Building a Chicken Coop
We are all about making raising chickens as easy as possible, because it can, and should, be easy! The ease of chicken raising really does start with your set up though. If you set up a convenient, sustainable, easy to manage chicken coop and run before you get chickens, you will eliminate many of the complications (bad health, predators, inclement weather) that can come with raising chickens.
There is a lot of information in the next sections and even more information available on the internet, in books, podcasts, and magazines about how to build a chicken coop and adequately meet chickens’ needs, but remember, there is no set blueprint for raising chickens! If you are willing to take care of your flock by providing them fresh food, fresh water, suitable shelter, sufficient space and protection from predators, you can raise chickens successfully!
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Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Design A Chicken Coop
The answers to these questions will determine what type of chicken coop and run you build, materials you will use, style and size of your chicken coop.
Are you zoned to keep chickens?
This is one of the first questions you should ask yourself. Check your City Code for allowed zoning for keeping poultry. If you have an HOA, check that you are not in breach of contract if keeping chickens. If you need help finding your zoning and if you can keep chickens, please reach out to us!
What environment will the coop be in?
The environment you choose to keep chickens in will determine what kind of insulation your coop needs (if any), what kind of weatherproofing you will need to consider, predator protection, and construction materials. For instance, if you live in a cold, coastal climate, you may want to consider a coop made of treated wood and windows, rather than a reclaimed wood coop with lots of hardwire mesh which will allow breezes through your chicken coop. Treated wood will hold up better against harsh winds off a salty body of water and windows will allow ventilation of the coop in summer but better insulation in winter. Alternatively, a reclaimed wood and hardwire mesh coop may be better in a desert climate where a gentle breeze will be welcomed by your flock to cut through heat spells. Read more about ventilation below.
What breeds will you be keeping and how many chickens?
The number of birds you decide to keep will inform sizing for your coop, run and nest boxes. Same with chicken breed. Silkie chickens and other bantam breeds do not need as much space as large breed chickens, such as barred rocks.
How will your chickens be protected from predators?
Search common predators in your area for chickens to decide what measures you need to protect them. If you have raccoons in your area, you may consider using two-step locks (a bolt latch with a carabiner to secure) instead of a gravity or bolt latch a one, which raccoons can easily open. Coyotes or large cats can burrow under the run, so burying hardwire mesh 1 ft (0.3 m) down may be ideal for your design. Read more below about predator proofing your coop and run.
How much space do you have to build on?
How will you give food and water to your chickens?
There are many types of feeders and water containers for chickens. Although this is not the most important thing to consider before building your coop, it can be helpful to add an extra stud in the wall to hang a feeder, a post to secure a tube feeder, or plumbing for automatic waters before completing your chicken coop.
Will you free-range your chickens, build them an enclosed chicken run, or both?
If you plan to solely free-range your chickens, you may find you do not need to build a large run. Maybe you decide to build a chicken tractor for your chickens instead of allowing them to run freely, around your yard, moving it as they eat the grass from one area to the next. If you have the space and do not desire chickens to free-range and decimate your landscaping, maybe you opt for a large single or double enclosed run attached to your coop. Regardless of the design, this must be decided (and completed) before purchasing your chickens.
Space and Design
Each chicken needs 2-4 square feet (0.2-0.4 square meters) of indoor space, and 10 square feet (1 square meter) of outdoor space.
Consider adding space attached to the coop, inside the coop, or inside the run for food and water storage. Lugging heavy food and water to the chickens can get old fast! Metal garbage bins with lids or sealed containers (that rats can’t chew through) inside of a lockable cupboard work great for preventing vermin from eating all of your flock’s food.
A Note About Chicken Runs
If you are not free ranging your chickens (allowing them to wander around a specific area of your yard or property), you will need to build them a predator proof, enclosed chicken run (outdoor space). In this space, leave room for food and water containers, a dust bath, and space to run around. Some people add perches, tree stumps, swings, and other obstacles to the run to provide enrichment for their flock during the day. If you have the space and funds, adding two, separated runs to the chicken coop can be very convenient. Two runs allow you to have one for isolation of a sick or bullied chicken, and to rotate your flock as ground cover grows in the unoccupied space.
Good ventilation is key to keeping chickens happy inside their coop and possibly one of the hardest balances to achieve when raising chickens. Cross ventilation is needed in warm weather and can be achieved by adding openings near the top of the coop on two sides. Drafts must be avoided in cold weather to prevent chill.
Windows, roof vents, side vents with hardwire cloth, and exhaust fans are ways of ventilating your coop. Your coop should never smell bad. If you notice the smell of ammonia and your coop feels stuffy, it is not properly ventilated and needs to be adjusted ASAP.
It does not matter where you are living, rural, urban and suburban environments all have things that will want to eat your chickens. Find out what predators live in your area by Googling or calling your local Fish and Wildlife Department and plan how to protect your chickens.
Predators could include birds of prey which can swoop into the coop during the day or night, wild dogs or cats, racoons, neighbor’s pets, and many more things. They can come from the ground or sky! You need to determine if you can free-range your chickens safely or if you need to add a fully enclosed run for them to hang out in during the day.
A Note About Fencing
Protecting your coop will look different for what area you live in and may require some trial and error. We are all about being thrifty, but one lesson we have learned and many others before us have learned is ALWAYS GO WITH THE BETTER FENCING. Chicken wire may cost less than hardwire mesh now, but when a fox blows through the fence or a raccoon opens the wire and you must replace the fencing, and members of your flock, you will be wishing you had gotten the hardwire cloth earlier. Never use chicken wire and expect your flock to be protected.
Common Predator Defense Mechanisms
- Fully enclosing the chicken run in 1/2 inch (1.3 cm) hardwire mesh. Hardwire mesh (also called hardwire cloth) is stronger than chicken wire and will keep more types of predators out. Some rats and mice can get through the 1-inch (2.5 cm) wire to eat your flock’s food, drink their water and introduce disease, so we suggest using ½ inch (1.3 cm) mesh.
- Locking your birds up at night. This means your chicken coop needs a working door. Some people choose to add automatic chicken doors that are set on a timer to open at sunrise and close once the sun goes down (and predators come out). A door on a string/pulley works great as well, especially if someone is around to greet the flock in the morning when the door is opened and count them at night.
- If you have raccoons, implement a two-stage lock. Racoons are smart. Make sure to use a carabiner or some kind of tie on the handle of slide locks to prevent racoons from opening them.
- Deter hawks and other birds of prey using a fake owl, guard dog, or by hanging shiny objects. Some people swear by these methods, some say they do not work. We have had luck with the owl. It never hurts to try! If you keep your chickens in a run or tractor during the day, make sure you cover the ceiling with cattle panel, hardwire mesh or some solid substance to prevent birds of prey from flying in and swooping up your chickens.
- Keep food and extra bedding in a sealed container, such as a metal trash can. Rats and raccoons like to sneak into the food stash at night, and rats will burrow into bedding. Make sure the container cannot be chewed through and will not attract vermin.
- Create a barrier around your chicken run. Common methods include burying 1 in (2.5 cm) hardwire mesh 1 ft (0.3m) down all around the run and laying a concrete barrier or laying bricks 1 ft (0.3m) wide all around the run to prevent critters from digging under the fence.
Food and Water
Make sure your chickens have access to clean water at all times! Whether you are using an automatic waterer or a bucket, an abundance of clean water is a must and will keep your bird healthy. You can add things like apple cider vinegar, electrolytes and VetRx to your flock’s water for added health benefits.
Chickens do well with established feeding times. You do not need to keep food inside the coop for your flock if they spend their day in a run or free ranging, in fact, it is best not to keep food in the coop and risk attracting predators. Feed them inside the run or in a protected space outside during the day or at established feeding times. If you can, give them space to scratch and forage for bugs and leafy greens. Check out our nutrient guide for more information on what to feed your birds.
Perches and Roosts
Perches are bars that your chickens sit and hang out on, and roost (sleep) on at night. The term “roost” refers to the perches inside a chicken coop that your chickens sleep on. A perch is any bar they sit on, inside or outside of the chicken coop.
Perches can be made of branches, new or old 2×4 cuts of wood, or thick (2 inch or so) wooden dowel but must be about 2in x 1in thick for bantams (5cm wide x 3cm) and 3in x 2in thick (8cm wide x 5cm) for large breeds of chickens.
Perches should be placed higher than nest boxes to discourage sleeping (roosting) in nest boxes, about 24 inches (60cm) off the floor at equal heights.
Use smooth wood to prevent foot lesions and consider painting your perches to prevent mites from making a home.
Allow about 8 inches (20 cm) of space for each bird on a perch.
Please stay away from using metal pipes since they are temperature sensitive and can harm your flock’s feet.
Give your birds a designated place to lay their eggs to avoid a daily egg hunt. Hens like to lay in dark, protected spaces, and if you do not provide one, they will find a place themselves and you will be on an egg hunt every day!
You should design 1 box for 3-4 birds.
Boxes should be 12 inches square (30 cm2) by 14 inches (35 cm) high for large breeds and about 9 in3 (23 cm3) for bantams. Boxes should be 1-3ft (30 cm-90 cm) off the ground.
Boxes can be stacked one on top of the other, but if you choose to do this, add a perch or something to allow them to easily jump to higher boxes.
Line boxes with bedding or nest pads to protect eggs and allow the hen to fuss. Fake grass or compostable nesting pads can make cleanout easy and brooding comfortable for your hens. Nest boxes should be cleaned when dirty, or monthly at least, to prevent lice and mites from making a home.
Curtains may be added to the front of the box for privacy and style.
When collecting eggs, it is best to access the boxes through the side, not the top, to prevent scaring the hen (predators come from above). Consider using a roll-away nest box or having an access door on the back instead of on the top of the box.
Eggs should be collected daily if possible!
Generally, adult chickens like to live in temperatures between 40°F (4.4°C) and 80°F (26.6°C). Temperatures of your coop will fluctuate depending on the season. In colder months, add more bedding and insulating the walls with feed bags, towels, and blankets. In warmer months, add less bedding and opening windows to allow for a cross-breeze.
Word of caution: heat lamps are generally not necessary and can cause coop fires. They should not be used without supervision. Simply add bedding and insulate the coop with feed bags or old towels if it is very cold.
If you live in extreme temperatures, consider this in your coop design. If you live in extreme heat, tall ceilings with lots of ventilation will keep your coop cool. Make sure to build your coop in a spot that gets lots of shade (or sun if you are prone to extreme cold!) to cool it as well, and open windows in the summer.
The key is to good bedding is finding an absorbent material to reduce smell and that is easy to clean. Amount needed depends on the size of your coop, litter type and your climate. On average, you want 4-6″ of bedding during cold winters when you will not change it (deep litter method=composting in the coop), and ~3-5″ in warmer months.
Common Types of Bedding
- softwood shavings
- shredded newspaper
- dry leaves
- silver or sharp sand
- spent coffee grounds
- NEVER USE hay or sawdust because they can cause respiratory issues. Also do not use wet bedding.
When to Change Bedding
Bedding should be changed (or mixed if using deep litter composting method) when it starts to smell, or about twice a year (spring and fall) with the deep litter method.
Chicken coops should not be smelly! If you smell ammonia, clean it out.
Deciding where to place your chicken coop has a great effect on its ability to withstand weather. If you live somewhere warm, consider placing it in a shaded spot. If you live somewhere cold, consider placing it in a sunny spot. Do not place your coop at the bottom of a hill where it can be flooded easily by a big rain. Consider which direction your strongest winds blow and add your coop’s vents in the opposite direction.
Make sure your coop is properly sealed from inclement weather or sprinklers. Wet bedding and chickens can lead to respiratory illness. If you live where it snows heavily, consider a peaked roof. Vents should be covered by an overhanging roof or awning.
Chickens will put themselves to bed as soon as the sun starts to go down, so make sure they have a way to get into their coop for the night.
Lights on the outside of your coop will aid in nightly chores and protection from predators. Just make sure the light is not shining into the coop or your chickens may not sleep well.
If you live where days are much shorter in the winter, you may consider artificial lighting in your coop to stimulate laying all year round. Make sure you do not add more than 30 minutes of daylight a week when adjusting lighting in your coop.
Caution with Artificial Lighting
We do not suggest using artificial light for your backyard or school flocks.
Hens’ bodies go through cycles, and ceasing laying in winter helps reset that cycle, conserve energy, and creates healthier birds. Not everyone agrees with this, and if you rely on your hens’ eggs for food for your family or business, go for it!
Artificial light should not be used on hens 16 weeks and younger.
Read more about the effects of artificial lighting here: Bédécarrats, G., and Hanlon, C. Egg Innovations and Strategies for Improvements. Elsevier. 2017 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-800879-9.00007-X
Egg and Cleaning Access
Chickens are messy and the coop will need daily, weekly, and quarterly maintenance.
Make sure you have access to cleaning all parts of the coop when you are planning a design. It is a good idea to make perches removable to scrub down outside of the coop as they are a favorite spot for mites. Holes in the floor of raised coops aid in drainage, or try removable trays to make hosing down the coop floor and changing bedding much easier.
Daily: It is good practice to scoop up major droppings on the droppings board under the perches daily. Clean feeders and water containers with soap every 1-2 days.
Weekly: Rake over the bedding to mix it and cover any visible droppings.
Monthly (or sooner): Scrub perches and nest boxes clean with soap and water or vinegar and water.
Deep Clean: If you employ a deep litter method with your chickens’ bedding, you will only need to deep clean the coop two-three times a year (typically fall and spring). This includes changing out bedding, scrubbing walls, perches, nest boxes and floors, and whatever else needs to be cleaned.
Nest Box Access
Make sure you have easy access to collect eggs and to clean the interiors. Some designs open from the top, however we suggest using a box that you can reach in from the back (or front if you hae a walk-in coop) so you do not scare your birds when you open it.
Nest boxes need to be cleaned frequently. Some people even line their boxes with reusable bedding such as fake grass and nesting pads which are often compostable or reusable.
Chickens do not care what your coop looks like, but feel free to make it your own!
If you enjoy the way your coop looks you will be more likely to spend time with your chickens and be more motivated to keep it clean.
Consider adding fun nest box curtains, bright colors, chicken-themed signs, and string lights for holidays.
Check out these Fantastic Coops for inspiration!
Leave a comment below to let us know the best feature of your chicken coop!
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