The Homestead Living Series: Building the Coop
Sharing your life with chickens will provide you with plenty of entertainment and a nice supply of eggs. It will also supply you with plenty of fertilizer! When you think about planning your chicken coop, you will want to make sure it is easy to clean and will keep predators out and chickens in. It also needs to be draft-free and well ventilated at the same time which can be quite tricky. I will give you some tips on how to plan your chicken coop so your flock is safe and healthy.
Coop size: A general rule is to provide at least two square feet of space per bird inside the coop and 3 square feet of space in the run. If you are letting your chickens free-range, that is a fine amount of space inside the coop as they will spend the majority of thier time outdoors. If your chickens will be inside a lot of the time, you will want around four square feet of space per bird inside the coop. Your chickens will let you know whether they are happy with their coop because if they feel crowded they will start to bully eachother (more than usual) and decrease their egg production. When planning your coop, keep these rules in mind because bigger is not better. If your coop is the proper size, the hens will keep eachother warm. If you coop is way too large, you will have room for expansion, but your coop will be too big for the chickens you do have to generate warmth.
Nesting box: If you are raising a flock of hens and you expect eggs from them you will need to provide them with nesting boxes. A general rule is one box per four hens. If you install too many boxes you will be wasting space and money because chances are good that they will remain empty. A good size for a nesting box is around a twelve foot square. If the box is too roomy, your hen will be able to stand, scratch around, and probably break the eggs. If your box is small and cozy, she will have to duck to get in, lay her eggs, and leave. Building them on the smaller size is definitely better. Many people build them from wood and some use chicken wire or plastic crates. I built mine from plywood and slid plastic bins filled with straw into them. This allows for much easier cleaning of the nesting box and this is something you will want to keep clean and fresh on a daily basis. This is where you food will be! Sometimes young pullets lay their eggs other places but you will want to encourage them to lay in the boxes. You can even place a fake egg in there for encouragement!
Perches: Your chickens will want to perch and perch a lot! The closer the perch is to the roof of the coop, the more they will like it. When you place your perch, make sure that it's within reach for the hens to walk to or jump to. If it's around 18 inches above something they are near that will be fine. If you have multiple perches, make sure to layer them like stairs because if they are above one another, the high hens will poop on the lower ones! Some people use large branches in their coops for a natural look and feel while others use lumber. I prefer a 2x3 because it's not too large, but wide enough for the hens to lay over their flat feet to keep them warm and safe from frostbite in the winter.
Ventilation: You do not need to insulate your coop. If you are in a cold zone, you should be raising cold-hardy chickens. These chickens can withstand extremely cold weather but they have to be kept out of drafts. Chickens are highly suseptible to respitory infections and if they are in a damp and drafty coop they will become ill. Sometimes insulation does more harm than good. It attracts mice and holds in moisture. It's better to have a well-built, draft-free structure without insulation than a damp one with rodents in the walls! You should have a door for your own ease of cleaning the coop and if it has a screen door and storm door installed that's wonderful! Windows should be placed near the tops of the walls so the sun isn't beating in on them and the wind isn't blowing directly onto them. If your window doesn't have a screen, staple chicken wire on the inside so your window can let air in and still keep predators out. If you absolutely cannot install a window in your coop, at least drill holes a couple of inches in diameter in various places near the roof of your coop and cover them with wire mesh. You have to have adequate ventilation in the coop; this is a must!
Bedding: Some people use a dirt floor, a wood floor, a wire floor, or a concrete floor in their coop. Mine happens to be wood and I think that is the best choice. I have a wooden coop with linoleum flooring and either wood chips or straw and hay bedding. Wood is nice because it's fairly predator proof, breathes naturally, dries out alright, and keeps even temperatures. Concrete is far too cold in the winter and dirt can be dug through easily. As far as bedding goes, wood chips are very absorbant...moreso than any other choice, but straw is better for composting if you will be spreading the manure in your garden or yard.
Other things to consider: As far as feeders and waterers are concerned, there are dozens of sizes and styles to choose from. I don't really know that one brand is better than the other, but I highly recommend hanging them in your coop. As long as they are hung to be around the height of the chickens backs, much mess will be eliminated. Chickens scratch a lot and much of it will end up floating in the water or blocking their food. Hanging them helps a lot. Chickens need about 15 hours of light for maximum egg production. Some people just let nature take its course but if you are really pushing for maximum egg output, you will want to either have electricity in your coop to keep the lights on after you lose daylight, or hang a bulb in there attached to a timer.
I wish you well in your coop building project! Make it a family affair, it's a lot of fun and a great way to teach your family about chickens and acquire some building skills!