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!

 

Creating a Delightful Chicken Home

Fall is the best season for a family to prepare for the delightful experience of welcoming a small flock of chickens to the backyard. For poultry newcomers, fall gives them plenty of time to research the breeds they’d like to welcome, acquire or build a coop, and read up on chicken care. Perhaps there’s even time to visit other families who already have chickens or take a beginning chicken class at a nearby farm store or nature center.

This is the first in a series of blogs that will detail the construction of a sturdy, attractive coop. It’s not always necessary to build a coop, but construction is a fun family learning experience.

Characteristics of an ideal coop

Whether a coop is made by a family from scratch, purchased as a kit, or crafted from an existing building, these characteristics are necessary for chickens to be comfortable, safe, and productive.

  • Sized right: Be sure to have at least four-square feet of coop floor space per hen. More is even better and attaching an outdoor run to the coop adds living space. Coops can be as small as eight or ten square feet, suitable for two hens. More common backyard coops are 20 to 30 square feet and designed for four to six hens. If space is tight, consider bantam chickens. They only need half to a third as much space as full sized birds.
  • Comfort: Coops should provide plenty of ventilation, yet thwart chilly drafts come winter. Hens enjoy a cool breeze on sultry summer evenings and need to be protected from winter’s harsh winds. Great coops allow opening windows or vents when the weather is warm yet closing them down when frost arrives.
  • Protection: Raccoons, opossums, mink, and a host of other furry predators love eating fresh chicken. Mosquitoes and gnats enjoy a meal of blood. Good coops have heavy duty wire mesh on the outside and mosquito netting on the inside stretched over windows to keep predators at bay. A sturdy door, locked each evening after the chickens go to bed, keeps nocturnal predators out.
  • Furniture: Chickens sleep while standing on a perch. A pole or 2×4 with rounded off corners a couple of feet above the floor, makes a comfortable sleeping structure. Hens prefer to lay in nest boxes, which also keep eggs clean. Coops should have at least one nest per four birds. Many small coops have a hinged door that allows for egg collection without entering the coop.
  • Feeders and waterers: These should be easy for hens to reach and humans to clean and fill.
  • Light: Chickens need light. Windows should be positioned to gather as much natural daylight as possible. In the northern regions, positioning a coop so windows are on the south side helps gather the most sunshine and warmth on cold winter days.
  • The weather: Chickens love frequent drinks of clean fresh water, but a wet coop is an invitation to disease and foul odors. The coop must have a good roof that will always protect the interior from rain and snow.
  • Electricity: It’s not necessary to have electricity to the coop, but it makes care of chickens easier, especially in cold climates. Having electricity allows adding artificial light on dark winter days. That increases egg production. Also, a great convenience is a waterer with an electric heating unit inside it. This eliminates the need to keep replacing frozen waterers with fresh water.

Ideal coops should look great in the yard and be part of a backyard decor.  Access should be easy, so hens can be examined, feeders and waterers filled, and cleaning a snap.

Four ways to acquire a coop

  1. Modify an existing building: Often one of the easiest and least expensive ways of creating a backyard coop is to modify an existing building. A large corner of a garage or storage building may work well. Modification may be as simple as making a frame of 2×4 lumber, framing in a door, and covering the interior with chicken wire. Add a feeder, waterer, nests and roost and, bingo, it’s ready to house the flock. Cut a pop hole door in the exterior, create a fenced outdoor run, and the chickens have a snug home to sleep in and escape foul weather and a pleasant outdoor place to loiter and search for tasty insects and seeds. Many home stores sell pre-built or kit garden sheds. These can be modified into a coop.
  2. Buy a pre-built kit: Most places that sell chicks and chicken supplies sell coop kits, and they are also available from chick hatcheries and online. Most kits are small and lightweight. Many allow the purchase of an attached outdoor run. Some kits seem quite frail and may be best suited for people trying chickens for the first time. If they grow to love their hens, they may graduate to a larger or more elaborate coop. Some coop kits are high quality and durable. Take a close look at materials before buying.
  3. Buy a custom-made coop: Many garden and farm stores sell custom made coops. These are often high quality. They look great and are durable but may be relatively expensive. Well-made coops are heavy, so make sure the seller is willing to deliver it.
  4. Building a coop: This is an ideal way to enter the backyard chicken hobby. Later blogs featured on Scoop from the Coop will detail why and how to build a coop perfect for any yard.

Boredom Busters in the Coop

Winter getting the best of you and your chickens? Cabin fever set in? Then take a look at these boredom busters to incorporate into your coop during the long winter months.

Variety in Diet

It’s important to continue your regular commercial feed regiment during the winter, but other variety in the way of diet can go far. Ambitious owners can sprout grain to give their flock a winter treat of greenery. Additionally, table scraps can serve as an exciting treat for your feathered friends. Among the better scraps to feed chickens are small amounts of salad, greens, pumpkin and squash seeds, bits of vegetables, popcorn, and almost any other food that is relatively dry. Please remember that MODERATION is KEY when it comes to scraps and treats.

Other treat options can include a snack of scratch grain or cracked corn, but only a few handfuls daily are all a small flock should have.

Space

Giving your birds space in the coop is important in keeping peace and contentment among the flock. Four square feet of floor space per bird is the minimum. Include perches and roosts at different heights and angles to offer exercise for hens. Add some stumps to the coop floor as well, to add some variety in perch options for your friends.

New and Different

Your girls will love the addition of something new and different to the coop during those long, cold months. Try securing a mirror in the coop, chickens find their own reflection fascinating! Do avoid if you have a rooster as they may mistake their reflection for another rooster in the flock.

Additionally, just spending more time with your birds can help to break up their day (and yours!) And remember, stay strong, Spring will be here eventually!

Coop Upgrade – Automatic Pop Hole Doors

People forget but hungry raccoons never do. Keeping predators from decimating a flock is the best reason for installing an automatic pop hole door on the chicken coop.

Sunset signals bed time for chickens. As daylight dims they’ll leave their outdoor run, enter the coop through the pop hole and hop up to a roost for a good night’s sleep.   Unfortunately, just as chickens tuck themselves in for the night, raccoons, opossums, skunks, coyotes, foxes and even mink wake up hungry and begin seeking dinner.

Wise flock owners tighten up their coop so nocturnal predators can’t enter, but the weak link in predator defense is the pop hole. Forget to close it even once and odds are good sleeping chickens will become a tasty meal for a hungry wild creature.

Manually closed and clasped pop hole doors work fine for keeping predators at bay but they require someone to always be available to close it at sunset and open it the next morning. That’s not always possible for forgetful people or those with busy schedules who might not be home when chickens doze off and predators waken.

Automatic pop hole doors close without the need for someone to physically be present.  They frustrate hungry raccoons but save flocks. Automatic pop hole doors don’t do anything that human fingers closing a manual door do, but they work when no one is around or someone forgets to close the pop hole. Controlled by either a timer or light sensor automatic devices close the door at a set time and reopen it the next morning.   There are generally two types and each works well.

Timer Controlled Doors

An electric motor closes and opens the door controlled by a timer plugged into an outlet. This requires the owner to set the timer to close the door just after sunset and reopen it after sunrise. Because day length changes with the seasons, resetting the timer five or six times a year is necessary so the door closes and opens around sunset and sunrise. Not too early in the evening to avoid having a chicken left outside, and not too late in the morning so chickens are not unnecessarily cooped up.

Sensor Controlled Doors

Some doors are controlled by a light sensor so they close as light dims and open after the next morning’s sunrise. They eliminate the need to reset a timer as day length changes but often are more expensive than timer operated doors. Some users have reported that the light sensor controlled doors have closed on dark cloudy days with the chickens still outside, but generally they work fine.

Some sophisticated doors can be opened and closed remotely with a smart phone and they can be fitted with a battery so the mechanism works during a power failure. A solar photovoltaic panel can be fitted to keep the battery charged. These may be appealing options for people who love technology and aren’t concerned about cost.

Automatic pop hole doors aren’t foolproof and need occasional attention. Sticks can blow into the opening and snow and ice can form. Either can keep the door from properly closing. Power failures are threats to auto doors that don’t have battery backup. However, these problems don’t happen often and doors generally work flawlessly.

A Few Things to Consider

Automatic pop hole doors are ideal for busy families. Often, no one gets home until after school or work hours, which can be several hours past sunset. Having the device close the door gives peace of mind. Pop hole doors aren’t completely free of the need for a person to visit the coop daily. Someone should collect eggs, fill feeders and waterers and make sure the pop hole door is working properly every day. Nothing beats having a neighbor, friend, or relative available to care for the flock during vacations or long weekends away.

Automatic doors of many types can be purchased through the internet, and kits are also available that offer some cost savings. A few inventive people have designed and built their own.

Automatic pop hole doors save chickens owned by people who forget to close the door or who simply love the convenience of sitting indoors on a cold morning and watching the chickens troop outside when the door opens by itself. They make life a little easier and keep hens safe.

Breezes and Drafts – Proper Ventilation Keeps Chickens Comfortable and Healthy

The only difference between a breeze and a draft is temperature.

Both people and chickens savor a cool breeze on a sultry summer evening but that pleasant summer air transforms into a knifelike January draft that slices through the coop and chills hens.

It can frostbite tender combs, freeze water containers quickly and make life miserable for the coop’s occupants.

Proper ventilation is critically important to keep chickens comfortable, safe, and productive. Well-made coops enable managing airflow to welcome summer breezes yet bar frigid drafts.

Managing a coop’s air starts with litter and manure. Almost as soon as litter gets wet odor permeates the coop.

Soggy litter, caused by leaky roofs or tipped over water buckets, generates ammonia that no amount of ventilation can transport outdoors.   Well managed coops don’t smell.

The secret in preventing odor is to make sure no rain can enter and that any damp litter is immediately removed and added to the compost bin. It also helps to keep chicken density low. Crowded coops are more likely to be pungent than those where chickens have plenty of individual space.

Managing Coop Airflow

A well-designed coop has at least two windows on opposite sides for cross ventilation.  Ideally the chickens’ roost is located between them so the birds enjoy summer breezes while snoozing.

Windows should be easy to open and close so the volume of air that passes through them can be adjusted depending on the temperature.

During summer’s inferno, they should be wide open but cramped shut in winter.

Spring and fall bring mild temperatures and windows only need to be open an inch or two to let enough fresh air in.

Windows do more than admit air and light. They can be the entryway for raccoons, opossums, and even mink dreaming of a tasty chicken dinner. Windows should be configured to exclude predators while welcoming fresh air and light.

Good coop windows have three layers. The first is the glass that permits or excludes breezes depending on how far they are opened. The second is mosquito netting to keep biting bugs outside.

Insect screening is not strong enough to even slow a hungry raccoon, so the third layer is a mesh of wire strong enough to deter powerful predators.   A heavy-duty mesh screen can be made of 2X2 lumber with wire stapled onto it.

The frame is then screwed over the window. One half inch square hardware cloth will even keep out lithe mink.

Glass plus netting plus wire screen let in a summer breeze while frustrating hungry bugs and furry predators.

Breezes and drafts don’t just enter at windows. They discover every crack and hole in the coop and enter uninvited.

Even in the coldest weather fresh air entering through a few cracks brings the oxygen chickens need and voids moisture coming from their breath and manure.

A few narrow cracks are good but too many let frigid air in and can be an entryway for weasels.

Filling most cracks with caulking or expanding foam every fall helps keep both the cold and skinny predators outside.

Chickens have a high heat generating metabolism and feathers, nature’s best insulation, to keep the warm. In an uninsulated but draft free coop body heat raises the interior temperature a few degrees on the coldest nights.

When nature’s mid-summer furnace is going full bore roosting chickens pant to increase cooling evaporation from their throats, and they often hold their wings outward to void body heat.

Having plenty of roost space allows them to partly spread their wings. That and a cooling breeze helps hens enjoy a good night’s sleep. On the hottest and stillest nights hens may appreciate an artificial breeze from an electric fan.

Managing coop ventilation keeps chickens comfortable, clean and productive and is an important task of any flock owner.

How to introduce new birds to your existing flock

 

Birds of a feather truly do stick together. That’s why it can be a challenging task to bring new birds into your established flock – new flock members often get picked on and harassed by hens who don’t want to share their territory. For a seamless integration of new birds into your flock, there are a couple of tricks that work well. All you need is patience – and some ninja-like moves.

To start with you want to make sure that your coop/run setup is large enough to accommodate the new birds that you are adding. Each adult bird will need 3-4 square feet of space. If bringing in birds from another flock, make sure they have been through a quarantine period of at least 30 days and are healthy.

Keeping new birds in a cage will let them interact with the flock without being harmed.

You’ll want to introduce birds to each other gradually and let them interact without the opportunity of pecking or abuse. To do this, place your new birds inside the run or coop in an area where they can see and get to know each other but where they are still separated. A wire cage works well, but you can also put new birds into a dog crate or use chicken wire to fence off a portion of the area and make two separate spaces. If introducing new chicks to your flock, you’ll want to make sure they are fully feathered and acclimated to the coop temperature.  You want to keep new birds in their own area and let everyone get to know each other for at least two weeks. Patience is key here, so don’t rush the “getting to know you” phase.

The ninja moves come into play when it is time to introduce the new birds into the existing flock. Wait until night, when it’s dark and all birds are sleeping comfortably. Moving quickly and quietly, you want to take the new birds from their resting spot and put them on the roosts next to your other sleeping birds. When the birds wake up in the morning they are next to another hen that they are familiar with (because they’ve been in close proximity, although separate areas, for several weeks) and they are often tricked into thinking that they’ve always been together. You’ll want to carefully monitor the everyone during the next week while the pecking order is reorganized, but this approach should give you a fairly seamless merging of your flock.

The right nutrition at the right time for layers

Timing is everything when it comes to feeding your laying hens. Ensuring they have the correct nutrition at just the right time is an important part of having a happy and healthy flock.

Hatch to approximately week 6: Provide free choice access to a quality chick starter ration and make fresh clean water available at all times. Proper nutrition in this critical growth stage will impact the performance of the chicken for their entire lifespan. Use a heat lamp to keep birds warm and provide 1 sq. foot per chick.

Approximately 6 weeks to 16 weeks: Continue to provide free choice access to chick starter and water. If you choose to feed treats (scratch grains, kitchen scraps, etc.), put out what birds will consume in about 15 minutes once per day. This a good guide to follow to make sure treats don’t exceed 15% of the total diet. Add treats only after week 6. If birds have access to anything other than a crumble or pellet, provide grit free choice in a seperate feeder.

16 weeks +: Now is the time to switch to layer feed! Provide layer pellets or layer crumbles and grit free choice along with access to fresh clean water at all times. Treats can be provided at no more than 15% of the diet. At this point it is also important to make oyster shell available free choice to provide supplemental calcium for hard-shelled eggs. Adult birds require approximately 3-4 sq. feet of space per bird in the coop; you also need to plan on one nesting box for every 4-5 hens.

Winter Lighting in the Chicken Coop

Do you wonder why your chickens stop laying eggs in winter?  And is there anything you can do about it?  Good news, friends!  Watch this video from Nutrena Poultry Specialist Twain Lockhart for everything you need to know about lighting your chicken coop to keep the girls laying eggs!

Leave comments below, or questions if you’ve got some!