This spring we will be building our fourth chicken coop. This time it is because we’re moving to a new farm. Previous renditions have been experiments and expansions, and realizations of various mistakes. There are a few things we’ve learned from trial and error that aren’t included in coop design books.
Our first coop was replaced because it ended up being too small. It’s not that we built the coop too small, at the time it was the perfect for our four hens. The problem is that chickens are like potato chips: you can’t have just one. I’ve never had any trouble filling a coop, only keeping it from getting over crowded.
Space. For their shelter chickens prefer approximately four square feet per bird. The only real risk with a larger coop is warmth, as an open space can be drafty. I would recommend allowing at least a few extra feet for future birds, as well as other considerations. Crowded chickens are more likely to hen-peck their companions, and manure and other debris will build up quickly.
A larger coop doesn’t just mean extra floor space, you will need to make sure there is enough roost space for all of your birds, too. Roosting is a natural instinct for chickens, who would sleep up in tree branches if they were in the wild. In order to make sure your hens are comfortable, give them enough space for all of them to roost with some extra room in case of disagreements between birds. When you’re designing your coop, remember that a lot of chicken droppings will fall below the roosts: don’t put them directly over feed, water, or nesting boxes.
Nesting boxes. Speaking of nesting boxes, this is another aspect of the coop that you’ll have to take into account. Hens prefer laying in private, dark areas, where they feel secure. A nesting box is also where you will collect the eggs from, so it should be easily accessible as well as comfortable. Some chicken keepers will even put curtains on their boxes, to give the hens a little extra privacy. Since, in nature, sitting on the nest can be a dangerous time for a chicken, the more secure they feel the more comfortable they will be laying.
Bedding. Bedding is another important consideration in a coop. Shavings, hay, and straw are the most commonly used bedding for chickens. Pine shavings are often the most affordable and easy to clean materials. Droppings are easy to pick out with a fork or shovel, unlike in straw or hay. Hay can make great nesting box material though: any nesting box should be regularly filled with fresh, clean bedding and in my own personal experience, I’ve found our hens prefer hay to lay in. Cedar shavings are strongly discouraged, a studies suggest they can be toxic to chickens. Any bedding used should be deep and regularly cleaned, for your hen’s comfort.
Ventilation. Another consideration when building a coop is appropriate ventilation. Chicken’s manure and breath is moist, and without proper airflow a coop can get stuff and smelly. In summer, a stuffy coop will be hot and uncomfortable, and in winter, it can hold in both moisture and odor. You can improve air flow with vents in a smaller coop, and by opening windows in the coop in summer. For a larger space, with more chickens, adding a cupola and keeping the entry door open will help.
Building a chicken coop is a fun exercise and there are hundreds of designs out there that can ensure your coop is both functional and unique. Taking a few things into consideration before building can help you avoid a re-build in the future.
Kirsten Lie-Nielsen currently farms 2 acres of a suburban homestead using geese for weeding and guarding purposes, raising chickens for eggs, bees for honey, and maintaining vegetable gardens for personal use. Recently she has begun work restoring an old barn and 100 acres of overgrown fields in hopes of farming full time in the future. Find her online at Days Ferry Organics Blog, and read all of Kirsten's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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