Having a few laying hens in the backyard has almost become the icon of today’s self-sufficiency movement. Birds kept in a portable chicken coop on pasture provide delicious, inexpensive eggs, and eggs from birds that get plenty of grass, bugs and seeds to eat are better for you than store-bought eggs (read the results of our egg nutrition testing in The Good Egg). Hens are great converters of kitchen waste into valuable manure for the garden, and every chicken owner we know takes a lot of pleasure in just watching the chickens noodle around in the yard.
But free-range birds are often taken by foxes, bobcats, hawks, dogs or other predators, so unless you have guardian dogs that can keep predators away, your best option is probably a portable chicken coop that gives the chickens access to fresh grass and dirt every day while also keeping them protected.
Over the years, MOTHER EARTH NEWS has offered several DIY chicken coop plans, particularly designs for portable chicken coops. It has been a challenge. The perfect coop should be lightweight and easy to build — even for a child or an older person — yet it must be sturdy enough to keep predators away from the birds, and it shouldn’t cost too much money.
One early version, designed in 2003 by MOTHER EARTH NEWS contributing editor Steve Maxwell and Editor-in-Chief Cheryl Long, was a wooden A-frame affair with wheels on one end to help make it easy for one person to move. Created after Maxwell and Long conferred with poultry experts, the coop is a gorgeous piece of work (read more about it in MOTHER’s Mini-Coop) meant to last for years. However, the coop requires a fair amount of carpentry skills to build, and the cost of the materials and the required tools are beyond some folks’ budgets.
In 2007, Long presented another coop idea in Portable Chicken Mini-Coop Plan. “I set out to create a coop design that would be low-cost, easy to build, light enough to move easily and scaled to fit well even in small backyards,” Long wrote. “It’s intended for three or four hens, costs only about $100 in materials and can be assembled in a few hours from standard welded wire fencing.” This portable chicken coop plan includes an inexpensive plastic doghouse, slightly modified, to shelter the chickens. This super-lightweight, low-cost option works fine if you can place it inside a fenced yard or garden. Unfortunately, the run’s unframed wire mesh walls are not strong enough to prevent large dogs from smashing them down and killing the chickens, as Long sadly learned.
Undaunted, Long next designed an ultra-sturdy coop, MOTHER’s Mighty Chicken-Mobile, in 2011’s Build an Affordable, Portable and Predator-Proof Chicken Coop. It’s sized to fit on a raised garden bed so the chickens can till up the soil with their scratching. This portable coop with a welded iron frame is solid and predator-proof indeed, and it will last forever, but Long reports the steel frame makes it too heavy for some people to move easily (and you’d have to find a welder to build it for you if you don’t have that skill).
Now we have a new and improved incarnation of the portable chicken coop with your choice of shapes. This pen is framed with 1-inch Schedule 40 plastic pipe, and its walls are covered with 1-by-2-inch welded wire mesh. A removable panel of 2-by-4-inch welded wire mesh covers the bottom, which gives the chickens room to scratch but is easy to take off if you wish to set the coop on a garden bed and let the chickens till in their manure.
Like its portable predecessors, this coop-with-run is designed for three to four chickens. The birds shelter in an enclosure at one end made of the same durable yet easy-to-work corrugated plastic that the postal service uses in its mail tubs, and a cleverly fitted 5-gallon pail with a special cover serves as a nest box.
We worked with Joe Ramey of Circo Innovations in Grass Valley, Calif., (see contact information later in this article) to design two easy-to-build coops that anyone from age 9 to 90 can assemble using no special tools. Circo Innovations offers MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers specially priced kits with all of the fittings and pipes cut to size, as well as kits of just the needed fittings. Of course, if you’d like to use your own materials, you can see detailed diagrams on Circo’s website. (See the resources section later in this article for more information on the Circo kits and to find the corrugated plastic and the 5-gallon pail nest box.)
The pieces of the coop frames glue together easily, strongly and permanently. Their exteriors are clad in welded wire mesh, and you’ll need easy-to-use J-clip pliers to join the welded wire sections. To cinch the mesh to the plastic framing, we used 17-gauge smooth galvanized wire, which is easy to bend yet durable. Both coops have handles for easy moving.
We designed the first portable chicken coop using green pipes with the idea that urban and suburban folks may want to make their coop as unobtrusive and attractive as possible.
For this green coop, we simulated the shape of the classic hoop house or high tunnel. The shape of this coop saves a bit of money on the cost of the welded wire mesh because it uses a little less than the rectangular coop. We chose pre-bent plastic hoops, which made assembly even faster. In rainy or snowy climates, a tarp thrown over a coop of this shape will shelter the birds without puddles of water or snow weight distorting the wire.
This portable unit costs about $370 and weighs less than 50 pounds with all of the mesh and fittings included. It’s so light that one person can easily lift either end to shift it to new ground and fresh grass. At 39 1/2 inches wide and just under 9 feet long, it’s roomy for up to four birds, even with a third of it acting as an enclosed shelter. It sits neatly on a 4-by-10-foot raised garden bed, with a little room to spare so the chickens won’t throw all the dirt out of the bed. This coop is so secure that you don’t need to lock the birds in the shelter at night.
The completed rectangular coop kit costs around $300 — less than the hooped coop, because it uses less expensive white plastic pipe, but it requires slightly more welded wire mesh. It, too, is so light that anyone can move it easily, and is big enough for four birds. It will also sit on a 4-by-10-foot raised garden bed.
Both coops use the durable corrugated plastic to provide shelter for the chickens. This material is strong and flexible, simple to work with, and is easily cut with an X-Acto or utility knife. Those who wish for an unobtrusive coop can order it in green, but the less expensive white, translucent version provides some solar gain to warm the chickens in winter.
We used a cordless drill to punch holes in the plastic and wired these pieces of plastic to the frame.
These portable chicken coops are designed so that either end drops down for access to feeders and waterers, and to allow your chickens out while you’re there to supervise (your presence should deter predators). The chickens will return to their coop naturally at dusk — just be sure to close and latch the chicken door at nightfall if they’ve been ranging in the yard.
MOTHER EARTH NEWS recommends three excellent new books about raising chickens, whether you’re experienced or a complete novice.
Robert and Hannah Litt’sA Chicken in Every Yard: The Urban Farm Store's Guide to Chicken Keeping starts with a variety of reasons to keep chickens. The book then takes the reader through every step of keeping backyard birds, from choosing a breed to using the eggs, as well as some philosophical asides, such as, “Should I take a $5 chicken to the vet?” The book’s style is easy and comfortable, with lots of humor tucked in. The Litts are the founders of the Urban Farm Store in Portland, Ore., and have loads of experience helping beginners raise their first birds.
Patricia Foreman’s City Chicks: Keeping Micro-flocks of Laying Hens as Garden Helpers, Compost Makers, Bio-recyclers and Local Food Suppliers is, as its title suggests, aimed at city dwellers who want to keep a few hens. Beyond the usual chicken husbandry and health information, the book also includes great tips on how to put your flock to work to build soil fertility, plus information on how to draft and pass local laws to permit laying hens. It’s crammed with information, and every poultry keeper will refer to it again and again.
Harvey Ussery’s The Small-Scale Poultry Flock: An All-Natural Approach to Raising Chickens and Other Fowl for Home and Market Growers may seem oriented to larger flocks than most backyard bird keepers maintain, but the wealth of information in the book applies to anyone who keeps even one chicken. Ussery discusses how to grow your own poultry feed, and how to use chickens in the garden to build soil health. Widely regarded as an expert in small-scale chicken breeding and raising, plus how to put chickens to work, Ussery also discusses ducks, geese and other kinds of poultry within the book. His discussion of worm composting bins beneath the aisles in his hoophouses (which serve as winter chicken houses) is also fascinating.
Resources for Building Your Portable Chicken Coop
Circo Innovations offers three styles of coop frame kits to MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers (see list below). You will need to provide the welded wire mesh and other materials. Each coop needs about 31 linear feet of 36-inch-wide, 1-by-2-inch welded wire mesh to cover the sides and top of the coop, as well as a 10-foot piece of 48-inch-wide, 2-by-4-inch welded wire mesh for the bottom. The wire mesh, corrugated plastic, J-clips and a pair of J-clip pliers add about $115 to the cost of each frame kit (and you will have lots of wire mesh and plastic leftover).
- Kit 1: A full kit of pre-cut pipe and fittings for the green domed portable coop; $256.16, plus shipping
- Kit 2: A full kit of pre-cut pipes and fittings for the white rectangular portable coop; $185.60, plus shipping
- Kit 3: A kit of just the fittings for the white rectangular coop; $65.28, plus shipping
Circo offers a discount of 30 percent on orders of four kits or more. For more information, call Circo at 877-762-7782.
Growers Supply sells the 4-millimeter twin-wall corrugated plastic we used to form the coop’s shelter. In white, it comes in 8-foot-wide rolls and costs about $10 per foot. Other colors are available but cost more. Growers Supply also offers 4-by-8-foot sheets of 8-millimeter material, which is slightly less flexible.
Fowl Stuff is a Michigan company that has designed an injection-molded cover that adapts 3- and 5-gallon pails for use as nesting boxes. The company offers covers alone ($12 each), nest boxes with pail and cover ($20) and other items through various retailers listed on its website. You can also order directly through the website.
Robin Mather is a senior associate editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS and the author of The Feast Nearby, a collection of essays and recipes from her year of eating locally on $40 a week. In her spare time, she is a hand-spinner, knitter, weaver, homebrewer, cheese maker and avid cook who cures her own bacon. Find her on Twitter, Facebook or Google+.