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From Coop to Poop – Infrastructure for a thriving Flock
Coop Construction and Setup 101
I have never seen two coops that were just alike and they tend to evolve over time. There are many plans available online, people who will build them for you if you are not so inclined and there are even some you can buy and have delivered and installed.
Considering some core components can help you to get off to a good start. Many things can evolve but the basic structure of your coop can be difficult to change. A good, simple structure will make life much easier for you and your flock.
NOTE: Don't use pressure treated wood in your coop. The chemicals are unhealthy for the chickens and they peck at everything. Hemlock is a durable, inexpensive option that is quite resistant to moisture when used above ground. Inside the coop, spruce dimensional lumber works great and cost effective.
My coop: I inherited a 10' X 10' wooden chicken house. It was installed about 60 years ago as a used (even then!) prefab wooden shed to house my brother's 4-H project - raising bantam hens. By the time I was ready to use it as a coop for my chickens, it had developed some problems. Vermont winters and a pesky woodchuck contributed to a rotted floor and the building desperately needed repair or removal.
Because of the environmental and financial cost of disposing of it, the cost of new materials, its overall soundness, and my love of fixing things, I decided to resurrect it. It has continually evolved and currently houses 15 adult birds very comfortably and has a 5'X5' entry / storage area.
Chickens need 2 – 3 sq ft per bird.
Multiply that by how many chickens to find out how big your coop needs to be.
EXAMPLE: 3 ft per bird X 15 birds = 45 sq ft. My 10' X 10' coop (100 square feet - 25 sq ft storage area = 75 sq ft) gives them plenty of room, even when extreme cold keeps them indoors.
One of the most important keys to happy, healthy, problem-free hens is providing plenty of space for their needs. When chickens feel crowded, their overall health is affected. And because they are flock birds, vying for their place is a continual, compulsive striving for them – for food, attention, nesting boxes, etc. Crowding intensifies this natural competition and the birds are likely to have more illness, delayed growth, and stress-related behavioral problems.
In constructing a chicken house, don't skimp on space in any of the following components of coop design.
Door: This provides access to this coop for feeding, cleaning, and general tending of your birds. Here in New England where the winters are cold and long, it is quite helpful to have a full height door and room to step in and stand up inside the coop without chickens underfoot. This space can also serve to store equipment and to work with an injured hen if necessary.
Pop Door: The chickens need a door to come and go. The Chicken Guard Locking Door Kit is one of the best investments I have ever made for my flock. It eliminates the worry of whether the flock is safe should I be away from home at dusk. It also latches when closed to keep predators out. It can be set to open and close on a light sensor or on a timer (or manually). It runs on AA batteries. I have found it to be very reliable.
TIP: The only downside to this (and most) door kits is that the timer has to be opened up to replace the batteries. My solution is to replace the batteries before winter whether they need it or not.
Alternatively, you can create a small opening several inches above floor height and cut a matching door. Install hinges on one side and a hasp type closure on the other (as for a padlock). Use a snap clip to secure it against predators. (Racoons are very crafty!) Make sure there is no more than 1/4” gap on any side of the door to keep rodents from getting in. With the door closed, you can attach weather stripping or a ¾” wood strip to keep out drafts.
Windows: Windows are very helpful for extending the laying season by allowing more light in the coop. They can also help to warm the coop in winter. On cold mornings in mid winter, I often see a chicken or two basking in the sun streaming in a window. Windows that can be opened provide airflow and cooling in summer. Staple ½” hardware cloth outside the windows to keep rodents and racoons outside.
Ventilation: Strong smells indicate a high level of ammonia which is toxic to chickens and unpleasant for their keepers. Screened ventilation holes near the roof keep air flow going. Flap type covers hinged at the bottom and latched at the top allow you to control the amount of airflow in bitter cold weather.
Outdoor space is vital for natural chicken behaviors- foraging, gathering grit for their crops, cooling themselves and dust bathing. Especially in winter, they need to make vitamin D in the sun and get exercise. Allowing for these natural behaviors reduces less desirable ones like pecking and bullying.
A tree near the run can be nice, but make sure the run is covered so you don't end up with predators using the tree to scope out their dinner!
Outdoor space can be accomplished by allowing them to free range in the daytime, by creating an outdoor fenced area, or creating a mobile coop. Sunshine and outdoor space is important to chicken health and helps a great deal with behavioral problems.
Ample opportunity to dust bathe is critical and helps them to avoid the problems of external parasites on your chickens. Watching a chicken dust bathe removes all doubt that they enjoy the event.
20210607_123755.jps ( replace with video?) (caption: Buffy enjoying a dust bath during molting)
Dust Bathing Tub: Providing a rubber feed tub with play sand provides the opportunity for dust bathing in winter when the frozen ground prevents it outdoors. If it gets a little manure in it, a cat litter scoop can be helpful in cleaning it. Chickens fling sand like kids in a bubble bath, so a high sided tub can help keep the sand in.
Roosts: Allow 8 – 10 “ of roosting space for each chicken
Adequate roosting space is very important for chickens. Each night they vie for space. This is their nature, even in an established flock that gets along well. If it is cramped, behavioral problems such as pecking, bullying, excessive stress and sleeping in nesting boxes can occur.
The preferred roost seems to be flat with rounded edges. That said, chickens also like hefty branches up to 2” in diameter. If you have a table saw, roosting bars can be constructed by ripping a 2X4 in half lengthwise and sanding of the distinct edges. The roosts can then be attached to the wall on both ends or placed into a bracket as these photos illustrate.
Use either a hanging feeder, at about crop height, or an automatic feeder. I tend to offer a hanging feeder as a second option because it prevents any problem where one hen is being bullied away from food by another.
Hanging Feeder: The advantages are that they are inexpensive, keep the feed clean and you can easily see when it needs to be filled. The disadvantage is that they have to be checked daily and frequently filled. I like to install hooks from the ceiling of the coop and use a chain looped onto the hook. At the other end, I use a snap hook for easy removal or height adjustment.
Advantages: They hold nearly an entire 50# bag of feed and keep rodents and are said to keep water out so they can be used outdoors. I have not tested them outdoors, but the design would suggest that it would work.
Disadvantages: You can't see how much feed is left so you still need to keep an eye on it so they don't run out. To open the feeder, the chickens step onto a treadle in front of the feeder and this can fail to work in winter if you are using the deep litter method. Shavings accumulate under the treadle and keep it from moving. Simply lift the feeder one side at a time and shift it slightly so it is sitting on top of the bedding. There is a training process to teach the birds to eat from it. It is not difficult, but it does take some initial attention.
Chickens can die pretty quickly if they don't have water available. Even if they don't perish, it can put them off laying temporarily or even permanently. Provide more waterers than you think they need. Remember that chickens drink most of their water in the morning so checking it in the evening is a good practice.
There are many waterers available. One gallon plastic waterers are durable, are lightweight and vinegar (often added as a healthy tonic at a rate of a TBSP or Two per gallon) can be added without damaging them as could be the case with aluminum.
If you don't add vinegar to your chicken's water, aluminum waterers last a long time and are one more way to avoid using plastic. A disadvantage of aluminum is that even galvanized aluminum can begin to rust and need to be replaced.
Clean the waterer with soap and water at least weekly. Green scum should not be allowed to accumulate.
In winter, water becomes a problem. Chickens don't break ice to get to their water and dehydration is as much a problem as in summer. Heated waterers with nipples for drinking solve the problems of open water in winter. When chickens spill open water from open water dishes, it can increase the moisture in the coop which is a factor in frostbite. Chickens drinking from open waterers also can get water on their wattles and combs which is a serious setup for frostbite.
Nipple waterers require that the chicken peck at a metal button to get water. The shiny nipples surrounded by red are irresistible to chickens and they will automatically peck at them.
Some say never to put water in the coop in winter, but the nipple waterers eliminate that concern. I have had them leak a little bit, but putting a tray underneath with some pine shavings in it, caught any drips until I could replace it. The drips froze to the tray and were easily removed from the coop.
Properly functioning nipple waterers should not leak and individual nipples can be replaced.
Of course a heated waterer needs a power source. Here we run a 100' power cord from an exterior outlet through a wall in the shed. That has served us very well. They use very little power. If the power goes out, it is very important not to let the water freeze. Because there is always the possibility of a power cord under snow failing, I check the water daily to make sure no ice has formed in it. Simply jostling the bucket is enough to see the water moving within the translucent bucket.
NOTE: Make sure you locate the cord out of the way of snowblowers, sharp shovels, etc.
Water can also be managed by simply breaking the ice several times a day in the coldest weather. I would not like to do it that way.
Install 1 nesting box for every 3 birds. They should be about 12” by 12” by 12”. It can be amusing to watch two or even three birds squeeze into one box at once and often all the eggs will be in one or two boxes while others stand empty. Even if some appear to go unused, providing ample nesting spots helps prevent excessive competition for nesting spots which can result in a hen being excluded from the nesting boxes.
Adding a 3 or 4” lip to the front of your nesting boxes helps keep shavings in. An ample layer of shavings will make a comfortable spot for your hens to nest and also help protect eggs from breakage.
Initially, I put my nesting boxes inside the coop. I found this inconvenient for gathering eggs, bending to the floor with curious hens gathered all around me.
After one winter, I created a bump out nesting box which hangs on the exterior of my coop. The door on the front was hinged on the bottom and tipped down to access the eggs. It was secured on the sides with hasps and spring clips.
This had several disadvantages. The shavings would accumulate around the hinges and create difficulty closing the door just when our hands were full of eggs. The hens would get curious about coming outside if I had the door open too long. It was a bit drafty.
Recently, a bear stopped by to tear the door off of the nesting box. He was in cahoots with a racoon, I believe, as some small animal had entered the coop and bent a guard on the Grandpa's feeder. I was delighted to find all of my hens unharmed and scattered about the yard free ranging quite happily and the damage to the coop minimal.
As I mentioned, my coop is always evolving and this seems the perfect time to rework the nesting box with a hinged lid.
Beyond the coop and equipment, your chickens are going to need:
Feed – The majority of a chicken's diet should the best feed you can afford. This will increase the health of your chickens and the quality of your eggs.
Here we feed Green Mountain Organic Grower Mash to the chicks because it has extra protein and other goodies that chicks need for optimum health and growth.
The hens get Organic Layer Pellets with extra calcium and slightly less protein for the needs of adult chickens. The calcium is important for layer health and for strong egg shells that won't break easily in the nesting boxes.
Don't give layer feed to chicks. This extra calcium is harmful until they begin laying and does not have adequate protein for the growing chick.
Left over produce is great for adding variety and freshness to their diet. Apple peels, lettuce leaves, most produce except tomatoes and avocado. They will devour overrips or wilty produce. Limit pasta, bread, sweets. Water melon rinds, cabbage, broccoli, kale.
Another favorite is a big bag of grass clippings dumped in where they can play and dig for days. When weeding I often find caterpillars and toss them in the weed bucket for the chickens.
In the fall and through winter, it can be helpful to add some fat to the diet. I cook ½ cup of oatmeal (for 10 chickens) and about 1 TBSP olive oil, bacon or sausage fat left over from breakfast. Sunflower seeds are also a good source of fats. Serve at the level of treats ( a tablespoon or so a day) so that they eat plenty of feed for their overall needs.
Many people add vinegar at a rate of 1 – 2 tablespoons per gallon to chicken water for its health-giving benefits. It supports the immune system by targeting pathogens in the digestive system and also provides vitamins, minerals and trace elements.
Mealworms can be a great treat. Black Soldierfly Larvae pack a solid nutritional punch and can be purchased from several small companies in Canada and the US where they are grown on waste produce. Mealworms grown in China may be grown on toxic waste material.
It is a good idea to provide oyster shell to your layers. If they don't need it, they will ignore it.
Chickens don't have teeth. They swallow food into their crop where it trickles down to where they grind it up in their gizzard, a muscular organ that serves as their stomach. To accomplish this, they must have a steady supply of small stones. This is one of the reasons they peck at the earth.
You can re-purpose the type of chick feeders that screw onto canning jars so that the hens are always supplied with oyster shell and grit. Both are inexpensive and last a long time. Keeping them available assures your hens have what they need. I find that keeping the feeders elevated on a box to about crop height keeps them clean.
What to do with all that poo?
An ample (start with about 2”) layer of bedding is necessary for your chickens health and for ease of cleaning. I use pine shavings as they are readily available and relatively inexpensive at the feed store. Sawdust and straw are not great options because they compact when wet and can be very smelly and hold pathogens.
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In summer, it is best to clean the coop when it has gotten smelly or when the proportion of manure to shavings is about 50 – 50. In my coop, that is every 2 – 4 weeks.
In winter, in cold climates where winter temperatures are usually below freezing, the deep litter method is a great way to manage manure in winter. It develops a slow composting effect which builds up in volume over winter insulating the coop without becoming smelly. As you see an accumulation of manure or there is an odor in your coop, just add some more fresh litter to balance out the mixture. The chickens stir the bedding and the composting effect continues.
If the litter becomes too deep, you can remove some to a manure pile outdoors. It is better not to completely clean the coop as the composting material you leave will continue to work in the fresh litter. Often I clear the area under the roosts where the buildup of manure is greatest, toss down fresh shavings and let the chickens turn the litter as is their nature.
Keep manure scraped off nesting bars and other surfaces.
If you detect an ammonia odor, you need either to increase ventilation or add more shavings, likely both.
Chicken manure is great fertilizer. The pine shavings hold moisture in the soil and break down slowly, adding texture and aeration to the soil. Because manure can carry pathogens, put it on the garden 120 days before planting. Use it as side dressing but only if it has been composted for the 120 days. Start a small manure pile outside and 20 feet or so away from the coop. Add it to the garden, around flower beds, fruit trees, rhubarb, asparagus, etc in fall.
Questions about chicken infrastructure? Comments? Drop me a line.