxes should be built lower than most of the roosts. If you build them too high, the chickens will sleep in them, poop in them, and get them very dirty very quickly. A dirty nest box makes for dirty eggs, and no one wants a dirty breakfast. Ideally the nest boxes will be accessible from the outside, making egg collection a cinch. Consider finding some plastic bins and building the nest boxes to size to make cleaning much easier. Build a small perch in front of each nest box so entry and exit is easy on your hens. Make sure you build a slanted "roof" directly over the nest boxes, depending on how much room is above them, so no one perches and poops on top of them.
Chickens need a well-ventilated coop, regardless of the weather. Stifling hot air in summer needs to be mitigated, but what is perhaps even more problematic is cold, damp air in winter. Excess moisture in the coop can cause respiratory illness and frostbite, both of which can lead to death if severe enough. Chickens produce a surprising amount of moisture, which is magnified at night when multiples are together in a closed space. They put off a great deal of water vapor just from breathing. Their poop contains a lot of moisture, in the form of water vapor and also ammonia. Be aware that "well-ventilated" should not be confused with "drafty." Ventilation is controlled air flow, which means not directed toward the roosts. Vents should be at the top part of the coop, and should have draft-proof covers that can be opened and closed when needed.
Many coops have a dirt floor, but this can be inviting to predators and pests. It makes it easy to get in, and easy to hide. We recommend building a solid floor out of wood or concrete. Even better is a linoleum floor because it makes cleaning a breeze! A solid floor will help keep your chickens safe from predators, and cut down on the rodent problem that ails so many chicken keepers.
Most chicken keepers either change out their coop bedding with some frequency, or they follow the "deep litter" method. Deep litter is a composting system that is changed only every year or so. It is not maintenance-free, as it does require management. Check back for a future blog post on the deep litter method! If you opt out of using the deep litter method, you might consider building a poop tray underneath the roosts that you can slide out the back and easily clean. Just don't use wire mesh! Poop sticks to the top of it, and makes it very difficult to clean. If you clean your coop regularly, you can use sand, straw, pine needles, and pine shavings as bedding. Just remember not to use cedar! If you find that your coop gets overly smelly, try using Sweet PDZ for deodorizing. It works naturally to break down the ammonia without hurting the chickens. It is much safer than using lime!
Think about who will be going in and out of which door. If only chickens will be using a door, it can be very small. But if it will be shared with humans, make the door size large enough for you to enter and exit comfortably. You'll want to be able to access the interior easily in order to clean it. Many people have utilized Dutch doors, and some have come up with creative designs for a small chicken door within a larger door. It is probably best for your doors to swing outside the coop, rather than in, because eventually the bedding will get in the way and impede full range of motion. All door openings on the coop should be able to close and lock to keep predators out. One innovation to consider is an automatic door! There are some that work on timing and solar power. If you travel at all, this might be something to look into!
Windows can make a great addition to your coop. Natural light helps regulate the circadian rhythm of your chickens and can help with egg production. Also, it adds ambiance and character to the design of your coop, in addition to functionality!
Some folks like to wire their coops with electric. This can be very helpful with keeping lights on during the winter for egg production, and also for the heated waterers in the wintertime. We don't recommend using a heat lamp in the coop, because in the event of an electrical outage, the sudden drop in temperature can chill the chickens, which can cause them to become sick, and at worst, perish. We recommend hiring a licensed electrician to do this work because of the fire hazard associated.
Chickens need to be able to take dust baths to keep and bad critters like mites from becoming a problem. Sand can work for this purpose, but our favorite recommendation is food-grade Diatomaceous Earth, or "DE" for short. It is perfectly safe for animals, but acts as a desiccant for very small insects. It is great stuff, but it only works when it is dry, so make sure to keep it out of the weather. Make sure to keep it in its own container with walls, otherwise the chickens will scatter it all about.
Water, Food, and Grit
These are arguably the three most important needs of your chickens after shelter and safety. Look for a blog post soon on the topic!
The Outdoor Run
For the floor of the run, most just use the existing dirt, but consider pouring a concrete pad. It is extra cost and work upfront, but it makes cleaning easy down the road, and you won't have any compost waste when you do change out the bedding.
The most important part of the outdoor run is the fencing material you will be using. Following are five common types of fencing used, along with their pros and cons.
Chicken wire is inexpensive and easy to work with, but the wire is such a small gauge that it can be easily bent, rusts quickly, and predators can chew through it easily.
Hardware cloth is made of a sturdier wire with smaller gaps. It is more expensive, but less likely to be compromised by predators. It is commonly found with a pattern of half-inch squares.
Some coop builders will use chicken wire for the bulk of the fencing, and reinforce the bottom few feet with hardware cloth.
Chain link comes in rolls or in panels, such as disassembled dog kennels. The latter is probably easier to use for a coop. Chain link can keep adult birds in, but chicks can sneak out. Similarly, small predators can easily slip through the large gaps. We recommend reinforcing the bottom with hardware cloth if you opt for chain link.
Welded Wire, like chain link, also comes in rolls or panels. It is both stronger and easier to work with. The gaps are smaller than chain link, but it still holds true that chicks can escape and predators can get in. Arguably more secure than chain link, we still recommend reinforcing the bottom.
Cattle panels, also called livestock panels or hog panels, are great for making hoop houses! They usually come in bendable 16 foot sections. The gaps are larger still, so they will almost certainly need to be reinforced at the bottom to keep predators out and chickens in.
Tell us about your experience!
Did you build your coop? Are you planning to build one? Halfway through? We would LOVE to see your pictures! Follow and tag us @CritterBoutique on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube!