Saturday, April 2, 2011

Before the Chicken or the Egg...Building a Coop: Space and Maintenance

On the heels of my last post, advising would-be chicken owners to be fully aware of the work needed to keep a healthy flock, a post on coops seemed essential.  A well-designed coop has several elements that must be considered before you pick up a hammer or saw.   I encourage you to check out the link to the right that shows hundreds of coops others have built, for inspiration.  And there is a link to an album showing pics of our first coop as we built it, and a slideshow showing the construction of our second coop.  But as you look, keep these things in mind:

Space--Building bigger than you think you need is your best bet.  There are pretty firm rules about how many square feet you need, inside and out, for each bird, but it's a truism among chicken owners that IF your local laws and ordinances don't prohibit you from adding "just a couple more birds", you will do so.  Chickens are addicting!  So, even if you think 5 chickens is the perfect number for you, plan for 8.  (I see you rolling your eyes--just trust me on this one!)  Even if you are the rare owner who never adds to their flock beyond their original plan, a little extra space makes life easier on the birds.  Where space is a limited resource, the natural hierarchy of birds becomes strained.  If a bird who is lower in status can't get away from a higher ranking bird while they are roosting, she is likely to be pecked--incessantly.  Stressed birds don't lay as many eggs and are more susceptible to illness. Here is the rule:  each "standard" (not bantam) bird needs 3 sq ft floor space inside the coop, and 4 sq ft in the run or yard.  If you want to plan for four birds, your coop must be at least 12 sq ft, and your run should be at least 16 sq ft.  This applies to portable runs as well.  Roosts (the long board you must supply for birds to sleep on) should be flat, wide, splinter-proof 2x4s that allow a bird to settle down comfortable on her hocks--having to wrap claws around a roost is bad for their feet.  Each bird needs 18" of space on the roost to minimize fighting. Placing one roost slightly higher than the other allows birds to choose a roost spot based on their status--just be sure to stagger them so that droppings from higher up birds don't fall on birds below them).
    Here are some pics of My first coop during the construction process.  I designed it but had lots of help from Ray, our carpenter friend, in the building process. It was a two-story A-frame, with a popdoor that allowed the hens (we only wanted four to begin with!) to go from their run on the ground to their roost and nesting boxes as they pleased.  I used a pulley system to close the popdoor at night from outside the coop, after they were all upstairs.

    It was a great first coop but had some design flaws.  I couldn't get in well enough to make cleaning easy--imagine trying to put a shovel in that fold down door, then bring out shavings scoop by scoop.  And it really wasn't tall enough for my birds, once I decided to get a rooster, which is generally taller than hens.  I decided to make some changes in the design of my next coop, which was stationary in a large chicken pen, and tall enough that it didn't kill my back to work with.  I designed space for shade underneath, and made four doors--a nest box door with easy access to several nest boxes, a roost door above it with hardware cloth for breezes on summer nights, and two person sized doors on the back of the coop.  You can see the second coop below.

    Ease of Maintenance--Being able to access every inch of your coop is essential.  Cleaning and reaching your birds no matter where they are will be much easier if you plan for access from the get go.  More than one door makes sense--and at least one big door, that you can actually get in--makes even more sense.  A nest box door is a nice extra, allowing you to put the nest box in an out of the way spot where the hen feels secure and calm.

    Plan for how you'll deal with chicken poop.  They do it a lot.  I prefer to "handle" the challenge by using the deep litter method or DLM.  It uses 6-8" of shavings on the floor of the coop at all times (adding more as needed, as old shavings compost and compress).  I like any method of cleaning where most of the work is done for me.  As poop drops into the shavings, the deep litter allows heat to build and the poop to compost naturally, eliminating odor and dampness.  With this method, you only need to completely clean out and replace all shavings about three times a year (depending on how many birds you have, and how much floor space they have--more is better!).  The rest of the time, you just use a shovel to turn over the top layer and bring up some of the dryer shavings from the bottom, allowing a mix throughout that composts the droppings quickly.  Then you add shavings to keep a minimum of 6-8" there at all times.  Mixing in some diatomaceous earth regularly helps dry the shavings and keeps mites and any other insects at bay.  Throwing in a handful of feed every few days encourages the birds to scratch and mix the shavings daily, keeping everything dry and completely odor-free.  If you want to use this method, consider: does your door allow you to get a shovel in and work the shavings as needed--to all corners?  How will you remove the shavings a few times year?  Being able to pull them straight out the door with your tool is great--you can pull them directly into a trash bag or onto a plastic tarp to be moved or disposed of (and if you let it sit a few months, it makes great compost for the garden!)  But you need to add a 8" retaining wall at the doorway so that shavings don't spill out constantly.  I have a small wall I take in and out as needed from the doorway, depending whether I want to keep the shavings in or take them out.

    Planning ahead for adequate space and ease of maintenance isn't as exciting as hatching eggs or picking out breeds to order.  But its far more important in the big picture of chicken keeping.  I'll add information on ventilation and predator-proofing next post.

    1 comment:

    1. I totally agree, plan for more space. Always. Great post. I love the blog, Joy. Nicely done.