A portable coop allows you to move your chickens to new “pasture” daily. Compared with industrial eggs, eggs from hens allowed to feed on pasture contain four times more vitamin D, three times more vitamin E and seven times more beta carotene.
ILLUSTRATION: KEITH WARD
One of the biggest challenges in keeping chickens is figuring out how to build a chicken coop and pen that will allow your birds to forage while also keeping them safe from predators. Letting the birds roam and consume a diverse diet results in eggs and meat with terrific flavor and nutrition. The downside of allowing chickens to free-range is that predators will almost always discover your flock and kill some birds. Sometimes you may lose just one bird; other times you’ll experience heavy losses in just one attack. Even in urban areas, foxes, raccoons and hawks can kill your chickens, and roaming dogs can be a problem in urban and rural areas.
Portable chicken coops (also called “pasture pens”) are a good solution, especially if you keep only a few hens. You can keep your birds inside a movable chicken coop that has an open bottom so the birds can feed on grass and insects. Each day, move the pen onto a fresh section of your lawn, garden or pasture. When you’re working outdoors and your presence will deter predators, you can let your birds out of the coop to range. They will naturally return to the coop at dusk to roost, or, if you need to get them inside before dusk, you can easily train them to run into the coop by giving them treats.
For several years, MOTHER EARTH NEWS has been working to develop inexpensive chicken coop plans for folks who want to keep just a few hens or raise a few meat birds. Our goal has been a small, secure, low-cost, DIY, portable chicken coop for use in gardens and backyards. We wanted a coop that would allow the birds to forage on pasture or fertilize garden beds while still keeping them safe from predators. The lightweight, inexpensive, wire-mesh pens we wrote about in the 2007 Portable Chicken Mini-Coop Plan were working well until we discovered a large dog could smash an unreinforced wire unit and kill the hens inside. These ultra-lightweight pens still work great inside a fenced garden or yard where dogs can’t get to them, but for a coop to use in unfenced areas, we’ve developed the improved design shown above, which features a steel frame to support the wire mesh. The coop is still portable, but the frame makes it much more predator-proof. We’re calling it MOTHER’s Mighty Chicken-Mobile, and it’s intended to house three to four hens. Nighttime shelter inside the coop can be a lightweight plastic storage tub, a doghouse or a “room” made from corrugated plastic. (To see an animation of how the coop comes together, view the video at left in the “Related Content” box. To view the video in full screen, click on the second icon from the right at the bottom of the video box.)
Building MOTHER’s Mighty Chicken-Mobile
To make the steel frame, our DIY guru, Nathan Lindsey, first welded three 2-foot-by-3-foot rectangles from square steel tubing. Next, he welded 10-foot lengths of angle iron to the rectangles, giving us a coop frame 10 feet long, 3 feet wide and 2 feet high. One person can move this 3-by-10-foot unit, and it will fit nicely over most garden beds and in some of the wider paths in your garden. Nathan used 1-inch angle iron, but three-quarter-inch material would make the coop a bit lighter and easier to move.
If you don’t know how to weld, you can take this article to a machine shop and have the frame welded for you, or perhaps now’s the time to learn a new skill (Check out Meld Metals With Welding and Brazing). You could make the frame from wood, but it would not be as strong — and definitely not as durable — as a steel frame. Total cost of materials to build our steel frame was about $100, but you could reduce this by buying the steel from a local salvage yard.
To make the pen easy to move, Nathan added adjustable-height wheels to the back and retractable, 24-inch handlebars to the front. When not in use, the handlebars can be pushed in by sliding them through short tubes welded to the frame’s corners.
Next, we covered the frame with welded wire mesh. We chose 1-by-2-inch mesh for the sides and 2-by-4-inch mesh for the top and floor. If you are tempted to use lightweight and less expensive “chicken wire,” aka “poultry netting,” be aware that predators can sometimes chew or claw through it. You can leave the coop’s floor open if you want to use the birds to till garden areas, but adding the wire mesh floor will make the pen more effective in deterring predators and will also protect your lawn from heavy scratching. Nathan attached the wire mesh to the frame by spot-welding it, but you could use plastic zip ties or wire instead. Our cost for the wire mesh was about $50.
We made a “door” for the pen by cutting an opening in the front mesh wall of the coop and adding a mesh flap that closes over the opening. The hens can go in and out through this door, and you can also put their feed and water containers into the coop through the opening. (We like to use recycled kitty litter jugs with holes cut in the sides as feeders and waterers.) On the back end of the coop, we used a recycled aluminum sheet (which you can find at a salvage yard) to make a hinged lid that we can open to collect eggs. Bungee cords work well to hold the front door and lid tightly closed.
We used corrugated plastic sheeting (the material often used to make small, weatherproof yard signs) to make a cozy, 3-by-3-foot roosting area for our hens inside one end of the coop. This sheeting is lightweight, easy to work with, easy to clean, and — because the sheeting is translucent — the space gets some heat gain during sunny winter days. You can order corrugated plastic sheeting from FarmTek (800-327-6835).
For lightweight, easy-to-clean nest boxes inside the roosting area, we cut entrances in the sides of a couple of plastic storage boxes and attached them to a wooden shelf. We attached the shelf by screwing through the plastic side walls, leaving enough of the screw protruding so it could rest on the wire mesh.
During hot summer days, shaded locations are always best for the coop. Placing a tarp over the entire unit will prevent muddy conditions inside the coop during rainy seasons, and will also help keep the pen clear of snow in winter.
Cheryl Long is the editor in chief of MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, and a leading advocate for more sustainable lifestyles. She leads a team of editors which produces high quality content that has resulted in MOTHER EARTH NEWS being rated as one North America’s favorite magazines. Long lives on an 8-acre homestead near Topeka, Kan., powered in part by solar panels, where she manages a large organic garden and a small flock of heritage chickens. Prior to taking the helm at MOTHER EARTH NEWS, she was an editor at Organic Gardening magazine for 10 years. Connect with her on Google+.