{DIY Backyard Chickens} the coop

Not long ago, I began a little series on keeping a flock of chickens in your backyard. You can read the first installment here.

This week I introduce to you:

THE COOP

I began dreaming about my chicken coop back in 2005. I was living in New Canaan, CT and working in Tarrytown, NY. One day on my commute I happened upon some cool antique glass doors in someone’s trash and a flashbulb went off: “Those would make fantastic chicken coop windows!” I proceeded to whip a quick U turn, grab the doors and tie them to the roof of my Toyota Corolla. I think I drove around Westchester County with those doors on my car for at least a week before I brought them to my mom & dad’s house. You see, every year my mom hatches chicks in her third-grade classroom and I always fantasized about keeping them (in 2005 that fantasy resided in my parent’s backyard, as I wasn’t even renting but was literally squatting in the nanny suite of a Connecticut McMansion; the nanny was my good friend). Anyway, back to the coop – the point is that I was REALLY excited when this dream finally became reality in 2009.

Our coop began, as many DIY projects do, with a lot of research. We pored over old farming books my dad has in his collection, flyers gathered from feed suppliers and farm stores, and internet resources. Based on a simple equation, we figured out how large our coop should be. We wanted to allow enough space for an average flock of eight hens with three square feet of interior space per bird. We had seen recommendations of anywhere from 1.5 to 4 square feet per bird and figured we’d go close to the top end of that range, but not quite there. We figured that eight hens was probably the most we’d ever have at once, with a target flock size of six hens. We came to this number because we thought about six to eight eggs a day was plenty for us to eat AND share without ever having too many eggs. This logic has worked pretty well so far, even with the addition of a new baby (who is now almost two and LOVES eggs!). So, we wanted a coop that was 4’x6′, 24 square feet. This size also seemed reasonable for our two acre suburban yard – big enough for the flock but not so large that it would diminish the aesthetics of our yard.

The coop was partially constructed (framed) in our garage, and moved to the yard for finish work.

It was set into place…

…and elevated several inches on a foundation of concrete patio blocks left behind by the previous homeowner. Elevating the coop has kept the floor nice and dry and prevented rotting. We elected to not use pressure treated lumber since the hens and our eggs would come in direct contact with the wood and who knows what chemicals are used these days to preserve the lumber.

We also made the decision to include a fenced “yard” on our coop due to the proximity of our coop to the woods. We are surrounded by many acres of woods and often see predators lurking just beyond the tree line, such as foxes, racoons, skunks, fishers and even one of these critters this spring:

I was less than thrilled when I saw this girl out back, but was reassured knowing our feathered friends were secure in their coop & yard. For extra security, I dug (yes I did it!) an 18″ trench around the perimeter of the yard and the fence is actually buried 18′ into the ground to deter any predators of the burrowing or digging type.

TIP#4 (same as TIP #2… this is important!): Make sure all your windows, nooks and crannies are secure, either NAILED (duct tape doesn’t qualify) shut or well secured with scraps of chicken wire. In the great chicken massacre of 2009, we learned this the hard way. (Go here for that story) You see, we had installed these fantastic homemade hinged windows that can be shut in cold weather. When we first built the coop and the chickens were small, though, we simply taped them shut with no chicken wire “screens”, thinking how could these chickens possibly get out? What we hadn’t considered is what would be able to get in. Answer? Big, nasty raccoon.

So, we secured that coop as best we could and (fingers crossed!) we haven’t had any predator issues to date.

I will admit, that like many of our home improvement projects, our chicken coop may be considered a little over-engineered. We chose to “roof” the yard with chicken wire, protecting the birds from getting out and predators from getting in. At first, this was a feature that I thought might be temporary for when the chickens were young but it has proven to be convenient for the days when I know I won’t be home before dark to get them in (we let them roam the yard during most days); with a totally secure yard they can always have outdoor access.

I have heard of people effectively using old dog houses, sheds, truck caps, etc. to create a homemade coop and I think those are all awesome ideas. Some folks get pretty fancy too, but really chickens are not that particular! Other than safety concerns, there are really only a few other necessities in a chicken coop.

1) The Roost: a pole or stick, elevated at least a few feet off the ground, for the chickens to sleep on. TIP #5: Make sure you have plenty of roosting space because the hens will fight over it if you do not. They do have a “pecking order” and some of my chickens have even had their own spot on the roost – I noticed over time when letting the hens out in the morning that the same girls would be on the same spot each day!

2) The Nest Box: a safe place for the chickens to lay their eggs that is easily accessible for you to collect the eggs. I don’t have a photo, but ours looks a lot like this. We built an exterior next box because we didn’t want to have to get into the coop to get eggs, since the coop isn’t that large or tall. TIP#6: If you use an exterior nest box, use some sort of roofing material on it. We used painted plywood, which due to the amount of snow and rain it encountered became rotted after two years. I recently had to rip it off and rebuild. A nest box can also be inside the coop and can be quite simple – anything from a basket or small box works. The box should not be too large, roughly 12″x12″ and should have a top. Chickens like to feel safe and protected when they are laying eggs. Plus, having a special place for egg laying makes it easier for collecting the eggs. In the beginning, I was really worried that the chickens would chose to lay elsewhere but they all seem to know that the nest box is the right place for egg laying to happen. I have never had a bird that chose to lay elsewhere.

3) Food & Water. This is a no brainer, but I do have a few lessons learned. TIP #7: Hang the feeder. Otherwise the hens will tip it, poop in it, and make more of a mess than they naturally do. Wasted food is wasted money. TIP#8: Elevate the water and prevent the chickens from sitting on top of the waterer. To be healthy  and lay eggs, hens need plenty of fresh, clean water. I have a five gallon galvanized waterer that usually lasts my hens a couple of days. To keep them off it, I made a “tube” of chicken wire that I slide over the top of the waterer, which keeps them off. We also made a small “riser” from a few scraps of wood to elevate the waterer. This prevents the chickens from kicking their bedding (wood shavings) into the water.

4) Bedding. Pine or other wood shavings are sufficient. I’ve also successfully used hay and straw. We have tried two bedding methods. “Regular”, or sprinkling a couple of inches of shavings on the coop floor. When soiled and almost stinky (usually one or two weeks depending on the weather), remove all bedding and waste and replace with fresh. We use this method in the summer. In winter, we use a “Deep Litter” method. For this, we begin with about 18 inches of shavings and straw. As the litter becomes soiled and compacted we add more as necessary to keep the level at about 18-20 inches. In this method, the waste falls to the bottom and actually begins to compost. This works in winter because it doesn’t get wet and actually helps to keep the chickens warmer. I usually go from late November until March with this method, adding extra shavings about every two weeks.

Speaking of winter, other coop considerations include how accessible your coop is if you experience snow in your area, as well as what water is available to your coop in winter (we use the hose in summer and the kitchen sink & a 5-gallon bucket in winter).

5) Light (optional). You may also notice an extension cord running into our coop in this photo – we choose to use a light on a timer in our coop in winter. A hen’s egg laying is dependent on the number of hours of light she is exposed to. By providing light inside the coop it keeps our girls laying even on the cold days they choose to stay inside. They always have outdoor access, and there are several windows on the sides of our coop, but the light just helps them stay consistent and helps turn the dollars we spend on feed into eggs. Some folks choose not to do this and I have heard of hens who lay all winter with no extra light as well as hens that practically hibernate all winter. In our experience, the light works.

I must say (again) that I love having chickens. I love the fresh eggs, the squawking presence in the yard, the constant source of entertainment for my kids and their friends, and the backdrop to so much of our outdoor family life.

Stay tuned for the next installment of {DIY Backyard Chickens} and again, please let me know if you have any questions!

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Categories: DIY, Homesteading, How To

Author:Liz

Mama to Andrew and Eleanor. Lover of food, all things fiber (the woolly kind) and farms. Can't go a day without being outside and making something with my hands.

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13 Comments on “{DIY Backyard Chickens} the coop”

  1. September 29, 2011 at 8:05 am #

    Awesome! This was just what I needed today -a practical reminder to keep following my dream. Thank you for the descriptions and tips!

  2. Heather F.
    September 29, 2011 at 8:06 am #

    Great post, Liz! This is full of really great tips!

  3. September 30, 2011 at 10:59 am #

    Thanks! Heather, I am sure you have tips to add too :-)

  4. October 5, 2011 at 4:20 pm #

    I LOVE THIS. I want chickens, but alas they are animals non gratis in Albany.

  5. October 7, 2011 at 4:30 pm #

    Christine, you might check with your cities “un official” policy. Some cities are ok with your chickens, if your neighbors are. The main objection to chickens from the majority of neighbors is either sound or smell. If you don’t keep a rooster, your chickens are relatively “quiet”, ( your eggs are unfertile, but still better than “store” unfertilized eggs) .Keeping your chickens clean, is relatively easy with a chicken “tractor” and cedar shavings on the hen house floor. Cedar smells so nice too,plus is a natural bug deterrant. Using fly predators and or diatamateous earth is also very helpful. I live in the country and love our chickens and roosters among other feathered friends , visit my farm funnies tab at my website for some fun stories about them. Good luck, hope your city has an “unofficial” policy..

  6. October 7, 2011 at 4:35 pm #

    @betty, thanks for the tips. Unfortunately for Christine and other residents of Albany, NY, chickens were very clearly banned within the city limits earlier this year. The whole issue sparked a huge regional debate and media storm. I hope it comes up again and passes soon, I agree that with proper management chickens really have little impact on a yard or neighbors!

  7. Treva Shaer
    October 30, 2011 at 10:36 pm #

    Don’t forget to include how you converted your non-animal loving mother just because she wanted “real” eggs.

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