Learn all about raising backyard chickens from small beginnings with chicks and eggs to identifying problems within backyard flocks and how to fix them in Pam Freeman’s Backyard Chickens Beyond the Basics (Voyageur Press, 2017). Freeman’s practical advice makes chicken keeping easier with these guidelines. The following excerpt is from Chapter 9, “Coop Truth.”
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Make Sure Your Coop Fits Your Needs
For me, family vacation and getaway time is important. So everything in my coop is oriented toward everyday ease and convenience as well as the convenience of potential caretakers. Even if vacation is only once a year, I want to know that I can get away and my chickens will be safe and comfortable. But vacation wasn’t my only thought when designing my coop. I work from home, so my chickens free range in fenced areas during the day (I do check on them and visit often) and put themselves away at night. After they’ve perched and settled in, I shut the coop door so they can rest safely. This works well when I’m around all day though it may be different if you work outside the home. Regardless of work schedules, what about nights out for dinner and a movie? What about times when you may want to take a day trip and won’t be back before dark? How about nights when you’re at sporting events for the kids or other school activities? Those are times you may not be able to get home to do a final check and shut the door after your chickens have roosted. For those times, in addition to a large coop, I’ve got an attached fully-enclosed run. It’s predator safe. That way my chickens have room to safely roam outdoors and indoors, and I don’t have to worry about getting back at a certain time. On days when I’m going to be gone, I’ll let them stay in their coop and run instead of free ranging. If I’m just leaving to go out for the night, I’ll round everyone up into the coop and run before I leave. That way they’re safe, happy, and have access to fresh air and outdoors. So, as your chicken keeping progresses, it’s good to take a look at your coop and see if it’s meeting your needs and make adjustments accordingly. You’ll be thankful you did.
Inside the Ideal Coop
Chicken coops these days come in all shapes and sizes. There are coops that cost thousands of dollars and are designer in every way. There are adorable backyard coops meant to grace the lawns of suburban backyard chicken owners. There are converted garden sheds. And there are creative coops, made out of pallets and recycled materials.
No matter what coop you choose, to be honest, the chickens really don’t care what it looks like on the outside. They’re much more concerned about whether everything they need to roost at night, get out of the elements, and lay eggs is inside. The ideal coop for chickens is much more utilitarian.
Starting out, most people figure out a general space requirement and go from there. But as you expand your flock and possibly add birds of different sizes, such as bantams and heavies, you need to consider the varying size minimums. Remember guidelines are just guidelines and most people, including me, believe that more room is better, up to a point. However, sometimes too big is just too big! This comes into play during the winter. Body heat equals warmth, so too few bodies in too big a space won’t help the flock stay warm. For instance, 10 bantams in a 10 foot × 12 foot coop can’t keep it warm. You’ve got a lot of dead air space in there!
If you’ve inherited too big of a space, there are ways to cut it down so your chickens are comfortable. For instance, wall off a walk-in area where you can keep food, extra bedding, and supplies. You can also lower the ceiling by adding an elevated loft storage space. Both of these options are great because they limit the space your birds have to keep warm and they add much-needed storage. And really, too much storage is never a problem!
Interior Coop Space Requirements
Heavy Breeds 4.0 square feet per bird:
Standard Breeds 3.0 to 3.5 square feet per bird:
Bantam Breeds 2.0 square feet per bird:
Exterior Run Space Requirements 8.0 to 10 square feet per chicken
In simple terms, the roost is where your birds will sleep at night. It mimics the tree branches where they would perch to stay away from predators if they were living in the wild. You should provide nine to 12 inches of roost space per bird.
Roost bars are usually staggered, since a back-yard coop most likely doesn’t have enough space to give each bird a foot of space all at the same height. Roost bars can be made from 2x2 or 2x4 lumber with the edges rounded or from sturdy tree branches. They should not be made of plastic as it’s too slippery for chickens to get a good grip. Likewise, they shouldn’t be made of metal since that can freeze in winter and cause frostbite. With 2x4 pre-cut lumber, there is debate about using the 2-inch side for the birds to perch or laying it flat with the 4-inch section for the birds to perch. If you have the ability, it’s nice to mix up your perches and let your birds decide what they prefer. The bars can be laid out like a tilted step-ladder with each rung being separated by about a foot and no more than 18 inches apart. This will ensure the birds have an easy way to get on and off the perch without harming themselves—especially if you have heavy breeds like Brahmas and Jersey Giants.
It’s important not to place nest boxes or water and food below the roost bars since chickens will defecate throughout the night. Many chicken keepers will add a droppings board below the roost bars so they can easily remove it for daily cleaning.
The 101 rules for nest boxes say to have one box for every four to five chickens. They should be 1 foot wide, 1 foot tall, and 1 foot deep. Try not to mount them on a north-facing wall so they stay a little warmer in winter. Keep them in a private spot away from excess light and traffic, add a landing board or roost in the front of the boxes so hens can fly up and have a place to land, and consider adding nest boxes on the outside of your coop for easy egg removal.
This is all great advice and should be followed. But in the end, your chickens didn’t write the 101 rules and probably won’t always follow them. You may have perfectly good nest boxes all lined up and all the same, but your chickens have their preferences. Even though their preference can change from day to day, you may end up with all your hens vying for just one box. This can create quite a bit of commotion. I have one Brown Leghorn that stands below the popular nest box as it’s being occupied by another hen and vocalizes loudly and continually while stomping back and forth. Other hens are more proactive and use the “pile on” approach, trying to fit as many bodies into one nest box as possible. You may go to the coop and see multiple hens in the same box all looking a bit grumpy. These antics are fun to watch and make great stories, but they can lead to broken eggs and a general mess. Some chicken owners swear by adding fake eggs to the other nests to make them seem better. But in the end, even chickens succumb to the allure of what’s popular and want to be in the same box as their compatriots.
As you add chickens to your existing flock, there is no need to worry about the basic rules of showing your hens the nest boxes and enticing them to lay in that spot by adding fake eggs. Your existing flock will lead the newcomers by example, and they will follow suit. If you find eggs that have been laid on the floor of your coop or in other places, it’s a good idea not to eat them. They have likely not been lying in the most sanitary conditions, so it’s best to air on the side of caution.
Many people wonder about nest box curtains that cover the box by hanging in front of it. Are they just a frivolous way to decorate the coop or do they serve a more utilitarian purpose? The answer is no and yes. They do make great coop decorations, but they also serve a good purpose. Here’s how nest box curtains can be helpful:
• They reduce extra light and give more privacy.
• They can encourage a broody hen by giving her privacy, and they can discourage others from becoming broody by blocking their view of her.
• They can help discourage egg eating since it’s harder to see all those yummy eggs.
• They can add warmth in the winter making the nest boxes more comfortable for laying and keeping eggs from freezing.
• If you shut the curtains at night, they can discourage sleeping in the nest boxes.
• They can discourage vent picking, which some-times happens as other hens see the red swollen vent of a hen that is laying and start to pick it, causing damage.
We know that dust bathing is an essential chicken behavior to remove old skin and oils and to keep feathers healthy. If your chickens free range, they will likely pick their own dust-bathing site, like the base of a tree facing the sun, a sheltered spot under some shade, or in your favorite plant bed. That’s perfectly acceptable and you don’t have to make a dust bath for them. If your chickens don’t free range, it’s good to make your chickens a dust bath with some proper materials. You may find even with the free rangers, a homemade dust bath can be the ticket to keeping them from digging their own baths all over your yard.
Dust baths don’t have to be complicated; in fact, they’re kind of like building a big sand box. A 4-foot × 4-foot box is easy if you cut two 8-foot 2×6 pieces of lumber in half and turn them into a square. If you have a small flock, you can get creative with the structure. I’ve seen people use concrete mixing pans from the hardware store, large flower pots, and even a baking pan. Just make sure it’s deep enough and wide enough for your chickens to fit in and dig. This will depend on the size of your birds. Young chickens and bantams need less space to spread out and bathe than standard and heavy breeds. Once you’ve got the structure, then fill it with dirt and sand as the base. You can add diatomaceous earth for its external pest-repel-ling properties but add it sparingly since it can be a respiratory irritant. (It should be food-grade diatomaceous earth that’s marked for livestock use.)
You can also add wood ash if you have some on hand. The wood ash should be free of chemicals, including lighter fluid. Make sure to remove any nails or hardware attached to the wood before burning it. The reason to add wood ash is that the charcoal in the wood ash contains vitamins and minerals, which can actually remove impurities from the body. Often when chickens are dust bathing in wood ash, they can be seen taking a few nibbles from the bigger pieces of burnt wood. Refresh the ingredients as needed to keep the bath effective.
If your dust box is outside of the coop and run, cats and other wildlife will find your bath attractive since it’s like a big litter box. So it’s a good idea to have a cover. Something easy like an old piece of hardware cloth cut to fit the space will keep critters out. Just remove it in the morning when your chickens are let out and replace it in the evening.
Bedding is addressed in most of the beginner books, but most people still have questions about what makes the best bedding. The truth is that bedding is really a personal choice that has to be right for both you and your chickens. For you, it should be relatively inexpensive, easy to acquire where you live, and easy to work with as you move it from place to place. For your chickens, it needs to be absorbent as it catches and traps droppings. They’ll also want it to cushion them, as birds jump off roosting bars and lay their eggs in nest boxes.
There are two bedding choices that are by far the most popular, pine shavings and straw, with regional and personal choices rounding out the pack.
Pine shavings are the bedding of choice in my coop and meet the criteria of needs for both humans and birds alike. For humans, they are easy to get since they’re sold at most major farm store chains and the mom and pop stores too. They’re relatively inexpensive. They aren’t very heavy. And they come packed in plastic wrapping so they store and stack well. For birds, they are absorbent but they don’t hold the moisture in a wet mess; they dry out easily. In fact, if they’re not overly dirty, you can leave the coop door open and let the air and wind dry out the chips. I’ve found a layer that’s about 3 to 5 inches thick makes for an ultra-cushioning material for the floor and nest boxes.
There is debate in the chicken-keeping com-munity about using cedar in the coop. Some say it can hurt a chicken’s respiratory system. Others say this is not true. I think it makes sense to use caution here. I would not use cedar shavings in a brooder with baby chicks. But if your adult chicken coop is well ventilated and your chickens are free to roam, you could try mixing some cedar shavings with your pine shavings. That will lessen the impact of the aromatic oils and give you the insect- and pest-repelling properties of the cedar.
Straw is also a popular choice. The downsides are that it can be harder to get since it’s not readily sold at all stores, you need a proper vehicle to haul it, and straw can be harder to store without a barn or designated area in an outbuilding. But if you live in an area where you can easily get and haul straw, then it makes a great bedding choice. It absorbs well, but can be a little messy if it gets too dirty with droppings. It cushions well on the floor and in the nest boxes. With its hollow shaft, straw traps warmth and is a great insulator in the winter. It does have a bonus feature too: small kernels of grain are left in the bale, so your chickens will love picking through it for treats!
Be careful what you’re buying because straw is not the same thing as hay. Straw is usually yellow-ish in color and consists of the dried stalks of grain plants after the grain heads have been removed. It has no nutritional value so it should not be used as a food source. Hay is usually green-ish in color and consists of the grain heads that are removed from plants before they mature and die. Good hay does have nutritional value and is often fed to livestock.
Although these are the two main bedding options, there are alternative and local options. Some folks have great success with adding grass clippings, shredded newspapers, leaves, and sand. However, there are cautions and downsides to using these options.
Note: While some chicken keepers like shredded newspapers and office paper, I’ve found they don’t absorb well—especially the glossy paper. The paper gets slippery, which can cause injury, and printed papers are full of ink, which can be toxic to chickens.
Grass clippings tend to hold moisture and start to smell. I have added grass clippings to my coop and found my chickens go out of their way to ignore them, and I end up having to remove them. If your chickens don’t free range, grass clippings can be a nice treat and may be a little more enticing. Grass clippings tend to hold moisture and start to smell. I have added grass clippings to my coop and found my chickens go out of their way to ignore them. If your chickens don’t free range, grass, clippings can be a nice treat and may be a little more enticing. But beware as they can cause an impaction and death. Always make sure your grass clippings come from yards that are free of pesticides and chemicals. Leaves are a treat in my chicken run or in a designated area of my yard. They do get messy, wet, and slippery, so they are quickly removed to the mulch pile once the chickens shred them and pick through for bugs and treats.
Sand is something I don’t use as bedding in my brooders, coop, or attached run. Sand is expensive, hard to move, doesn’t compost, and is messy. Think about the sand that families track inside after a day at the beach. That’s not something you want to deal with at the coop! It’s not cushioning either, especially in the winter during freezing temperatures. Likewise, it gets extremely hot to the touch if it’s in an area without shade during hot summer days.
Cleaning the Coop
Chicken coops need daily cleaning, just like your home. Chicken coops need daily cleaning, just like your home. Think about ease of cleaning when you buy or build your coop. A well-designed coop should be easy to clean. In the long run, it will make for much happier owners and healthy chickens. This doesn’t require a lot of work or time, but it’s nice to refresh nest box bedding as it starts to show wear; maybe add some nesting box herbs as a nice treat. It’s also a good idea to clean up the droppings area under the roost bars. That’s the area of the coop bedding that gets the dirtiest. Removing and replacing that select dirty bedding saves you time and money because you don’t have to clean the whole coop. The rest of the bedding doesn’t get dirty as fast.
Just as you do at home, spring and fall are great times for a thorough coop cleaning. It’s also a good time to make any repairs before more extreme weather sets in as the seasons change.
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Reprinted with permission from Backyard Chickens Beyond the Basics by Pam Freeman and published by Voyageur Press, 2017.
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