Picture this: you’ve decided to add chickens to your backyard or homestead. You’re up to speed on basic healthcare and anatomy, and you think you know what chickens need to be happy. Now comes the big job – deciding how you’re going to house them.
Once you start down the road of choosing a style of coop for your new flock, you quickly discover there are as many plans and opinions about plans as there are chickens in the world. OK, I exaggerate, but honestly, it feels like it at first.
There’s the traditional coop and run, chicken tractors, pastured poultry pens, and paddock systems. And each one of those has countless different styles and systems to choose from. It’s exhausting work to figure out what’s going to work for your ‘girls’ (and maybe boys too), especially if you’ve never raised chickens before.
So how do you figure out the best plan for your new flock? It’s actually quite simple when you use a system. So I thought I'd share with you the process I went through to help me evaluate the best housing choice for our flock of 15.
Questions to Ask
Not every chicken coop plan is going to be suitable for your specific situation, so you’ll need to ask yourself a few questions before you even start looking at plans (trust me – this will save you a ton of time later):
- How many birds will I have eventually? You might start out with only 5 hens, but what if you want to expand your flock in a year or two, or add a rooster? You don’t want to have to start over or be renovating a coop with a flock living in it. At the very minimum, the 'average' full grown chicken needs 7.5 square feet (each) between outdoor and indoor space its if it's penned all the time, and 3 square feet each if free ranging regularly. Larger breeds need a minimum of 10 square feet penned and 4 square feet if normally free ranging, and bantams 5 square feet penned and 2 square feet free range. They need less space in their secure sleeping area than their 'day space', but this would be an average. Keep in mind this is the minimum. Overcrowding of birds can cause not only social problems (pecking and fighting, and the resultant injuries you’ll then have to deal with), but creates a situation ripe for disease transmission as well. Make sure your birds have enough space!
- What breed will be living in your coop/run? Different species do well in different conditions, so birds that require more space for optimum health are not going to do well in more confined spaces. Be sure to look into the requirements for the birds you'll be adding to your flock. Most books and many of the top websites on the topic will have all this information for you. Try backyardchickens.com for all sorts of info about breeds and coops.
- What’s the topography of your property? Our 6+ acres are hilly and mostly forested – not so good for portable rolling pens. If you’ve got a flat property, it definitely increases your options.
- Do you have room near the house to create your chicken housing? Well, not right beside your house, but if you live in an area with predators (and many of us do), you’ll want to be within earshot of the chickens so you’ll be awake and aware should something with teeth go marauding in the dead of night. Some people claim you can leave chickens for days if they have the right housing, but that's just not something I'd advise if you're surrounded by big, opportunistic predators (yes, even if you've got a livestock dog).
- What sorts of predators live in your area? This will dictate how secure your housing will have to be. We have weasels, raccoons, fishers, coyotes, bears and cougars to be concerned about, not to mention flying predators like red tailed hawks and ravens. Lots of coop plans have external doors for accessing the nest boxes – in our case, we decided against that style, as it would have made it easier pickin’s for the resident black bears (they’re weirdly dexterous with their mouths and paws). You’ll also see a lot of plans with open flooring so the poop falls through into some sort of collection space – apparently this reduces cleaning requirements, but it would not be at all safe in our neck of the woods, as any guage of wire mesh that would be big enough to let feces fall through would also allow the resident weasels an open door to our hens and rooster. I don’t think so… Plus the idea of the birds having to walk on wire just seems wrong to me.
- What’s your budget? You can spend $2000 on a fancy coop with all the bells and whistles, or you can convert an existing building for $100 or less. We built a sturdy, predator-proof coop for around $200, plus another $100 for water founts, feeders and a rubber trough. But we had our own lumber and shingles and used many re-purposed building materials (concrete board, trailer trusses, roosts, windows). The only thing we had to buy was some of the hardware cloth and chicken wire, and all the hinges and locks, as well as the linoleum for the floor. Be sure to make note of all the costs so there are no surprises part way through the project.
- Do you have access to reused materials? This will save you a lot of money, but will potentially add a lot of time to your project. Plus you'll want to make sure the re-used materials are clean and that they'll keep your birds safe from predators. Free materials aren't a very good deal if you lose your birds, but they can make your coop unique and will pull some materials out of the waste stream that might otherwise have gone to landfill (or languished in someone's shed for decades).
- Do you want a pre-designed plan, to customize a plan according to your own needs, or buy a pre-built coop? This will obviously depend on your budget, how much time you have available, and how good your constructions skills are. The fastest option is to buy a pre-built unit, but that may not suit your specific situation, nor your budget. If you choose to build your own, be sure to assess (realistically) how much time it will take and if you have that available to build an adquate shelter for your birds. If not, consider getting some help. Especially if your birds are on their way... ;)
Answering these questions honestly will provide a solid base for you to evaluate all those funky, stylin' coop plans you've bookmarked.
Evaluate the Plans
Now, grab a cup of your favorite beverage and go through all those websites and chicken-raising books using these worksheets I put together to help you evaluate your favorite plans:
- Download: Chicken Housing Analysis Worksheet (Excel file)
- Download: Chicken Housing Analysis Worksheet (PDF)
The worksheet will help you evaluate all the various options - a 'winner' should become clear pretty quickly. It may be that you have to tweak as you go. It may be that you have to substitute some materials for others that you have available. But if you've done the work, you'll end up with a housing system that will work for your property, your lifestyle, and your birds. And that means you'll enjoy your chicken-raising adventure so much more than if you build a coop that's not right for your specific situation and you spend the next year cursing it.
And remember, you can always come over to the Facebook page and ask questions of all our chicken-raising experts there! Here are some of our readers' chicken coops, for inspiration... (click here for the slideshow)
Do you have any advice to share on finding the right chicken coop plan? Let us know in the comments below. Your advice may just help someone keep their girls safe and sound - and happy!