If You Build It, They Will Come

One of the most rewarding ways of creating perfect housing for a small flock of backyard chickens is to build a coop from scratch.  Anyone with even modest carpentry experience will find coop construction a pleasant and rewarding challenge.

Coops can be purchased readymade or are easily assembled from kits.

DESIGNING OR CHOOSING COOP PLANS

People skilled at planning a project can create their own coop plans, but for most folks working from existing plans makes the project simpler. Dozens of free plans are posted on websites, and many poultry books include chapters on coop building. They usually have plans for a few coop styles.

When designing a coop or choosing an existing plan make sure the finished coop will be large enough to comfortably house the number of hens planned for the backyard.  It should have at least four-square feet of floor space per bird, screening to exclude insects and heavy wiring to repel predators, and easy access to fill feeders and waterers, and retrieve eggs. It should also be easy to clean and look good in the yard.

Because a family may eventually tire of keeping chickens and want to re-purpose the coop, think ahead.  A well-designed coop could be used in the future for storing items like a lawn mower, yard tools, or firewood.

Be sure to choose plans that are within the ability of a family to make. Advanced or complex coops are ideal for people with strong carpentry skill and equipment but may be overwhelming for novices. Complex coops may also need special tools that most homeowners don’t have.

This blog is part of a series describing the construction of a small backyard coop by guest blogger Rich Patterson and Bryan Davis of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The finished coop will be given to the Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which will donate it to someone attending a backyard chicken workshop. The coop plans came from Kevin McElroy and Matthew Wolpe’s book REINVENTING THE CHICKEN COOP. 

Bryan and Rich modified the coop plans somewhat to ease construction and because Iowa winters sometimes bring 20 below zero weather. Almost anyone building a coop may want to alter the plans to suit their needs, so plans can be a general guide for construction.

BUILDING THE COOP

Few families can devote large blocks of time to coop construction and tend to devote a couple of hours whenever they can. Construction often takes place over a few months so it’s best to build the coop in a space where it can be left, rather than moving it in and out every time construction happens. If being built inside, be sure the door to the space where the construction happens is large enough to get the coop out!

MATERIALS

Bryan and Rich wanted to build an attractive and sturdy coop while also keeping expenses down. Some of the coop’s materials were scrounged from businesses and construction sites that no longer needed or wanted the materials.

Most plans come with a materials’ list that includes all the hardware, lumber, and other items needed to complete the project. There are two ways to round it all up. One is to visit a big box home supply store. They have nearly everything needed but it will be scattered about the store and may take some time to find. The other way is to order the materials from a local lumber yard. Bryan and Rich chose the latter and brought the materials list to the local lumber yard. Although the materials were slightly more expensive than in a big box store the lumber yard employees gathered it all up, put it on a truck, and delivered it to Rich’s home free.

Be sure lumber is of excellent quality. Inexpensive lumber sometimes is not cured well and twists, making it hard for pieces to fit together well.

TOOLS

The tools Bryan and Rich used to construct the coop in the photos include:

  • Carpenter’s hammer and deadblow hammer
  • Square
  • Crowbar
  • Electric drill and various diameter bits and screw driving bits
  • Table saw and circular saw. Table saws are more precise than hand held circular saws but most simple coops can be constructed using just a circular saw.
  • Hand Saw
  • Carpenter’s level
  • Pencil and chalk line
  • Chisels
  • Rasp
  • Hearing protection muffs and safety glasses

Anyone visiting a tool store is met with a myriad of tools. Thousands of types are on the market at many price points. Quality tools are delightful to use. They are durable, accurate, and highly effective. Tools are in the midst of a revolution as battery powered cordless drills and saws are replacing corded counterparts.

Always use tools safely. Read the owner’s manual and practice safety. Wear hearing and eye protection when using power tools. Working on a project with children is an outstanding way to help them learn the basics of construction, but make sure kids are well grounded in safety. Encourage children to help by using hand powered tools during coop construction but wait until they are older and strong enough to operate power tools. Excellent instructional videos that help people learn how to safely use tools can be accessed on YouTube.

PLAN AHEAD

It will probably take a few months to decide on a coop plan, purchase materials and tools, and build it. It’s wise to begin the building project several months before chick arrival day!

 

Wrap up Some Love, with Holiday Egg Cartons

The best gift of all is giving…eggs! Check out these festive egg cartons for the holidays! With a quick trip to the dollar store and $10 in my pocket, I got all I needed to create this simple gift from the heart.

Option 1: Tissue Paper & Tulle

Start with one piece of tissue paper and fold it in half. I placed the egg carton upside down and a few inches from the end of the tissue paper. Then start rolling the tissue paper around the egg carton. After the egg carton is fully wrapped, I finished it off with wrapping a piece of red tulle around the tissue paper.

Option 2: Wrapping Paper

We all have extra holiday wrapping paper sitting around the house! I purchased this plaid wrapping paper from the dollar store for $1.
Lay the egg carton a few inches from the end of the wrapping paper (as seen in picture). Cut the other end a few inches from the egg carton. Once again place the egg carton a few inches from the end of the wrapping paper and start rolling. Use tape to secure the wrapping paper on the bottom of the egg carton. Then top it off with a bow or ribbon!

Option 3: Gift Bag & Ribbon

I purchased two different kinds of gift bags (one brown bag and one holiday bag) to use for wrapping the egg cartons. I cut the gift bag in half and carefully ripped off the handles.

Like shown in the third image, I once again rolled the egg carton in the gift bag. After tapping the bottom of the gift bag, I added a bow with green burlap ribbon and to top it off, I stuck a bundle of cranberries to add a festive accent.

These three options only took me about 30 minutes to complete. So, spread some holiday cheer and give the gift of fresh eggs!

How To Raise Chickens: Raising Chicks in Two Phases

Phase I: The Brooder
Young chicks must have a brooder for warmth and protection.

What’s a “brooder?” Watch the video below to learn exactly what a brooder is and how to set one up.

How To Setup Your Brooder

  • Prepare the brooder by cleaning and disinfecting it before the chicks arrive.
  • Once it has dried, cover the floor with 4 to 6 inches of dry litter material.
  • Pinewood shavings or sawdust is recommended to aid in disease prevention.
  • Place the brooder in a draft-free location.
  • Carefully position an incandescent bulb about a foot above the box floor to provide heat and add a second light in case one bulb burns out.

Newly hatched chicks will find their perfect temperature in the brooder.

Three Chicks Huddled Together in the GrassIf it’s too hot under the bulb chicks will move away from the heat; if too cool they’ll move closer.

Give chicks space to move about. Baby chicks huddle together when they’re cold, which can cause smothering or suffocation, so check your chicks regularly to be sure they are comfortable.

Raise the height of the lights as they grow, because their need for artificial heat will diminish as they grow feathers.

Water and Food For Your Chicks

Clean, fresh water is the most important thing to give your chicks.

Make sure it is always available and that the waterers are clean.

Chick starter grower rations are available in medicated chick feed and un-medicated chick feed formulas.

Select one with 18% protein that has the vitamins and minerals chicks need to flourish.

It is important for the right blend of nutrients to be age specific, as this feed lays the groundwork for the birds entire future.

Phase II: The Coop
Within a few weeks, your chicks will soon be big enough to move into their coop.

As they grow it will become obvious that your brooder won’t hold them forever and forming a plan around how and when to introduce them to the coop or outdoors is a great idea.

Here are some important things to remember when moving from baby brooder to adult coop.

Chicks should be mostly feathered – At 5 to 6 weeks your fluffy chicks will start to resemble adult birds by growing out pinfeathers.These adult feathers will help them regulate their body temps better than fluffy chick down.

Chicks should be acclimated – Although they start off at 90 – 95 degrees in the brooder the first week of life, you need to decrease this temperature each week until the temperature inside the brooder is close to what daytime temps will be.For the first few weeks (and especially if outdoor temperatures are fluctuating), you may want to bring the birds back into the brooder at night or in bad weather.

Chicks should be integrated – Nobody wants hen-house drama, and taking a few simple steps to introduce new birds to old will save a great deal of time and potential injuries.

These steps include having a “get acquainted” phase when the new and old birds are in separate, but attached areas so they can interact without aggressiveness.

You also want to do the coop consolidation at night so that the old and new flock wake up together to help minimize bullying.

At this point it is also important to remember if you have youngsters joining your existing flock to only feed chick starter to all birds until the youngest bird is 16 weeks. The extra calcium in regular layer feed can harm young chicks.

Chicks should be eating treats and grit – It’s a great idea to get your birds used to eating treats (if you plan to offer them) a few days prior to putting them outside. That way, you can use the treats in case you need to lure the birds into a secure space at night.

Until they are used to thinking of the coop as “home base” they may need just a bit of encouragement.

Just remember, if you start feeding treats (offer no more than 10-15% of the total diet) you also need to offer a grit free choice to aid in digestion.

Find a Nutrena retailer near you.

Care and Feeding of Meatbirds

Chick Care
The basic care of meatbird chicks is similar to other types of chicks. You’ll need to provide a heat source along with free choice fresh water and appropriate feed. An important part of raising meatbirds is allowing for enough space for them to grow. With a growth rate that is

A dry and clean brooder is a must for chicks.
A dry and clean brooder is a must for chicks.

second to none, these birds will become too big for a brooder that seems the right size in just a week or two. Make sure to plan for expansion of your brooder to allow the space to get bigger along with the chicks. A dry and clean brooder is always essential; this will keep the birds comfortable, discourage the development of flies, and help prevent disease.

Dual purpose breeds are traditional breeds like Orpingtons, Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, etc. They can be raised for eggs or meat. These birds are the slowest to finish and are typically harvested around 22 weeks of age. They have less developmental problems than hybrid meat breeds, and they will usually yield less meat.

Red Rangers are a type of meat chicken that provides a ‘happy medium’ between dual purpose breeds and Cornish Cross. They should be harvested around 12 – 14 weeks. They aren’t as delicate as Cornish Cross and have less developmental problems. In addition, they do better foraging than a Cornish. Their meat yield is in between a Cornish and dual purpose.

Cornish Cross is a hybrid and is the most common meat chicken. It makes up the majority of meat purchased in stores or consumed in restaurants. Cornish are very economical with their feed to meat conversion, which means they grow very fast –  they

A typical Cornish Cross bird
A typical Cornish Cross bird

are usually ready to harvest around 8 weeks! A few things to be aware of with this breed: because of their rate of growth they can have problems with organ failure and leg issues. These birds do not do well when comingled with other breeds – it’s best to keep Cornish separate. Additionally, they are ONLY suitable for meat production – do not try to keep them long term.

Feeding meatbirds
For dual purpose chicks, you may choose to feed a meatbird ration from the start. However, if you have straight run chicks and are not sure which are males, you can start the  batch on chick starter and then switch the ones you will harvest to meatbird feed once their gender becomes apparent.

For faster growing hybrid birds, you’ll want to feed a specific meatbird ration from day one. This will ensure that the birds are getting certain amino acid levels and protein amounts to encourage muscle development and growth. Because meatbirds have been developed to put on muscle mass quickly, the ration must be balanced to make sure that nutrients are present for skeletal and internal organ development as well. If the correct ration is not fed, the birds are more apt to fall victim to common maladies like organ failure and leg issues. Follow these simple feeding recommendations to help avoid complications:

  • Feed free choice the first 3 days of life
  • After 3 days, allow 12 hours with feed, 12 hours without

 

Kids and Chickens: At the show!

In previous articles, we’ve covered selecting chickens for kids as well as preparing your children and chickens to go to a poultry show, including how to wash your birds.

At this point my two girls (ages 5 and 7),  were as ready as they would ever be to show a chicken. The birds were somewhat trained, the kids were fairly well prepared, and we hit the road. We arrived at the fairgrounds the evening before the show and took the birds to the waiting area. A vet check is required at our fair for all incoming animals. The vet looks to make sure that the bird has no nasty communicable diseases that could spread to the rest of the birds. Once we were cleared to unload, we took the birds into the barn and got directions from the barn manager as to which pens were ours. Then we put the birds in and immediately filled the waterers and feeders to make them feel a bit more at home.

The girlShow Day Sadie and Peachs were hesitant to leave their birds in a strange place all alone that first night, but eventually we decided they were in good hands and headed for home. The next day was the big one – show day!  We began by getting the birds fed, watered and checked up on. They were in good shape – more so than my girls who needed clean shirts and hair done and new jeans, etc. etc. The first rule when showing is to always look professional. A collared and nicely pressed long sleeve shirt is a great idea. Tuck your shirt in and make sure your hair is off your face. We talked about smiling and keeping their eyes on the judge while they were showing and – most important of all – don’t let your chicken get away!

The time for their class finally arrived and I have to admit, they did great! We had lots of adults on hand to help, but those kids had their birds in control (well, mostly). Each one did great and showed off their birds as well as answered questions from the judge. They all learned valuable skills and experience and earned beautiful ribbons!  They were proud of themselves when the show was over and really enjoyed showing all their friends at the fair their birds.

All in all our chicken showing experience was a great one – and I have a feeling that we won’t be strangers to the poultry barn in the future!

Kids & Chickens: Bathing Chickens and other adventures

In the last article, we covered choosing chicks and getting them tame and calm. My kids (4 and 7) worked on this skill throughout the summer, and with the fair fast approaching on Labor Day weekend we realized we needed to get serious about the details of showing chickens. What did we need to do to prepare? What should my girls know? What would the chickens be asked to do? We asked some friends who had chicken showing experience, looked online, and investigated other community resources, like our extension office and 4-H clubs. Here’s what we found out:

Peach standing on table
My 4 year old practicing with her bird, Peach.

Chicken Skills – the chicken should be able to stand on a table during the show with minimal holding by the handler. It should be calm and be able to be approached/held/handled by the judge without getting its “feathers ruffled”, so to speak. We practiced for this by setting up a small table with a cloth that provided good footing for the birds. The girls would set their birds on the table and to get them used to it at first we gave them small treats – like pieces of grain, etc. This distracted them and made them look forward to standing on the table.

To get them used to be handled even more, the girls would recruit their dad or I to play “judge”. As pretend judges, we would approach the birds and feel their legs and feet,  stretch out their wings, and feel their combs and pet around their faces.

Showman Skills At our fair, the rules clearly state that the child must be able to carry their own bird to the table and handle it. We practiced this a lot – for my 4 year old it was hard to get that big bird up and into her arms (she has a Buff Orpington named Peach). With practice came competence – my daughter became competent at carrying and Peach became competent at being manhandled. The girls also had to know basic information about their birds. We practiced with questions like:

  • What breed is it?
  • How old is it?
  • What do you feed it?
  • Does it lay eggs? What color are the eggs?

Then came the time when we realized that the chickens would need a bath in order to be clean and ready for the fair.   And so the adventure began.

Harley going into the water
Harley, the Barred Rock, gets a bath.
Harley in a towel
Don’t worry, this isn’t one of my “good” towels…

To be honest I think I was more nervous about this step than either my kids or the chickens! It just seems a little unnatural, doesn’t it? Dipping a chicken in a tub of water? At any rate, about two weeks before the show we gave it a shot, following the advice given in this video by my colleague and friend Twain Lockhart. And everything went fine. The chickens, I believe, were so flabbergasted at what was happening that they didn’t react. At all. They went into a weird chicken paralysis as we dunked them, swished them, rinsed them, and dried them. That was just fine with me. We repeated the process the night before the fair with equally good results and got ready to go to the fair.

Next installment – At the show!

 

Kids & Chickens: Getting ready for a chicken show

Our family started on a unique adventure this spring when my two girls (ages 4 and 7) decided that they wanted to show chickens at our fair, which lands yearly on Labor Day weekend. With this in mind, we headed for the feed store at the end of April to check out their selection of baby chicks. Since this was the girls’ first year showing and they are both rather small, I thought a bantam breed would work well. Bantams are about 1/4 the size of a regular chicken and would be easier for my little girls to handle. However, when we got the store we saw that the tubs of bantams were straight run only – meaning we did not know if we would be getting males or females. We knew we did not want to have roosters, and so we moved to plan B and decided to go with a standard breed chicken for each of them. These birds had been sexed at the hatchery and so we were fairly confident that they were, in fact, females (pullets). We picked up four chicks – a Buff Orpington, a Golden Sexlink, a Barred Rock, and an Easter Egger.

Thebaby chick girls were very excited with their new chicks! We set them up in a warm brooder and let them settle in. We gave them several days to acclimate, and then “show training” began. The girls started to handle each chick for 5 – 10 minutes each day (turns out baby chicks and small children have similar attention spans). At this time, it really helped that each chick was a different color – so we could tell who had already had their turn being held and petted! SAFETY NOTE: We kept a jug of hand sanitizer right next to the brooder. As soon as the girls were done holding the chicks, feeding, watering and cleaning, they each got a squirt until we got into the house where they would wash their hands thoroughly with soap.

Sadie and chickAs the chicks grew, the girls continued to try and handle them on a daily basis. I learned it is best to get them into this habit when the chicks are very small. We were out of town for two weeks and had someone else taking care of the birds for us. During that time, they grew significantly and the girls were a bit intimidated by their larger size when it came time to start handling them again. The tamer you can get the birds when they are still small, the better.

We moved the chicks out of the brooder and into a large pen inside our barn towards the end of June. While this was a much needed change from the chicken’s perspective (they had outgrown the brooder), it was no longer simple for the kids to scoop one out of the tub to pick them up. The kids now had to learn how to calmly and quietly move around the birds, get them into a corner and pick them up without causing widespread panic. This was definitely a trial and error period – at times my kids can make way more noise trying to be quiet than they do at normal volume.

Once we hit August, real show training had to commence. Up to this point, the girls had simply been catching and holding their birds. Now, though, we realized that more would be required of them at the show. Our next installment will cover Advanced Show Prep (Hint – chicken bathing is involved – you don’t want to miss it!).

Bird Flu – facts and prevention

Avian flu makes the news whenever outbreaks occur in the United States, like a recent

Call a veterinarian immediately if you suspect a serious health issue.
Call a veterinarian immediately if you suspect a serious health issue.

ones in Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri, Minnesota and Washington. People who keep backyard chickens should be aware of the risks, as it is a disease that can devastate a flock and potentially spread to people. Fortunately, taking simple precautions reduces the odds that either chickens or humans will contract it or many other infectious diseases.

According to the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control avian flu is caused by one of several viruses. Most don’t infect humans but some strains can jump from birds to people and be fatal. In most human cases a person contracted it by handling a diseased or dead bird and came in contact with bird saliva, nasal secretions or feces.

There is no evidence that the disease can be is a threat when eating well cooked eggs or meat.   Initial human symptoms can include fever, coughing, muscle ache and eye infections. The disease can lead to other medical complications.

Although avian flu is fairly common in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and parts of Europe it’s rare in North America. According to the World Health Organization one of the most effective ways of limiting the spread of an outbreak is to control the movement of chickens. Usually a government will prohibit importing chicken or chicken products from an infected country and state or local governments usually ban any movement of chickens in or out of infected areas.

Large chicken farms and hatcheries practice strict biosecurity procedures to reduce the odds that their flock will become infected.  People with a few birds in a backyard coop often are too casual about preventing disease.

Avian flu is unlikely to strike isolated backyard flocks. Disease transmission in humans and chickens is similar. People who have minimal contact with others are unlikely to catch a contagious disease. Cram them together in an airplane, classroom or theater and just one sick person can spread the disease to others. Chickens are normally very healthy and the family that buys a few chicks from a disease-free hatchery and raises them isolated from other chickens reduces the contagion threat. Unfortunately, many backyard flock owners visit other people’s coops. Sometimes they adopt a friend’s surplus birds. Both actions could bring a disease into a healthy flock.

To reduce the odds of infection by many diseases and the chance that a person could catch avian flu follow these basic safety precautions:

 

  • Keep the flock isolated.  Don’t bring in outside birds that may be exposed to disease.
  • Invite anyone who keeps chickens to wash and change clothes before visiting your birds.    Better yet, share pictures instead of providing direct contact with birds. Don’t adopt stray or orphan chickens. Be cautious and use good biosecurity measures when attending “coop tours” and poultry shows, which can spread diseases quickly.
  • Keep the coop clean and dry.  Moisture breeds disease.
  • Keep the chickens healthy by always providing a balanced diet, clean water and fresh air.
  • Isolate ill birds from the rest of the flock.
  • Wear rubber gloves when butchering and dressing chickens, and thoroughly clean knives and other tools used in the process.   Dipping tools and soiled gloves in a bleach solution kills pathogens.
  • Limit the flock’s access to migratory wild birds, especially waterfowl, which can move germs from place to place.
  • Avoid direct contact with dead or diseased birds. Wash thoroughly and change into clean clothes after any contact.
  • If a family member develops flu symptoms tell the physician that chicken contact was likely.

Chickens are normally wonderfully healthy and millions of people worldwide live in close proximity with them without ever suffering a health problem. The chance that someone with a backyard flock will catch avian flu from is remote but possible. Understanding the disease and practicing simple preventative measures reduces the odds even more.